Once upon a time, in the land of Quantum Nothingness, there was a BIG BANG and an infinitesimally small something started to expand, possibly faster than the speed of light.
For some unknown but much talked about reason, matter in the form of quarks (the basic building blocks of protons and electrons) and dark matter (we don’t actually know what this is) appeared, and with it came two forces: gravity (that draws everything together) and electromagnetism (that draws opposites together and pushes the similar apart). At first this combination caused the quarks to annihilate themselves – turning into pure energy. It was from this hot chaotic mixture of quarks, energy, and electromagnetic and gravitational forces, came positive charged protons and negative charged electrons.
As the universe expanded it cooled and the protons and electrons joined to create the first atoms – Hydrogen atoms (made up of one proton and one electron) and Helium atoms (two protons and two electrons). These were electrically neutral and so they were no longer affected by electromagnetic radiation.
Cosmologists estimate the beginning of the expanding singularity, when measured in our earth-centric concept of time, to have occurred around 13.7 billion years ago. Since this time our universe has grown to contain 100 billion galaxies, which contains (taking a conservative number of 100 billion stars per galaxy) approximately 10 sextillion stars (10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) – that’s more stars than grains of sand on earth. Traveling at the speed of light it would take 20 years to travel to our sun and 5 million-years to travel to the nearest star. Ok, you get the picture, our universe is huge! How we got from the first appearance of matter and energy, to this massive universe, will be the subject of chapter 2. For now let’s return to the Big Bang.
It seems it is at this point of singularity that we discover “the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything”. That would be NUMBER 42. What was the question again? (You’ve seen Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy haven’t you?) What does the number 42 that mean??? Hmmm… absolutely nothing…?
For me, the “Ultimate Question” is: how the heck did something come from nothing? What caused “the big bang” to occur? And WHY? Scientists are yet to answer these questions.
Ok, so if we do not how or why the big bang occurred, then how do we know it actually happened?
1. Because we know our universe is expanding. Astronomers observe and measure other galaxies moving away from us – detecting it with the “absorption line” of frequencies in a light spectra. This is called a Red Shift (red light shows parts of the galaxy moving away while blue light shows objects moving closer to us.)
2. You can still actually see the CBR energy released about 380,000 years after the Big Bang. Turn on an old television set – the static you see is “CBR” – Cosmic Background Radiation.
3. The universe is still largely Hydrogen and Helium (99% of all atomic atoms); looking into the universe stars appear “younger”; also nothing seems to be older than around 13 billion years. (It is interesting to note that atomic matter is only a small slice of the universe – the rest of it is dark matter and dark energy.)
If something is getting bigger it must have previously been smaller, right? That’s the key logic behind the Big Bang. Winding back time we imagine our universe contracting back down to an infinitesimally small point of singularity.
Did something exist before this point of singularity? Maybe.
Does something exist outside all that we know exists? Maybe.
Maybe the universe we experience is version of “multiverse” – with all possibilities existing in universes sitting side by side.
Maybe Big Bangs are happening all the time – creating new universes in a space we will never know.
Maybe our universe is like a computer game programmed from inside another universe. Maybe a group of such programmers are competing to see whose universe self-destructs first. Maybe there’s just one programmer to whom some people call “God”.
Maybe the universe is “God”, continually going through a process of expansion and contraction – “God” breathing in, and “God” breathing out, with each breath taking billions or trillions of years.
We may speculate as much as we like, I do not believe I shall ever know these answers. Does that matter? Not to me. I would rather focus on what we do know. What do we know? We know that we are inside a beautiful expanding universe. We know we are a part of a magnificent process of increasing complexity, and the fact that we are intelligent enough to be aware of it, to observe it and discuss it, puts us in (if I do say so myself) the most exciting place any human has ever been.
An extra little interesting note on the Big Bang:
Attempts to observe the early stages of the big bang are occurring at The Hadron Collider on the border of France and Switzerland and also at Fermilab in Illinois – using “Accelerators” to make sub-atomic particles move at close to the speed of light, and smash together… what will this reveal? We have to wait and see.
David Christian, This Fleeting World: A short history of humanity, Berkshire Publishing Group (Massachusetts 2008), pp. xx-xxi.
The Birth of the Universe, The Kingfisher Young People’s Book of Space, TIME Graphic by Ed Gabel.