Cosmology for Beginners
Editor’s note: The article “The Universe Could be 250 Times Bigger Than What is Observable” sparked a sizable discussion among our readers, with several suggesting UT should have a series of articles about cosmology — a Cosmology 101, if you will. Our newest writer, Vanessa D’Amico, who wrote the aforementioned article, begins the Cosmology 101 series today, starting at the very beginning.
How did the universe get its start? It’s one of the most pressing questions in cosmology, and likely one that will be around for a while. Here, I’ll begin by explaining what scientists think they know about the first formative seconds of the universe’s life. More than likely, the story isn’t quite what you might think.
In the beginning, there was… well, we don’t really know. One of the most prevalent misconceptions in cosmology is that the universe began as an immensely small, inconceivably dense collection of material that suddenly exploded, giving rise to space as we know it. There are a number of problems with this idea, not least of all the assumption implicit in an event termed the big “bang.” In truth, nothing “banged.” The notion of an explosion brings to mind an expanding tide of material, gradually filling the space around it; however, when our universe was born, there was no space. There was no time either. There was no vacuum. There was literally nothing.
Then the universe was born. Extremely high energies during the first 10-43 seconds of its life make it very difficult for scientists to determine anything conclusive about the origin of the cosmos. Of course, if cosmologists are correct about what they believe may have happened next, it doesn’t much matter. According to the theory of inflation, at about 10-36 seconds, the universe underwent a period of exponential expansion. In a matter of a few thousandths of a second, space inflated by a factor of about 1078, quickly separating what were once adjoining regions by unfathomable distances and blowing up tiny quantum fluctuations in the fabric of spacetime.