Thursday, October 21, 2010

Are we getting closer to the Big Bang?

Big new on the radio this morning: Using ESO’s Very Large Telescope, European scientists have discovered the oldest star system ever (UDFy-38135539)! And, said the radio announcer enthusiastically, that means that we’re getting closer to the Big Bang!

Well, no, that’s not how it works.

It’s true that the farther you look into the universe, the further back in time you go. When you look at the sun, you see it the way it was eight minutes ago. That’s how long it took for the light to get here. As a matter of fact, you’re seeing the screen of your computer the way it was a fraction of a millisecond ago, because the light traveling from your screen to your eyes takes a while to get there. And that goes for everything you see. Due to the nature of time, light and space, we’re living a continuous season of re-runs. It’s how the universe works.

But, thought the radio announcer this morning, that must mean that the deeper we look into space, the closer we should get to that enigmatic beginning of the universe we call the Big Bang!
But the universe began in a singularity, tinier than the nucleus of an atom. And the past is all around us, in every direction we look. That would means that that enigmatic singularity in which it all began, lies like the peel of an onion everywhere around us!

Well, no again. Time is a bit of a mystery in itself, but it’s safe to say that time has to do with information preservation. If you can’t preserve information, then there is no past and present, no cause and effect, and that means that there is no time. Time is a product of the universe. It ‘began’ when particles were formed and were able to stick together and make lasting structures in which information could be contained. The formation of hydrogen atoms is called matter-radiation decoupling. The making of protons is called nucleosynthesis. You need nuclei to make atoms, and you need atoms to make time.

Going back in time will eventually lead to traces of an era when particles began to stick together because that’s when time-as-we-know-it ‘began.’ The Big Bang occurs ‘long before’ that, but not at any point in time. As George Smoot and comrades proved in 1992 with their famous COBE photo: the remnants of the Big Bang are everywhere, not only in the past. We’re already at the Big bang. There’s no getting closer to it. We’re swimming in it.

Suddenly the most famous phrase of the Bible, “In the Beginning,” seems not so difficult to understand anymore.

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