The Origins Of The Universe – “A Short History”

“Welcome. And congratulations. I am delighted that you could make it. Getting here wasn’t easy, I know. In fact, I suspect it was a little tougher than you realize.”

When I opened A Short History of Nearly Everything and read these opening remarks from the author Bill Bryson (whom I was about to find out is better described as “the charming and ostensibly good-humored Bill Bryson”) I knew I was in for a treat. Re-reading the final sentence of that passage today–“In fact, I suspect it was a little tougher than you realize”–I couldn’t help but let go of a little smile. For that statement rings with some truth whether you are someone who has never delved into the questions of the universe or a scientist who has spent his entire life in pursuit of answering them. The universe is strange like that. No matter how much you know about it, no matter how miraculous you recognize our existence as, it’s always I suspect just at least a little bit more amazing than we know. As British biologist J. B. S. Haldane once remarked, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose.”

Thankfully though, that hasn’t stopped us from supposing. In fact, the last 70 or so years of suppositions have shed a truly remarkable amount of light on what we know about the origins and development of our universe. And interestingly, a sizable amount of this light is illuminated thanks to, well, light. Allow me to explain.

In the 1940s a Russian-born astrophysicist by the name of George Gamow postulated that if one looked deep enough into space, one should be able to detect some cosmic background radiation left over from the Big Bang (a theory that wasn’t yet a really active notion in science at the time). Around 20 years later, two young radio astronomers were trying to get some use out of a huge communications antenna in New Jersey, known as the Bell antenna because it was owned by Bell Laboratories. Much to their chagrin though, whenever they tried to make use of the antenna, their work was interrupted by a loud, persistent hiss. They did everything they could to get rid of the hiss–re-built instruments, lined the dish with duct tape–but could not manage to dispose of the noise. One day they happened to speak to Robert Dicke, a researcher at Princeton who was trying to find the cosmic background radiation Garnow had theorized would exist, about their problem. Dicke knew immediately that the boys had found what he was looking for, the most ancient light in the universe, the first photons ever–though time and distance made them reach earth as microwaves audible from the antenna. The boys, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, won the 1978 Nobel in physics (though, I’ve read, they didn’t really understand the significance of their discovery at the time, nor were they even able to describe it remotely well), and the Big Bang theory quickly made its way to the forefront of cosmology.

Fun Sidenote: This initial ancient light is actually readily visible to us if we just turn on a TV. When the set is tuned to a channel we don’t receive and the display is static-filled, about 1 percent of that static is due to the photons from the Big Bang! As Bryson humorously remarks about it, “The next time you complain that there is nothing on, remember that you can always watch the birth of the universe.”
The Big Bang itself is definitely in contention for the title of being one of the hardest things to wrap one’s head around. There are so many questions we can’t yet profess to know the answers to about it–indeed we don’t even know for sure whether “our” Big Bang was The Big Bang, or simply a Big Bang among millions, or billions, or trillions of others that have happened before or are currently happening in other dimensions. But there are also a remarkably impressive amount of things that scientists have amazingly been able to postulate empirically about regarding the Big Bang, and taking a minute to name a few will be most fitting as we progress in this discussion of the unfolding of our universe.

Much of what we believe we know about the Big Bang is thanks to an idea called inflation theory. The inflation theory, thought up by a particle physicist at Stanford named Alan Guth, explains that a fraction of a moment after t=0, when only a ridiculously hard to understand item called a singularity existed, the universe expanded dramatically, to say the least, doubling in size every 10-34 seconds. The whole thing only lasted about 10-30 seconds, but just in that amount of time the universe went from something we could now hold in the palm of our hands to something at least 1025 times bigger, and at least a hundred billion light years across. Continuing to follow conclusions based on inflation theory, gravity emerged at one ten-millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second, followed soon afterwards by electromagnatism and the nuclear forces that, thankfully, hold our particles together.

Speaking of those particles, they came an instant later in swarms. Photons, protons, electrons, neutrons, and so much more–somewhere between 1079 and 1089 of each, about 98 percent of all the matter that exists. This matter though was all light gases at the time–like helium, hydrogen, and lithium. The heavier elements that are so crucial to our lives–the carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, etc.–did not yet exist. In fact, they would not exist until a good deal later, when finally a heat existed–heat that is hotter even than the middle of the hottest stars–that was hot enough to create them. As it turned out, it would take the heat of a supernova (100 million-plus degrees) to do such a thing, and it would take a man who didn’t believe in the Big Bang theory to discover it. (That man, Fred Hoyle, actually coined the phrase “Big Bang” while scorning it in a 1952 radio broadcast! Interesting stuff!) An exploding star, according to Hoyle and others, would generate enough heat to create these crucial elements, spraying them into the cosmos to form gaseous clouds–part of the interstellar medium. These clouds could eventually coalesce into solar systems.

Following Hoyle’s theory, a plausible scenario for how our solar system got here begins 4.6 billion years ago, when a great swirl of gas and dust some 15 billion miles across aggregated in the spot our solar system currently occupies. 99.9% of the mass of that gas and dust went towards making our sun, and out of the floating material that was left, a couple microscopic grains got close enough together to be joined by electrostatic forces, effectively conceiving our planet in the process. Other grains did the same thing, and then all these collided pieces of dust kept colliding into other pieces, forming larger and larger clumps, some eventually getting big enough to dominate the orbit in which they traveled, thus getting bigger and bigger as they joined with whatever was in their path. These now giant clumps formed  the debris in our solar system, the most colossal ones taking the title of planets. To grow from tiny dust grain to baby planet, by the way, is thought to have taken only a few tens of thousands of years. From baby planet to our earth’s fiery teenage years (i.e. when it was still all molten heat) took about 200 million years.

It was at this point, about 4.5 billion years ago, that our moon was formed when an object about the size of Mars pummeled into Earth. It’s thought that within a few weeks much of the debris from this crash had joined together in one clump, and around a year later it formed the spherical rock that orbits us today.

When our planet was about a third of its eventual size, it is thought that it was probably beginning to form its atmosphere. Carbon dioxide, nitrogen, methane, and sulfer combined in a way that would eventually allow the terrain below to sustain life. The carbon dioxide, as a greenhouse gas, was particularly important for the greenhouse effect it created at a time when our sun was significantly dimmer than it is today. It’s possible that our planet may have frozen over permanently at this time without the timely proliferation of CO2.

For the next half a billion years the Earth progressed from its fiery teenage years to a rocky middle age, getting pummeled relentlessly my galactic debris. Thankfully though, these bumps and bruises helped to carve the topography, fill the oceans, and put together all the components that would be necessary for the formation of life.

As Bryson writes, and then “four billion years later people began to wonder how it all happened.”
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Questions That Still Perplex Me: While I can write this account of things, I still don’t understand the dynamics of some of the things I’ve attempted to elucidate. For instance, why did only 98% of matter come from the Big Bang? Where did the other 2% come from? The formation of the heavier elements? If so, how was it generated and not converted? I could be missing something here with these questions, as well.

How did comets and such crashing into earth form our oceans? Where did the water come from?

Where the heck does a singularity come from? That may even be an extremely naive way of phrasing that question.

I don’t quite know the answers to these yet, so if anyone has anything to add I’d love to hear!

Post-Inspired Photo:

Amazing image captured by NASA of the Orion Nebula, a cosmic cloud around 1500 light years away:

Picture of a galaxy in the universe
Photo by Mr. Physics

The above is a piece I composed while a student at Stanford University, as an assignment for one of my classes. With deadlines to meet and such, it may not be 100% polished. So feel free to point out any imperfections you may perceive–I’d value being made aware of your thoughts.


2 Comments

  1. Hi Kevin!

    You are an amazing writer! Thank you for sharing your knowledge with the the world, it is quite interesting. I actually found out about you through your sleep site. I am a long time sufferer of Isolated Sleep Paralysis (extremely frequent episodes)and I also have a lifelong Bruxism disorder that I am afraid will eventually ruin my perfect, beautiful, straight teeth! and have been searching for a cure for both, or at least a preventative measure to keep these things from happening to me as often as they do. Night Guards can actually cause worse problems, although they WILL protect the teeth from any (further) damage, that safeguard is in exchange for a host of other problems that are even more serious. There is patent pending for a bite guard that releases an unpleasant taste into the mouth when grinding is initiated and it is enough to alert and wake you, but not neccesarily disturb your sleep. You just keep a small emesis-like basin on your nightstand, spit it out, rinse, swap out your bite guard and go back to sleep. Since it hasn’t been manufactured yet and they aren’t sure when that will happen, the owner of the patent gives instructions on his website on how to make one and gives DIY step by step instructions, so I may put my creative skills to work and see what I come up with 🙂

    I find your websites quite informative and very intriguing. Before I say anything else, I want to thank you for doing what you do, your writing, your sharing, even the info on SBI, how kind of you to share that with everyone. You’re very generous with the info! I appreciate that.

    I didn’t set out to critique the information written on your sites, but at the end of this page you state, “The above is a piece I composed while a student at Stanford University, as an assignment for one of my classes. With deadlines to meet and such, it may not be 100% polished. So feel free to point out any imperfections you may perceive–I’d value being made aware of your thoughts.” so I just wanted to point out a typo I found on this very page. In your first Fun Side Note above, you typed “form” instead of “from” in this sentence: “When the set is tuned to a channel we don’t receive and the display is static-filled, about 1 percent of that static is due to the photons form the Big Bang!”

    Just FYI. Again, I’m not here to find fault, I just happened to find it so I pointed it out like you requested. Lol.

    Love your sites Kevin, keep up the good work!

    xoxo,
    G.G.

    BTW, what is Dr. Dement doing these days?

  2. Kevin Morton

    Hi Gina!

    Apologies for the slow reply–this personal site of mine has been on the backburner of late and I missed your comment until today. But it did make my day!

    Thanks for the info on the bite guard–sounds interesting. And thanks also for catching the typo–good eye! I’ve just fixed it.

    Thanks again for taking the time to share your message and the compliments! I’m happy to share my writing, in particular the info on SBI! It’s helped me learn a lot the last 6 years.

    Warmly,

    Kevin

    P.S. Dr. Dement is back at teaching Sleep and Dreams again this year, which starts tomorrow. I can’t believe it–I think he is 85 this year! He just loves teaching the students, and no one can keep him away from it, not even himself (he has a reputation now for several times announcing his retirement and then teaching again the next year 🙂

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