The Myth of the Beginning of Time

Whenever a True Believer™ shows up here at SEB with the intent of convincing me of the error of my lack of faith in the existence of God(s) they invariably end up trying to use my acceptance of scientific explanations for reality against me by resorting to many of the classical Big Questions that science hasn’t been able to answer yet. Questions like: “Where did the Universe come from? Something can’t come from nothing.” 

I’m a fan of Occam’s razor so my reply is pretty simple: Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity has shown us that energy can’t be created or destroyed, but it can change form (E=mc2). Logically then the energy that makes up the Universe must have always existed in one form or another. Being that this explanation removes the need for a God of some sort to snap his fingers and create something from nothing (an irony considering the oft-repeated insistence that something from nothing is impossible) it ends up never being received well by the person who asked the question. Most commonly I get asked the nonsensical follow-up question: “How could the energy have always been there if there was nothing before the Big Bang?” Which just shows how poorly the concepts of “always” and “nothing” are grasped by these people.

However this isn’t to say that my simple explanation isn’t without its own problems under the traditional Big Bang theory as taught in most High Schools. According to the General Theory of Relativity if you rewind time backwards the Universe collapses down into a gravitational singularity where the density of the Universe is such that the curvature of space-time are infinite and the rules of classical physics break down. Certainly it’s possible that a dot of infinitely compressed energy could exist for eternity, but then what would cause it to suddenly explode outward and become the Universe as we know it today? As classical physics is useless in such a situation it’s unclear how a Big Bang could even be possible. This is the Big Bang model most folks remember from High School and unless you went on to take more advanced course in college (or just read a lot of books on the subject like I do) you might not be aware that this model doesn’t take into account quantum effects which could provide some of the answers to this problem. Even then the basic model assumes that there wasn’t “anything” prior to the Big Bang other than the energy itself and that time began with the Big Bang. We don’t really know if it’s possible for there to have been anything pre-Big Bang or for certain that the energy has always existed and there are several alternate theories that eliminate the idea of a Big Bang altogether.

So my simple explanation is logically sound, but it still leaves quite a few tough questions yet to be addressed. As a result anytime there’s news about cosmological research on the topic it always catches my interest and the folks at Scientific American just printed a doozy of an article called The Myth of the Beginning of Time which takes a look at what recent advances in String Theory has to say about the Big Bang and whether or not there was something pre-Big Bang:

String theory suggests that the big bang was not the origin of the universe but simply the outcome of a preexisting state.

One of the assumptions—that relativity theory is always valid—is questionable. Close to the putative singularity, quantum effects must have been important, even dominant. Standard relativity takes no account of such effects, so accepting the inevitability of the singularity amounts to trusting the theory beyond reason. To know what really happened, physicists need to subsume relativity in a quantum theory of gravity. The task has occupied theorists from Einstein onward, but progress was almost zero until the mid-1980s.

Today two approaches stand out. One, going by the name of loop quantum gravity, retains Einstein’s theory essentially intact but changes the procedure for implementing it in quantum mechanics [see “Atoms of Space and Time,” by Lee Smolin; Scientific American, January]. Practitioners of loop quantum gravity have taken great strides and achieved deep insights over the past several years. Still, their approach may not be revolutionary enough to resolve the fundamental problems of quantizing gravity. A similar problem faced particle theorists after Enrico Fermi introduced his effective theory of the weak nuclear force in 1934. All efforts to construct a quantum version of Fermi’s theory failed miserably. What was needed was not a new technique but the deep modifications brought by the electroweak theory of Sheldon L. Glashow, Steven Wein-berg and Abdus Salam in the late 1960s.

The second approach, which I consider more promising, is string theory—a truly revolutionary modification of Einstein’s theory. This article will focus on it, although proponents of loop quantum gravity claim to reach many of the same conclusions.

The full article is broken up over seven pages and hits on some concepts of String Theory that I’m still getting my head around, but the basic gist of it all is that under String Theory it appears that there could have been something other than just an infinitely compressed point of energy pre-Big Bang and time itself may actually be eternal. String Theory at least helps to resolve the paradox that crops up in the case of a gravitational singularity as the theory predicts that strings cannot collapse to an infinitesimal point.

There’s still a lot of work to be done on the theory and the amount of experimental data backing it up is small at this time, but if it holds up as cosmologists continue to investigate it then it may not be too long before we can actually answer the question of “What was there before the Big Bang?”

21 thoughts on “The Myth of the Beginning of Time

  1. Nice article. Personally, I subscribe to hyperspace theory and believe that the universe expands and contracts much like a ballon, but that’s just me. The theory itself is simple enough, gravity and the curvature of space forces the fourdimensional universe to collapse in on itself to something probably the plank length thereby destroying any semblance of order and crushing matter into a tiny ball, immeadiately afterward, the six-dimensional region of space begins to expand creating another universe for the process to begin over. Of course, there are many other theories regarding the nature of the universe, but I could write a book about each one so there’s no need to mention them here.

  2. Well, I’ve never gotten further into the matter yet than 2/3rds of Hawkings ‘Brief Illustrated History Of Time’, so I can’t say much about the mathematical or physical validity of such theories. But I sincerely doubt that we will be able to *know* much about the time before the Big Bang in the forseeable future. Refined theories, yes - but those are toppled all the time, to be replaced by better ones (the normal scientific progress - or what my university lecturers would call an iterative process*

    *With those pesky, newly uncovered facts always forcing new research iterations…

    But isn’t it a marvelous thought? I mean, even if we could prove that time existst eternal, what does that MEAN? For us mortals (ESPECIALLY us atheistic mortals), time is something so finite. And now we have such a concept to wrap our head around.

    No beginning or end? Strange. You could look back or forth in that timeline (if its only one) and never come anywhere final.

    A universal ‘time-loop’ would be easier to consider, just as a ring of string is easily understood (and also has no beginning or end). But if its a loop, is there free will? And if its a loop, is there something *outside* of it?

    Yeah, Les, this is fun

  3. I share that same sense of awe and wonder at the ideas being tossed around, Ingolfson, which is why I’m always amused when the faithful try to tell me that without God there’s nothing to experience such emotions over.

  4. Both the loop quantum gravity and the brane intersection theories are HIGHLY interesting.  Both attempt to explain the big bang (as you said) as just another state in a pre-existing system, possibly caused by the “touching” of strings / dimensions.

    Cool beans

    As for the applicability to arguments against religious creationism … I never bought into their specious argument of “Then what caused the universe to exist in the first place?”.  I’ve always believed it’s much more likely to be a natural system than an anthropomorphic diety with a lightning bolt in one hand and a tally sheet in the other.

    “So be good, for goodness sake!”


  5. In his new book, The Fabric of the Cosmos,Brian Greene discusses M and quantum loop gravity theories, he also includes a sections titled Is the Univers a Hologram.

    He observes that: (1)M and QLG are complementary in the sense that one does well in areas where the other doesn’t. (2)That space-time may be granular rather than continous and that QLG may define the fundamental quanta. (3)That he is optimistic about that there will continued succes in unifying theories.

    In earlier chapters, when Greene discusses the big bang and the accelerated big bang cosmologies, he always mentions the fuzzy grey spot at the beginning—as in, we don’t really know what is happening there.

    Are You a Hologram (Quantum physics says the entire universe might be) is on the cover of the Aug 2003 Scientific American.

  6. Great article - I can certinly sympathize with the mind-numbing pain that comes from trying to discuss creation/the nature of reality rationally with someone who is completely brainwashed by religion. 

    I have the Scientific American you reference sitting unread on my coffee table - so many other magazines that capture my time that I’m always behind in my reading. 

    “Discover” is another good one for articles on cosmological theories.  The Feb 2004 issue’s cover story is “What Existed Before the Big Bang” and discusses some brane theories.  Very cool.

  7. Interesting. Have you ever read anything by Kip Thorne? This article is right up the alley of his book Black Holes and Time Warps, which talks about quantum theories, string theories, time travel, etc. Perhaps this book would interest you as much as it interested me (an “infidel” English major in a house of Engineers, har har har).

  8. “shows how poorly the concepts of ‘always’ and ‘nothing’ are grasped by these people”

    Good point. But I think you need to consider yourself as one of “these people”—your perspective changes when you consider a God existent outside of space/time.

  9. Not really. Even if there is the possibility of a God existent outside of space/time that doesn’t mean he’s capable of creating something from nothing. There are many different concepts of God(s).

  10. It means He doesn’t play by our rules.  There are lots of concepts of a lot of different things—doesn’t mean all the concepts are right/true.

  11. Doesn’t mean any of them are right/true, which is the position I take on this particular matter.

    As for playing by our rules, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a God(s) who plays by his own rules let alone ours. The Christian God certainly doesn’t.

  12. It’s funny how lots of people have to justify their own incapability to understand/comprehend that we just can’t tell for sure how the universe was made, with that there HAS to be a god.

    We aren’t all-knowing creatures - we have limits. It doesn’t mean there aren’t answers, it just means we haven’t figured them out yet.

    Atleast that is how I see it - but then again I’m not all-knowing either

  13. That’s pretty much the attitude I have, Gry. I’m always pointing out that of course science doesn’t have all the answers, if it did there wouldn’t be any need to continue scientific research of any kind.

  14. This is an interesting discussion. It sounds like it stemmed from one that I participated in here a few weeks ago. I had some thoughts I would like to share on this train:

    It seems that the vast majority of the people on this

  15. Since “events” ARE natural it seems to me that the “Law of Nature” WILL explain them.

    I’m sure glad we have Jeremy here to tell us what can NEVER be explained - might as well give up now!

  16. Oh, hey, I didn’t even notice Jeremy said something. Silly me. I’ll have to read it later and see if there’s anything there to respond to.

  17. There was a fascinating article just this week on  Some excerpts:
    To get a better understanding of this matter, I thought it might be wise to consult the man who has done more than anyone else to explain how our universe got going. His name is Andrei Linde, and he is a physicist at Stanford University. (He’s also an artist and an acrobat, but never mind.) In the early 1980s, the then-thirtysomething Linde came up with a novel theory of the Big Bang that answered three vexing questions: What banged? Why did it bang? And what was going on before it banged? Linde’s theory, called “chaotic inflation,” explained the shape of space and how galaxies were formed. It also predicted the exact pattern of background radiation from the Big Bang that was observed by the COBE satellite in the 1990s. Linde has been amply honored for his achievement, most recently by being awarded the 2004 Cosmology Prize of the Peter Gruber Foundation (along with Alan Guth, another pioneer of the theory of cosmic inflation).

    Among the many curious implications of Linde’s theory, one stands out for our present purposes: It doesn’t take all that much to create a universe. Resources on a cosmic scale are not required. It might even be possible for someone in a not terribly advanced civilization to cook up a new universe in a laboratory. Which leads to an arresting thought: Could that be how our universe came into being?
    Which do you suppose would be worse from the creationist point of view:  that NOBODY made the universe, or that it was made by a notably mediocre, lame god?

  18. Which do you suppose would be worse from the creationist point of view: that NOBODY made the universe, or that it was made by a notably mediocre, lame god?

    Are we just an Ig Nobel prizewinning cold fusion experiment??? 

    Or maybe God was a pro-evolution, beanie wearing, freethinking techno-geek? 

    Did god ever DM a Dungeons & Dragons game? 

    Makes more sense to me than Creationism.  Intelligent Design?  Well, maybe B average Design…

    I can just hear fundie sphincters ripping the fabric off their chairs…

  19. “your perspective changes when you consider a God existent outside of space/time”
    “It means He doesn’t play by our rules”

    A God existent outside of space/time would by definition be nothing more than a concept.  Doesn’t change my perspective… how about you?
    In any case, existence exists - it wasn’t created.  Unless you accept the contradiction that existence did not always exist.  And if you insist that it couldn’t do so without God spawning it, you’re then left in the awkward position of explaining who made Him.

  20. Personally, I agree with Stephen Weinberg on the issue of God, it should be left from the equation entirely. Most in this particular field of research view God as either merely an afterthought or as an construct so vague that it can be defined however one wants to. Honestly, I’ve read the literature:
    “The Big Bang Never Happened”,
    “Poetry of The Universe”, 
    “A Brief History of Time”,
    “Black Holes & Times Warps”,
    “The Extravagant Universe”,
    and far too many more to even number and whenever I think on it I see no reason for God to be in the equation at all. Quite simply, its as useless a construct as Einstein’s universal constant.

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