What came before the big bang?


From the article:

Contrary to popular belief, it is not the explosive dispersal of
galaxies from a common center into the depths of a limitless void.


Again, I must stress that the speck from which space emerges is not
located in anything. It is not an object surrounded by emptiness.

This is pretty mind-blowing, but then, so is much of science. I’m pretty nerdy and relatively scientifically-literate, but it was only a few years ago that I properly understood this. And you know who I blame? Well, the name doesn’t help, but we’re kind of stuck with that. But, at least Our Best Science Explainers will help, right? Nope. Watch this:

Gah! Did you see that? Big explosion in black space! And that’s from the new Neil deGrasse Tyson Cosmos! If he can’t get it right, no wonder no one understands this incredibly crucial point.

Or here’s one from NASA:


Pretty much the only visualization I’ve seen which even tries to get it right is this from Minute Physics:

C’mon everyone else.


Exactly! that really irks me too, more often than not the explanations and examples I am given of the big bang show the universe expanding from a single point, even descriptions of all the matter in the universe existing in something the size of a pin head or marble or something until the big bang. Why do I keep seeing these explanations if there are, well, completely false?


I think this is one of the main ideas that the article is arguing against. Apparently one of the big misunderstandings is the idea that the universe expanded from a single point. It didn’t.


Yes the Big Bang is just a theory, but it explains a lot of experimental data across a wide variety of experiment types - cosmic background radiation, abundance of elements, the expansion of space, and others. So the not a bad theory actually is supported by more than your trifling set of data. We can observe back to almost 14 billion years in the past, those objects are now 46 billion years away from us. I’ll admit, that we have only been observing for 30,000 years, or 5000 years or 100 years depending on which instruments and recording methods you like. And then this theory can support or disrupt the other theories of physics that connect to it and from which we can make useful predictions.

I liked Max Tagmark’s book, Our Mathematical Universe, (review) as one scientists viewpoint of some of these questions. He tells of trying to break the theory over and over again to match the observed experiments, and problems with the experiments and observations as well.

All the Mark Twain quote does is remind us to be careful of extrapolations of theories beyond their usefulness or when the facts disprove the theory. His example is obvious to him and to everyone else. I will take a posse of astrophysicists over Mark Twain to explain the universe any day. I tried to read the quote as Hal Holbrook but ended up sounding like Brent Spiner on that one Star Trek episode. Both sounded like crotchety old men.


GAH!! Stop conflating Theory with an educated guess. And no, I will not explain such a basic concept

With that outburst aside, the very fact we are having these conversations is the most absurd, sublime, and mind bending concept I can conceive of.


If the big bang is ‘just a theory’ then I hope the anvil that I lob–according to the Theory of Gravity–doesnt hit the coyote.

Seriously, the BB crowd is very well educated. Stop conflating scientific Theories with what lay people call theories. It is embarrassing.


In the beginning, there was nothing. Then God said “Let there be light!” And there was still nothing, only now you could see it.


You do understand that I was using “just a theory” sarcastically to Glitch. I hope I can join you on the same side of your aggravation and I am attempting to not contribute to it. Then again joining things and having lay people and non lay people sounds like an in-group out-group thing. I’d just like the benefit of a doubt.


The big fuse and a rather large match?


i apologize, that one slipped my sarcasm filter. i appreciate the civil response and valid criticism of my… err… response. :slight_smile:


The Big Bang theory does indeed correlate with a lot of data, but in fact most other alternative theories, including String Theory, the Multiverse and MoND (which is getting a serious look-in lately) also include the CMBR, expansion and abundance of matter. The Big Bang is not singular in this.
And in order to explain inflation we also have to invoke both dark matter and dark energy, both of which are still placeholders in the mathematical model.
The big bang is a good theory, but it’s not a theory in the same way that gravity or evolution is a theory. It’s not yet a given, but works well enough until we manage to crack the big questions (dark energy/matter, and the unification of the four forces).


I regret that I don’t remember where I read this, but: while pondering how something could come from nothing, one thinker asked “If there is absolutely nothing, what would prevent something from coming into existence?”

My personal suspicion is that everything that can exist does exist in a collection of universes. But what defines all that can possibly exist? The set of all sets of rules that produce a physically coherent universe? Now you’re considering something that exists apart from the big bang (though not “before” it, or “outside” it), and where did it come from? At least an abstract set of rules defining what is possible lifts things out of the morass of space and time.

One of my favourite scenes from Futurama is when they reach the end of the universe and find themselves looking out on the other universe. Fry: “So it’s true! There are multiple universes!” Prof. Farnsworth: “No, just the two.”


Well, I’m not sure if this is a good analogy, but a sparkler is just a small wooden stick with some grey stuff coated on it until someone lights it.

Add to that that a human being is just a collection of atoms that have come together in a completely random manner pretty much just by chance, and that if each atom in his/her body were simultaneously split in a nuclear fission, the resulting explosion would probably vaporize the Earth and everything solid around it for about 100,000 miles.

But don’t quote me.

Similarly, if you view the Big Bang as erupting from the point of a cone that gets ever smaller until it reaches a point that’s infinitely small (in other words, just keeps getting smaller and smaller infinitely – without end --) then perhaps one can wrap one’s mind around what there was “before” the Big Bang; namely a point that keeps getting smaller no matter from where you measure it.


As to the “If there is absolutely nothing, what would prevent something from coming into existence.” I would like to entertain that thought for a moment. It’s an interesting idea, but I think it’s strange to frame existence as being something that could have been ‘prevented’. I think you could just as easily ask “if there was absolutely nothing, then what conditions gave rise to existence?” I think the idea still just reinforces “why something rather than nothing” as the most profound question I can think of.

I do like that futurama quote!


I fail to see how my lack of detailed analysis of the full theory has any relevevance on the fact that the theory is based entirely on a single vantage point in space and time.

I am not an astrophysicist and I do not have an informed understanding of the full intricacies of the theory. But I do understand that we’re trying to make sense of things that are mind bogglingly huge and complex with only an incredibly small set of data.

I don’t believe any human can speak with any degree of true certainty on the origins of the universe. We can observe the available data, and we can build theories from that data to explain things, but it is vital to realize just how much relevant data we actually lack - how comparatively feeble our theoretical basis really is compared to the vastness of space.


I believe I came across some pondering of this while reading Charlotte’s Web to my kids last night:

“What do you mean less than nothing? I don’t think there is any such thing as less than nothing. Nothing is absolutely the limit of nothingness. It’s the lowest you can go. It’s the end of the line. How can something be less than nothing? If there were something that was less than nothing, then nothing would not be nothing, it would be something - even though it’s just a very little bit of something. But if nothing is nothing, then nothing has nothing that is less than it is.”


I’m not arguing with your larger point either. I was just pointing out a fundamental misunderstanding that the article we are discussing specifically addresses. I can sympathize with the idea that we’re trying to make large conclusions from a very limited perspective.


I guess I negated my whole argument when I said the above. Of course, nothing ever “reaches” any point because there is no point to reach. But to understand this, one must reconcile that anything that exists in our physical universe (one of the multiverses) will always have something that is smaller than it, just as anything that is “big” will theoretically always having something bigger than it – in this sense, our universe is for all intents and purposes, infinite. At least for us. There are many groups of human beings to whom the concept of anything past the number of their fingers is just “many” and trying to explain otherwise would be a waste of . . err, time and energy.

I suppose it’s like the hotel with an infinite number of rooms. Of course, you’ll be wanting a room that’s close to the elevators. And room service would be a nightmare.


A lightning bolt?


I agree. Even physicists say that sometimes their conclusions are just as maddening to them as they are to a lay person, and of course, one to whom this was apparently the most maddening was Einstein himself. And if Einstein had a hard time with some of this stuff, what chance do WE have trying to figure it out?

If you look at it that way, then you can’t really call religious people “wrong,” as unfortunate as that conclusion might be. There may very well be a large bearded man watching over everything we do all the time, under our beds and between the grooves in our pine floors, just as there might be four supreme beings betting on what we’re going to do next with Quatloos. If you’re prepared to accept that the universe erupted from a point that is infinitely small and that before that, there wasn’t even nothing, then Large Bearded Men flinging plagues of locusts on people from afar is actually not such a big stretch.