Returning to our main theme, there was no moment before the first moment. There was no “before” before the first moment, and so neither time nor space could yet exist. There did not exist any least thing, not even empty space. There was nothing. Our human minds cannot imagine nothing. Try to imagine nothingness. Go ahead, give it a try. No atoms… no energy… no space… no time… not even emptiness. Absolute … nothingness. It is beyond human ken, we are incapable of imagining nothing at all—before our universe began its existence, before something began. Nothing…to something.
These are profound questions: Why does something exist, rather than nothing? Why was there a big bang? To ask, then ponder them, confirms your humanness. Some scientists call these questions meaningless, not worth asking—as meaningless, they say, as asking what lies outside the universe, for there is no “outside.” I don’t think them meaningless at all—it seems to me the very essence of being human to ask them. Do you think them meaningless? Skepticism has a point, but it sure can be a conversation stopper. Along with it stops the mind’s growth, harboring its own special kind of blindness.
Since that first moment, when every-potential-that-was-to-be came into existence, nothing has been added, nothing deleted. Only the form can change. None of it—that first, newly existing, primordial energy—had the form then that it has now. Initially, everything had a very different form. Immediately after the big bang brought our infant universe into existence—within a tiniest fraction of a micro-trillionth of the first second after the big bang—there immediately began the random changes that would produce emergence and direction, leading eventually to everything there is today—including us.
Everything that then “was” proceeded immediately to begin modifying itself into an endlessly changing series of different forms—evolving—on its way to eventually becoming the stuff of the universe as we now perceive it—stars, galaxies, space dust. Everything that was, is, or ever will be was then launched on its way to becoming our familiar universe. Not a whit has been added or lost since that first micro-instant of existence, but the constant evolving has never stopped, nor ever will while this universe endures.
The evidence apparent to our telescopes and our reasoning minds strongly indicates that universal existence was, indeed, initiated by such a very big bang. Alas we cannot go back and directly observe that event, the way we can see the moon. But there is good, credible evidence that it happened. Based on the good credible evidence, a great majority of scientists and other interested people, myself among them, accept that the so-called big bang theory almost certainly does describe how the cosmos began. Almost certainly.
At all times try to keep an open mind, avoiding mindsets—and seek to attain knowledge.
If the big bang happened 13.82 billion years ago, how big has the universe grown by now? Such simple, sensible questions. But that 13.8 billion-year inferred measurement of time refers only to the observable universe. And that means the distance away from us of the universe’s presumed “edge”—and it is only presumed—from which light has had time to reach us by zipping along at its customary speed of 186,000 miles per second since time began. If the real edge is farther away, that means that light hasn’t had time to reach us yet—it’s dark to us, so how would we know? Such simple, sensible questions…
And today the universe is still expanding, ever faster, so that old light never will get here. In fact light didn’t exist for a time after the bang because photons (the tiny energy-specks of which light is said to exist) hadn’t yet come into being. The universe consisted of a “plasma”—a roiling energy soup that was opaque to photons. Light photons couldn’t have been seen through that primal plasma even if you’d been there, telescope in hand.
We will never be able to see that far away—out to the real edge, where light had not yet been born. Even with the help of light arriving here 13.8 billion years after it left “there,” somewhere a bit less distant than the theoretical and unseeable “true edge” of the universe, all we can know for sure about the age and size of the universe is that it must be older (our reasoning minds assure us), and larger, than the faraway parts our telescopes can see. Furthermore, the edge of the universe is expanding away from us at a rate of about one light year per Earth year. That’s pretty fast. Even though our advancing telescope technology can see a bit further out every year, that seeable edge will never catch up with the unseeable “real edge”—if there is one. So please consider 13.82 billion years a best guess that we have no choice but to live with. As any good agnostic would tell you, the truth is: We don’t know.
Once you can accept the universe as matter expanding into nothing that is something, wearing stripes with plaids comes easy.
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Immediately after the big bang
We are talking about the precursors of life—those unfolding changes in the most extremely early universe that permitted matter itself to emerge. There could be no life without something to become alive. Our living bodies clearly are made of the matter (i.e., energy in the guise of matter) that fills the universe. How did this primeval matter—this energy stuff with a potential amenable to life—get here?
Early in long evolution, a pretty good while after the big bang, the first stars condensed into being. They were condensed by a force we call gravity—a strange “force” indeed—from out of gigantic irregular gas clouds that swirled within pre-galactic “clumps” that were descended from a colossally vast soup of super-hot particles that had “cooled” from the even more unbelievably hot pre-atomic slurry of energy blown out from the big bang amidst the double-mighty forces then operative in the cradle of the universe. For pure drama, Zeus, Neptune, Jupiter, Odin and Thor combined could hardly have done as well.
A proper job of condensing the long, long story of evolution down to a single chapter requires that we consider the utmost beginnings of the universe, starting deep within the very first second. Incredibly, scientists have dissected that first second into sub-micro-microscopic subsections, and have speculated “knowledgeably” about what all happened during each subsection of that first-ever second. And there were quite a few. Imagine.
Remember now, nobody was there to watch it happen. All ideas concerning the early universe are speculative. Thus it truly is amazing how much scientists can tell you they’re pretty sure they know about that first second. And lest I sound too light, let us all be assured that every “fact” scientists think they know has been hard won—by using ever-improving technology to gather solid astronomical facts, plus ingenious human reasoning to explore what those facts most likely mean. If what scientists think they know contains a few speculative aspects, be assured: They appear to be absolutely right.
According to the best science available, that first second encompassed two phases. Phase one, the “Very Early Universe,” used up the earliest part of the first second. Oh so briefly it flitted by, yet so very much happened during its brief tenure. Then, this first phase very quickly evolved into phase two, the “Merely Early Universe,” during which a great deal more happened, using up the entire remainder of that first second. Then, evolving beyond that second into a whole other ballpark called “Structure Formation” consumed the next 13.8 billion years, and that brings us up to date. Let’s now explore a few details about that first phase of the first second right after the big bang.
Phase 1: The very early universe
This discussion requires a little preparation that will seem out of sequence, so bear with me. Since every thing in the universe is composed of atoms, everyone should remember from high school science class that atoms are made of parts: 1) an inner nucleus and 2) outer electrons which “encircle” (sort of) the nucleus—something like a sun and planets (but not really). The central nucleus in turn consists of 1) protons and 2) neutrons all packed together like marbles in plastic wrap.
Both protons and neutrons are in turn made of much, much tinier “quarks,” little sparkles which are an unseeable, thus unprovable, minute form of energy. But, it has been deduced, they logically must exist. You cannot prove quarks exist, you can only deduce that they do—not altogether unlike religion’s God. Some (but far from all) scientists are further convinced—based on exotic mathematics—that there exist still tinier component energy thingies called “strings.” These aren’t provable at all—one can only believe in them on faith, plus of course the exotic mathematics. And so we have a branch of physics called string theory, which is more than a bit like Calvinists bringing forth Baptists.
In addition to atoms and their sub-sub-parts, you must know there are four known “forces” in the universe. Nobody knows exactly “what” these are, though many are the scientists who can describe them at length. Two of the forces act at tiny distances inside the atom, i.e., the so-called 1) “strong” force and 2) “weak” force. These sub-atomic forces do remarkable things, in consequence of which our existence is possible.
The other two forces operate at much larger scales. At our human scale, number 3, the “electromagnetic” force, is evident everywhere. Your car starts when you turn the key because an electromagnetic solenoid switch lets through a surge of stored energy from your battery, that is powerful enough to whirl the big heavy flywheel which keeps your car’s motor running smoothly. Inside your toaster an electromagnet holds down the bread rack until a thermostat decides the bread is toasted and turns itself off so the toast will pop up. From power plants to wall sockets, electromagnetism makes possible the modernity of our entire “modern” world. For just a tad more than the past one hundred years, after sixty thousand years of modern human experience, we have learned how to use this stunningly convenient electromagnetic force that was there in nature all along.
The other force, 4) “gravity,” is an opposite extreme, and it is an enigma. Though a trillion trillion trillion times weaker than the subatomic strong force, gravity’s force can act at any distance larger than the size of atoms, right on up to those great distances across the entire universe. While its force is almost infinitely feeble beside its partner forces at small scales, at all larger scales it overwhelms those three and everything else.
Because of this curious fact, gravity is the engine that made evolution proceed from that first moment after the big bang; and it is the driver behind the structural self organizing and emerging that we see all across the wide universe. Without gravity, all that energy stuff that was blasted out from the big bang would have just kept on flying apart, everything getting farther away from everything else, forever. Nothing—quite literally nothing—would have happened. You would have to be an amazingly bright architect to invent something as clever and useful as gravity…
But gravity does exist, and because of it objects try to “go toward each other,” like yearning lovers. Einstein’s theory of relativity taught us a good deal about this unusual force, but in terms of genuinely understanding how it and the other three forces relate to each other, gravity remains one of the universe’s most intriguing and elusive mysteries. Anyone tells you he understands gravity, don’t trust him. Our universe has many such mysteries, as variously alluded to in this book and as danced around in many more.
But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. Neither the forces nor the subatomic parts of atoms could yet exist in that first fraction of a second after the big bang, which lasted from The Very Beginning (the bang itself) until about “10-43 seconds” had ambled by. That measure, 10-43, means a V-e-r-y Thin Fraction of one second, shown as one-tenth (1/10) followed by 43 zeroes. It is such an exquisitely small slice of time that our minds cannot fathom it—pretty close to that “nothing” which we also cannot imagine. In any case, after 10-43 flitted past, all hell, you might say, broke loose.