The Conversation

A Signal from the Dawn of Time

The Big Bang must have been a hell of a show.  It's difficult for the human mind to comprehend the energies unleashed over an incredibly brief window of time.  Most pop-culture and educational film depictions of the event show a black void, a pinprick of light, a mighty BOOM!, and then stars whirling out into the darkness.  The problem with those depictions is that it happened much faster than that.  Not even our most powerful computers can process how quickly space and time took shape, not in the first hours or days after the cosmic clock began ticking, but in the first trillionth of a second.  

The universe went from nothingness - incredible mass compressed into virtually zero volume - to an envelope of space-time that could contain galaxies in a fraction of a picosecond.  Once upon a time, all that is, and ever will be, was compressed into a volume smaller than a single atom; in the next unbelievably tiny fraction of an instant, vast numbers of atoms were flowing outward, embracing each other and forming clumps of matter that would eventually resolve into stars.

"Well, hold on there," you might say, "that means matter from the Big Bang was expanding faster than the speed of light, which is supposed to be impossible."  No worries: space and time themselves were also expanding.  The rules operating within the physical universe did not bind the expansion of existence itself.  A picosecond wasn't quite a picosecond at the dawn of creation; a light-year was not what we would measure as a light-year today.  There have been experiments to demonstrate that even the relatively modest gravity of Earth modulates the flow of time, ever so slightly.  Now imagine the force of gravity involved in the explosion of all matter in the universe from a pinprick, unfolding over a tiny fraction of one second.  Time itself stretched, flowed, and danced, becoming the remainder that solved billions of impossible mass and energy problems.

Monday's announcement of light polarization studied by a telescope at the South Pole was (if all the data holds up) a huge step forward in human understanding of the Big Bang process.  The universe has a permanent background glow, filling even the deepest void of interstellar space.  It was hypothesized that gravity waves from the sudden expansion of the universe would leave patterns imprinted upon this glow, like tiny wrinkles in the rubber of a fully inflated balloon.  

At last, scientists believe they have found reliable evidence of these gravity waves.  A faint echo of that first picosecond of existence has been discovered.  We have looked into the microwave windows at the furthest limits of space-time, and found cracks in the glass left by that first almighty thunderclap.

The significance of this discovery is profound, which is why every astronomer and physicist appearing on evening news shows is simultaneously warning that the data is extremely delicate, facing years of challenge before it can be considered reliable... and bouncing like a kid on Christmas morning.  Caltech physics professor Jamie Bock gave, I thought, the most memorable summary of the work: "We are measuring a signal that comes from the dawn of time."

Which ain't half bad for a species that only started peering at the stars through telescopes a few hundred years ago.

Update: It has been pointed out that I've undersold the brevity of the "inflation" phase of the Big Bang.  It would be more properly described as occurring over a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second - at least, that was the really exciting part of the ride.  Things got a bit more sedate from there.  But that first trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second saw some white-knuckle action.

One of the reasons astrophysicists have always known inflation happened very quickly was that the universe didn't just shrug and collapse back into a black hole.  Space-time had to inflate fast to escape that fate.  Scientists worked backward from the obvious, observable conclusion that we didn't fall back into a singularity, because we're here to observe the results.  

If you look at matter as a positive number, and gravity as a negative number, the universe was (and most likely remains) an equation that works out to zero.  That's a lot of gravity to deal with.  Where did all that stuff come from?  Leaving divine intervention aside, it is hypothesized that little hiccups in the quantum field produce these balanced pockets of matter and gravity from time to time.  They usually resolve themselves back into nothingness and disappear, but 15 trillion years ago, one of them... popped instead, and here we are.  

Could that happen again?  Sure, why not?  Maybe it's happened with some frequency.  The laws of physics operating within the bubble of matter and gravity we like to call "the universe" might prevent another Big Bang from occurring locally.  (If it does, rest assured it will all be over in another tiny fraction of a picosecond, so you won't feel a thing.)  But we have no idea what conditions exist beyond the boundaries of this universe.  There could be others out there.  Our Big Bang might not have been the first, or the last.  

We may never know for certain... unless it turns out that subatomic particles include some sort of encrypted information that defines both their exact position within the universe, and which universe they belong to.  If we could rewrite that data somehow... well, if God was ever going to run out of patience with our tinkering, that would be the time.

Update: The scholarly correction to my timing was administered by Russell Seitz of Harvard, who has graciously granted me permission to reproduce his message in full:

Dear Mr. Hayward:

Since I have on occasion chastened my classmate Mr. Gore for getting his scientific numbers wrong  by a factor of ten (often) or ten thousand (occasionally), I have a bipartisan duty to correct the scientific errors of my Republican brethren as well.

I beg  to inform you that your recent  column, 'A Signal From The Dawn of Time' has somewhat overstated how long the Big Bang  took.

Your estimate of 'A trillionth of a second'  is about forty orders of magnitude longer than many of my colleagues here reckon, give or take a factor of a million.

My compliments to Mr. Bozell, whom I last saw at a dinner the Buckleys threw for the good doctors Teller and Sakharov.

I certainly don't want to be cast into the black hole of global warmism over a mere forty orders of magnitude in error, especially since I am reasonably confident that human industry had nothing to do with provoking the Big Bang, arguably the most extreme example of climate change in cosmic history.  


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