The Big Bang was NOT a Fireworks Display!
Written by Sten Odenwald
Copyright (C) 1997. Published in the Washington Post Horizon education supplement on May 14, 1997.
The Big Bang wasn’t really big. Nor was it really a bang. In fact, the event that created the universe and everything in it was a very different kind of phenomenon than most people–or, at least, most nonphysicists–imagine.
Even the name “Big Bang” originally was a put-down cooked up by a scientist who didn’t like the concept when it was first put forth. He favored the idea that the universe had always existed in a much more dignified and fundamentally unchanging, steady state.
But the name stuck, and with it has come the completely wrong impression that the event was like an explosion and that the universe is expanding today because the objects in it are being flung apart like fragments of a detonated bomb.
Virtually every basic aspect of this intuitive image for the Big Bang (we ARE stuck with the name) is incorrect. To understand why, you need to understand Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Or, at least, you need to have a sense of it. That may sound daunting, but general relativity is the most revolutionary scientific advance of the 20th century, and we all ought to acquire some feeling for it before the century ends.
After all, it’s been 82 years since Einstein put forth his theory. It’s been tested in scores of experiments and has always passed with flying colors and is now firmly established as our premier guide to understanding how gravity operates. Moreover, it is part of the foundation of Big Bang cosmology. And it is because of general relativity that we know the Big Bang was (and is, for the event is still going on) nothing like an explosion.
Albert Einstein developed general relativity in order to make his famous theory of special relativity include the effects of gravity. It is a better way than Sir Isaac Newton’s of understanding how gravity works. Like a hungry amoeba, general relativity ( or just GR for short) had absorbed both Einstein’s newly-minted special relativity and Newton’s physics, giving us the means to replicate ALL of the predictions from these two great theories, while extending them into unfamiliar realms of experience. One of these realms was the Black Hole. The other was the shape and evolution of the universe itself.
Big Bang cosmology says that the universe came into existence between 10 to 20 billion years ago, and that from a hot dense state has been expanding and cooling ever since, remains unassailable. Yet, Big Bang cosmology is vulnerable. It is based on GR being accurate over an enormous range of scales in time and space. Just how good is general relativity? So far, GR has made the following specific predictions:
1…The entire orbit of Mercury rotates because of the curved geometry of space near the sun. The amount of ‘perihelion shift’ each century was well known at the time Einstein provided a complete explanation for it in 1915.
2…Light at every frequency can be bent in exactly the same way by gravity. This was confirmed in the 1919 Solar Eclipse for optical light using stars near the Sun’s limb, and in 1969-1975 using radio emissions from star-like quasars also seen near the limb of the Sun. The deflection of the light was exactly as predicted by GR.
3…Clocks run slower in strong gravitational fields. This was confirmed by Robert Pound and George Rebka at Harvard University in 1959, and by Robert Vessot in the 1960’s and 70’s using high-precession hydrogen maser clocks flown on jet planes and on satellites.
4…Gravitational mass and inertial mass are identical. Most recently in 1971, Vladimir Braginsky at Moskow University confirmed GRs prediction of this to within 1 part in a trillion of the exact equality required by GR.
5…Black holes exist. Although these objects have been suspected to exist since they were first introduced to astronomers in the early 1970’s, it is only in 1992 that a critical acceptance threshold was crossed in the astronomical community. It was then that Hubble Space Telescope observations revealed monstrous, billion-sun black holes in the cores of nearby galaxies such as Messier 87, Messier 33 and NGC 4261.
6…Gravity has its own form of radiation which can carry energy. Russel Hulse and Joseph Taylor in 1975 discovered two pulsars orbiting each other, and through careful monitoring of their precise pulses during the next 20 years, confirmed that the system is loosing energy at a rate within 1 percent of the prediction by GR based on the emission of gravitational radiation.
7…A new force exists called ‘gravito-magnetism’. Just as electric and magnetic fields are linked together, according to GR, a spinning body produces a magnetism-like force called gravitomagnetism. GR predicts that rotating bodies not only bend space and time, but also make empty space spin. A NASA satellite called Gravity Probe B will be launched in the next few years to see whether this effect exists. This is a killer. If it is not found, GR is mortally wounded despite its long string of other successes.
8…Space can stretch during the expansion of the universe. This was confirmed by Edwin Hubble’s detection of the recession of the galaxies ca 1929. More recently in 1993, Astronomer Kenneth Kellerman confirmed that the angular sizes of distant radio sources shrink to a minimum then increase at greater distances exactly as expected for a dilating space. This is not predicted by any other cosmological model that does not also include the dilation of space as a real, physical phenomenon.
We have now boxed ourselves into a corner. If we accept the successes of GR, we are forced to see the world and the cosmos through its eyes, and its eyes alone, since it is the theory which satisfies all known tests to date.
So, how should we think about the Big Bang? Our mental ‘fireworks’ image of the Big Bang contains these basic elements: 1) A pre-existing sky or space into which the fragments from the explosion are injected; 2) A pre-existing time we can use to mark when the explosion happened; 3) Individual projectiles moving through space from a common center; 4) A definite moment when the explosion occurred; and 5) Something that started the Big Bang.
All of these elements to our visualization of the Big Bang are completely false according to GR!
There wasn’t any!
The mathematics of GR state specifically and unambiguously that 3-dimensional space was created at the Big Bang itself, at ‘Time Zero’, along with everything else. It was a ‘singular’ event in which the separations between all particles everywhere, vanished. This is just another way of saying that our familiar 3-dimensional space vanished. Theorists studying various prototypes for the Theory of Everything have only modified this statement somewhat. During its earliest moments, the universe may have existed in a nearly incomprehensible state which may have had more than 4 dimensions, or perhaps none at all. Many of these theories of the earliest moments hypothesize a ‘mother space-time’ that begat our own universe, but you cannot at the same time place your minds eye both inside this Mother Spacetime to watch the Big Bang happen, and inside our universe to see the matter flying around. This is exactly what the fireworks display model demands that you do.
There wasn’t any of this either!
Again, GR’s mathematics treats both space and time together as one object called ‘space-time’ which is indivisible. At Time Zero plus a moment, you had a well defined quantity called time. At Time Zero minus a moment, this same quantity changed its character in the mathematics and became ‘imaginary’. This is a mathematical warning flag that something dreadfully unexpected has happened to time as we know it. In a famous quote by Einstein, “…time and space are modes by which we think and not conditions in which we live”. Steven Hawking has looked at the mathematics of this state using the fledgling physics of Quantum Gravity Theory, and confirms that at the Big Bang, time was murdered in the most thorough way imaginable. It may have been converted into just another ‘timeless’ dimension of space…or so the mathematics seems to suggest.
Individual objects moving out from a common center?
GR says specifically that space is not a passive stage upon which matter plays out its dance, but is a member of the cast. When you treat both galaxies and space-time together, you get a very different answer for what happens than if you treat them separately, which is what we instinctively always do. Curved space distorts the paths of particles, sometimes in very dramatic ways. If you stepped into a space ship and tried to travel to the edge of the universe and look beyond, it would be impossible. Not only could you not reach a supposed “edge” of the universe no matter how long or how fast you traveled, in a closed universe, you would eventually find yourself arriving where you departed. The curvature of space would bring you right back, in something like the way the curvature of Earth would bring you home if you flew west and never changed course. In other words, the universe has no edge in space. There is nothing beyond the farthest star.
As a mental anchor, many have used the expanding balloon as an analogy to the expanding universe. As seen from any one spot on the balloon’s surface, all other spots rush away from it as the balloon is inflated. There is no one center to the expansion ON THE SURFACE of the balloon that is singled out as the center of the Big Bang. This is very different than the fireworks display which does have a dramatic, common center to the expanding cloud of cinders. The balloon analogy, however, is not perfect, because as we watch the balloon, our vantage point is still within a preexisting larger arena which GR says never existed for the real universe.
The center of the Big Bang was not a point in space, but a point in time! It is a center, not in the fabric of the balloon, but outside it along the 4th dimension…time. We cannot see this point anywhere we look inside the space of our universe out towards the distant galaxies. You can’t see time afterall! We can only see it as we look back in time at the ancient images we get from the most distant objects we can observe. We see a greatly changed, early history of the universe in these images but no unique center to them in space.
It is at this point that common sense must give up its seat on the bus, and yield to the insights provided by GR. And it is at precisely this point that so many non-physicists refuse to be so courteous. And who can blame them? But there’s more to come.
Projectiles moving through space?
GR again has something very troubling to say about this. For millions of years we have learned from experience on the savanas of the African continent and elsewhere, that we can move through space. As we drive down the highway, we have absolutely no doubts what is happening as we traverse the distance between landmarks along the roadside. This knowledge is so primal that we are incapable of mustering much doubt about it. But science is not about confirming our prejudices. It’s about revealing how things actually are.
What if I told you that you could decrease the distance from your house and the Washington Monument by ‘standing still’ and just letting space contract the distance away? GR predicts exactly this new phenomenon, and the universe seems to be the only arena we know today in which it naturally occurs. Like spots glued to the surface of the balloon at eternally fixed latitude and longitude points, the galaxies remain where they are while space dilates between them with the passage of time. There is no reason at all we should find this kind of motion intuitive.
If space is stretching like this, where do the brand new millions of cubic light years come from, from one moment to the next? The answer in GR is that they have always been there. To see how this could happen, I like to think of the shape of our universe as a “Cosmic Watermellon”. The fact that this is only the shape for a ‘closed’ finite universe is only a technicality. Finite watermellons are also cheaper to buy than infinite ones.
GR predicts the entire past, present and future of the universe all at once, and predicts its entire 4-dimensional shape. As we slice the 4-dimensional, Cosmic Watermellon at one end of the cosmic time line, we see 3-dimensional space and its contents soon after the Big Bang. At the other end of the Cosmic Watermellon in the far future, we see the collapse of space and matter just before the Big Crunch. But in between, our slices show the shape of space (closed, spherical volumes) and the locations of galaxies ( at fixed locations) as space dilates from one extreme to the other.
As a particular slice through an ordinary watermellon, we see that its meat has always been present in the complete watermellon. The meat is present as a continuous medium, and we never ask where the meat in a particular slice came from. Cosmologically, GR ask us to please think of 3-dimensional space in the same way. Space, like the meat of the watermellon, has always existed in the complete shape of the universe in 4-dimensions. But it is only in 4-dimensions that the full shape of the universe is revealed. It is a mystery why our consciousness insists on experiencing the universe one moment at a time, and that is why we end up with the paradox of where space comes from. There really is no paradox at all.
Space is not ‘nothing’ according to Einstein, it is merely another name for the gravitational field of the universe. Einstein once said, “Space-time does not claim existence on its own but only as a structural quality of the [gravitational] field”. If you could experimentally turn-off gravity with a switch, space-time would vanish. This is the ultimate demolition experiment known to physics for which an environmental impact statement would most certainly have to be filed.
The gravitational field at one instant is wedded to itself in the next instant by the incessant quantum churnings of the myriad of individual particles that like bees in a swarm, make up the gravitational field itself. In this frothing tumult, the gravitational field is knit together, quantum by quantum, from perhaps even more elemental building blocks, and it is perhaps here that we will find the ultimate origin for the expansion of the universe and the magical stretching of space. We hope the much anticipated Theory of Everything will have more to say about this, but to actually test this theory may require technologies and human resources that we can only dimly dream of.
Was there a definite moment to the Big Bang?
GR is perfectly happy to forecast that our universe emerged from an infinite density, zero-space ‘Singularity’ at Time Zero, but physicists now feel very strongly that this instant was smeared out by any number of quantum mechanical effects, so that we can never speak of a time before about 10^-43 seconds after the Big Bang. Just as Gertrude Stein once remarked about my hometown, Oakland, California that “There is no ‘There’ there”, at 10^-43 seconds, nature may tell us that before the Big Bang, “There was no ‘When’ there” either. The moment dissolves away into some weird quantum fog, and as Steven Hawking speculates, time may actually become bent into a new dimension of space and no longer even definable in this state. Ordinary GR is unable to describe this condition and only some future theory combing GR and quantum mechanics will be able to tell us more. We hope.
Something started the Big Bang!
At last we come to the most difficult issue in modern cosmology. In the fireworks display, we can trace the events leading up to the explosion all the way back to the chemists that created the gunpowder and wrapped the explosives. GR, however, can tell us nothing about the equivalent stages leading up to the Big Bang, and in fact, among its strongest statements is the one that says that time itself may not have existed. How, then, do we speak or think about a condition, or process, that started the whole shebang if we are not even allowed to frame the event as “This happened first…then this…then kerpowie!”? This remains the essential mystery of the Big Bang which seems to doggedly transcend every mathematical description we can create to describe it.
All of the logical frameworks we know about are based on chains of events or states. All of our experiences of such chains in the physical world have been ordered in time. Even when the mathematics and the theory tell us ‘What happened before the Big Bang to start it?’ is not a logical or legitimate question, we insist on viewing this as a proper question to ask of nature, and we expect a firm answer. But like so many other things we have learned this century about the physical world, our gut instincts about which questions ought to have definite answers is often flawed when we explore the extreme limits to our physical world.
I wrote this essay before seeing the new IMAX file at the Air and Space Museum ‘Cosmic Journey”, by far one of the nicest and most heroic movies of its kind I had ever seen. But of course it showed the Big Bang as a fireworks display. No matter. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to accept the fact that the Big Bang was a spectacular moment in history. What is amazing is that the daring audacity of humans may have demystified some of it, and revealed a universe far stranger than any could have imagined.
Still, we are haunted by our hunches and intuitions gathered over millenia, and under circumstances far removed from the greater physical world we are now exploring. No wonder it all seems so alien and maddeningly complex.