The Blackwinged Night
Chapter 3: The Big Bang
"I know there are readers in the world, as well as many other good people in it, who are no readers at all, - who find themselves ill at ease, unless they are let into the whole secret from first to last, of every thing which concerns you."
-Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent.
It is no mere poetic metaphor to compare the birth of the universe with the work of an artist, or the way material forms unfold and evolve to the manner in which scientific insights turn into theories or, for that matter, to the writing a poem and the healing of strife within a community. When creativity enters the world it must be vested in the lineaments of space, time and matter. As it seeks to play within the realm of the manifest it must inhabit form, order and structure. So what of matter and its origins? Just as in every artistic endeavor, so too the creativity of the universe must delimit and differentiate itself within the world of matter, space, time, galaxies stars, planets and even life itself.
I will be telling the tale of the origin of the universe in much the same way as Laurence Sterne's narrator, Tristram Shandy, tells the story of his own birth. That is, in fits and starts, evasions and excursions. This is only right and proper. After all, myths should always be told in this way and the scientific story of the origin of the universe is a twentieth century mythic artwork comparable to Dante's Divina Commedia or Homer's Illyad. To unfold it in a bland linear sequence would be to betray its subtleties. And after all I'm proposing that the story of the universe is not unlike the story of a painting, a novel, or a symphony. It's about the way the creative impulse is shaped, channeled, disciplined and given form. It is about the alliance between Dionysius and Apollo, about intoxicated fecundity and the evolution of order and form.
If we're going to talk about origins, the universe or Mr Shandy's, allow me indulge myself and go back in time to those years when, as a boy, I used to go fishing in Wales with my good friend, Bill Mulligan. We'd fish until the light went and then, lying on our backs and look up at the night sky. The stars seemed cold and distant, yet as I gazed up at them there always came a curious sense of connection, as if I and the star were bonded directly so that at any moment my body would leave the surface of the earth, fly up into the furthest reaches of the universe.
Later, when I went to university, I learned that my connection to distant stars was not all that crazy. It is true that stars we see are hundreds and thousands of light years away. Yet, for that photon of light that leaves the surface of the star and journeys to my eye, what is known as its proper time - the time lapse experienced by the photon itself, if that makes any sense - is zero. Likewise, for the photon, the distance it has traveled is zero.
This may sound absurd but everyone knows that time slows down and distances become shorter as you approach the speed of light. At that speed itself, the speed of a photon, time and distance shrink to zero. The star and I are essentially in contact, joined by a photon that moved between us in no time and no space at all.
That scientific revelation of my direct contact with all the matter of the visible universe seemed like a miracle to me at the time. But now, as I type this text, I am aware of another miracle. I look down at my hands and ask: "I am in contact with the stars. But where did they come from? Where do I come from? In what manner did my hands, my body, and all the matter out of which I am built come into existence?"
The act of just being, of writing this book, of looking down at my hands, of, getting up each morning is the culmination of a series of miracles that began with the origin of the cosmos itself. Or, to put it another way, it's an expression, an evolved manifestation, of the essential creativity of the cosmos.
My questions cannot be answered by reference to the earth alone. To understand the answers we must all journey to the stars, travel though vast tracts of interstellar dust, enter the core of suns and journey back to the origin of time itself. It is the story of how an initial creative impulse enters time and, in manifesting itself, limited itself though the laws and symmetries of nature.
The Big Bang
Scientists believe that all that exists, the entire cosmos of space, time, energy and matter, began in a single event - the Big Bang.
By itself this statement needs a certain degree of qualification. For by "scientists" I mean the general consensus of the scientific community. While there are some technical glitches and arbitrary assumptions in the theory it is accepted by all but a few maverick physicists and cosmologists who have proposed alternative theories.
[Footnote There are theories that suggest that our universe is a rebound from a previous one that collapsed. So in the distant future our own universe will collapse right down to an incredibly small size and then bounce back again as a totally new universe. This is not strictly an alternative to the Big Bang but a gloss to the established approach.]
A further qualification concerns the term "all that exists". Scientists are often jokingly refereed to by philosophers as "naive realists". For them what is real is what can be touched, held, observed and manipulated. For scientists "the beginning of everything" means the origin of time and space, matter and energy. They don't really feel comfortable speculating beyond that point.
So let us begin. We're going to start, not at the ground zero of time but one hundredth of a second after the universe had begun, because from this point onwards scientists are pretty clear as to what happened. It is within that tiny interval before, a time as short at the click of a camera shutter, that is more mysterious.
What was happening 1/100 of a second after the universe had come into existence?
At that time the universe was a fireball with a temperature of one hundred thousand million degrees - far hotter than the center of the hottest star - more intense than a hydrogen bomb explosion. What's more, the entire universe was packed into a space of around 4 light years - the present distance from us to the nearest star.
Already at 1/100 second an enormous amount had been happening. 1/100 of a second is a very long time when it comes to the birth of the cosmos and universe had already passed through several different eras. Much earlier in time there had been a period of explosively rapid expansion but now the universe was slowing down, doubling in size only ever two hundredths of a second.
It was not like any universe we know today. There were no galaxies or stars. Just an intensely hot soup consisting of light, electrons and neutrinos all packed together with a density several billion times greater than that of water and all encountering each other in constant bursts of creation and annihilation.
One tenth of a second has to pass before the temperature had dropped sufficiently (to a few ten thousand million degrees) for the heavier particles to form out of the collisions of electrons and positrons (anti electrons). In this period were born the neutrons and protons that will eventually form the cores of all the atoms in the universe - the same matter of which we are made! At this stage the expansion has slowed down to the point where the universe only doubled in size every two tenths of a second.
After a full one second had elapsed the entire universe was still a thousand time hotter than the center of our sun, much too hot for the protons and neutrons that were now being produced to combine together to form the nuclei of the first atoms. The universe would have to wait for a full three minutes until it had expanded and cooled down sufficiently for the first nuclei of helium to form - (hydrogen being the first and most abundant element in the cosmos, helium being the next in line.) At this point, three minuets after the Big Bang, things were still too hot for actual atoms to form but all the centers, the nuclei of all the hydrogen and helium that makes up our universe, have already been born.
From this point on the universe would continue to expand at a slower and slower rate, and along with this expansion, to cool down. Eventually the universe cooled to the point where the first stars formed and the heavier elements began to be synthesized in the core of stars. Finally the first molecules of proto-life would form.
We have only come as far as the first few minutes. Much more of this story has yet to be told, by going both forwards and backwards in time. But now time to pause, like Tristram Shandy, and follow another train of thought. The birth of the universe occurred in a huge fireball, an explosion far beyond any hydrogen bomb, involving temperatures vastly greater than those inside any star and energies beyond any elementary particle accelerator on earth will ever produce. Compared to this, the world's entire stock of hydrogen bombs are mere fireworks.
We all know about Einstein's magic formula E=mc2 This tells us that energy and matter are interconvertible. With all that energy present at the birth of the universe new elementary particles must have been endlessly flickering in and out of existence. Our experience here on earth had made us familiar with nature's proclivity. We have come to expect species upon species. From the depths of the sea to deserts, jungles and mountaintops, life exists in a host of unexpected and bizarre forms. But if this is true for species why not for elementary particles? Why do there not exist millions upon millions of totally different particles, exhibiting curious and unexpected properties and combining in endless ways to form hosts of bizarre chemical elements?
We know this is not that case. But what is stopping anything that we could imagine from actually taking place? If the cosmos was born in an incredible burst of creative energy then why is our universe not filled with square planets, green suns and polka dot galaxies? Why, indeed, does the universe appear so uniform wherever we look?
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