What Happened Before the Big Bang?
Paul Davies

Well, what did happen before the big bang?
Few schoolchildren have failed to frustrate their parents with questions of this sort. It often starts with puzzlement over whether space "goes on forever," or where humans came from, or how the planet Earth formed. In the end, the line of questioning always seems to get back to the ultimate origin of things: the big bang. "But what caused that?"


Children grow up with an intuitive sense of cause and effect. Events in the physical world aren't supposed to "just happen." Something makes them happen. Even when the rabbit appears convincingly from the hat, trickery is suspected. So could the entire universe simply pop into existence, magically, for no actual reason at all?

This simple, schoolchild query has exercised the intellects of generations of philosophers, scientists, and theologians. Many have avoided it as an impenetrable mystery. Others have tried to define it away. Most have got themselves into an awful tangle just thinking about it.
The problem, at rock bottom, is this: If nothing happens without a cause, then something must have caused the universe to appear. But then we are faced with the inevitable question of what caused that something. And so on in an infinite regress. Some people simply proclaim that God created the universe, but children always want to know who created God, and that line of questioning gets uncomfortably difficult.

One evasive tactic is to claim that the universe didn't have a beginning, that it has existed for all eternity. Unfortunately, there are many scientific reasons why this obvious idea is unsound. For starters, given an infinite amount of time, anything that can happen will already have happened, for if a physical process is likely to occur with a certain nonzero probability-however small-then given an infinite amount of time the process must occur, with probability one. By now, the universe should have reached some sort of final state in which all possible physical processes have run their course. Furthermore, you don't explain the existence of the universe by asserting that it has always existed. That is rather like saying that nobody wrote the Bible: it was. just copied from earlier versions. Quite apart from all this, there is very good evidence that the universe did come into existence in a big bang, about fifteen billion years ago. The effects of that primeval explosion are clearly detectable today-in the fact that the universe is still expanding, and is filled with an afterglow of radiant heat.

So we are faced with the problem of what happened beforehand to trigger the big bang. Journalists love to taunt scientists with this question when they complain about the money being spent on science. Actually, the answer (in my opinion) was spotted a long time ago, by one Augustine of Hippo, a Christian saint who lived in the fifth century. In those days before science, cosmology was a branch of theology, and the taunt came not from journalists, but from pagans: "What was God doing before he made the universe?" they asked. "Busy creating Hell for the likes of you!" was the standard reply.

But Augustine was more subtle. The world, he claimed, was made "not in time, but simultaneously with time." In other words, the origin of the universe-what we now call the big bang-was not simply the sudden appearance of matter in an eternally preexisting void, but the coming into being of time itself. Time began with the cosmic origin. There was no "before," no endless ocean of time for a god, or a physical process, to wear itself out in infinite preparation.

Remarkably, modern science has arrived at more or less the same conclusion as Augustine, based on what we now know about the nature of space, time, and gravitation. It was Albert Einstein who taught us that time and space are not merely an immutable arena in which the great cosmic drama is acted out, but are part of the cast-part of the physical universe. As physical entities, time and space can change- suffer distortions-as a result of gravitational processes. Gravitational theory predicts that under the extreme conditions that prevailed in the early universe, space and time may have been so distorted that there existed a boundary, or "singularity," at which the distortion of space-time was infinite, and therefore through which space and time cannot have continued. Thus, physics predicts that time was indeed bounded in the past as Augustine claimed. It did not stretch back for all eternity.

If the big bang was the beginning of time itself, then any discussion about what happened before the big bang, or what caused it-in the usual sense of physical causation-is simply meaningless. Unfortunately, many children, and adults, too, regard this answer as disingenuous. There must be more to it than that, they object.

Indeed there is. After all, why should time suddenly "switch on"? What explanation can be given for such a singular event? Until recently, it seemed that any explanation of the initial "singularity" that marked the origin of time would have to lie beyond the scope of science. However, it all depends on what is meant by "explanation." As I remarked, all children have a good idea of the notion of cause and effect, and usually an explanation of an event entails finding something that caused it. It turns out, however, that there are physical events which do not have well-defined causes in the manner of the everyday world. These events belong to a weird branch of scientific inquiry called quantum physics.

Mostly, quantum events occur at the atomic level; we don't experience them in daily life. On the scale of atoms and molecules, the usual commonsense rules of cause and effect are suspended. The rule of law is replaced by a sort of anarchy or chaos, and things happen spontaneously-for no particular reason. Particles of matter may simply pop into existence without warning, and then equally abruptly disappear again. Or a particle in one place may suddenly materialize in another place, or reverse its direction of motion. Again, these are real effects occurring on an atomic scale, and they can be demonstrated experimentally.

A typical quantum process is the decay of a radioactive nucleus. If you ask why a given nucleus decayed at one particular moment rather than some other, there is no answer. The event "just happened" at that moment, that's all. You cannot predict these occurrences. All you can do is give the probability-there is a fifty-fifty chance that a given nucleus will decay in, say, one hour. This uncertainty is not simply a result of our ignorance of all the little forces and influences that try to make the nucleus decay; it is inherent in nature itself, a basic part of quantum reality.

The lesson of quantum physics is this: Something that "just happens" need not actually violate the laws of physics. The abrupt and uncaused appearance of something can occur within the scope of scientific law, once quantum laws have been taken into account. Nature apparently has the capacity for genuine spontaneity.
It is, of course, a big step from the spontaneous and uncaused appearance of a subatomic particle-something that is routinely observed in particle accelerators-to the spontaneous and uncaused appearance of the universe. But the loophole is there. If, as astronomers believe, the primeval universe was compressed to a very small size, then quantum effects must have once been important on a cosmic scale. Even if we don't have a precise idea of exactly what took place at the beginning, we can at least see that the origin of the universe from nothing need not be unlawful or unnatural or unscientific. In short, it need not have been a supernatural event.

Inevitably, scientists will not be content to leave it at that. We would like to flesh out the details of this profound concept. There is even a subject devoted to it, called quantum cosmology. Two famous quantum cosmologists, James Hartle and Stephen Hawking, came up with a clever idea that goes back to Einstein. Einstein not only found that space and time are part of the physical universe; he also found that they are linked in a very intimate way. In fact, space on its own and time on its own are no longer properly valid concepts. Instead, we must deal with a unified "space-time" continuum. Space has three dimensions, and time has one, so space-time is a four-dimensional continuum.

In spite of the space-time linkage, however, space is space and time is time under almost all circumstances. Whatever space-time distortions gravitation may produce, they never turn space into time or time into space. An exception arises, though, when quantum effects are taken into account. That all-important intrinsic uncertainty that afflicts quantum systems can be applied to space-time, too. In this case, the uncertainty can, under special circumstances, affect the identities of space and time. For a very, very brief duration, it is possible for time and space to merge in identity, for time to become, so to speak, spacelike-just another dimension of space.

The spatialization of time is not something abrupt; it is a continuous process. Viewed in reverse as the temporalization of (one dimension of) space, it implies that time can emerge out of space in a continuous process. (By continuous, I mean that the timelike quality of a dimension, as opposed to its spacelike quality, is not an all-or-nothing affair; there are shades in between. This vague statement can be made quite precise mathematically.)

The essence of the Hartle-Hawking idea is that the big bang was not the abrupt switching on of time at some singular first moment, but the emergence of time from space in an ultrarapid but nevertheless continuous manner. On a human time scale, the big bang was very much a sudden, explosive origin of space, time, and matter. But look very, very closely at that first tiny fraction of a second and you find that there was no precise and sudden beginning at all. So here we have a theory of the origin of the universe that seems to say two contradictory things: First, time did not always exist; and second, there was no first moment of time. Such are the oddities of quantum physics.
He never heard of M-theory? Click to see

Even with these further details thrown in, many people feel cheated. They want to ask why these weird things happened, why there is a universe, and why this universe. Perhaps science cannot answer such questions. Science is good at telling us how, but not so good on the why. Maybe there isn't a why. To wonder why is very human, but perhaps there is no answer in human terms to such deep questions of existence. Or perhaps there is, but we are looking at the problem in the wrong way.

Well, I didn't promise to provide the answers to life, the universe, and everything, but I have at least given a plausible answer to the question I started out with: What happened before the big bang?
The answer is: Nothing.

PAUL DAVIES is a theoretical physicist and professor of natural philosophy at the University of Adelaide. He has published over one hundred research papers in the fields of cosmology, gravitation, and quantum field theory, with particular emphasis on black holes and the origin of the universe. He is also interested in the nature of time, high-energy particle physics, the foundations of quantum mechanics, and the theory of complex systems. He runs a research group in quantum gravity which is currently investigating superstrings, cosmic strings, higher-dimensional black holes, and quantum cosmology. Davies is well known as an author, broadcaster, and public lecturer. He has written over twenty books, ranging from specialist textbooks to popular books for the general public. Among his better-known works are God and the New Physics; Superforce; The Cosmic Blueprint; and The Mind God. His most recent books are The Last Three Minutes and It's About Time. He was described by the Washington Times as "the best science writer on either side of the Atlantic." He likes to focus on the deep questions of existence, such as how the universe came into existence and how it will end, the nature of human consciousness, the possibility of time travel, the relationship between physics and biology, the status of the laws of physics, and the interface of science and religion.

One's the big bang,one's a tiny atom

How it all began:
This is a representation of the Big Bang,according to scientists

Miniscule made massive:
This is a representation of an atom at the Museum of Science and Industry

TO the untrained eye, the two big images on this page might look similar.
But they're very different. The black one is an atom and the red one is the Big Bang - the moment that scientists believe created the universe.
They are just two of the remarkable images on display at a new exhibition in the city. The big bang is an image of cosmic background radiation. The atom is a computer simulation of its interior.
The exhibition - showing only at The Museum of Science and Industry and museums in Beijing and Shanghai - is the creation of Max Planck Society Germany a world-renowned research organisation. Youngsters can take a virtual journey to other planets, to see the sources of disease and even step inside the human brain just by walking through a tunnel.
The Big Bang and the smallest particles can be viewed by walking through the 12 sections of the tunnel opened by Tomorrow's World presenter Katie Knapman, this week.
On Show: A drop of water

Max Planck Society is sharing the sights they have seen with the Manchester public. Images of the micro world of the body and macro world of the cosmos are not available with-out the aid of costly and complicated technical equipment and the exhibition reveals these unique views and previously hidden worlds.
Inside the 170m long tunnel visitors can zoom in to examine the micro world of proteins, enzymes and cells inside the human body before seeing the bigger picture and the creation of the universe, thanks to cutting-edge scientific research and up-to the-minute technology.
The exhibition will not be shown anywhere else in the UK. Bob Scott, acting museum director, said, "This is a spectacular attraction that is both exciting and thought-provoking. Video projections and science sound present a unique learning experience.
"What makes it really special is that it lets everyone see amazing images of the world which are normally reserved for the eyes of top scientists."
The tunnel is divided into 12 areas, including the nervous system, from gene to organism, the solar system and how ecosystems develop. Each sections shows a new dimension in scientific investigation. It is hoped that the exhibition will help people explore their lives.
Dr Andreas Trepte, project manager for the Science Tunnel, said: "The Science Tunnel is much more than a one-time display window instead it is designed to inform the public, especially pupils and students, about the new dimensions into which scientists are moving and what they are discovering there." Rachel Broady
[Metro News November 22,2002 ]

THE truth is out there... presenter Michael Dempster at the new planetarium

Dome's day to be star draw

THE night sky above Manchester will never look the same again once a new state-of-the-art planetarium opens in the city.
The Museum of Science & Industry will next month launch its latest attraction - a purpose -built planetarium, which will host live shows six times a week.
Up to30 people will be able to sit inside the six-metre wide dome at the Castlefield site and will be given commentary about the latest developments in the universe.
Specially trained presenters will high-light recent cosmic events and the latest news from space exploration. They will explain star colours, highlight constellations that can he seen and reveal how to find them. The images of 2,800 stars are shown by a projector in the dome and are updated constantly.
Julia Riley education and interpretation officer at the museum, said: "The planetarium is a really exciting -attraction."
Shows will take place every Wednesday Saturday and Sunday throughout August at 11.30am and 2.30pm. The show will be £1.50 for adults and £1 all concessions. An exhibition entitled Destination Mars runs from September 27 to January 18.
[MEN July 25 2003]
Blaise Tapp

Dear Ed,

Thankyou for printing my response to Mr Robishaw about the big-bang. Please could I extend the same invite to Rachel Tomniak who thinks science is mistaken for leaving out God,clearly, she is in need of even more help than Mr Robishaw. At least Mr Robishaw is curious about the explanation,Rachel only seems to have read one book.

I have only just read D Pearce's letter about the Big Bang [Feb5] where he tells us "I am not a scientist and read very little on such matters",and then maintains that "everything recycles itself" and that "looking for a beginning is pointless". Mr Pearce falls foul of the idea that because we witness cause and effect in our reality, that it necessarily applies to atoms. The fact is, it does not, and in the world of the atom simple cause and effect do not apply,if he had read more than a little on the subject he would know this. If it had been left to Mr Pearce,the whole of modern electronics would not exist,as it is based on this knowledge of the atom,and it would have been rendered "pointless". It is only because scientists have "looked for a beginning" that we have the society we have today and as B Kitchen correctly stated, there is a theory of endless contraction and expansion which, contrary to a contributor to the METRO suggested, are not "made up" theories. I suggest D Pearce take the advice I gave D Robishaw - come to the library and find out the facts.

The Pureness of Being Rachel Tomniak
Model describes universe with no big bang, no beginning, and no end

Note that I take exception to Alison's assertion that science and religion are not mutually exclusive  - they are in fact very much so. Religion is personal faith and does not require verification by evidence. Science very much requires verification. The two things are entirely different and should not meet under any circumstances.The letter from Rachel Tomniak is my evidence that they should not meet.
If you want more try here or here.

Looking back to the birth of light

What kind of bang was the big bang?

What kind of bang was the big bang?

Before the Big Bang

What kind of bang was the big bang?

Why Anything?

What kind of bang was the big bang?

Surprise Theory of Everything What kind of bang was the big bang?
Quantum Shadows What kind of bang was the big bang?

How I knew that your article on the universe would start a flurry of flustered first causers to write letters. Do these people not understand that if the universe needs a first cause then so does a deity? And if he is timeless and does not need a cause,neither does the universe?

The fact is that quantum physics allows for the universe not needing any first cause,so God is defunct. He is merely the wishful thinking of people who do not understand sub-atomic physics. If God is merely the button pusher of natural law then he isn't God.

Science and religion are mutually exclusive.

Further Reading

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How Things Are: A Science Toolkit for the Mind
Edited by John Brockman and Katinka Matson





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