Before the Big Bang: The Prehistory of Our Universe

Before the Big Bang: The Prehistory of Our Universe

by Brian Clegg
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Before the Big Bang: The Prehistory of Our Universe by Brian Clegg

According to a recent survey, the most popular question about science from the general public was: what came before the Big Bang? We all know on some level what the Big Bang is, but we don't know how it became the accepted theory, or how we might know what came before. In Before the Big Bang, Brian Clegg (the critically acclaimed author of Upgrade Me and The God Effect) explores the history of this remarkable concept. From the earliest creation myths, through Hershel's realization that the Milky Way was one of many galaxies, to on-going debates about Black Holes, this is an incredible look at the origins of the universe and the many theories that led to the acceptance of the Big Bang. But in classic scientist fashion Clegg challenges the notion of the "Big Bang" itself, and raises the deep philosophical question of why we might want to rethink the origin of the universe. This is popular science at its best, exploratory, controversial, and utterly engrossing.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781429987424
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 08/04/2009
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
File size: 349 KB

About the Author

BRIAN CLEGG is the author of A Brief History of Infinity, The First Scientist: A Life of Roger Bacon, and Light Years: The Extraordinary Story of Mankind's Fascination with Light, and Upgrade Me: Our Search for Human 2.0. He holds a physics degree from Cambridge and has written regular columns, features, and reviews for numerous magazines. He lives in Wiltshire, England, with his wife and two children.

BRIAN CLEGG is the author of Ten Billion Tomorrows, Final Frontier, Extra Sensory, Gravity, How to Build a Time Machine, Armageddon Science, Before the Big Bang, Upgrade Me, and The God Effect among others. He holds a physics degree from Cambridge and has written regular columns, features, and reviews for numerous magazines. He lives in Wiltshire, England, with his wife and two children.

Read an Excerpt



The beginning of things must needs lie in obscurity, beyond the bounds of proof, though within those of conjecture or of analogical inference.

— ASA GRAY (1810–88),

"Darwin on the Origin of Species" (The Atlantic Monthly, July 1860)

Welcome to the universe.

"The universe" is an awesome concept, one that belies the apparent simplicity of the term. It's everything, the whole of what's out there, the sum total of existence. We are part of that whole, yet the vast majority of the time we ignore everything but our own tiny corner of it, the infinitesimal speck that is our planet.

Since intelligent reasoning began, human beings have wondered about what the universe is and from where it came. As we see later, all kinds of possibilities were considered, but it wasn't until the twentieth century that our current widely accepted description of the beginnings of the universe — the Big Bang — was first formulated.

The scientific curiosity that makes us wonder about the universe and where it came from seems to be a natural human trait, although it is often suppressed by peer pressure. All children have a sense of wonder when looking at the world around us. They want to know why and how and what, sometimes asking these questions so frequently that adults are driven to distraction. Sadly it's not cool to be interested in science in your teens, so for many that fascination in what's out there gets pushed to one side. But it's still there, waiting to be uncovered.

There's a good reason for this curiosity. As I describe in my book Upgrade Me, it was our ancestors' ability to see beyond the present, to ask, What if? to realize that one day they would die, that made them push far beyond their natural evolved capabilities. Our curiosity is part of that ability to look beyond the present moment, and it carries good survival benefits. If we hear a noise at night and ask, "Why did that happen? What caused that noise?" we are more likely to spot a threat before it becomes dangerous. We have an urge to look for causes. We don't, as do many animals, take the attitude that "things just happen"; we know that things have causes and seek them out. This urge to discover causality has some interesting consequences when we ask what came before the Big Bang.

If, as some theories suggest, time started along with space at the Big Bang, then the search for a cause is misleading: in this case there isn't a "before" in which the cause could have taken place. Unless you can take your reasoning outside time and space, as is often done in theological solutions to the question, we have a situation without cause. This is a perfectly possible occurrence when dealing with something as extreme as the origin of the universe, but one with which our causality-seeking brains really can't cope.

The Big Bang is the current, most widely accepted explanation for the origin of the universe, although it must be stressed that it is a best guess, not a proven fact. Inspired by the idea that the universe was expanding ( here), the Belgian scientist Georges Lemaître was the first to explicitly mention the idea of the Big Bang (although he didn't call it that). If the universe is getting bigger, as he believed it was, then Lemaître could imagine tracing it back in time, watching it get smaller and smaller until everything was squashed together at the very beginning. This original seed of a universe was originally referred to as a primeval superatom or a cosmic egg.

When I first heard of the Big Bang concept I was dubious about it. In my teens I much preferred the Steady State theory of one of my scientific heroes, Fred Hoyle ( here). I was highly disappointed when Steady State was discarded. It felt like a favorite sports team had just lost the championship. It was all very well to imagine everything coming from this compact form, but two problems nagged at me. Why should that initial supercompact universe begin to expand, when all the matter in the universe was pulled together by gravity? And how could you compress everything there was in the universe — that vast quantity of matter — into such a tiny speck?

Initially Lemaître had a poor reception for his ideas. This could be put down to two personal characteristics: he was Belgian and he was a Catholic priest. It was undoubtedly prejudice, but most people thought nothing more impressive than French fries and good chocolate ever came out of Belgium, and Lemaître's membership of the priesthood didn't stand him in good stead in an increasingly atheistic or agnostic scientific community, and one that was particularly suspicious of the Catholic Church's record on the suppression of scientific and cosmological theories. This was, after all, the same church that had squashed Galileo's exploration of the notion that the Earth moved around the Sun. But Lemaître's cosmic egg was disliked for other reasons.

Lemaître had trained at Cambridge University under the great astronomer Arthur Eddington, and although Eddington was very supportive of Lemaître's ideas on the expansion of the universe, he was less happy about the primeval superatom. It seemed to imply that everything originated in a single point, which would involve a massive change in the nature of the universe. This ran counter to his understanding of physics. Others pointed out that Lemaître's picture of the birth of the universe was suspiciously close to the Bible's idea of creation as described in Genesis. Although science should have no problem with religion, rightly or wrongly scientists are always concerned if a theory seems to be inspired by a religious concept.

Fred Hoyle, the champion of the Big Bang's main early rival the Steady State theory, would be the one to give the Big Bang model its name. Until then, what we now call the Big Bang was called the dynamic universe or dynamic evolving model to contrast it with the prevailing idea when the Big Bang first came out of a static unchanging universe. It is generally thought that Hoyle, who first used the name in a popular science radio broadcast on the BBC in 1950, was using the term sarcastically (although he has denied this), but it stuck and has become the accepted name for this dramatic moment of origin of an expanding universe.

In reality, it wouldn't have been too surprising if Hoyle had meant the name as a jibe. After all, if the Big Bang happened, it certainly wasn't big. Lemaître's original version started with a compact superatom containing all matter, whereas the more modern version of the theory has the universe originating from an infinitesimally small point. And it is also often stated that there wouldn't be a bang at all. After all, sound can't travel through empty space. But this complaint about the name is perhaps a little ill-thought through. What space there was at the time was anything but empty; in fact it was packed full of all the matter in the universe, which in principle could have transmitted vibrations corresponding to sound.

That being the case, it's quite possible there was a bang, although of course with no one to hear it, the concept lacks much value. Some cosmologists were against the term "Big Bang" simply because it lacked class (particularly when it was dreamed up by their archrival Hoyle); at the time it was considered unscientific and populist, but to modern ears it is a commonplace. It's a catchy and obvious term. To complain about its triviality when physicists have described particles with properties such as "strangeness" and "charm," and biologists give genes names such as "sonic hedgehog," "grunge," and "INDY" (for "I'm not dead yet," a catch-phrase in Monty Python and the Holy Grail), seems hypocritical.

Other scientists would fill in more of the picture. How could such a tiny speck result in such a huge universe? Where did the atoms come from of which everything is now made? What was there in the beginning? These are all questions to which increasingly sophisticated answers have been provided. But until recently there is one question that has been purposefully ignored. If there was a Big Bang, what came before?

This is a topic that science has traditionally regarded as taboo, out of reach, and impossible to cover. That might seem a shortsighted view, but one of science's strengths is an awareness of its own limitations. If it is impossible to test a theory against data from experiment or observation, then arguably that theory is not science. This is why many people would argue that science and religion have no great intersection, nor any need to attack each other. Science has no remit to comment on religion, nor should religion attempt to shape science. Religious beliefs are by definition taken on faith without scientific evidence. With no way of proving or disproving a belief, there is no point in trying to take a scientific view of it: it's a null case, as far as science is concerned.

This doesn't mean that science has to dismiss religion, simply that scientific methods can't be used to comment on religious dogma. Similarly, it was argued that, if there were a Big Bang at the birth of our universe, it would be idle speculation to ask what came before. As there was no way to see through the Big Bang into the past of the universe, there was no way of distinguishing among the many theories available, whether a mythical creation story or a piece of science fiction.

However, even at its most sober, cosmology is the most speculative of the sciences, and increasingly testable evidence has become available that is providing some suggestions of what may have come before the Big Bang. No longer is this a subject that is kept firmly on the outside of science, and some of the possible answers to the question are mind-boggling.

Before getting a better understanding of what the universe is and where it came from, it is useful to see how our thinking on the origins of everything have evolved. Looking back through time to an earlier age, there would have been no hesitation in answering the question of what came before the beginning. For many cultures this was obvious: the universe was the work of the creator, so what came before was that creator. However, every culture had its own creation story, each with a different proponent and a different modus operandi. Looking back to the early creation myths can give us a better idea of how humanity came to think about the beginning of everything.



For a long time it has been known that the first systems of representations with which men have pictured to themselves the world and themselves were of religious origin. There is no religion that is not a cosmology at the same time that it is a speculation upon divine things.

— EMILE DURKHEIM (1858–1917),

The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (trans. J. W. Swain)

Theories of what came before the beginnings of the universe have been around as long as human beings have been speculating about life, the universe, and everything, an activity that goes back at least 10,000 years and may go much farther.

Broadly, the attempts to explain the origins of the universe fall into three categories: the religious, the philosophical, and the scientific. These first cropped up in that order, but there have been overlaps so that, for instance, there are still widely believed religious explanations in a period when scientific ideas are current.


For many the answer "God made it" is a useful solution to the problem of causality we have if the Big Bang were literally the beginning of time and space. As we have seen, human beings naturally seek causation, so are very uncomfortable with a Big Bang without a cause. However, even children often spot that this isn't really an answer to the philosophical problem. All bringing God into the equation does is shift the causality issue back one level in the hierarchy. They ask, "Yes, but how did God come into being?"

If the answer is, "He was always there," then you have a concept that is no more satisfying in terms of causality than the idea of the universe existing eternally, or springing into being out of nothing with no cause. Note that this doesn't say that either possibility is wrong. I am merely pointing out that "God made it" doesn't solve the causality issue we have, an issue that arises because our brains are wired to assume everything has a cause.

Go back far enough, and the only ideas of where the universe came from are religious. This reflects a variant on Arthur C. Clarke's famous maxim, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." In this case, it's more, "Anything natural beyond the scope of human conception is indistinguishable from the creation of a god."

We see three broad pictures emerge from the creation myths. Either the universe has always been here and always will be, or it was brought into being out of nothing by a god, or it was brought into being by a god who already inhabited a different universe.


The most familiar creation myths in the West are those that appear in chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis in the Bible. Before looking at these, I need to be clear about what's meant by myth here, as the word is often used now in a way that suggests it is a derogatory term, and it's not. A myth is a story with a purpose. It tells of something with import for our everyday life, usually occurring far in the past or in a distant land. (George Lucas was deliberately indulging in the language of myth when he set Star Wars a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.) The myth uses this exotic setting to explain a universal truth, or to put across an important piece of information in a way that will make it easier to remember and absorb.

Although a good many people believe that the Bible is entirely factual, to suggest that the beginning of Genesis is mythical is not inconsistent with the Bible being the word of God. Most Bible scholars see Genesis as a functional myth, and for it to be so fits with the nature of the Bible as a whole. Very little of this collection of books is history. The Bible contains guidance on how to live, love poetry, songs, and religious instruction, but only a few parts correspond even vaguely to the modern idea of history (and even less with an idea of science).

The New Testament, for instance, although superficially historical, contains major inconsistencies between the different gospels. This didn't matter to the writers of these books, because they weren't intending to write history; they were putting across different aspects of the nature of Jesus Christ and his ministry. We know from the gospels that Jesus often used parables — in effect minimyths — fictional stories with an important point of learning. If the Bible is the word of God as many believe, there is no reason why it too would not contain such illustrative stories, and that is how we ought to see the two descriptions in Genesis of how the world began.

The Jewish people developed their creation myths from earlier Babylonian myths, but with a different intention, changing the form of the stories. The opening of Genesis gives the traditional six-day creation. We begin with the production of the heaven and the earth from nothing; yet to modern eyes confusingly, the Spirit of God moves on the "face of the waters." This reflects a common cosmological idea of the time that everything was created from water, so "the waters" had to have existed before the creation of the universe. Where they came from is not explained.

We then get the introduction of light; the division of the sky from the waters; the division of water and land on the earth; the introduction of plants; the addition of the Sun, Moon, and stars; and finally the introduction of living creatures and humanity. This myth explains God's role as creator, a wholly different function from the subsequent Garden of Eden myth, which is historically incompatible with the first creation story as it puts the creation of man in advance of the animals. This second myth's function is to explain both our role of stewardship on the Earth and the nature of sin.

As it happens, the creation of light before the Sun and the stars, which seemed to early scientists a particularly strange aspect of the Genesis story, does have a reasonable match with current scientific theories. As we see later, it is now thought that the universe was full of light long before any stars were formed. However, to chalk this up as an accurate account in Genesis once more misses the point. The myth's function is not that of science text or literal history.

With this in mind, it becomes much easier to cope with both the diversity and the strangeness of many of the creation myths found around the world. Yes, they can't all be "right" as a scientific description of the beginning, and some of them seem much less likely than the Genesis version to a modern ear, but they were never intended to be an accurate description of real occurrences.


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Copyright © 2009 Brian Clegg.
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