What Was Before the Big Bang?

The color of the early universe. Credit: Planck/IPAC.

In elementary school, I have a distinct memory of pestering one of the other kids each day with, What was the color of the universe before the Big Bang? And I also distinctly remember not being satisfied with his answer, which was, “Nothing.” Nothing can’t be a color! [As an aside, he was a cool cat, because even at that age, he refused, much to the chagrin of fellow classmates and maybe even some teachers, to stand for the ridiculous Pledge of Allegiance.]

As we know, the universe began 13.8 billion years ago with the Big Bang. According to Phys.org, the Big Bang didn’t explode empty space, but rather, was “an expanding space filled with energy.” From what I’m understanding from their article, my elementary-aged friend was right: There was no color because it was too hot. That is, temperatures were so high, that light couldn’t penetrate the dense plasma, and it would take 380,000 years for the universe to cool enough to allow the nuclei and electrons to bind into atoms, thus allowing light penetration and color.

If you could sit a human down, somehow, to witness even a minute of that 380,000 years, and report back what they saw, my mind can’t compute it! To be alive, conscious, and in a space … without color. Well, as I continue to think through this and Google, I suppose it isn’t that mind-blowing? Because black isn’t technically a color, so maybe our human watching the first 380,000 years of the Big Bang would see black, and so, it wouldn’t be that odd.

After that cooling period, Phys.og stated that the color after the period of first light would be perceived as an organ glow similar to firelight (similar to the featured photo in this post). In other words, gingers are responsible for the Big Bang. I jest.

The reason I bring all of this up isn’t merely to tell that elementary school anecdote, but to set up another, related question spurred on by listening to a new audiobook about Einstein: What was before the Big Bang? As most of us do, I have a hard time wrapping my brain around there being nothing … then suddenly a whole lot of something.

It so happens, there are competing theories about what happened prior to the Big Bang. Even in this University of Buffalo article explaining one of those theories, they start by saying, “In the beginning, the world was empty and cold.” But, how?! To echo the elementary kid inside of me, how can the world be cold … if there is nothing? Wouldn’t it be neither cold nor hot, and what does that mean? And how does “empty” work? To be empty, in my mind, brings to mind a box by way of analogy. So, say I have a box. There is nothing in the box. I would say the box is empty. But the “emptiness” is contained within the framework of the box. So, when we say the universe was “empty” isn’t that “emptiness” still contained within … something? And what is that something?!

The University of Buffalo article is talking about a new book that came out earlier this year by Buffalo physicist Will Kinney, An Infinity of Worlds: Cosmic Inflation and the Beginning of the Universe, which postulates the cosmic inflation theory (first put forth in 1980) as an explanation of what the early pre-Big Bang world looked like. Cosmic inflation is what it sounds like, where the cosmos doubled in size 80 times in a fraction of a second, fueled by … something, and then those conditions led to the necessary hot, dense conditions for the Big Bang to occur.

“Inflation involves at least 80 doublings, stretching a patch of space about the size of a grapefruit to the size of our entire observable universe in less than a trillionth of a second,” Kinney said.

My brain feels like a warped grapefruit. Oh, it gets better. Due to this inflationary concept, eventually, our Milk Way will run into other, larger galaxies right around the time the sun dies out, 4 billion years from now, and then about a hundred trillion years thereafter, the last stars will burn out, and the “universe will descend into darkness forever.”

Thanks, Kinney!

Stephen Hawking has famously answered my question (yes, he answered me directly) with a bit of sarcasm, “Asking what came before the Big Bang … would be like asking what lies South of the South Pole.”

Again, my poor brain. Another way of putting that remark, though, is that Hawking didn’t believe there was a beginning or an end. In other words, going back to my box, there is no box because there are no boundaries. That is where the image of the universe as a shuttlecock comes from, where, as this article explains, the universe started from a point of zero size and smoothly expanded from there, encompassing “the entire past, present and future at once.” Therefore, you don’t need a “beginning” as we might think of it.

The context for this discussion in the Einstein book is that of time. It obviously doesn’t make much sense to ask what was before time, but what is time anyway? I saw an analogy where asking what came before the Big Bang is tantamount to asking who I am before I was born. But I don’t find that satisfying! Because who I am existed somewhere before I was born in order for me to be born! Wouldn’t the same be true of the entire universe?

That said, with how much my brain is hurting, it is pretty remarkable that much smarter “monkey brains” have been able to, more or less, figure out the universe up to when it was only 10^-36 seconds old. The problem for science is the fraction of a fraction of a fraction before that, and then … before that.

But the beauty of science is that it is comfortable in its discomfort, and must be comfortable in that sense, with saying, “We don’t know.” And perhaps, may never know. Maybe it is one of those known unknowns.

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