The Big Bang is commonly thought of as the start of it all: About 13.8 billion years ago, the observable universe went boom and expanded into being.
But what were things like before the Big Bang?
Short answer: We don't know. Long answer: It could have been a lot of things, each mind-bending in its own way.
Related: How massive is the Milky Way?
In the beginning
The first thing to understand is what the Big Bang actually was.
"The Big Bang is a moment in time, not a point in space," said Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology and author of "The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself" (Dutton, 2016).
Thus, it's possible that the universe at the Big Bang was teeny-tiny or infinitely large, Carroll said, because there’s no way to look back in time at the stuff we can’t even see today. All we really know is that it was very, very dense and that it very quickly got less dense.
As a corollary, there really isn't anything outside the universe, because the universe is, by definition, everything. So, at the Big Bang, everything was denser and hotter than it is now, but there was no more an "outside" of it than there is today. As tempting as it is to take a godlike view and imagine you could stand in a void and look at the scrunched-up baby universe right before the Big Bang, that would be impossible, Carroll said. The universe didn't expand into space; space itself expanded.
"No matter where you are in the universe, if you trace yourself back 14 billion years, you come to this point where it was extremely hot, dense and rapidly expanding," he said.
No one knows exactly what was happening in the universe until 1 second after the Big Bang, when the universe cooled off enough for protons and neutrons to collide and stick together. Many scientists do think that the universe went through a process of exponential expansion called inflation during that first second. This would have smoothed out the fabric of space-time and could explain why matter is so evenly distributed in the universe today.
Before the bang
It's possible that before the Big Bang, the universe was an infinite stretch of an ultrahot, dense material, persisting in a steady state until, for some reason, the Big Bang occured. This extra-dense universe may have been governed by quantum mechanics, the physics of the extremely small scale, Carroll said. The Big Bang, then, would have represented the moment that classical physics took over as the major driver of the universe's evolution. [What Is Quantum Mechanics?]
For Stephen Hawking, this moment was all that mattered: Before the Big Bang, he said, events are unmeasurable, and thus undefined. Hawking called this the no-boundary proposal: Time and space, he said, are finite, but they don’t have any boundaries or starting or ending points, the same way that the planet Earth is finite but has no edge.
"Since events before the Big Bang have no observational consequences, one may as well cut them out of the theory and say that time began at the Big Bang," he said in an interview on the National Geographic show "StarTalk" in 2018.
Or perhaps there was something else before the Big Bang that's worth pondering. One idea is that the Big Bang isn't the beginning of time, but rather that it was a moment of symmetry. In this idea, prior to the Big Bang, there was another universe, identical to this one but with entropy increasing toward the past instead of toward the future.
Increasing entropy, or increasing disorder in a system, is essentially the arrow of time, Carroll said, so in this mirror universe, time would run opposite to time in the modern universe and our universe would be in the past. Proponents of this theory also suggest that other properties of the universe would be flip-flopped in this mirror universe. For example, physicist David Sloan wrote in the University of Oxford Science Blog, asymmetries in molecules and ions (called chiralities) would be in opposite orientations to what they are in our universe.
A related theory holds that the Big Bang wasn't the beginning of everything, but rather a moment in time when the universe switched from a period of contraction to a period of expansion. This "Big Bounce" notion suggests that there could be infinite Big Bangs as the universe expands, contracts and expands again. The problem with these ideas, Carroll said, is that there's no explanation for why or how an expanding universe would contract and return to a low-entropy state.
Carroll and his colleague Jennifer Chen have their own pre-Big Bang vision. In 2004, the physicists suggested that perhaps the universe as we know it is the offspring of a parent universe from which a bit of space-time has ripped off.
It's like a radioactive nucleus decaying, Carroll said: When a nucleus decays, it spits out an alpha or beta particle. The parent universe could do the same thing, except instead of particles, it spits out baby universes, perhaps infinitely. "It's just a quantum fluctuation that lets it happen," Carroll said. These baby universes are "literally parallel universes," Carroll said, and don't interact with or influence one another.
If that all sounds rather trippy, it is — because scientists don't yet have a way to peer back to even the instant of the Big Bang, much less what came before it. There's room to explore, though, Carroll said. The detection of gravitational waves from powerful galactic collisions in 2015 opens the possibility that these waves could be used to solve fundamental mysteries about the universes' expansion in that first crucial second.
Theoretical physicists also have work to do, Carroll said, like making more-precise predictions about how quantum forces like quantum gravity might work.
"We don't even know what we're looking for," Carroll said, "until we have a theory."
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Originally published on Live Science.
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Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.