I came across the following news article which seems to serve as a brief but still useful guide to how the Universe formed and what happened in those very early stages. Personally, I love science stories like these; they serve as a great introduction to science and, in doing so, can often bring home perspective about the actual scale of the Univere (which is something pretty much everyone has trouble with).
Scientists can now tell us what happened in nearly every millisecond of the big bang. Robert Matthews takes us through the first crucial moments [please note, superscript numbers in this article are represented with the prefix ^]
- The Guardian,
- Saturday April 26 2008
Using observatories on the earth and in space, astronomers have been able to study the nature of the cosmos in unprecedented detail. By analysing the motion of distant galaxies, they have discovered that the whole cosmos is expanding under the influence of forces unleashed at its birth in the big bang. Combined with studies of the radiation left over from that primordial explosion, they have found that the universe was born 13.7bn years ago, give or take 200m years.
Pinning down the date of creation with such precision is impressive, but scientists have gone much further. They have begun to piece together the whole history of the universe, from the big bang to the present day. The very earliest moments are still the focus of intense research, and the final word is not yet in. Even so, the timeline of events now emerging is every bit as astounding as the creation myths of the world’s religions.
Known as the Planck Era, this is the closest that current physics can get to the absolute beginning of time. At this moment, the universe is thought to be incredibly hot, dense and turbulent, with the very fabric of space and time turned into a roiling morass. All the fundamental forces currently at work in the universe – gravity, electromagnetism and the so-called strong and weak nuclear forces – are thought to have been unified during this stage into a single “superforce”.
The so-called Grand Unification Era, at the end of which the superforce begins to break apart into the constituent forces we see today. Around this time so-called inflationary energy triggers a dramatic burst of expansion, expanding the universe from far smaller than a subatomic particle to far larger than the cosmic volume we can see today. In the process, the primordial wrinkles in space-time are smoothed out.
The energy dumped into the universe by the end of inflation leads to the appearance of particles of matter via Einstein’s celebrated equation E=mc^2. Initially a mix of matter and antimatter, most of the particles annihilate each other in a burst of radiation, leaving behind randomly scattered pockets of matter.
The so-called Electroweak Era, when the last two fundamental forces still unified with one another – electromagnetism and the weak nuclear force – finally split, leaving the universe with the four separate forces we observe today.
As the universe continues to expand, it becomes cool enough to allow the familiar particles of today’s matter, protons and neutrons, to form from their constituents, known as quarks.
At a temperature of one billion degrees celsius, protons and neutrons start to come together to form nuclei, the charged cores of atoms. Within 20 minutes, the temperature of the universe has become too cold to drive the process, which ceases with the formation of the nuclei of hydrogen and helium, the simplest and most common chemical elements in the universe. The formation of all the other elements – including the carbon, oxygen and nitrogen needed for life – will emerge with the first massive stars millions of years later.
The universe has cooled to about 1,000C – cool enough for electrons to pair up with nuclei to form the first atoms. By the end of this so-called Recombination Era, the universe consists of about 75% hydrogen and 25% helium. With the electrons now bound to atoms, the universe finally becomes transparent to light – making this the earliest epoch observable today.
Small, dense regions of cosmic gas start to collapse under their own gravity, becoming hot enough to trigger nuclear fusion reactions between hydrogen atoms. These are the very first stars to light up the universe.
0.5bn – 1bn years
The force of gravity starts to pull together huge regions of relatively dense cosmic gas, forming the vast, swirling collections of stars we call galaxies. These in turn start to form clusters, of which one – the so-called Local Group – contains our own Milky Way galaxy.
The force of gravity trying to slow the cosmic expansion begins to lose out to the anti-gravitational effect of “dark energy”, a mysterious force which has been accelerating the cosmic expansion ever since.
A region of gas and dust from exploding stars in the Milky Way galaxy starts to collapse under its own gravity, forming a small star surrounded by a disk of rocky material and gas. Swarms of giant chunks of debris form within the disc, collide and merge – forming the Earth, moon and other planets.
· Robert Matthews is visiting reader in Science at Aston University, Birmingham
Before the big bang
The big bang is the ultimate extreme event – one where conditions are so intense that even our best theories of physics break down. Yet some theorists now believe they have found ways of pushing back even further, to the ultimate question: what came before the big bang? To do it, they have had to take on one of the greatest challenges in physics: the marriage of Einstein’s theory of space, time and gravity, general relativity, with quantum theory, which describes the subatomic world. Only then can they hope to describe conditions at the big bang, when all space and time was compressed into a volume far smaller than a proton.
Early attempts to unify the two theories are starting to reveal some intriguing hints. Recent calculations suggest that close to the big bang, the fabric of space and time was so contorted that it flipped gravity into reverse, producing a repulsive force. If correct, this would mean that the big bang wasn’t the start of the universe at all. Instead, it was merely a “big bounce”, the latest in an endless series stretching back into the infinite past.