• Big Bang

The Big Bang Theory is the leading explanation about how the universe began. At its simplest, it says the universe as we know it started with a small singularity, then inflated over the next 13.8 billion years to the cosmos that we know today.

Because current instruments don’t allow astronomers to peer back at the universe’s birth, much of what we understand about the Big Bang Theory comes from mathematical formulas and models. Astronomers can, however, see the “echo” of the expansion through a phenomenon known as the cosmic microwave background.

While the majority of the astronomical community accepts the theory, there are some theorists who have alternative explanation besides the big bang— such as eternal inflation or an oscillating universe.

The phrase “Big Bang Theory” has been popular among astrophysicists for decades, but it hit the mainstream in 2007 when a comedy show with the same name premiered on CBS. The show follows the home and academic life of several researchers (including an astrophysicist).

The first second, and the birth of light

In the first second after the universe began, the surrounding temperature was about 10 billion degrees Fahrenheit (5.5 billion Celsius), according to NASA. The cosmos contained a vast array of fundamental particles such as neutrons, electrons and protons. These decayed or combined as the universe got cooler.

This early soup would have been impossible to look at, because light could not carry inside of it. “The free electrons would have caused light (photons) to scatter the way sunlight scatters from the water droplets in clouds,” NASA stated. Over time, however, the free electrons met up with nuclei and created neutral atoms. This allowed light to shine through about 380,000 years after the Big Bang.

This early light — sometimes called the “afterglow” of the Big Bang — is more properly known as the cosmic microwave background (CMB). It was first predicted by Ralph Alpher and other scientists in 1948, but was found only by accident almost 20 years later.

Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, both of Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey, were building a radio receiver in 1965 and picking up higher-than-expected temperatures, according to NASA. At first, they thought the anomaly was due to pigeons and their dung, but even after cleaning up the mess and killing pigeons that tried to inside the antenna, the anomaly persisted.

Simultaneously, a Princeton University team (led by Robert Dicke) was trying to find evidence of the CMB, and realized that Penzias and Wilson had stumbled upon it. The teams each published papers in the Astrophysical Journal in 1965.

Determining the age of the universe

The cosmic microwave background has been observed on many missions. One of the most famous space-faring missions was NASA’s Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) satellite, which mapped the sky in the 1990s.

Several other missions have followed in COBE’s footsteps, such as the BOOMERanG experiment (Balloon Observations of Millimetric Extragalactic Radiation and Geophysics), NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) and the European Space Agency’s Planck satellite.

Planck’s observations, first released in 2013, mapped the background in unprecedented detail and revealed that the universe was older than previously thought: 13.82 billion years old, rather than 13.7 billion years old. [Related how old is the Universe] (The research observatory’s mission is ongoing and new maps of the CMB are released periodically.)

The maps give rise to new mysteries, however, such as why the Southern Hemisphere appears slightly redder (warmer) than the Northern Hemisphere. The Big Bang Theory says that the CMB would be mostly the same, no matter where you look.

Examining the CMB also gives astronomers clues as to the composition of the universe. Researchers think most of the cosmos is made up of matter and energy that cannot be “sensed” with conventional instruments, leading to the names dark matter and dark energy. Only 5 percent of the universe is made up of matter such as planets, stars and galaxies.

Gravitational waves controversy

While astronomers could see the universe’s beginnings, they’ve also been seeking out proof of its rapid inflation. Theory says that in the first second after the universe was born, our cosmos ballooned faster than the speed of light. That, by the way, does not violate Albert Einstein’s speed limit since he said that light is the maximum anything can travel within the universe. That did not apply to the inflation of the universe itself.

In 2014, astronomers said they had found evidence in the CMB concerning “B-modes,” a sort of polarization generated as the universe got bigger and created gravitational waves. The team spotted evidence of this using an Antarctic telescope called “Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization”, or BICEP2.

“We’re very confident that the signal that we’re seeing is real, and it’s on the sky,” lead researcher John Kovac, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told in March 2014.

But by June, the same team said that their findings could have been altered by galactic dust getting in the way of their field of view.

“The basic takeaway has not changed; we have high confidence in our results,” Kovac said in a press conference reported by the New York Times. “New information from Planck makes it look like pre-Planckian predictions of dust were too low,” he added.

The results from Planck were put online in pre-published form in September. By January 2015, researchers from both teams working together “confirmed that the Bicep signal was mostly, if not all, stardust,” the New York Times said in another article.

This graphic shows a timeline of the universe based on the Big Bang theory and inflation models. Original Image

Credit: NASA/WMAP

Separately, gravitational waves have been confirmed when talking about the movements and collisions of black holes that are a few tens of masses larger than our sun. These waves have been detected multiple times by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) since 2016. As LIGO becomes more sensitive, it is anticipated that discovering black hole-related gravitational waves will be a fairly frequent event.

Faster inflation, multiverses and charting the start

The universe is not only expanding, but getting faster as it inflates. This means that with time, nobody will be able to spot other galaxies from Earth, or any other vantage point within our galaxy.

“We will see distant galaxies moving away from us, but their speed is increasing with time,” Harvard University astronomer Avi Loeb said in a March 2014 article.

“So, if you wait long enough, eventually, a distant galaxy will reach the speed of light. What that means is that even light won’t be able to bridge the gap that’s being opened between that galaxy and us. There’s no way for extraterrestrials on that galaxy to communicate with us, to send any signals that will reach us, once their galaxy is moving faster than light relative to us.”

Some physicists also suggest that the universe we experience is just one of many. In the “multiverse” model, different universes would coexist with each other like bubbles lying side by side. The theory suggests that in that first big push of inflation, different parts of space-time grew at different rates. This could have carved off different sections — different universes — with potentially different laws of physics.

“It’s hard to build models of inflation that don’t lead to a multiverse,” Alan Guth, a theoretical physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said during a news conference in March 2014 concerning the gravitational waves discovery. (Guth is not affiliated with that study.)

“It’s not impossible, so I think there’s still certainly research that needs to be done. But most models of inflation do lead to a multiverse, and evidence for inflation will be pushing us in the direction of taking [the idea of a] multiverse seriously.”

While we can understand how the universe we see came to be, it’s possible that the Big Bang was not the first inflationary period the universe experienced. Some scientists believe we live in a cosmos that goes through regular cycles of inflation and deflation, and that we just happen to be living in one of these phases.

• History

Etymology

English astronomer Fred Hoyle is credited with coining the term “Big Bang” during a 1949 BBC radio broadcast, saying: “These theories were based on the hypothesis that all the matter in the universe was created in one big bang at a particular time in the remote past.”

It is popularly reported that Hoyle, who favored an alternative “steady state” cosmological model, intended this to be pejorative, but Hoyle explicitly denied this and said it was just a striking image meant to highlight the difference between the two models.

Development 

               Hubble eXtreme Deep Field (XDF)

                  

 

XDF size compared to the size of the Moon – several thousand galaxies, each consisting of billions of stars, are in this small view.

                

XDF (2012) view – each light speck is a galaxy – some of these are as old as 13.2 billion years — the universe is estimated to contain 200 billion galaxies.

               

XDF image shows fully mature galaxies in the foreground plane – nearly mature galaxies from 5 to 9 billion years ago – protogalaxies, blazing with young stars, beyond 9 billion years.

The Big Bang theory developed from observations of the structure of the universe and from theoretical considerations. In 1912 Vesto Sliphermeasured the first Doppler shift of a “spiral nebula” (spiral nebula is the obsolete term for spiral galaxies), and soon discovered that almost all such nebulae were receding from Earth. He did not grasp the cosmological implications of this fact, and indeed at the time it was highly controversialwhether or not these nebulae were “island universes” outside our Milky Way. Ten years later, Alexander Friedmann, a Russian cosmologistand mathematician, derived the Friedmann equations from Albert Einstein’s equations of general relativity, showing that the universe might be expanding in contrast to the static universemodel advocated by Einstein at that time. In 1924 Edwin Hubble’s measurement of the great distance to the nearest spiral nebulae showed that these systems were indeed other galaxies. Independently deriving Friedmann’s equations in 1927, Georges Lemaitre, a Belgian physicist, proposed that the inferred recession of the nebulae was due to the expansion of the universe.

In 1931 Lemaître went further and suggested that the evident expansion of the universe, if projected back in time, meant that the further in the past the smaller the universe was, until at some finite time in the past all the mass of the universe was concentrated into a single point, a “primeval atom” where and when the fabric of time and space came into existence.

Starting in 1924, Hubble painstakingly developed a series of distance indicators, the forerunner of the cosmic distance ladder, using the 100-inch (2.5 m) Hooker telescope at Mount Wilson Observatory. This allowed him to estimate distances to galaxies whose redshifts had already been measured, mostly by Slipher. In 1929 Hubble discovered a correlation between distance and recession velocity—now known as Hubble’s law.Lemaître had already shown that this was expected, given the cosmological principle.

In the 1920s and 1930s almost every major cosmologist preferred an eternal steady stateuniverse, and several complained that the beginning of time implied by the Big Bang imported religious concepts into physics; this objection was later repeated by supporters of the steady state theory.This perception was enhanced by the fact that the originator of the Big Bang theory, Georges Lemaître, was a Roman Catholic priest. Arthur Eddington agreed with Aristotle that the universe did not have a beginning in time, viz., that matter is eternal. A beginning in time was “repugnant” to him.Lemaître, however, thought that

If the world has begun with a single quantum, the notions of space and time would altogether fail to have any meaning at the beginning; they would only begin to have a sensible meaning when the original quantum had been divided into a sufficient number of quanta. If this suggestion is correct, the beginning of the world happened a little before the beginning of space and time.

During the 1930s other ideas were proposed as non-standard cosmologies to explain Hubble’s observations, including the Milne model, the oscillatory universe (originally suggested by Friedmann, but advocated by Albert Einstein and Richard Tolman) and Fritz Zwicky’s tired lighthypothesis.

After World War II, two distinct possibilities emerged. One was Fred Hoyle’s steady state model, whereby new matter would be created as the universe seemed to expand. In this model the universe is roughly the same at any point in time. The other was Lemaître’s Big Bang theory, advocated and developed by George Gamow, who introduced big bang nucleosynthesis (BBN) and whose associates, Ralph Alpher and Robert Herman, predicted the CMB. Ironically, it was Hoyle who coined the phrase that came to be applied to Lemaître’s theory, referring to it as “this big bang idea” during a BBC Radio broadcast in March 1949. For a while, support was split between these two theories. Eventually, the observational evidence, most notably from radio source counts, began to favor Big Bang over Steady State. The discovery and confirmation of the CMB in 1964 secured the Big Bang as the best theory of the origin and evolution of the universe. Much of the current work in cosmology includes understanding how galaxies form in the context of the Big Bang, understanding the physics of the universe at earlier and earlier times, and reconciling observations with the basic theory.

In 1968 and 1970 Roger Penrose, Stephen Hawking, and George F. R. Ellis published papers where they showed that mathematical singularities were an inevitable initial condition of general relativistic models of the Big Bang. Then, from the 1970s to the 1990s, cosmologists worked on characterizing the features of the Big Bang universe and resolving outstanding problems. In 1981, Alan Guth made a breakthrough in theoretical work on resolving certain outstanding theoretical problems in the Big Bang theory with the introduction of an epoch of rapid expansion in the early universe he called “inflation”. Meanwhile, during these decades, two questions in observational cosmology that generated much discussion and disagreement were over the precise values of the Hubble Constant  and the matter-density of the universe (before the discovery of dark energy, thought to be the key predictor for the eventual fate of the universe).

In the mid-1990s, observations of certain globular clusters appeared to indicate that they were about 15 billion years old, which conflicted with most then-current estimates of the age of the universe (and indeed with the age measured today). This issue was later resolved when new computer simulations, which included the effects of mass loss due to stellar winds, indicated a much younger age for globular clusters. While there still remain some questions as to how accurately the ages of the clusters are measured, globular clusters are of interest to cosmology as some of the oldest objects in the universe.

Significant progress in Big Bang cosmology has been made since the late 1990s as a result of advances in telescope technology as well as the analysis of data from satellites such as COBE,the Hubble Space Telescope and WMAP.Cosmologists now have fairly precise and accurate measurements of many of the parameters of the Big Bang model, and have made the unexpected discovery that the expansion of the universe appears to be accelerating.

• Misconceptions

The Big Bang as the origin of the universe: One of the common misconceptions about the Big Bang model is the belief that it was the origin of the universe. However, the Big Bang model does not comment about how the universe came into being. Current conception of the Big Bang model assumes the existence of energy, time, and space, and does not comment about their origin or the cause of the dense and high temperature initial state of the universe.

The Big Bang was “small”: It is misleading to visualize the Big Bang by comparing its size to everyday objects. When the size of the universe at Big Bang is described, it refers to the size of the observable universe, and not the entire universe.

Hubble’s law violates the special theory of relativity: Hubble’s law predicts that galaxies that are beyond Hubble Distance recede faster than the speed of light. However, special relativity does not apply beyond motion through space. Hubble’s law describes velocity that results from expansion of space, rather than through space.

Doppler redshift vs cosmological red-shift: Astronomers often refer to the cosmological red-shift as a normal Doppler shift, which is a misconception. Although similar, the cosmological red-shift is not identical to the Doppler redshift. The Doppler redshift is based on special relativity, which does not consider the expansion of space. On the contrary, the cosmological red-shift is based on general relativity, in which the expansion of space is considered. Although they may appear identical for nearby galaxies, it may cause confusion if the behavior of distant galaxies is understood through the Doppler redshift.

• Speculations

While the Big Bang model is well established in cosmology, it is likely to be refined. The Big Bang theory, built upon the equations of classical general relativity, indicates a singularity at the origin of cosmic time; this infinite energy density is regarded as impossible in physics. Still, it is known that the equations are not applicable before the time when the universe cooled down to the Planck temperature, and this conclusion depends on various assumptions, of which some could never be experimentally verified. (Also see Planck epoch.)

One proposed refinement to avoid this would-be singularity is to develop a correct treatment of quantum gravity.

It is not known what could have preceded the hot dense state of the early universe or how and why it originated, though speculation abounds in the field of cosmogony.

Some proposals, each of which entails untested hypotheses, are:

Models including the Hartle–Hawking no-boundary condition, in which the whole of space-time is finite; the Big Bang does represent the limit of time but without any singularity.

• Big Bang lattice model, states that the universe at the moment of the Big Bang consists of an infinite lattice of fermions, which is smeared over the fundamental domain so it has rotational, translational and gauge symmetry. The symmetry is the largest symmetry possible and hence the lowest entropy of any state.

• Bane cosmology models, in which inflation is due to the movement of branes in string theory; the pre-Big Bang model; the ekpyrotic model, in which the Big Bang is the result of a collision between branes; and the cyclic model, a variant of the ekpyrotic model in which collisions occur periodically. In the latter model the Big Bang was preceded by a Big Crunch and the universe cycles from one process to the other .

• Eternal inflation, in which universal inflation ends locally here and there in a random fashion, each end-point leading to a bubble universe, expanding from its own big bang.
Proposals in the last two categories, see the Big Bang as an event in either a much larger and older universe or in a multiverse.