How could an explosive Big Bang be the birth of our universe?
Nobody knows what started the big bang that eventually allowed the stars to form. Adolf Schaller for STScI, CC BY
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How could a big bang have been the beginning of the universe when intense explosions destroy everything? - Tristan S., age 8, Newark, Delaware
Imagine you are a perfectly flat chess piece in a game of chess on a perfectly flat and huge chess board. One day you look around and ask: How did I get here? How did the chessboard get here? How did it all start? You pull out your telescope and begin to explore your universe, the chessboard.
What do you think? Your universe, the chessboard, is getting bigger and bigger. And even bigger over time! The board will expand in all directions that you can see. As far as you can see, nothing seems to be causing this expansion - it just seems to be the nature of the chessboard.
But wait a minute. If it gets bigger and bigger, it means that it must have been smaller and smaller in the past. At some point, a long, long time ago, in the beginning, it must have been so small that it was infinitely small.
Let's move on from what happened then. At the beginning of your universe, the chess board was infinitely small and then expanded. It got bigger and bigger, until you decided to make some observations about the nature of your chess universe. All of the things in the universe - the tiny particles that make up you and everything else - started out very close together and continued to expand over time.
Our universe works the same way. When astronomers like me observe distant galaxies, we see that they are all moving apart. It seems that our universe started out very small and has expanded since then. Scientists now know that not only is the universe expanding, but the speed at which it is expanding too. This mysterious effect is caused by what physicists call dark energy, although very little else we know about it.
Astronomers also observe something called cosmic microwave background radiation. It is a very low level of energy that is present throughout the room. From these measurements we know that our universe is 13.8 billion years old - much older than humans and roughly three times older than Earth.
When astronomers look back to the event that started our universe, we call it the Big Bang.
A lot of people hear the name "Big Bang" and think of a huge explosion of things, like a bomb going off. But the Big Bang wasn't an explosion that destroyed things. It was the beginning of our universe, the beginning of space and time. Instead of an explosion, it was a very rapid expansion, the event that made the universe bigger and bigger.
This expansion is different from an explosion that can be caused by chemical reactions or large impacts. Explosions cause energy to flow from one place to another, and usually a lot of it. Instead, during the Big Bang, the energy moved with space as it expanded, moved wildly, but continued to expand over time as space grew over time.
Back in the chessboard universe, the “Big Bang” would be like the beginning of everything. It's the beginning when the board gets bigger.
It is important to know that there was no time or place “before” the Big Bang. Back to the checkerboard analogy: you can count the time on the music box after the start, but there is no playing time before the start - the clock wasn't running. And before the game began, the chessboard universe hadn't existed, and there was no place on the chessboard either. You have to be careful when saying “before” in this context, as there wasn't even time until the Big Bang.
You also got into the idea that the universe shouldn't expand into anything, since the Big Bang, to our knowledge, was the beginning of space and time. Confusing i know!
Astronomers aren't sure what caused the Big Bang. We just look at observations and see how the universe began like this. We know it got extremely small and bigger, and we know it began 13.8 billion years ago.
What started our own chess game? This is one of the deepest questions anyone can ask.
Hello, curious children! Do you have a question for an expert to answer? Have an adult send your question to CuriousKidsUS@theconversation.com. Please let us know your name, age and the city you live in.
And since curiosity has no age limit - adults - also let us know what you're asking. We won't be able to answer every question, but we'll do our best.
This article was republished by The Conversation, a non-profit news site dedicated to exchanging ideas from academic experts.
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Michael Lam does not work for any company or organization that would benefit from this article, does not consult any stocks or companies that would benefit from this article, and has not disclosed any relevant affiliations beyond her academic appointment.
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