Monday, May 24, 2010

What existed before the big bang?

by Robert Lamb

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.