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 any of the several separations necessary for existence of the universe as we know it (please refer to Genesis 1 for additional ideas on 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. No solid thing of any kind, just pure energy… whatever that is. And where was all that mighty energy in the instant just before the big bang occurred? 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…?
* * *
In the beginning I released My Big Bang. Within It thus was part of Myself set in
new motion, and then It was free in My new universe. And from within It
soon emerged My time veil, My heavens, My star systems,
My earths and My life, My Light and My Love.
And I was there, watching, Being.
And it was good.
* * *
Though little is 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 call it, theoretically somewhat like a balloon. And it inflated from the primeval dot/singularity-of-nothingness to something 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,” just like preachers do. 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… 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 also 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, and each threshold in turn permitted basic forces of nature to start becoming un-smushed—to “separate.”
The very first thing to separate out from the primordial hot plasma was the force of gravity. Gravity separated from the other three forces of nature—free to begin doing its intended work immediately, while the three remained conjoined, indistinguishable. Becoming operative during that second instant, the time between10-43 and 10-36 of the first second after the big bang, gravity thus was born first, establishing for all time its special status among the forces of nature. To this day nobody knows why.
The third instant lasted from 10-36 to 10-12 of the first second—things were 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 the 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 graduate students. I am knowingly merging features of cosmological theories (e.g., inflationary model; big bang model, et cetera), which contain mutual inconsistencies that most normal people would find incomprehensible, simply in order to produce a comprehensible narrative from an array of quite learned speculations.
Close enough. Let us move on, remembering as we go how these argumentative scientific mindsets deal (or don’t deal) with the “mystery phenomena” also under discussion here. Remember too, a parallel topic 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.
Incidental to everything else going on—this is very important—tiny wrinkles or “fluctuations” were developing within the primordial fireball during the inflationary period. These fluctuations happened because the inflation was not quite identical in every direction—a little more here, a little less 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 you or I.
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 slower, more “normal” rate of expansion. According to cosmologists’ claims, the early universe is better understood, less speculative, from this point on. That’s probably good.
Between 10-12 and 10-6 fractions of the first second after the big bang, the electroweak pair finally separated into 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. At least we’re pretty sure that’s so.
Something new. In addition to the four forces, subatomic particles also began to separate out from the plasma—their first appearance. Quarks came first, raging around at a furious pace. Remember, these particles were still “energy,” not matter…whatever that is.
During the remainder of that first second, temperatures dropped enough that quarks could zoom around a tad more “slowly”—relatively speaking. This allowed them to be captured by the strong force, in consequence of which quarks began binding themselves together to form protons and neutrons. Like the quarks, the protons and neutrons too were energy, not matter. They also were still separate, running around loose and unrelated to each other. The universe’s “cooled” temperature was still far too hot to permit the protons to bind together with anything else. No binding means no nuclei means no atoms—yet.
A word on those wondrously-named quarks (thank you James Joyce) 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. Scientists certainly have a naming way about them, don’t they. The way these energetic thingies bind together is by exchanging (of course) “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.
At long last we leave that famous first second behind. Then, about three seconds after the big bang, the temperature dropped all the way down to a mere billion degrees Kelvin (which you may think of as quite a lot hotter, so to speak, than Fahrenheit or Centigrade).
For the next ten seconds or so the main action consisted of particles and antiparticles annihilating each other. This is really strange but it does describe reality, so bear with me.
In our universe, almost from the very beginning, there has been 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 quite a whole lot.
Each of these energy particles appeared in two versions, and the two versions carried opposite electrical charges, i.e., positive (+) or negative (-) “polarity.” Nobody knows why (that “why” again) they came into existence, they “just did.” Other than that small positive-negative difference, they 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 an impending divorce, whenever they meet and touch they blow each other out of existence—back to where they came from… wherever that is. You’ll get the idea if you ever accidentally lay 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 clearly enjoy saying that it is “far from easy” to define exactly what electric charge is—what “charge” really means on the atomic level. Well I think so too. It apparently 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” (there’s that evasive “just” again)—i.e., charge is a fact, like the fact that particles also “just have” a size and a mass.
So 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 Old Turtle you’re in good company. And if you’ve noticed an increasing number of items which I’ve called to special notice as “whatever that is,” you may have anticipated my sly buildup to some real mystery ahead…
So particles and anti-particles blew each other away. This “Great Annihilation” period eliminated all but a very thin slice 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. So for every billion pairs that annihilated themselves, there survived just one regular (+) particle. That’s not much left over. Yet—please notice—that exquisitely small remaining remnant, after all the annihilating had finished, was ample enough to form all the galaxies and stars and planets and moons and space rocks and comets and dusty nebulae that we can see all over the night sky with telescopes today. All of it—the whole universe you see overhead when you go out in the backyard on a clear winter night and look up with reverence…is one survivor out of a billion…
What a ratio! One single surviving particle for every billion particle-antiparticle pairs that annihilated 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. The idea was remarkable for its time because, like Einstein’s relativity, Dirac 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. It would be hard to dream up a fiction as fantastic as this thriller reality.
A small remnant of surviving antimatter that didn’t get blasted hung on in far reaches of the universe and is rarely heard from these days. As Brian 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.