Could a “virtual particle chaos” explain the origin of the universe?


In preparing to write the Deplosion series, I wanted to give my ideas as deeply scientific a basis as I could. My formal university training was in Computing Science and then in Molecular Biology and Genetics, so I’m no cosmologist. But Cosmology and Quantum Physics have always been hobbies of mine (begin “geek” comments now) so I thought I’d do my best to make a plausible hypothesis.

I found two sources to be amazingly helpful in putting these ideas together. The first is Lawrence Krauss’ fascinating book, “A Universe From Nothing.” The second is Matt Strassler’s website “Of Particular Significance”, in particular his discussion of virtual particles (

But rather than yammer on about how I see this, I’m going to let Darian Leigh describe “his” theory in this excerpt from “The Reality Thief”:

"virtual particle

The observable universe is 90 billions light years across and contains over 100 billion galaxies.

“Today, I want to talk about what the universe might have looked like in the beginning, the Universe before the Universe, if you will.

“Since we’re not all physicists here, I’d like to start out by talking about the Big Bang, and how cosmologists think the universe began. From there, we’ll move on to nothing. What do philosophers, theologians, and physicists mean by the word, nothing? I’ll warn you now it’s more complicated than you think.  Then things are going to get a little strange for a while. I’ll introduce you to what I think of as the ultimate bits of nothing, virtual particles; how physicists think about them; why we’re certain they exist, even though they can’t be directly observed; and why they’re so important. And that will bring us to my most recent theories, which attempt to answer some of the most interesting and fundamentally important questions in our era, questions such as: How could real particles and the physical universe evolve from the virtual particle chaos that preceded it? Where do the ‘laws of nature’ come from? And, how can we test and apply these ideas?

“Let’s begin with something you’ve probably heard. Scientists believe everything in the universe began in a sudden expansion called the Big Bang, around 13.8 billion years ago. So, why do we think everything came from a Big Bang, a moment of creation? It is still a relatively new idea. The ancient Greeks, for example, believed that the universe was static; it had always existed.”

Darian put up a slide of the familiar Milky Way galaxy shown as it was projected to look from hundreds of light years above its elliptical plane.

“Until the mid-1920s, astronomers thought our own Milky Way galaxy, with its hundred billion stars, comprised the entire, never-ending universe. Then in 1925, Edwin Hubble used a 100-inch telescope at the new Mount Wilson observatory to prove there were other galaxies outside ours. Suddenly the universe was a lot bigger and more interesting.”

The slide changed to a famous picture compiled by the Hubble telescope, showing the thousands of galaxies visible to it in what used to be thought of as an empty portion of the sky.

“Around the same time, a physicist, named George LeMaître, constructed a mathematical model based on Einstein’s theory of relativity. His model concluded that the universe was expanding from an initial Primeval Atom. But nobody believed him, not even Einstein. A few years later, Hubble showed that not only was the universe expanding, but the farther away from us a galaxy was, the faster it was moving away.

“Since then, we’ve looked at millions of galaxies, using far more powerful telescopes, like the orbital Hubble, the James Web, the Wukong 3, and they all confirm what Professor Hubble saw over a hundred years ago. When you rewind the motion of the fleeing galaxies, you can project that all matter must have, at one time, occupied the same point in space from which it expanded outward in a Big Bang.

“These calculations and observations put an end to the idea of a static universe. For a while, some people believed that perhaps the universe was oscillating through periods of expansion and contraction, eternally being re-created. But our best calculations today suggest this universe is going to go on expanding forever. There’s not enough matter for gravity to pull it all back together. There’s no contraction in our future and there probably wasn’t in our past, either.

“But not everyone has been satisfied to leave it at that. There’s a simple problem with the idea of a Big Bang: where did everything come from? If there was nothing here before that, what was it that exploded? What caused the expansion?

”Our best cosmological answer is still: nothing. However, the physicist’s definition of ‘nothing’ is quite different than the philosophical idea of nothing. And precisely defining ‘nothing’ in a way that satisfies everyone turns out to be exceedingly difficult, more difficult than one would imagine. Both sides agree that something can’t come from absolutely nothing. So how do you get around the problem that there is, obviously, something?

“Let’s look at the philosophical theologians’ perspective first. Christian ideas about creation, for example, along with those of many other religions, assert the existence of some deity, God, if you will, who is outside of time and space, who has always existed, and who created the universe from absolutely nothing.

Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling

Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling

Darian changed the slide from the image of thousands of distant galaxies to a picture of the famous Michelangelo paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, showing the Christian God in the act of Creation.

“Let’s think about that for a minute. Theologians say, ‘God is not made of anything.’ In other words, God is outside the universe of matter and energy, outside of space and time. Still, He is powerful enough to make something from nothing. But is this really nothing, even a philosophical nothing?

“As I see it, there are two possibilities that fit with this traditional religious model of creation. Either the universe was created as part of God, or there was something in existence, or potentially in existence, apart from God, before He supposedly created the universe from it.

“If the universe came from a part of God, and the universe is made from ‘something,’ then it seems logical to conclude that God is made, at least in part, of ‘something’ as well, especially if the universe is still a part of God. On the other hand, if God created the universe apart from Himself, then whatever He made it from was either ‘something’ or had the potential to become ‘something’.

“Some theologians speak of ‘an empty room,’ separate from God, with absolutely nothing in it. But ‘an empty room’ is a location, a space separate from God. So, that’s still ‘something,’ isn’t it? Either everything was God at the beginning, or there was something, maybe only an empty space, that wasn’t God. In the end, the Creationist idea of an omnipotent God creating the ‘something’ of the universe from ‘absolutely nothing’ fails logically.

“So, we’ve arrived at one conclusion. The argument that a Creator God existed before the universe is not substantially better than the Greek static model of the universe. The Greek model doesn’t fit our observations, while the Creationist model simply moves the static, eternal part into an adjacent universe, containing an intelligent, willful being. It does not say how this universe containing a purposeful, omnipotent God came about. Nor does it explain how or why a potential universe, a space adjacent but separate from the universe of God, an empty room—from which or where He created everything—could exist. It is illogical.

“What does physics have to say about all this? What kind of natural ‘nothing’ could have existed before the Big Bang, according to physics?”

The next slide was a pure black image.

“In quantum mechanics, ‘nothing’ is generally interpreted as space devoid of stuff, without matter or energy. The nothing of physics is not the same as the nothing of philosophy or religion, so physicists call it something different, a quantum vacuum. A quantum vacuum is empty of matter and energy, it contains no things. But it’s not completely empty; it’s full of virtual particles.

“Aha, you say, that’s still ‘something’! Well, yes, and no. Virtual particles are called ‘virtual’ because they’re not real. In a quantum vacuum, they’re as close to nothing as physicists can imagine. Virtual particles simply pop in and out of existence all the time.

unicorn“I know this sounds completely ridiculous and unreal to many of you. You’re thinking, he might as well say unicorn as virtual particle. It would make as much sense. An imaginary thing for an imaginary thing, right? What would that sound like? Unicorns come in balanced pairs: unicorns and anti-unicorns. One of the unicorn types can travel some distance for a very short time before recombining with an antiunicorn of the same type. When they combine they are both annihilated. This happens over such a short time and distance that unicorns can’t be observed. Nevertheless, unicorns have real effects that can be observed.

“Sounds silly, I agree. Except they’re not the same. Unlike unicorns, virtual particles are more than just an idea. How do we know that?

“We use virtual particles to explain such things as quantum tunneling. That’s a well-documented phenomenon where an electron can disappear from one side of an insulator and instantly reappear on the other side, in spite of the barrier. All of our modern electronics containing quantum dot, field effect transistors depend on this tunneling effect.

“Ordinary static electricity is a virtual particle phenomenon. It’s a field composed of the virtual particles emitted by moving electrons inside a charged material. Virtual particles allow us to calculate the exact wavelengths of light emitted by heating pure elements with astounding accuracy; within one part in a billion, or 0.0000001 percent. So we accept the virtual particle theory because it allows us to make the most accurate calculations in all of science.

“Now, many of you may have heard of the two kinds of real particles, fermions, and bosons. Fermions are particles such as quarks, electrons, or neutrinos. The bosons carry forces between the fermions. Bosons include photons, gluons, Higgs bosons, and so on. We can calculate how these real particles and the virtual particles are related.

MushroomCloud“Everyone remembers Einstein’s famous E=mc2, right? Energy equals mass times speed of light squared? An atomic explosion converts mass into energy. Most people don’t realize that Einstein’s equation works in the other direction, too. When you put enough energy in one place, that energy gets converted into mass.”
He displayed an image of the familiar mushroom cloud from an atomic explosion. That was shortly replaced by a strange-looking image full of weird blobs, representing the interactions between virtual particles and quarks inside a proton.

Virtual particles inside a proton

Virtual particles inside a proton

“The binding energy that ties virtual particles together inside a real particle makes up the majority of the mass of that real particle. Indeed, about seventy-percent of the mass of a proton comes from the energy created by the virtual particles bound together inside of it.

“Another way to think of real particles is as complete standing waves in the quantum field. What does that mean? Well, think of each real particle as a string that loops back on itself. The looped string represents a wave in the quantum field. If a wave is of the correct frequency, relative to the size of the loop, when it reaches the end of the loop, it starts all over again, creating what we call a standing wave in that loop. Kind of like when an audience at a football game performs a wave that goes all the way around the stadium, and starts over again. Real particles, standing waves in a loop, are stable.

Standing waves in loops

Standing waves in loops

Virtual particles, on the other hand, are just incomplete sections of a complete standing wave. They’re highly unstable, transient, and do not last long enough for us to even observe.

“We have recently shown that every known real sub-atomic particle can be modeled, not as a solid speck or ball, but as a boiling collection of randomly appearing and disappearing virtual particles that somehow manages to maintain a consistency of behavior in the aggregate, that is, in the collective whole.

“How do these chaotic, erratically behaved virtual particles—these incomplete waveforms—become nice, stable standing waves? The short answer is, through resonance. Two resonant—or compatible—waves on the same looped string reinforce each other. When they match the natural resonance of the string, they form a stable standing wave.

“So, imagine we have a partial wave in a quantum field, and it meets up with another partial wave of the same frequency. The second wave ‘completes’ part of the first wave. And, if you put enough of these resonant partial waves together, you create a full standing-wave pattern. And, bingo, the virtual turns into the real. The sections that overlap are redundant and fall out of the resulting real particle as excess binding energy.

“That makes reality, the universe as we know it, an emergent phenomenon of interacting virtual particles, of things that don’t really exist in a measurable way. Poetically speaking, one might say that the physical nothing of the quantum vacuum is filled with an infinite number of tiny bits of imagination, existing without dimension, for no time. That sounds like a whole lot of unicorns, I mean, ‘nothing’ to me.”

Very few laughed. An unusually high number stared back, stone-faced, uncomprehending, fidgety and silent. What, no laughs? C’mon, surely that line was funny. Wow, tough crowd—he thought, but it was more than that. There was a pervasive tension, a nervousness, building out there. Something’s up. He took a sip of water and returned to his lecture, uneasy.

“An entire universe filled with nothing but virtual particles would be very chaotic, yet it would appear completely empty to us. Virtual particles of all kinds would spontaneously appear, perhaps briefly interact with each other, and disappear. Most of these interactions would be extremely short-lived because the incomplete waves of one particle would likely not resonate with the incomplete waves of incompatible, neighboring virtual particles. Either the natural resonances, the type of the virtual particles, wouldn’t match or else they’d be too far out of phase.

“Now, at last, we come to the question that has motivated my research team: How could a universe full of these poorly behaved, chaotic virtual particles give birth to the well-behaved universe we see today, via the mechanism of the Big Bang? How can we conceive of a completely natural mechanism of real matter evolving by a kind of natural selection from virtual matter? Without the intervention or initiation of any intelligent creator. In other words, without God.

“The problem of spontaneous creation of a universe from nothing is not really a problem of the creation of energy and matter. As we’ve established, what we used to think of as nothing, is actually full of stuff. The quantum vacuum, deeper than the deepest vacuum in outer space, is crowded with energetic virtual particles.

The Big Bang

The Big Bang

“The problem is: in the universe before the Big Bang, these virtual particles had not yet evolved a consistent set of stable, well-behaved associations with each other. They existed, in a sense; they just didn’t exist stably.

“Our newest theory came from thinking about this problem. That led us to the next question, which led to the next, and so on. Questions like: How could these virtual particles that filled the great nothingness before the Big Bang achieve stable associations in an otherwise chaotic universe? How could stable virtual particle interactions spread from one pair to another?

“Our best theory is that an orderly universe would start to distill from this chaotic brew of virtual particles by resonance, as I’ve already described. By chance, out of the unfathomably huge numbers of different ill-defined interactions, some of these virtual particles found themselves adjacent to other virtual particles whose waveforms happened to resonate.

“A very rare, low-probability event would eventually place numerous virtual particles, each with sufficient overlapping chaotic oscillations to produce a complete resonance, adjacent to each other. Eventually, this would lead to a standing wave in the quantum field. Such standing waves would be the first real particles and would provide ‘little islands of stability’ in an essentially chaotic universe.

“The standing waves of these real particles would interact with the incomplete waves of nearby virtual particles. Our models show, after many, many interactions—too many to count—these interactions could eventually lead to larger stable domains in the otherwise chaotic universe. All of this would have taken place with ridiculously low probability. But before the Big Bang and the causality that we know and love today, even ridiculously low probability events were essentially guaranteed to happen eventually.

“These resonances formed the basis of the rules that determine how matter and energy interact, the laws of nature if you will. The laws evolved from these interactions; they were not designed or imposed by an external force. The resonances, leading to the ways in which particles formed and interacted, arose by chance from infinite possibilities. Now, the universe that was formed through this process, our universe, still shares the same space with infinitely many other possible virtual universes. However, these other possible virtual universes have been unable to form a stable set of interactions and become real.

“This is different from the so-called multiverse theory, which states every universe that can exist, does. That’s correct to a certain extent, but only our universe ever became real, that is to say, stable. All other possible universes remained virtual, never forming a stable relationship between enough of their member virtual particles to coalesce into reality. They’re all still out there, those many other possibilities, interacting, appearing, vanishing. Rather boggles the mind, doesn’t it?

Darian switched to a slide showing a traditional analog stopwatch with a ticking second hand. The image was overlaid with a large question mark.

“I’ve got another brain twister for you. Consider the ridiculously high—practically infinite—number of interactions that would have to take place, along with the ridiculously low probability of just the right bits coming together precisely when, where and how they needed to. Got that? Now, given all that, how long do you think it took for our universe to come together, to evolve naturally from chaos? Anyone want to venture a guess?” Darian looked around to see if there were any takers. The second hand moved on the overhead slide. He let them suffer for only a few seconds before jumping back in.

“No takers? Well, I don’t blame you; it was kind of a trick question. In a universe struggling to come into existence as I’ve described, the question, ‘how long’ is meaningless. There is no way to measure time before the first stable interactions were in place. The chaotic universe was eternal, lasting forever. Time was immeasurable as far back as one could possibly imagine. Without cause and effect, time has no direction. In such a universe of chaos, we can roughly define time as something like event opportunities. According to this definition, we can see there would be adequate time for a real universe to evolve. Event opportunities are essentially infinite.

“Another question we’ve been scratching our heads over is: How could that lead to the Big Bang?

“What we’ve come up with so far is this. While partial waveforms of virtual particles are easily able to share the same space, standing waves of identical real particles, particularly those we call fermions, are not. This is called the Pauli Exclusion Principle. Remember those little islands of stability I mentioned earlier? As more and more of those interacting domains of stability appeared, a sufficiently large nucleus accumulated.

“The effect those domains had on adjacent virtual particles through resonance became overwhelming. New real particles sprang into existence as the stable interactions started to spread outward, mediated by their resonance effect on adjacent virtual particles. The nucleus of real particles expanded faster than the speed of light because the resonant effect of virtual particles is not limited by the speed of real photons.

“Virtual particles coalescing into real particles in this way hate to occupy the same space. They rushed to get away from each other. This led to the release of a huge amount of energy, the culmination of which, we call the Big Bang. Although, I think it would be more accurate to say, the Big Bloom.

The Big Bloom

The Big Bloom

“Our universe blossomed out of the chaos, rather than exploded. A region of stable reality spread into the surrounding area where only non-coherent virtual particles had existed previously. I suspect the process is still ongoing at the edges of the real universe, which continues to expand into the infinite chaotic virtual universe faster than the speed of light.

“In this way, the ancient Greeks were right: our universe has existed forever. There was a universe of chaotic virtual matter going back forever before the Big Bang. That virtual matter is the source of our universe, and the stable interactions that evolved between coalescing virtual particles are what we think of as the laws of nature.

“I realize that what I’ve described to you sounds extraordinary, certainly less than obvious. Science is, above all, pragmatic. We can make up all the outlandish theories and hypotheses we like, but they can only become scientifically accepted after they are tested against the reality of the universe. Reality is always the final arbiter of truth.

“So how can we test these ideas I’ve described? How do we go from wild conjecture to scientifically sound knowledge? We can’t exactly go back 13.8 billion years into the past to test the origin of the universe, nor can we go trillions of years into the future to see how it all turns out.

“Now here’s where it gets really interesting. We believe we can develop a machine capable of generating complex fields that will increase and select interactions among other virtual particles. Particles other than the ones that led to real particles in our universe.” Darian noted a couple of dubious faces peering up at that comment.

“Once these virtual particles are coaxed into their own resonance, they will form tiny universes with their own natural laws, laws different from our own.” A few more furrowed brows appeared.

“We call these fields ‘Reality Assertion Fields’ because they assert a new set of natural laws on a region of space. It turns out that a Reality Assertion Field, or RAF, is surprisingly easy to generate. All we have to do is compute the shape of a field that will encourage the selection of these new resonances between adjacent virtual particles within the RAF.

“We can use any field, but electromagnetic fields are the easiest to generate. The hard part is computing the shape of the overlap of a large number of EM fields so we can encourage the specific resonances we desire among the various virtual particles in a portion of space. The math gets a little difficult, as you might imagine.”

That line drew an appreciative chuckle, at least from the physicists in the audience. Darian checked in with his lattice sub-routine again. No one, other than the Reverend LaMontagne and the strangely unremarkable man had raised any further alarms within his algorithm. He would keep an eye on those two during the Q&A session, which was only a minute away.

“My group is now in the process of building a very fast and powerful computer, and developing new types of mathematics, which we will use to calculate the fields required to generate a new RAF in a very small volume—about one hundred cubic centimeters—of a nearly perfect vacuum.

“Once completed, we will probe this region with a variety of tests to make sure that it has physical properties different from those specified by the laws of nature in our own universe. We expect to be able to demonstrate that our principles are correct within the next few months and, from there, I anticipate some very interesting new science unfolding.”

Among the sea of confused, bored, or frustrated faces looking back, Darian counted a disappointingly small number of individuals still exhibiting rapt attention. In his distraction, he failed to see the ire building in a number of the protestors seated in Theatre 3. Darian consulted his lattice. Thirty-five minutes! “I apologize for the lengthy lecture,” he offered, sheepishly. “It’s easier to explain with the math but, unfortunately, that makes it harder for most people to understand.” He nodded at Dr. Pratt to resume control of the meeting and stood off to the side.

About Paul Anlee

When I was very young, a teacher asked our class to write about what we wanted to be when we grew up. My story was titled "Me the Everything." I've been fortunate to come close to fulfilling that dream in my life. Computer programming, molecular biology, nanotechnology, systems biology, synthetic biology, mutual fund sales, and photocopy repair; I've done them all. I've spent way too much of my life in school, eventually earning degrees in computing science (BSc) and in molecular biology and genetics (PhD).After decades of reading almost nothing but high-tech science fiction, I decided to take a shot at writing some. I aim for stories that are true to the best available science, while pushing my imagination far beyond the edge of what we know today. I love biology, particle physics, cosmology, artificial intelligence, cognitive psychology, politics, and economics. My philosophy is empirical physicalism and I blog regularly about the science and the ideas found in my novels. I believe fiction should educate and stimulate, as much as it entertains.I currently live in Cuenca, Ecuador where I study Spanish and Chen-style Tai Chi , when I'm not working on exciting and provocative new stories. Visit my web site and blogs at
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3 Responses to Could a “virtual particle chaos” explain the origin of the universe?

  1. Colin Denman-Jones says:

    Excellent article. Although it is basically a requite, I haven’t encountered this source before. Very useful for a debate I’m currently involved in.

    Note that this eternal time/finite universe is one of several alternative models (such as Hawking’s boundaryless model), but this is an encouraging model.

  2. Paul Anlee says:

    Sean Carroll has a nice Q&A YouTube video that agrees in some small part with what I’m saying here. You have to watch until about 7 minutes in (on 10 min video) to hear it and it’s not full developed. Still, yay!

  3. Davidian says:

    I do enjoy your writing style Paul, I am equally looking forward to your books when they come out.

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