Recently, a well known physical scientist made the following comment in an article he wrote: “Everyone knows about the Big Bang. (Well, almost everyone. I receive several e-mails a month from people who simply cannot believe that all existence began as a tiny pinprick).” I took certain umbrage at that since it seemed to imply that if you didn’t accept the ‘tiny pinprick’ you were scientifically illiterate and that the Big Bang (as a tiny pinprick) event was somehow set in stone.
So I sent him one more email to add to his collection that disputes the ‘tiny pinprick’ version of the Big Bang.
But first, that standard model of the Big Bang suggests that the origin of our Universe was such that not only was all matter and related energy created at that point in time, but that time and space itself were created then. First there was nothing; then there was something; and the transition between the two was something akin to a pinprick of stuff in size popping out of the never-never that rapidly expanded until, 13.7 billion years later the Universe is the now massive size that it is with all the stuff that it contains.
However, I’ll first note that this standard model of cosmology’s origin of our Universe, the Big Bang event (as a tiny pinprick), isn’t universally accepted by all cosmologists. There are many variations on the Big Bang ‘tiny pinprick’ origin theme, from two branes colliding (technically called the Ekpyrotic Universe which is the string theory version – and it’s hardly a pinprick scenario); to an origin via quantum fluctuations arising out of the vacuum energy (which is an alternative pinprick scenario); variations of the Steady State theory of cosmology still kick around which postulates our Universe had no beginning and will have no end (obviously no pinprick there); to (and this is my favorite) the contraction of a previous universe that resulted in a Big Crunch which so warped space and time that the contraction inverted itself back into an expansion and thus kick-starting our Universe (which also wouldn’t be a pinprick event IMHO). So, I sort of object when the standard pinprick model Big Bang event is put forth by people (such as the above physical scientist) as something set in concrete.
As to that pinprick itself, take a tiny pinprick (equivalent to the physics term ‘quantum’) object of very high, but finite density (on the grounds that it is ridiculous to have a zero dimensional object with infinite density – say a Black Hole’s singularity as so often portrayed, but equally applicable to the standard Big Bang concept). If you keep adding stuff to a pinprick sized singularity, the volume might remain constant for a while, while the density keeps increasing, but because density can not ever equal infinity, that progression has to stop somewhere. When it does, the volume of the pinprick singularity has to increase and eventually increase beyond the realm of the pinprick sized the equates to all things quantum. The proof of that pudding as if any were needed is that, if you add stuff to a Black Hole (with its three dimensional ‘solid’ singularity centre and finite density) you get a bigger Black Hole. The singularity inside must have grown a bit. If it keeps on growing, it will eventually grow past the realm of the pinprick quantum. Anyway, it’s that ‘beyond the realm of the quantum’ that I see as the real Big Bang ‘singularity’ or whatever you wish to call it (to be honest I still like the term coined by Ralph Alpher and George Gamow in the late 40′s – ‘Ylem’ – their term for the sort of cosmic egg our Universe started out from).
Now cosmologists can’t observe any closer back in time than to about 380,000 years after the Big Bang event. It’s only then that electromagnetic radiation (i.e. – that which enables us to observe) was able to escape through the expanding and cooling plasma soup, in much the same way that a photon (the particle associated with electromagnetic radiation) at the core of our Sun takes a very, very long time to work its way up to the Sun’s surface, but once there, it shoots off into space quick-smart. Thus, as far as cosmologists are concerned, anything prior to 380,000 years post Big Bang is beyond the realm of observation and hence pure theory – mathematical equations that may have bugger all to do with an accurate reflection of what’s what.
The General Relativity equations that govern the Big Bang event break down at the presumed pinprick quantum level. Or, the equations covering quantum pinprick sized events break down under extreme gravity; two sides of the same coin. That’s because General Relativity covers gravity, and gravity is a continuous force. That is, you can have this value of gravity, or that value of gravity, and all values in-between. However, pinprick sized quantum events are not continuous. You can have this value, or that value, but only selected values in-between, if any. A useful analogy is a book. You have the first page, through to say page 100, but while you can have page 50, you can’t have page 49.5 or page 50.1 or page 99.9. Put another way, when it comes to gravity, you can be half-pregnant; in quantum physics, it’s either this or that, no half-pregnancies allowed.
Translated, gravity and pinprick quantum events can not be meshed. What ones needs is a theory of quantum gravity to adequately come to terms with the sort of extreme gravitational conditions coupled with the extremely tiny sizes that the standard model of cosmology puts forth. Alas, there is no theory yet to hand of quantum gravity despite the best efforts over many decades by the finest intellects in theoretical physics. So, there’s no actual meshing between the quantum and gravity and thus I suggest perhaps that in actual reality, gravitational (General Relativity) and quantum equations, well they break down well in advance of the extreme Big Bang conditions so postulated by the standard model, losing all semblance of accuracy. Equations are ultimately theoretical representations and don’t always reflect Mother Nature’s reality, especially when they push the boundaries of the envelope, and the conditions postulated at the time of the Big Bang certainly do push the envelope.
As to those theoretical equations, General Relativity, quantum or otherwise, and the faith some physical scientists put in them, well let’s just point out that the history of physics is littered with discrepancies between theory (the equations) and reality (the observations). An obvious example is the value of the vacuum energy – theory has it as 120 orders of magnitude greater than experimental observation! You don’t have to understand the ins and outs of what the vacuum energy is; the important point is the massive discrepancy between the equations and the reality. Then there was the ‘ultraviolet catastrophe’ where classical equations totally failed to explain certain phenomena by their prediction of logically absolute nonsense, which ultimately resulted questioning those classical equations resulting in the beginnings of the transition of classical physics to quantum mechanics in order to come to terms with that classical failure. But, speaking of quantum mechanics, that field is also full of sleight-of-hand parlor tricks like renormalization to deal with the many variations of infinities that kept cropping up in the solutions to the newly formed quantum equations. You could fill entire books on things that were once considered impossible because the equations said so, yet are now commonplace, like breaking the sound barrier. So, I just don’t put that much faith in what equations predict in the absence of any observational backup.
Now the evidence for a Big Bang event (which happened way before anyone was around to actually observe it and take measurements) rests with observations billions of years after the fact. Observations strongly suggest that our Universe is expanding. It is increasing in volume. So, what happens when you run the expanding Universe clock backwards? The Universe would be getting smaller and smaller. Take that to its logical extreme and you end up with the Universe having to start out as a massive (extreme gravity) object crammed down to a pinprick in size. But, should one take that running the clock backwards to such an extreme, or should one stop well short of that?
Now by analogy, one can think of blowing up a balloon and calculate the expanding mathematical relationships. Then one can run those equations backward – a contracting balloon. But it would be wrong to extrapolate backwards to where the contracting balloon becomes a dimensionless point (or at least a quantum sized tiny pinprick), though you could have of course done it – in theory. But, it would be a case of where theory wouldn’t reflect reality.
One obvious standard model proof-of-the-pudding tactic is to try to get closer than 380,000 years after the actual time of the Big Bang event in order to sort out what’s what. Now the detection of gravitational waves could narrow that post Big Bang interval to a time way closer to the event itself. However, the technical challenges are quite considerable and downright daunting. While that hasn’t stopped scientists from trying to detect the gravitational waves that would have been part and parcel of the Big Bang event, translated, don’t hold your breath waiting for immediate results, but please do stay tuned.
One other bit of evidence that points towards the relatively pinprick micro-origin to our Universe is the concept of ‘inflation’ – that’s a super-sudden ultra-extra expansion oomph to our Big Bang event. While that concept of ‘inflation’ helps solve many cosmological problems, from magnetic monopoles (the lack thereof) to the overall flatness of the cosmos, some cosmologists consider ‘inflation’ a bit of an ad hoc add-on, and also that there is no such thing as THE inflation model, rather there are several versions floating around, each with their own champions. Thus, ‘inflation’ is not proof-positive that the standard model is the be-all-and-end-all. If it were, the textbooks would be definitive and cosmologists would be out of a job. The textbooks are not definitive and cosmologists remain gainfully employed. The standard model of the pinprick Big Bang remains the leading contender, but it’s not the only game in town. I’m playing a different game!
Personally I think that anyone who believes based on pure abstract mathematical theory that the observable universe, far less our entire Universe can be squeezed into a volume or space that’s atomic sized or less (i.e. – that pinprick) is living in cloud cuckoo-land. Now readers well versed in cosmology have got to believe what they’ve got to believe, but I see no compelling evidence that the Big Bang was an actual quantum pinprick event. It was far more likely to have been, IMHO, a macro event. So, if you don’t go along with the pinprick model, I personally don’t consider you scientifically illiterate.
In summation, the origin of the Universe is still a very fluid one and I’ll bet dimes to donuts that any similarity between a cosmology textbook published in 2010 will be not only be out of date by 2030, but be viewed as quaintly as Lowell’s books on the canals of Mars are today.
Science librarian; retired.
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