What Happened Before the Big Bang?

The Fresh Perspective Podcast - Episode 5

How’s it going everyone? I’m Nick and you are listening to the Fresh Perspective Podcast.

In this episode, we will go back in time, as far as physically possible, and perhaps, even further. What happened before the big bang, before the first moment of our universe as we know it? Strap in for a thought experiment built of cosmology, mind-bending physics, and imagination.

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We are surrounded by stuff. Look around you. Consider for a moment that your books, car, the trees outside. Everything is mostly made of empty space. Everything around us, (at least everything that belongs to the same family of matter as we do) is made of atoms. There is mostly empty space between those atoms. Inside the atom is no different. If an atom was enlarged to the size of a football stadium, its electrons would be wiggling and buzzing around the top row of bleachers, while the nucleus would be about the size of a small marble on the 50-yard line.

Now that is a lot of empty space! I like to imagine what the universe would be like without all that. What if you could take all the “empty space” out from between all objects and between all molecules in the universe? What if you continued on to remove the voids between the nuclei of atoms and their electrons? What would the ending result be if you took all the matter and energy left and collected it down into a single place?

I think you already know the answer to that question. The answer lies in one of the most wild and counterintuitive theories in science: THE BIG BANG!

13.8 billion years ago, EVERYTHING (All kinds of matter, all kinds of energy, all of the laws of nature) was once condensed into a single point smaller than an atom. This is known as the “Initial Singularity.” As far as we know, there was nothing outside it and nothing beside it.

This is where we start.

13.8 BILLION years ago, our universe began. But can we tick the seconds back even further to catch a glimpse of what started it all?

Do you know the answer?

There is fascinating research going into ideas like the multi-verse, multi-dimensional membranes, or of quantum fluctuations that could have spawned something out of what we call “nothing,” but these are hypotheses and theories outside of the big bang theory itself. People far smarter than me will have to tell you about all of those kinds of things.

What happened at or before the big bang?

The truth is that no one really knows. Our current theories, models, and even our current understanding of the laws of nature break down at this point. In fact, the term “Big Bang” is more of a placeholder for what happened before the INFLATION of the universe.

Nevertheless, I will do my best to give an accurate answer based on the most well-established and widely accepted aspects of the big bang theory. Doing so will, with any luck, allow us to conceptualize this hypothetical time before time.

For our purposes today, I am referring to the big bang as the initial instance when time equaled zero (T=0), or when, as far as we can tell, no time had yet passed.

All of our best information of this snap-shot of history lives only in the minds of theoretical physicists. Yet what happened a split second AFTER this moment is actually pretty well understood. Physicists of many kinds can give us hard scientific answers based on empirical evidence and testing (some of which is done in the large hadron collider in Switzerland). They have a pretty good idea of what happened at 10-6 seconds after the big bang. In other words, if you want to know what happened 0.00001 seconds after the big bang – scientists can give you good answers!

But for many science enthusiasts, what humanity knows is great, but it is nothing compared to what is just beyond that knowledge. When we reverse time back from when our universe was only 10-6 seconds old, theoretical physicists and cosmologists predict that so many weird things begin to happen.

Things get insanely hot, particles lose their mass, the forces of nature such as gravity, electromagnetism, and the weak and strong nuclear forces all fuse together into some kind of super force. The universe shrinks to 10-78 TIMES its size leaving it only about the size of a soccer ball, to the size of an atom, to something even smaller still.

And then, we stop.

We are a microscopic singularity of intense heat, but it is dark. It is so dense that photons simply cannot escape from the insanely hot and dense contents of that singularity.

When T=0, or at the exact moment when no time yet has passed, we hit a brick wall.

As far as scientists can tell, time itself began to flow in tandem with the birth of our universe. In other words, there is no such thing as time before our universe. It is like flipping a book back to the cover, or rewinding a VHS tape until it stops. As far as we can tell, time didn’t even exist before the big bang!

It isn’t like we can step outside of the universe to take a look at that small point that started it all. Our universe is everything, and you can’t step outside of everything. Thanks to Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity, we now understand that time is a dimension in space. As “space-time,” the fabric of the cosmos existed at the big bang, but not necessarily before. Time emerged at that point, flowing in one direction: to the future.

I would like to say that time for the universe started ticking at one second per second. But it doesn’t work that way. Massive objects that warp space, such as stars, black holes, and planets – also warp time. You may recall that time is relative, so even back at the beginning, we can’t say that it was flowing at some steady rate like how we experience it in day-to-day life.

Based on what we know from the big bang theory, any attempt to discover a cause or catalyst for the birth of the universe is a nonsensical question, much like asking, “What is further North than the North Pole?” or “How long can a fish hold its breath?”

What happened before the big bang? The answer, is that there was no “before the big bang.” Notwithstanding, it is sometimes fun to ask nonsensical questions. If, for no other reason, than to stretch our minds a little, and visit realms of thought far beyond what we otherwise would.

That is all I have for you today, but the conversation continues across social media and in the comment sections below. Do you agree with today’s message? Am I mistaken about some detail? How can I better elaborate on this topic in the future? Feel free to share your perspective!

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Written By Nicholas Burk, Executive Board Member © 2019 Free Thought Initiative

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