The Physics of the Universe - Difficult Topics Made Understandable


Introduction
 
Main Topics
 
Important Dates and Discoveries
 
Important Scientists
 
Cosmological Theories Through History
 
The Universe By Numbers
 
Glossary of Terms
 
A Few Random Facts
 
Sources

 
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Main Topics: The Big Bang and the Big Crunch

INTRODUCTION

Topic Index:

Most scientists now believe that we live in a finite expanding universe which has not existed forever, and that all the matter, energy and space in the universe was once squeezed into an infinitesimally small volume, which erupted in a cataclysmic "explosion" which has become known as the Big Bang.

Thus, space, time, energy and matter all came into being at an infinitely dense, infinitely hot gravitational singularity, and began expanding everywhere at once. Current best estimates are that this occurred some 13.7 billion years ago, although you may sometimes see estimates of anywhere between 11 and 18 billion years.

The Big Bang is usually considered to be a theory of the birth of the universe, although technically it does not exactly describe the origin of the universe, but rather attempts to explain how the universe developed from a very tiny, dense state into what it is today. It is just a model to convey what happened and not a description of an actual explosion, and the Big Bang was neither Big (in the beginning the universe was incomparably smaller than the size of a single proton), nor a Bang (it was more of a snap or a sudden inflation).

The Big Bang and the expansion of the universe - click for larger version
(Click for a larger version)
The Big Bang and the expansion of the universe
(Source: HETDEX: http://hetdex.org/dark_energy/index.php)

In fact, “explosion” is really just an often-used analogy and is slightly misleading in that it conveys the image that the Big Bang was triggered in some way at some particular centre. In reality, however, the same pattern of expansion would be observed from anywhere in the universe, so there is no particular location in our present universe which could claim to be the origin.

It really describes a very rapid expansion or stretching of space itself rather than an explosion in pre-existing space. Perhaps a better analogy sometimes used to describe the even expansion of galaxies throughout the universe is that of raisins baked in a cake becoming more distant from each other as the cake rises and expands, or alternatively of a balloon inflating.

Neither does it attempt to explain what initiated the creation of the universe, or what came before the Big Bang, or even what lies outside the universe. All of this is generally considered to be outside the remit of physics, and more the concern of philosophy. Given that time and space as we understand it began with the Big Bang, the phase “before the Big Bang” is as meaningless as “north of the North Pole”.

Therefore, to those who claim that the very idea of a Big Bang violates the First Law of Thermodynamics (also known as the Law of Conservation of Energy) that matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed, proponents respond that the Big Bang does not address the creation of the universe, only its evolution, and that, as the laws of science break down anyway as we approach the creation of the universe, there is no reason to believe that the First Law of Thermodynamics would apply.

The cosmological principle is supported by pictures of different parts of the universe by the Hubble Space Telescope - click for larger version
(Click for larger version)
The cosmological principle is supported by pictures of different parts of the universe by the Hubble Space Telescope
(Source: Hubble Site: http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/
archive/releases/1996/01/
)

The Second Law of Thermodynamics, on the other hand, lends theoretical (albeit inconclusive) support to the idea of a finite universe originating in a Big Bang type event. If disorder and entropy in the universe as a whole is constantly increasing until it reaches thermodynamic equilibrium, as the Law suggests, then it follows that the universe cannot have existed forever, otherwise it would have reached its equilibrium end state an infinite time ago, our Sun would have exhausted its fuel reserves and died long ago, and the constant cycle of death and rebirth of stars would have ground to a halt after an eternity of dissipation of energy, losses of material to black holes, etc.

The Big Bang model rests on two main theoretical pillars: the General Theory of Relativity (Albert Einstein’s generalization of Sir Isaac Newton’s original theory of gravity) and the Cosmological Principle (the assumption that the matter in the universe is uniformly distributed on the large scales, that the universe is homogeneous and isotropic).

The Big Bang (a phrase coined, incidentally, by the English astronomer Fred Hoyle during a 1949 radio broadcast as a derisive description of a theory he disagreed with) is currently considered by most scientists as by far the most likely scenario for the birth of universe. However, this has not always been the case, as the following discussion illustrates.


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