11 January 2013

In the beginning

The universe, Part 3
< How does science work?Series index | From the beginning to atoms >

The beginning of the universe is hidden from us although we know it's about 13.75 billion years old. We can theorise about it using mathematical tools, but we can't see it and we can't measure it. Everything began at that point - space, energy, even time itself.

Maths is an essential tool
We can't see the beginning itself. People sometimes talk about the Big Bang and they imagine a huge explosion crashing out into an empty expanse of endless space.

But that's not right. If you see it in that way you are really not seeing it at all!

Nothing existed before the Big Bang. At least no physical thing that we can see or know inside this universe existed.

There was a singularity, though it's difficult to imagine one of those or what it implies.

  • Time began at the beginning, so before the beginning is meaningless.
  • Space began at the beginning, until then there had been no room in which anything could have existed. There was nowhere to explode into.
  • Energy began then too, beforehand there was no energy.
  • And there was no matter because matter is just condensed energy.
  • Even the laws of physics began at the beginning

Time, space, energy and physics all had their origins at the beginning, and we can't investigate that extraordinary phenomenon - the beginning. We can't see it, we can't visit it, we can't measure it, we can't really imagine it. Not only is it far more extraordinary than we think, it is far more extraordinary than we are able to think.

And perhaps the most amazing thing about the beginning is that eventually we came from it; we are here and are able to think about how extraordinary it all is.

Theoretical problems - It's almost as if the universe doesn't want us to understand its origin. Our best models for the earliest moments of the universe are mathematical. OK, really our only models for this are mathematical.

However there's a serious issue, even with that. If at the beginning the universe was infinitely small then some of the numbers in the models become zero, or they become infinite. Not only does the universe seem to explode, so does the maths.

Maths doesn't always handle zeros and infinities especially well, they can be a problem. It makes mathematical models difficult as we try to apply them closer and closer to the beginning. This is driving some mathematicians and cosmologists to think that there may not be a beginning at all, just a certain minimum size and maximum density before which the universe was larger and, perhaps, time ran the other way. Or something.

Is there room for intelligence? - We can only think about it because we are here. There are no other animals on this planet that even know there was a beginning. We are unique on Earth.

I imagine there must be many other intelligent minds in the universe and it's likely that all of them give some thought to the beginning. Each in their own, unique way no doubt. The fact that there is a beginning is one of the reasons I believe in an even greater intelligence that caused the universe to begin. What is certain is that intelligence is almost inevitable given the properties of the universe, but it couldn't appear until a lot of other things were in place.

But for a moment, let's consider the alternative that the universe has always existed and will always exist with new energy and matter appearing to 'fill the gaps' as it expands. In the 1950s and 60s many cosmologists argued this was the case, it was called the 'Steady State Theory'. But it's since been shown to be incorrect.

But if it was correct I would still feel the need for a first cause, a greater power and intelligence to make it exist. So whether there was a beginning or not, I will still believe in a Creator.

What is the alternative? It's all just causeless?

After the beginning? - But there was a beginning, and we can understand some of the things that happened soon afterwards when the universe, time, space, energy and physics were all very new. And you'll be astounded to learn that we understand some things about it even a tiny fraction of a second after the beginning. A much tinier fraction than you think (unless you're a cosmologist).

It all began roughly 13.75 billion years ago. Our Solar System and this Earth are around 4.5 billion years old or about a third of the age of the universe. The universe was smaller then too.

If you made it this far, congratulations! After this things get easier as the universe grows bigger, older and more familiar. Next time we'll pick up the story at that point where we think we know something, and we'll find out just how awesomely near the beginning that is.


Questions:

  • How comfy are you with the idea of a creative intelligence causing this universe?
  • How comfy are you with the idea of the absence of any such creative intelligence?
  • Does your head hurt yet? Go and get a cup of tea, or coffee, or a glass of wine.

See also:


< How does science work?Series index | From the beginning to atoms >

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