There are two great mysteries in science. Two questions that baffle brilliant men and leave most of us looking around in bewilderment.
Those questions are…
1 – What are the origins of the human brain?
2 – What are the origins of the universe?
The second question is the one that I have been obsessing over since I was a little kid. When I was young, I wanted to be an astronaut just like any other kid. When the air force came to my high school I was first in line to sign up, but immediately was declined because of my poor vision. What can you do?
To make up for it I have been regularly reading and studying the laws of Newtonian physics, quantum mechanics and all areas in between.
Rational people will tell you that the universe was created by the big bang. Irrational people will tell you that it was created 6,000 years ago by a divine creator. The thing is, both of these statements are incorrect. Let me explain.
What Exactly Was The Big Bang?
I will give it to you straight and fast. The answer is, we have no fucking idea.
In 1929, Edwin Hubble was looking at galaxies through a really big telescope called the Hooker Telescope in Los Angeles California. He discovered something fascinating. The universe is expanding.
When I say expanding I don’t just mean getting bigger, but rather everything is always getting farther away from everything. To visualize this, draw some dots on a balloon and blow it up. As the balloon expands, the dots or “galaxies” get further and further away from each other in every direction.
Edwin discovered this by measuring the light given off by the galaxies. We can tell how far away galaxies are by the color of light the emit. Through studying this, Edwin proved without question that the universe is expanding.
So, if we measure the rate of expansion and we go backward, we can tell how old the universe is and when it began. We know that heavy elements such as carbon (and the reason you and I are here) were formed within the cores of early stars through nuclear fusion. In this period galaxies and then solar systems formed.
We can trace it back even further into the past to the days of the early universe. At this time, everything was made up of Hydrogen, Helium and tiny bits of Lithium.
Here is the important part!
We can trace back to a fraction of a fraction of a fraction (of a fraction) of a second up until the beginning of time.
When we get there, everything starts spiraling in infinities, and physicists hate infinities.
Ok Tim, So What Does This Mean?
It means that when we say the big bang was the birth of the universe, we are lying.
We know what happened right after the big bang, but we can’t explain how the universe itself was created. We know what happened .00000000000000000000000000000001 seconds after the birth of the universe. But how it was actually created, well we have no fucking idea.
Imagine it this way. Imagine that we still don’t understand how babies were made, and what actually happened inside the womb during development. Through our observations, we could we could tell you exactly what happened starting at the point of your birth. However, we can’t tell you how you were actually made. So to simplify this, we know what happened just after the universe was born, but we don’t know exactly how it was born.
That’s the best way I can think to explain it.
Prepare to have your mind blown. Here’s what happened next.
The big bang wasn’t actually a bang. In fact, the term was coined by Sir Fred Hoyle who said the term as a joke because he thought it was so ridiculous. The Big Bang is actually a super fast inflation of space and time.
This is very difficult to wrap your head around, so bare with me.
Everything in the entire universe was once stuffed inside a tiny little spec called a singularity. This singularity was 100,000,000,000,000,000,000 times smaller than a single proton. Then all of the sudden, it starts to expand.
We call this expansion “cosmic inflation.” In just .00000000000000000000001 of a second the universe expanded by a factor of 10 to the 78 power. You can compare this to a tennis ball expanding to the size of the modern universe. It’s hard to imagine, but that’s what happened.
We know this by the discovery of the Cosmic Microwave Background. For the sake of time, I will skip this but feel free to learn about it.
The very first “things” to exist were what we call fundamental particles. These were photons (little light packets), electrons (little electromagnetic chunks) and quarks (little chunks of matter that make up protons and neutrons).
It all rolled around in an extremely dense, extremely hot goo or soup.
Along with this matter also came anti-matter, which is matter but with an opposite charge. Matter and anti-matter annihilate each other which just added to the fuel of an ever expanding universe.
Somehow, matter and anti-matter weren’t created in equal measure because if they were, everything would be nothing and you wouldn’t be reading this.
Side note – this has a lot to do with the Higgs Boson particle and the Higgs Field. It’s really fascinating shit if you are interested. There is still lots to be learned but the discovery of the Higgs Boson particle is considered the greatest discovery in modern science.
The Universe Begins to Form
After 370,000 of years, gravity slowly started taking effect. The tiny little variations in density made it so some particles started attracting other particles.
We call this beginning period “The Dark Ages” because well.. it was dark. Everything was packed together so tightly that there was no room for photons to penetrate and illuminate the universe. Eventually, galaxies formed out of protogalaxies, which are just clumps of matter that start to form, but haven’t actually created stars yet.
The early stars were very big and very very hot, and inside these stars the temperatures got so hot the Hydrogen atoms actually fused with each other creating heavier elements. The stars would burn all their hydrogen and since there was no fusion pushing the star outward, gravity would start to compress it.
This compression made the star hotter which means it would cook even heavier elements. This happens over and over again over billions of years. Once stars got so hot, they cooked into iron which happens at about 100,000,000,000 degrees. Once all the iron forms, the star has nothing left to do but explode creating a super nova and scattering all of the guts and elements across the universe.
The core of the star is so dense that it’s own gravity creates either a black hole or a neutron star.
So the phrase “we are all star stuff” is not an exaggeration, it is very literal. You and I and the stuff we are made out of actually was created insides of stars. I find this to be the most beautiful fact to ever be.
Niel DeGrasse Tyson explains it better then I can. I could watch this video over and over again.
So Where Does All This Come From?
There are a few theories, but we probably will never know.
A strong argument is that each black hole is actually a birth of a new universe. Black holes are singularities that swallow up matter and space and time and squeeze it all into an incomprehensibly small spec. The math tells us that it is reasonable to imagine that these singularities are gateways into other dimensions. It sounds like science fiction, but it’s not.
Many physicists (myself included – but I’m not a physicist, more of a fan boy) believe that we are incapable of finding this grand unification theory (the equation that explains everything) because our observations will only ever measure a tiny bit of what is actually going on.
We know the Big Bang happened. We know it happened 13.7 billion years ago. We know that at one point everything in the universe was smushed into to an infinite dot of space-time.
But to know more then that would mean that we have cracked God’s code. That may be too much for us to bare.