13. The leadup to Let There Be Light

(continued) Chapter 2.
Long Evolution: Universe Emerging


Phase 2: The merely early universe

We’re still deep inside that very first-ever second. After the early burst of inflation ended, the universe – still an almighty fireball becoming rapidly less hot – continued growing at a more normal rate of expansion. According to cosmologists’ claims, the early universe is better understood, less speculative, from this point on.


Proceeding:  between 10-12  and 10-6 fractions of the first second after the big bang, the “electroweak” pair finally separated, becoming the weak force and the electromagnetic force. That made four. From that instant the strong, weak, electromagnetic and gravitational forces all exhibited the properties they have had down to the present day.


Something new. In addition to the four forces, subatomic particles now began to separate out from the plasma – the first appearance of energy as particles. Quarks came first, raging about at a furious pace. Don’t forget, these were energy, not matter…whatever that is.


During the remainder of the first second, temperatures dropped enough that quarks could zoom around a tad more slowly. This slowing allowed them to be captured by the strong force. Thus slowed and “captured,” quarks began to bind themselves together to form protons and neutrons. Like the quarks, these protons and neutrons too were energy, not matter. The protons and neutrons remained separate, independent, running around loose and unrelated to each other. The universe’s “cooled” temperature was still far too hot to permit protons and neutrons to bind together. No binding means no nuclei, which means no atoms – yet.


A word on those wondrously-named quarks before we move on. Physicists distinguish three families of quarks, based on their increasing masses, and these are of six types known as “flavors.” The flavors (are you ready?) are:  up, down, strange, charm, top, and bottom. The way these energetic thingies bind together is by exchanging “gluons,” which come in three “colors” named red, blue and yellow. I just thought you’d like to know. You can tell that physicists have fun with their work. If you have a fundamentalist streak you should try not to interpret these things as literally as you would the Bible.


Finally we leave that busy first second behind. By about three seconds after the big bang the temperature had dropped all the way down to a mere billion degrees Kelvin (which for simplicity may be thought of as quite a bit hotter than Fahrenheit or Centigrade).


The great matter-antimatter annihilation

Then something else new. For the next ten seconds or so the main activity in the new universe consisted of particles and antiparticles annihilating each other. This is really strange so bear with me. In our universe, almost from the beginning, there has existed what we call “matter” and “antimatter” (though at this early point everything actually was still energy, not matter). For greater accuracy, think of them as energy and anti-energy. During these first ten seconds no “matter” as such had yet evolved, but the sub-atom particles from which matter soon would evolve – including protons, neutrons, electrons and some lesser oddballs – had begun appearing in vast quantities. I’m talking about everything that had just been created by the big bang, which was a whole lot.


Each of these energy particles appeared in two versions carrying opposite electrical charges, i.e., positive (+) or negative (-) “polarity.” Nobody knows why they appeared, they just did. (That why again. Theologians ponder why; physicists tend to just ignore it and go on.) Other than that small positive-negative difference, the particles and antiparticles had identical properties.


But, as it happens, subatomic particles carrying opposite electrical charges cannot stand each other, rather like Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. So, like a very rancorous divorce, whenever they meet and touch they blow each other out of existence – back to where they came from… wherever that is.


You have the idea if you’ve ever accidentally laid a screwdriver across your car battery’s cable posts (a dangerous thing, don’t do it!).  But don’t carry this analogy very far. Physicists make the point that it is “far from easy” to define exactly what electric “charge” really means down at the atomic level. It does not mean the same thing as does “charge” at the two poles of a battery. Physicists advise us to think of a subatomic particle’s charge as “a property” that particles “just have” – i.e., a fact, like the fact that they “just have” a size and a mass. Don’t worry about why, they say.


We now know that at the atomic and subatomic levels, charge – whatever that is – always comes in parcels of fixed size which are called “unit charge.” See?  Electrical charge is very important in physics, but if you find this explanation no more explanatory than Genesis or Great Turtle you’re in good company. If you’ve noticed an increasing number of items which I’ve called to special notice as “whatever that is,” you may have anticipated a buildup to some real mystery ahead…


So particles and anti-particles blew each other away, and this “great annihilation” period eliminated all but a very thin residue of the particles that had just been created by the big bang. Matter won out over antimatter, but just barely. As physics today has it, for every billion particles of antimatter (-) created by the big bang, there also were created a billion and one regular (+) particles. Nobody knows why. Refer back to Old Turtle.


As May et al tell it:

Whenever a quark met an antiquark, both would vanish, releasing a flash of radiation. … There was a very slight imbalance. Due to reasons we don’t yet understand, for every billion antiparticles there were a billion and one particles, so that when the grand shoot-out was over, almost all the antiparticles had vanished,leaving behind the residue of protons and neutrons which make up the atomic nuclei of today.


For every billion pairs that annihilated themselves, there survived just one regular (+) particle. Not much left over. Yet after all the annihilating finished, that one remaining survivor – one out of a billion – provided enough particles to form all the galaxies and stars and planets and moons and space rocks and comets and dusty nebulae that we can see with telescopes today. All of it – from just the leftover one-per-billion un-annihilated particles – the whole universe you see overhead when you go out in the backyard on a clear winter night and look up with reverence… Isn’t that amazing!?


What a ratio! – a single surviving particle for every billion particle-antiparticles pairs that zapped each other. Yet those few surviving particles were sufficient to comprise the entire vast universe as we know it today. The great British physicist Paul Dirac came up with this scenario in 1928. It was remarkable for its time because, like Einstein’s relativity, he used purely theoretical equations to predict something unseen and unseeable in nature. When experiments by physicist Carl Anderson confirmed Dirac’s prediction in 1932, both men won Nobel prizes for their efforts.


Matter-antimatter annihilation is today taken for granted as an integral piece of the incredible story of big bang cosmology, but its one-per-billion ratio remains one of the greatest mysteries in all science today. A much smaller remnant of antimatter (-) survived and, rarely heard from these days, hangs on in far reaches of the universe untouched by matter (+).


And from the remainder

From those one-in-a-billion survivors – lucky for us – a whole universe evolved. Strange indeed – how could the author(s) of Genesis possibly make up a story as fantastically interesting as this? But there’s more.


All the above happened in less than three minutes of the new universe’s birth. Then, right at three minutes post-bang, there began a new epoch in which photons, otherwise known as light, would dominate the universe. Let there be light. Moving beyond seconds and minutes, this epoch lasted some 380,000 years, even while many other changes were happening. Modern telescopes can see out to this point, where light originated, but beyond that we cannot see out to the “real” edge of the universe, for it remains unlit.


The first atomic nuclei

One other important change occurred between three and twenty minutes AB (after the bang). When the universe’s temperature had cooled sufficiently that protons and neutrons could finally begin to attach to each other, their marriage formed the nuclei of what would later become atoms. These nuclei were not yet atoms, for they as yet had no electrons whizzing around them. They were just free-floating nuclei pregnant with the potential to become atoms. And, they too were still energy, they were not yet “matter.”


Seconds to minutes to years. At around 70,000 years AB those tiny irregularities in distribution of the big bang’s residue, mentioned earlier, began to grow in amplitude. Picture a “wave” that is somehow flowing through a mass of superhot volcanic lava; now add a bunch of these waves, all flowing randomly in different directions. Regions of space that were slightly denser than other regions become a bit more dense yet, while rarified regions having more empty space became slightly more rarified. The after-bang universe was not quite totally uniform. It had irregularities here and there.


The first atoms

Moving right along, between 300,000 and 380,000 years AB the universe had cooled down to a mere 3,000 degrees – practically no heat at all – so cold that the free-floating nuclei finally began to capture some of the free-floating electrons. When those electrons were captured and began surrounding nuclei, the first atoms were born. The first matter. But don’t forget:  though we commonly call it “matter,” all the parts were – and even now today still are – energy:


Proton + neutron = nucleus + electron(s) = atom.


The first matter

As soon as the three different energy forms combine themselves into this configuration, known as an atom, we start calling them matter. And truth be told, in its atom-ic configuration, “energy-as-matter” does behave rather differently than does “energy-as-itself-alone.” Especially when two or more atoms start binding to each other.


Why is this so? (Theologians pay attention here; scientists just ignore this.) Why does energy-as-energy have very different properties when it becomes energy-in-the-form-of-an-atom and starts being called matter? I think this surely is one of the most interesting, most mysterious and intriguing questions in all the world. It has overtones we shall explore in a later chapter dealing with spiritual concerns.


So:  different forms of non-solid energy came together to form “solid” matter at its most basic level, the atom – which is actually still energy. This process progressed very, very rapidly in that early universe, and at its completion most of the protons and neutrons in the universe had become bound up as nuclei inside atoms with encircling electrons. Well, not actually “encircling” – not really like planets around a sun. An electron in “orbit” around a nucleus can be conceived as more like an invisible “spherical shell” of energy humming, vibrating, at some distance out from the nucleus. Rather like a transparent world globe surrounding a pea. You can’t say exactly where the globe is, yet it is “everywhere” around the pea. And the whole of it is energy that is tangible matter that is intangible energy. Is that perfectly clear?


Pause and consider. The atom is the lowest level at which we define “solid matter” even though everything about it is still energy. In other words, energy changes from its forces and particles form into a combined-particles form and thereby just sorta “becomes” matter. It seems miraculous. If you could look closely at an atom, all you’d see is a lot of empty space with a dot of invisible energy at the center and, way far out, some equally invisible energetic electron shells all around it. An atom with two electrons has two such shells, one being a little bigger and reaching farther out, like nested Russian dolls. Ditto for three electrons, and so on. But all that “empty space” is deceiving. If you hook a bunch of atoms together you get something called a “compound” that seems quite solid indeed (or perhaps liquid or gas; it all “depends”) – at least to our human sense of touch. Try walking through a brick wall and discover how very solid atoms can “seem” to be.


The first elements

The first two types of atoms to come into existence were hydrogen and helium – the first elements. The overwhelming majority were hydrogen atoms (one electron shell). Most of the much smaller remainder were helium (two electron shells). The hydrogen atoms outnumbered the helium atoms roughly ten to one. Hydrogen and helium were created “directly” by the big bang – or at least by the interesting processes which immediately followed the bang. Most other elements – far fewer still – would be created much later, inside the atomic furnaces we call stars (like our sun). It’s still happening in stars today.


Before we move on, recall that photons – particles of light – came into existence about three minutes after the big bang. Just before the atom-forming process got underway, the many photons were present in such great numbers that they were in constant collisions with the many free-floating protons and other particles. Collisions were inevitable because everything in the new universe, even though expanding, was still dense and tightly packed. Consequently the universe was rather opaque, and though it had some light, it was not light such as could be seen in a telescope. Things were actually pretty “dark” from the severe overcrowding.


Then a wondrous thing happened.


The “clearing away” of protons, neutrons and electrons as they self organized, collecting themselves into atoms, progressed so thoroughly that the newly-opened spaces between atoms allowed light photons to more freely zip around unimpeded. As a result, the universe became transparent – the uncluttering let light pass through. And that’s why modern telescopes enable us to see clearly back to this point in time, but no farther. This lighting-up process is thought to have happened almost instantaneously everywhere across the entire universe.


Truly, it Let There Be Light. It must have been the grandest sight of all eternity.


*          ©          *


…to be continued in one week…


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