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Fascinating Facts About the Early Universe

According to current, generally accepted models, the universe emerged from a point smaller than an atom between 11.4 billion and 13.8 billion years ago. These conclusions were broadly arrived at by taking energy readings from stars for rates of decay and other energy processes and then extrapolating where they are in the process, like the carbon dating used on terrain artifacts. Nearly two and a half billion years may seem like quite a large amount of leeway, even by the cautious standards favored by mainstream scientific communities. But it happens that the universe at the time of the Big Bang wasn’t just stranger than we generally imagine, it’s much stranger than we can imagine. 

So what’s the closest approximation we can get to imagining the state of the universe before it became what we know and love today? What can we learn about the shape of the universe by looking into the void? What eccentric processes went into our emergence as a way for the cosmos to know itself? Well you’d better brace yourself, because this list is going to take you through billions of years and even more lightyears, shrink you down smaller than an atom, and show you the unobservable. 

10. The Fog 

Generally accepted models suggest it took much less than a billionth of a second for the matter that was initially compressed together to be formed into a point smaller than an atom. After a period of roughly the first 300,000-400,000 years, the universe filled with its first matter: an immense cloud of hydrogen, which quickly became colloquially known as a fog. 

In fact the hydrogen at the time would be more accurately described as smog, as publications such as Science magazine report that despite being only hydrogen, the lightest known atom in the universe, light could not escape it. This was no fleeting smogbank to be blown away by a stiff gust of cosmic wind. It is theorized that this immense pall of hydrogen took fully a billion years to dissipate. If the universe were somehow a middle-aged adult, that means it was a pitch black cloud for pretty much the equivalent of its entire infancy and into its toddler stage. Certainly there are lots of parents out there who would say they can relate…

9. Echoes from the Bang 

As is well known, the Big Bang wasn’t so much a massive explosion as it was a massive expansion, put another way, it wasn’t so much a bomb going off as an airbag deploying. But as anyone who’s had an airbag inflate in their face can also report, it is not quiet. Neither was the original. 

Over the eons, the echoes have become very faint indeed. Despite knowing that these energy echoes were moving through the universe since the 1960s, it wasn’t until 2014 that one of these waves was first measured. It stands to reason, as Nature magazine reported that the ripples of the waves from the Big Bang are about 500 million lightyears apart. 

As it happened, the year before, University of Washington physicist John Cramer produced a 100 second demo of what the beginning of the universe sounded about 380,000 years after the Big Bang, around the time that the hydrogen smog rolled in. The sound is less like music than a drone which slowly rises in pitch, like something that would be used in a science fiction production for when a UFO lands. Probably only good for one listen out of curiosity, but then, the universe was more interested in turning hydrogen into anything else than in winning Grammys.     

8. The Heat

Even if you had the best time machine possible, complete with a perfect self-contained life support system to keep all the dark hydrogen from smothering you and that droning noise from getting stuck in your head, you would not want to go back to witness the emergence of the universe. The early universe was extremely hot. By some estimates, at one point after the expansion began, everything was 1,000 trillion degrees celsius, also known as one quadrillion. That is approximately twenty billion times hotter than the core of the sun. Personally, we would not feel confident our time machine could endure that. 

With that relative temperature in mind, it becomes pretty impressive that it’s only roughly 250 times hotter than humans have ever created. It was achieved by an atom smasher used at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York state in 2010, which is similar to the famous Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland. One of the findings was that the melting point of subatomic particles such as quarks is two trillion degrees. So for a few milliseconds, scientists near Upton, New York firing gold particles at each other were able to give a glimpse into the fog at the start of the universe.     

7. Early Galaxies

The initial assumption was that galaxies would take billions of years to form, as hydrogen, helium, and lithium needed to be converted into heavier gasses such as oxygen and carbon in heat that could literally melt subatomic particles. Yet a study published in June 2020 was reported by NASA to have found, from background radiation tests in the universe, that stars and galaxies were emerging within 650 million years of the beginning of the universe, back when everything was still cloaked in hydrogen darkness. When galaxies form with such unusual speed under such early circumstances, the prevailing theory is that it’s the result of gas clouds colliding with extreme fury.  

As stands to reason, these oldest galaxies are on the farthest outreaches of the known universe, the cutting edge in the expansion of the universe. They got to enjoy a few hundred million years of peaceful existence before trouble reared its head. By the time the universe was a billion years old, superdense black holes began to emerge. While some theorize that black holes may destroy these galaxies with their hundreds of billions of stars eventually, more than ten billion years is still a pretty good run. 

6. The Time of Antimatter

As if it weren’t already difficult to imagine the time when all matter was hyper-compressed into a dark atom a quadrillion degrees hot, consider that half of it was composed of physics that worked essentially in reverse. According to the European Council for Nuclear Research, at the beginning of the universe, half of everything compressed into the origin point was antimatter.  

So if you’re wondering why matter isn’t constantly colliding with antimatter and thus exploding, it’s because within one billionth of a second of the great expansion starting, the balance of particles shifted in matter’s favor over antimatter. By some extrapolations, it was by maybe a billionth of a percent. Yet it was enough that within less than a second, all of the antimatter in the brand new universe was converted into energy, which today is known as the cosmic microwave background radiation. It so happens that the uniform nature of CMB was vital in the 1960s to the process of confirming the Big Bang. It also shows that conflict which results in the complete destruction of one side is literally as old as the universe. 

5. Life Through Lightning

Let’s take a break from hydrogen atoms and radiation in the first eons to something more recent; say, only about 3.5 billion years ago. One of the lingering questions of how life began is how even if all the protein strands, glucose, etc. that were necessary to form the first cells were together, what stirred them together for the life process to begin? According to Benjamin Hess, Jason Harvey, and Sandra Piazolo of Nature Communications, lightning seems to have been behind all this fuss. 

Roughly a billion years after Earth formed, its atmosphere was filled with lightning storms. According to a study published in March 2021, one of billions of bolts could have struck a body of water where all the chemicals had settled together, and also freed phosphorus from the ground, starting the process of turning loose protein into DNA. So while the use of lightning in Frankenstein adaptations is a bastardization of Mary Shelley’s original novel, it would appear it’s actually more faithful to the true beginning of life. 

4. The Flawed Planetary Origin Models 

Back between when astronomers were first discovering planets such as Mercury with a telescope to only a few decades ago, it was assumed that most solar systems would follow models fairly close to ours. The general model is that all the heavy materials that form a rocky dwarf like Earth, such as carbon, oxygen, iron, etc., were forged in stars and then gradually expelled, and thus the age of a star and its planets could in part be determined by measuring the amount of heavier atoms expelled by a star to fill its planets. 

Then, in 2010, solar systems dating back potentially 12 billion years or so began to be observed, such as HIP-11952 and HIP-13044. They go against expectations by being both so unimaginably old, but also by having gas planets in the positions where the rocky planets should be (such as 11952c, which is close enough to its star that its years are only seven Earth days long). TopTenz has had plenty to say over the years about how the heavens are full of unique bodies. But studying the oldest solar systems is showing us that it might be that our solar system is actually the weird one.   

3. The First Star?

Speaking of stars, the question presents itself of which of our observable stars is the oldest. Could we possibly know, since presumably such a star would have gone supernova, compressed into one of those superdense neutron stars, or become a black hole long ago. In fact, the first stars remain entirely theoretical. They are known as Population III stars, and are largely undetectable by currently available means because their extended lives are theorized to have depleted them of all heavier materials (calcium, magnesium, etc.). The star we circle around is a relatively young Population I-type, and thus by cosmic standards full of the heavier materials that the old models said created Earth, Mercury, Venus, etc. 

At present, the oldest known star is hypothesized to be AS0039, 290,000 lightyears away. It is believed to have been part of a truly gigantic star roughly twenty times the size of our sun, and left behind when that behemoth went hypernova, a phenomenon said to be about 10 to 100 times more powerful than a supernova. AS0039 potentially dates back to the first billion years of the universe, an extrapolation based on the fact it is not only free of metal atoms, but also very light on heavy gases such as carbon. It sounds not a little like AS0039 is suffering from the solar equivalent of osteoporosis. 

2. The Inert Young Universe

In the wake of the great expansion that caused all of being and everything having been at one point a quadrillion degrees, it probably sounds like the very beginning of the universe was a very tumultuous time indeed. Surely all that swirling dark hydrogen was like a cosmic storm cloud, producing trillions of the same lightning bolts that likely started life on Earth. It turns out to be overwhelmingly likely that this was not the case, but not because there wasn’t energy. Actually, as explained in a 2006 paper from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by Frank Wilczek and Sean Robinson and reported by New Scientist, it was because of an overabundance of  very particular kinds of energy. 

See, the main forces of the universe include weak force, strong force, electromagnetism, and gravity. When the universe was first created, with all matter compressed together and so much antimatter, strong force and gravity essentially acted as a dampener, like flooding an engine. So even with quintillions of superheated hydrogen atoms colliding, electricity could not exist. In fact it wasn’t until the universe had expanded enough that it began to cool down that the energies stopped canceling other out so that electricity could begin emerging in abundance.  

1. Dark Bubbles

You’ve probably heard of dark matter, a concept first named in 1933 by California Institute of Technology Fritz Zwicky in 1933. It was essentially an explanation for curious findings of astronomical measurements, that large amounts of matter and energy existed and were that were not currently observable except for the gravitational force that they exerted on their surroundings. NASA reports that it’s so abundant that roughly 27% of matter and 68% of energy in the universe are dark. The origin of the universe spread these dark particles in very curious ways.  

As published by Doctor Michael Baker, Doctor Andrew Long, and Professor Joachim Kopp in Physical Review Letters in October 2020, dark matter seems to be emerging from vacuums that emerged with the beginning of the universe. But it’s not as if dark matter and energy are pouring out of holes, but more as if they are coating the other layers of voids, like bubbles that emerged when multi-trillion degree temperatures at the beginning of the universe. Or, as Kopp further explained, perhaps it would be more accurate to think of the dark energy and matter as coating these voids like ping pong ball shells, as other forms of matter and energy seem to find them extremely difficult to penetrate. It is truly curious to imagine that much of existence is the result of the universe simmering after being brought to a full boil. 

Dustin Koski may not know more than the scientific community about the origin of the universe, but he knows the origin of A Tale of Magic Gone Wrong, a novel about fairies turning into monsters: He wrote it.

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