It is difficult enough to imagine a time, roughly 13.7 billion years ago, when the entire universe existed as a singularity.
According to the big bang theory, one of the main contenders vying to explain how the universe came to be, all the matter in the cosmos – all of space itself – existed in a form smaller than a subatomic particle.
Once you think about that, an even more difficult question arises: What existed just before the big bang occurred?
The question itself predates modern cosmology by at least 1,600 years. Fourth-century theologian St. Augustine wrestled with the nature of God before the creation of the universe.
His answer? Time was part of God’s creation, and there simply was no “before” that a deity could call home.
Armed with the best physics of the 20th century, Albert Einstein came to very similar conclusions with his theory of relativity.
Just consider the effect of mass on time. A planet’s hefty mass warps time — making time run a tiny bit slower for a human on Earth’s surface than a satellite in orbit.
The difference is too small to notice, but time even runs more slowly for someone standing next to a large boulder than it does for a person standing alone in a field.
The pre-big bang singularity possessed all the mass in the universe, effectively bringing time to a standstill.
Following this line of logic, the title of this article is fundamentally flawed.
According to Einstein’s theory of relativity, time only came into being as that primordial singularity expanded toward its current size and shape.
Case closed? Far from it. This is one cosmological quandary that won’t stay dead.
In the decades following Einstein’s death, the advent of quantum physics and a host of new theories resurrected questions about the pre-big bang universe. Keep reading to learn about some of them.
Here’s a thought: What if our universe is but the offspring of another, older universe? Some astrophysicists speculate that this story is written in the relic radiation left over from the big bang: the cosmic microwave background (CMB).
Astronomers first observed the CMB in 1965, and it quickly created problems for the big bang theory — problems that were subsequently addressed (for a while) in 1981 with the inflation theory.
This theory entails an extremely rapid expansion of the universe in the first few moments of its existence.
It also accounts for temperature and density fluctuations in the CMB, but dictates that those fluctuations should be uniform.
In chaotic inflation theory, this concept goes even deeper: an endless progression of inflationary bubbles, each becoming a universe, and each of these birthing even more inflationary bubbles in an immeasurable multiverse.
Other scientists place the formation of the singularity inside a cycle called the big bounce in which our expanding universe will eventually collapse back in on itself in an event called the big crunch.
A singularity once more, the universe will then expand in another big bang.
This process would be eternal and, as such, every big bang and big crunch the universe ever experiences would be nothing but a rebirth into another phase of existence.
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