Before the Big Bang: The Prehistory of Our Universe
by Brian Clegg
-Reviewed by Jodie Liu
From hypothetical dark energy to spacetime-contorting black holes, the universe confounds astrophysicists trying to divine its origins. However widely accepted Big Bang theory may be – that the universe sprung into being 14 billion years ago – Brian Clegg shows in his Before the Big Bang that it is by no means the only credible explanation for the universe’s birth. Sifting through folkloric myths and science-fiction fantasies, Clegg explores the numerous creation theories that physicists and philosophers alike have put forth – and makes some daring conjectures of his own.
Despite the title, Clegg has his doubts about the Big Bang theory, claiming that it has the feel of being “held together with a band-aid.” As Clegg shows, the creators of the Big Bang theory spanned countries and generations, from Belgian priest and scientist Georges Lemaitre – who in 1927 initially proposed the idea of the universe expanding from an infinitesimally small speck of matter – to English astronomer Fred Hoyle, who coined the term “Big Bang” in 1949. Since then, several scientists have pitched in – whenever advancements in technology yielded data that conflicted with components of the existing theory, astrophysicists would scramble to revise accordingly. One spot that has yet to be fully reconciled is the issue of expansion. If the universe amassed its current size from a primeval super atom, then “the current rate of expansion,” Clegg notes, “would leave space much more wrinkled and bumpy than is actually the case.”
But according to Clegg, the greatest problem with the Big Bang theory isn’t with the particulars, but rather with the fundamental (and universal, if you will) element of time. After cautioning that thinking about time “tends to twist the mind into pretzel form,” Clegg asks a perplexing question that resonates in the title: what came before the Big Bang? Here, supporters of the Big Bang theory come up empty-handed, and Clegg hints that a non-astrophysicist may know best. In his Confessions, St. Augustine proposed that before creation, there was no time as we know it, “no past and no future” but simply “always the present.”
Scientists, however, are not easily appeased by this idea of timelessness, and have devised theories that seek to explain both the origin of the universe and what came before. Loop quantum gravity, a relatively recent such all-encompassing hypotheses, views the universe as a mass of “springy little connections” that can contract and then bounce out again, implying that the beginning the universe was not a singular event but the result of many contractions and expansions. String theory, perhaps the most complex and well-known of the Big Bang alternatives, attempts to redefine the entire universe. To put it very simply, string theory argues that the universe is comprised of several interwoven dimensions – not three, but as many as ten or eleven – and this multiplicity raises a number of mind-boggling complications. So far, string theory offers no resolute answer for what came before the Big Bang, but supporters believe that the explanation could be uncovered once string theory is fully elucidated.
And since these theories can be quite complex to grasp, Clegg uses movies to translate. He likens Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray must relive the same day, to theories that propose multiple universes cycling through “endless collapses into a Big Crunch followed by endless rebirths in new Big Bangs.” Clegg cites loop quantum gravity as one such Groundhog universe. He also uses elements of The Matrix to suggest that perhaps “the world as we know it is a vast computer program, run on machines built by an intelligence we know nothing about in a universe that could like any of the ones we speculate about, or one that is totally strange and alien.” In that case, our human theories-no matter how ingenious or elegant – may never decode the mystery.
It is not a theory that Clegg seriously believes himself, but it does bring up a valid point. Just as certain mathematical enigmas are beyond solution, Clegg concedes that the origin of the universe may perpetually remain an impossible scientific quandary.
Excerpt: “Cosmology suffers in comparison to most science because it is not experimental and there is no way to ever make it experimental. You can’t do an experiment in controlled conditions on the universe as a whole and see what the outcome is. You have, instead, to make observations, often of something so far away in space and time that you can only ever study it highly indirectly, and then attempt to draw inferences. There is inevitably a fair amount of guesswork involved.
“Rightly or wrongly, scientists add confusion to this picture by referring to the components of today’s popular cosmological theories as if they were absolute truths. We can never truly prove something. I can’t prove that the Sun will rise tomorrow morning; I can only say it is highly probable based on past evidence. The same goes for any scientific theory from Newton’s laws of motion to Boyle’s gas law. I can demonstrate that it matches all observations to date, but I can’t prove it to be absolutely correct.”
*Photo courtesy pshutterbug.
*Note, this book review has been edited since posting. An earlier draft stated incorrectly that St. Augustine was a Greek philosopher. Thank you to those who pointed out the error.