12. The big bang and tiny moments immediately thereafter

(continued) Chapter 2.
Long Evolution: Universe Emerging


Immediately after the big bang

We are talking about the most ancient precursors of life – those unfolding changes in the extreme 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 an apparently solid form) that fills the universe. How did it get here, this primeval matter, this pseudo-solid energy stuff that possesses potential to become alive?


Early in long evolution, a pretty good while after the big bang, the first of the big fireballs we call stars condensed into being. But they were latecomers. Taking first things first, stars were created by a strange force we call gravity, which condensed them from out of gigantic irregular gas clouds which swirled as pre-galactic “clumps.” These clumpy clouds of nothing but gas were in turn descended from a vast soup of colossally hot particles.  This hot-particle soup had itself “cooled” from an even more unbelievably hot pre-atomic “slurry of energy” that was blown out from the big bang amidst the double-mighty forces then operative in the cradle of the universe. For pure unbelievable drama, Zeus, Neptune, Jupiter, Odin and Thor combined could not have done as well.


A proper job of considering the long, long story of evolution 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 micro-microscopic subsections, and have speculated “knowledgeably” about all that happened during each subsection. Imagine.


Remember now, nobody was there to watch it happen. All ideas concerning the early universe are speculative. Thus it is amazing how much scientists can tell you they’re pretty sure they know about that first second. Medieval churchmen debated how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, modern cosmologists debate over millionths of the first second after the big bang. And lest you feel this sounds 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 logic and reasoning to explore what those facts most likely mean. If what scientists think they know contains quite 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 a great deal happened during its tenure. Then this first phase very quickly evolved into phase two, the “Merely Early Universe,” during which a great deal more happened. Phase two used up the entire remainder of the first second, plus a good deal more. Evolving beyond Phase two into a whole other ballpark called “Structure Formation” consumed the next 13.8 billion years, which brings us up to date. Let’s now explore a few details about that first phase, the part-of-a-second right after the big bang.


Phase 1: The very early universe

To rationally discuss long evolution and the mindsets for and against it, it is helpful to understand a few background facts in at least minimal detail.


Of things and parts

Most things in the universe seem to be composed of atoms, so everyone should know right up front that atoms themselves have parts: 1) an inner nucleus and 2) outer electrons which “encircle” (sort of) the nucleus – something like a sun and planets (but not really).  (For sake of discussion, hold for later the thought that quite a lot of other energy-like things in the universe are smaller than atoms and, therefore, are not made of atoms.)


More parts. Each atom’s central nucleus in turn consists of 1) protons and 2) neutrons all packed together like magnetic marbles in tight plastic wrap. Both protons and neutrons are in turn inferred to be made of much, much tinier parts whimsically called “quarks.” A quark is an unseeable and ultimately unprovable very minute form which energy has taken, and which – it has been deduced – must exist. Quarks usually come in triplets, it is believed, but you cannot use observation to prove this is so or even that they exist at all. Supported by some mathematics and a reasoning mind, the best you can do is “deduce” or “infer” their existence – not altogether unlike inferred religious certainty of the existence of God.


Yet more parts? Some (but far from all) scientists are convinced that quarks are made of still tinier component made-of-energy thingies called “strings.”  These aren’t provable at all so that, even with math and reasoning, one can only believe in them on faith alone. Among a great many extant theories about string theory, there is no proven (or even provable) evidence at all, none, there is only faith. 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. Like things, these forces too are associated with energy. And as with the beginning of Old Turtle’s earth, nobody knows exactly “what” these are, though many are the scientists who can describe their properties till your eyes glaze over. 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 chain of cause and effect seems something like a miracle.


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 strength 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 which made long evolution start and proceed from that first moment after the big bang; and it is the driver behind the structural self organizing we see all across the wide universe. If gravity didn’t exist, all that energy stuff blasted out from the big bang would just have kept on flying apart, everything sailing farther away from everything else, forever. Nothing – quite literally nothing – would have happened. You would have had to be an infinitely bright architect to have invented an idea as clever and useful as gravity. Some would say God-like.


But gravity does exist. Because of it, objects try to “fall 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 near your wallet. Our universe has many such mysteries, as we will presently discuss at some length.


But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. Neither forces nor subatomic parts 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. In any case, after 10-43 flitted past, all hell, you might say, broke loose. The bam in Ka-BAM!


But it’s not past yet. Temperatures during this first instant were so indescribably high that all the pre-atom pieces and all four forces were completely smushed together. They had not yet made the several separations necessary for existence of the universe as we know it (see Genesis 1 for other discussion of early separations). Nothing yet existed, nor could yet exist, except this colossal energy released by the big bang.


Energy was all there was, and lots of it – as much as there is in the whole universe today. No solid thing of any kind, just pure energy… whatever that is. And where was all that mighty energy being stored in the instant just before the dot of the big bang exploded? I know, I said there was no “before” before the big bang, but my mind doesn’t work that way any better than yours. So where did all that energy come from…?


Though very little is truly understood about the physics going on during that stupendous birth of our universe, very capable minds have deduced (inferred, reasoned, intelligently guessed) that quite a lot was happening during this infinitesimally brief instant. Most importantly, from that very first instant the birthing universe began expanding – or “inflating” as they say, theoretically somewhat like a balloon – from the primeval dot/singularity of nothingness to a universe rather quite big. Listen to a physicist:


            Most cosmologists now believe there was an extremely short period of rapid expansion, known as inflation, between 10-35 and 10-32 seconds after the big bang, during which period the size of the universe increased many billion times.  At the end of the inflationary period, the expansion settled back to a relatively stable  state, consistent with what we observe today. …  This mysterious, temporary acceleration remains poorly understood. 
Brian May et al: Bang! The Complete History of the Universe


Notice, he says “believe.” Let your mind imagine Fourth of July fireworks, wherein a rocket (the dot) suddenly explodes and expands, very rapidly, into a huge round colorful ball until … its rate of expansion quickly and visibly slows as the ball grows dark. This roughly approximates the idea of inflation that happened within a zillionth of the first second immediately after the big bang.


As the universe expanded/inflated it cooled. Mind you, it’s still billions of degrees hot, but that’s “cooler” than the preceding instant when it was an even hotter hot dot. Forget about Fahrenheit or Centigrade, they don’t matter. The cooling is important. As a result of it some wondrous temperature thresholds were crossed on the way down, and each threshold in turn permitted basic forces of nature to start becoming un-smushed – to “separate” or “divide out,” metaphorically not altogether unlike Genesis.


The very first thing to divide out from the primordial hot plasma was… the force of gravity. Much like cooling water will cross a 32-degree threshold and become ice, gravity separated from the other three forces of nature which were still smushed together and didn’t exist yet. Gravity got a head start. Becoming operative during that second instant between 10-43 and 10-36 of the first second after the big bang, gravity thus was born first, thereby establishing for all time its special status among the four forces of nature.


The third instant lasted from 10-36 to 10-12 of the first second – the blast was really slowing down now. Cooling continued – temperatures dropped to a mere 1028 degrees Kelvin (don’t even try to imagine how hot that is). And that caused the second separation:  i.e., the subatomic-level “strong” force separated from the “electroweak” force (this latter was really the two remaining forces combined, but at this early point those two were not yet able to separate from each other). So the strong force was freed next after gravity.


Please bear in mind there is hardly a sentence in these paragraphs that is not heatedly argued for or against, rather like angels on a pinhead, by one scientist or another and their respective lieutenants. I am knowingly merging features of cosmological theories (e.g., inflationary model; big bang model), which contain mutual inconsistencies that most normal people would find barely comprehensible, in order to produce a comprehensible narrative from a broad array of learned speculations backed up by some data. Close enough. Let us move on, considering as we go how these argumentative scientific mindsets deal with the phenomena under discussion.


Don’t forget, our ubertopic is mindsets – i.e., how the filters of our biases influence what we believe or disbelieve, what we’re willing to read, listen to, or even consider. As it happens, many scientific mindsets won’t consider anything they perceive might be associated with religion, or its big brother spirituality. Many religious mindsets won’t consider anything they perceive might be associated with evolution, or its big brother science. In between such extremes there is a wide spectrum of possibilities. Where on it does your own mindset about the beginning of the universe fall?


Incidental to everything else going on immediately after the big bang – this is very important – tiny wrinkles or “fluctuations” were developing within the primordial fireball during its inflationary period. These fluctuations happened because the inflation was not quite identical in every direction – a little more here, a little less there, slightly denser here, a tiny bit lopsided there. These tiny irregularities would later be of great importance for you and me. If those little fluctuations had not occurred, they would not have eventually grown into the great big fluctuations that eventually permitted stars and galaxies to form. And in that sorry eventuality it is most unlikely the universe as we know it today, with planets circling stars grouped in galaxies further grouped in great galaxy clusters, would ever have come into being. Thus neither would have we.


*          ©          *


…to be continued in one week…


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