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Cosmic Calendar: Big Bang

Big Bang—1 January, 12:00 midnight

In its beginning, everything was a single point. This cosmic womb nurtured everything before it came to be. Every star; every planet; every flower; every lion, tiger, or bear; every Mozart, Einstein, or Madonna; every banana split, parfait, or brownie à la mode; every Illiad, I-Ching, or Bible; every hatred, joy, or love; every thing lay dormant within this primordial point. This is the story of how that point became our world, became us. This is our story.

According to current theory, all of what currently makes up the universe was packed into a space no larger than an atom. It doesn’t make sense to ask what was outside that point because even space was curled up inside this cosmic egg. It’s kind of like asking what’s north of the North Pole. Nor does it make sense to ask what happened before the point began to expand billions of years ago because time began its flow with the expansion. Our universe began in the in what is known as the Big Bang.

There was neither non-existence nor existence then. There was neither the realm of space nor the sky which is beyond. What stirred? Where? In whose protection? Was there water, bottlemlessly deep?

There was neither death nor immortality then. There was no distinguishing sign of night nor of day. That One breathed, windless, by its own impulse. Other than that there was nothing beyond.

Darkness was hidden by darkness in the beginning, with no distinguishing sign, all this was water. The life force that was covered with emptiness, that One arose through the power of heat.

Desire came upon that One in the beginning, that was the first seed of mind. Poets seeking in their heart with wisdom found the bond of existence and non-existence.

Their cord was extended across. Was there below? Was there above? There were seed-placers, there were powers. There was impulse beneath, there was giving forth above.

Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it? Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation? The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe. Who then knows whence it has arisen?

Whence this creation has arisen—perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not – the One who looks down on it, in the highest heaven, only He knows or perhaps He does not know. (Nāsadīya Sukta, Rigveda)

Planck Epoch: We really don’t know what was happening in the first instant of the Big Bang 13,700 million years ago (Mya). The laws of physics as we know them break down during the Planck Epoch, the first 10-43 seconds after the Big Bang.1 This notation means one tenth multiplied by itself 43 times, or put another way, 0.000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 1, an extremely, extremely small number. According to one theory, the universe was about 10-35 meters across.2 Because all of the matter and energy of the universe were packed into such a small space, it was also ludicrously hot: 1032 degrees Celsius. This notation means 10 multiplied by itself 32 times, or 100 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000.3

It is impossible to fully comprehend how extremely small the universe was. To try, imagine a young child about one meter tall who holds in their cupped hand a sphere that is 10-35 meters across. Actually, the sphere is so small that the child’s hand would appear empty. Now, stretch the child and the sphere until the child is as tall as the diameter of the universe that we can currently see. Light travels very fast—186,000 miles per second—but it would take 93 billion years for light to travel from the child’s head to its foot. The sphere has stretched too, but if we were cradled in the child’s gigantic hand, the expanded sphere would still be too small for us to see. It would still only be a few atoms wide. This is unimaginably small.

Just as the universe was incomprehensibly small, the temperature was incomprehensibly large. For comparison, the core of our sun is only 107 degrees Celsius (i.e. 10,000,000 degrees). Multiply the heat of the sun by ten million. Hellish, we might be tempted to call it. Now multiply that hellish temperature by another million. And do it again. And again. And again. That is wicked hot!

All of the fundamental forces which govern our universe—gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces—were equally strong and acted as one during the Planck Epoch. Today, gravity attracts all matter together and is the force that keeps the Earth circling the Sun and our feet firmly planted on the ground. The electromagnetic force governs light and magnetism. It makes radio, television, and cell phones possible and it holds our atoms together. The nuclear forces govern interactions within the nucleus of atoms. In the beginning, they were a single force.

Grand Unification Epoch: At the end of the Planck Epoch, an unimaginably small moment in time, this symmetry broke and gravity became weaker, separating itself from the other forces. (Please refer to the time line.)

As the universe expanded, it cooled down. But at this early stage immediately after the symmetry of universal forces was broken, the universe was still incredibly hot: 1027 degrees Celsius.

The Grand Unification Epoch is so named because the nuclear forces and the electromagnetic force were still unified in a single force called the electronuclear force. This epoch ended 10-36 seconds after the Big Bang when the strong force broke away from the others.

Electroweak Epoch: When the strong force separated from the others, the universe had cooled to about 1015 degrees Celsius and began a period of incredible expansion known as cosmic inflation. Its diameter increased in size by a factor of about 1026 in a small fraction of a second: by the end of this epoch something that had been the size of a millimeter grew to dwarf the Milky Way galaxy. Elementary particles were stretched to cosmic sizes, all within 10-32 seconds. Big Bang indeed.

Quark Epoch: This period began 10-12 seconds after the Big Bang when the electromagnetic and weak forces separated themselves and the four fundamental forces took their present form. The universe had cooled enough that subatomic quarks and gluons—the basic building blocks of matter—could condense out of its roiling energy. The universe was still too hot, however, for quarks to bind to each other to form neutrons and protons.

Hadron Epoch: One microsecond after the Big Bang, the universe had cooled enough to allow quarks to form hadrons such as protons and neutrons, the building blocks of the nuclei of all atoms. A nearly equal number of particles and anti-particles were forged from quarks in the primordial furnace. Particles and anti-particles have an explosive relationship. When they collide, both are annihilated in an explosion that releases tremendous energy. At this point, any hadrons that were destroyed in this way were replaced by others that were created in the heat of the early universe.

The universe continued to cool, reaching the point where hadrons were no longer being created. Most of the particles and anti-particles soon destroyed each other. When the figurative smoke cleared, all of the anti-hadrons were destroyed, but a small number of hadrons were left over. You and I and everything we see are partly made of those leftover hadrons. We exist because of an imbalance in particle/anti-particle destruction.

Lepton Epoch: One second after the Big Bang when most of the hadrons and anti-hadrons had destroyed each other, leptons (such as the familiar electrons) dominated the mass of the universe. The universe was still creating pairs of leptons and anti-leptons until three seconds after the Big Bang. In a now familiar story, most of the leptons and anti-leptons destroyed each other, but a small residue of leptons survived (to later create atoms later in the story).

Photon Epoch: After most of the pairs of leptons and anti-leptons had destroyed each other, photons—particles of light—made up most of the energy in the universe. Photons were still being scattered by electrons. The universe was therefore opaque: light couldn’t shine through the thick soup of scattering particles. Protons and neutrons began to form small atomic nuclei (e.g. helium, lithium, and beryllium).

Matter Domination—1 January, 12:03 AM

70,000 years after the Big Bang (3 minutes at the scale of the Cosmic Calendar), the amount of what we would call matter had grown to become equal to the amount of radiation (e.g. light) in the universe.

Recombination and Dark Ages—1 January 12:16 AM

Up to about 379,000 years after the Big Bang, the universe was filled with a plasma. In other words, the electrons were racing around unattached to atomic nuclei (contrary to our normal experience). It was just too hot for electrons to settle down. Lightning and the sun are two common examples of plasmas. Light is scattered by plasma, so light couldn’t travel very far in a straight line in the early universe. You could say that visibility was practically zero. If you were alive then (and could manage to stay alive), you wouldn’t be able to see the end of your nose.

After 379,000 years, the universe had cooled enough to allow atomic nuclei to capture electrons and form true atoms such as hydrogen and helium. The fancy name for this is recombination. This freed the light that had been held captive by the universal plasma. The universe became transparent; visibility was no longer zero. The consequent burst of light as the universe became transparent is known as the cosmic microwave background.

After the release of photons, the universe was plunged into darkness. No new light was being generated. This was the beginning of the Dark Ages.

Observance Ideas

  • Watch a fireworks show at the stroke of midnight and think about cosmology.
  • Make your own big bang (wink wink) at midnight… while thinking about cosmology.

Further Study

A Brief History of Time by Stephen W. Hawking

The Universe in a Nutshell by Stephen W. Hawking

Born With a Bang by Jennifer Morgan

Character of Physical Law by Richard Feynman

QED by RichardFeynman

  1. This unit period of time is known as a Planck time after Max Planck, the founder of quantum theory. []
  2. A unit of length known as the Planck length. []
  3. A unit of temperature known as the Planck temperature. Note that I use the Celsius scale because it is more familiar than the Kelvin scale to most readers. Even though the Kelvin scale is technically more correct, at these temperatures the difference is negligible anyway. []

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Fourth Circuit Element Engineered!

Engineers at HP have created a memristor, the fourth passive electrical circuit element after resistors, capacitors, and inductors. This may mean next to nothing to most of my readers (not criticizing) but for me this was a “Holy shit!” moment.

The memristor was theorized almost forty years ago by Leon Chua. This represents a fundamental shift in the understanding of circuit theory; it means that the textbooks that I learned electrical circuits are obsolete:

“Electronic theorists have been using the wrong pair of variables all these years—voltage and charge. The missing part of electronic theory was that the fundamental pair of variables is flux and charge,” said Chua. “The situation is analogous to what is called ‘Aristotle’s Law of Motion’, which was wrong, because he said that force must be proportional to velocity. That misled people for 2000 years until Newton came along and pointed out that Aristotle was using the wrong variables. Newton said that force is proportional to acceleration—the change in velocity. This is exactly the situation with electronic circuit theory today. All electronic textbooks have been teaching using the wrong variables—voltage and charge—explaining away inaccuracies as anomalies. What they should have been teaching is the relationship between changes in voltage, or flux, and charge.

In practical application, the memristor may enable us to continue to make smaller and smaller circuitry with less power required and less heat dissipated.


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Letters from the Universe

So I was a little envious of my wife. She got to teach our daughters a cool story about a Heavenly Father swooping down and creating everything. The basics of the story any toddler can comprehend. And she had cool pictures to back her up.

Then I try to teach them about evolution and modern cosmology and it just doesn’t grab their attention. I don’t have personal experience of how to teach children about evolution and so on because my parents are creationists. There are amazingly few books aimed at really young children on the subject. At least I couldn’t find many. I tried to make it up as I went, but I was doing a pretty crumby job of telling the story.

“So you see, the mammals evolved into apes and then into human beings. Isn’t that cool?”


So, anyway, I was a bit jealous.

Then I found a delightful trilogy of books that take us from the first moments of the Big Bang to modern humans. They take the form of a letter from a personified Universe to the reader. The Universe tells its own story in colorful, comprehensible terms. The words are accompanied by equally colorful illustrations. The reader is placed in the middle of an epic adventure of truly universal proportions.

Born with a Bang starts with the big bang and ends with the formation of planet earth. Along the way we learn about inflationary theory (really!), particles and anti-particles, the formation of hydrogen, the birth of stars and galaxies, and how we are made of the stardust from a supernova. The second and third books, Lava to Life and Mammals that Morph, which I have read fewer times so far, tell our story from abiogenesis to the development of modern humans. I’m no astrophysicist or paleontologist, but everything seems to check out. The authors stuck close to the current scientific understanding.

Any books that can get my four-year-old asking about atomic forces, comparing black holes to bathtub drains, and remembering why grass grows from the bottom-up deserve an A+ in my book.

The books are too long for my two-year-old, though I think she would like the story and illustrations if I just skimmed through. Each page has boldface text which convey the central idea. I think the authors may have intended it just for the purpose of shortening the story for those with a short attention span. I plan to try it out soon.

To top off all the learning about science, the Universe uses its own story to teach the reader important lessons like life is risky, we have to work toward our dreams, diversity is important, and so on.

While this book makes no mention of religious ideas, it is not hostile to religion either. I believe that a religious parent who accepts the current scientific theories (even the Pope accepts the theory of evolution) can benefit from these books. If God acted through the Big Bang and evolution, then these books tell God’s creation story in an inspiring way.

These books present an engaging creation myth that isn’t fiction. I got the books in the hopes of teaching my girls about current scientific theories about human origins. I ended up being inspired by my place in the story of the universe.

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Correct Principles

Is it just me, or does “Follow the living prophet” contradict “I teach them correct principles and they govern themselves”? On the one hand we are exhorted to follow whatever the current prophet says. On the other, we are supposed to be given correct principles and then left to govern ourselves. So which is it: prophet or principles?

Some may say that the living prophet is the source of correct principles, but surely a correct principle won’t change with the changing of church administrations. If prophet A teaches X as the word of God and prophet B preaches the opposite of X similarly, then one of them isn’t teaching a correct principle. Or they make God changeable. Either way, they are not a source of principles as I understand the word.

For example, Brigham Young sounds uncompromising when he says “The only men who become Gods, even the Sons of God, are those who enter into polygamy” (Journal of Discourses, Vol. 11, page 269). When we remember that the New and Everlasting Covenant of Marriage was historically understood to refer to polygamous marriage (hence the need to keep this section secret for years), it is evident that Doctrine and Covenants 132 supports Brigham Young’s view.

Gordon B. Hinckley sounds equally uncompromising when he says “I condemn [polygamy], yes, as a practice, because I think it is not doctrinal.” (Larry King Live, aired 8 September 1998) Hinckley receives support from Official Declaration 1, only if we accept the idea that a current prophet can flatly contradict what a previous prophet taught as an eternal principle.

Some may claim that this apparent contradiction reflects a deeper principle, the principle of Jacob 2 where polygamy is righteous when God commands it. If that is the principle, then Brigham Young and Gordon Hinckley have both proven themselves unreliable in providing the correct principle by which the people can govern themselves. Given their public statements, their hearers would be unable to govern themselves. The audience is beholden to the prophets for constant guidance. Nothing that a prophet states as the truth can be relied upon to remain in force, even if the prophet states that it is an eternal principle:

The same God that has thus far dictated me and directed me and strengthened me in this work, gave me this revelation and commandment on celestial and plural marriage, and the same God commanded me to obey it. He said to me that unless I accepted it, and introduced it, and practiced it, I, together with my people would be damned and cut off from this time henceforth. We have got to observe it. It is an eternal principle and was given by way of commandment and not by way of instruction. (Joseph Smith, Contributor, Vol. 5, p. 259, emphasis added)

Contrast this train wreck of conflicting doctrine with the conservation of energy: energy can not be created or destroyed, it can only be changed from one form to another. This principle applies everywhere and for all time. We can rely on it to be true. When compared to the shifting sands of Mormon prophetic writ, this physical principle seems like an oasis in the desert.

The only principle that the Mormon church seems to preach is complete obedience to the titular head of its hierarchy. They are not, as Brother Joseph poetically put, taught correct principles and allowed to govern themselves. I wish they were.

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