When most people think of the Big Bang, they imagine a single moment: a whole universe emerging from nothing. That’s not really how it worked, though. The Big Bang refers not to one event, but to a whole scientific theory. Using Einstein’s equations and some simplifying assumptions, we physicists can lay out a timeline for the universe’s earliest history. Different parts of this timeline have different evidence: some are meticulously tested, others we even expect to be wrong! It’s worth talking through this timeline and discussing what we know about each piece, and how we know it.
We can see surprisingly far back in time. As we look out into the universe, we see each star as it was when the light we see left it: longer ago the further the star is from us. Looking back, we see changes in the types of stars and galaxies: stars formed without the metals that later stars produced, galaxies made of those early stars. We see the universe become denser and hotter, until eventually we reach the last thing we can see: the cosmic microwave background, a faint light that fills our view in every direction. This light represents a change in the universe, the emergence of the first atoms. Before this, there were ions: free nuclei and electrons, forming a hot plasma. That plasma constantly emitted and absorbed light. As the universe cooled, the ions merged into atoms, and light was free to travel. Because of this, we cannot see back beyond this point. Our model gives detailed predictions for this curtain of light: its temperature, and even the ways it varies in intensity from place to place, which in turn let us hone our model further.
In principle, we could “see” a bit further. Light isn’t the only thing that travels freely through the universe. Neutrinos are almost massless, and pass through almost everything. Like the cosmic microwave background, the universe should have a cosmic neutrino background. This would come from much earlier, from an era when the universe was so dense that neutrinos regularly interacted with other matter. We haven’t detected this neutrino background yet, but future experiments might. Gravitational waves meanwhile, can also pass through almost any obstacle. There should be gravitational wave backgrounds as well, from a variety of eras in the early universe. Once again these haven’t been detected yet, but more powerful gravitational wave telescopes may yet see them.
We have indirect evidence a bit further back than we can see things directly. In the heat of the early universe the first protons and neutrons were merged via nuclear fusion, becoming the first atomic nuclei: isotopes of hydrogen, helium, and lithium. Our model lets us predict the proportions of these, how much helium and lithium per hydrogen atom. We can then compare this to the oldest stars we see, and see that the proportions are right. In this way, we know something about the universe from before we can “see” it.
We get surprised when we look at the universe on large scales, and compare widely separated regions. We find those regions are surprisingly similar, more than we would expect from randomness and the physics we know. Physicists have proposed different explanations for this. The most popular, cosmic inflation, suggests that the universe expanded very rapidly, accelerating so that a small region of similar matter was blown up much larger than the ordinary Big Bang model would have, projecting those similarities across the sky. While many think this proposal fits the data best, we still aren’t sure it’s the right one: there are alternate proposals, and it’s even controversial whether we should be surprised by the large-scale similarity in the first place.
We understand, in principle, how matter can come from “nothing”. This is sometimes presented as the most mysterious part of the Big Bang, the idea that matter could spontaneously emerge from an “empty” universe. But to a physicist, this isn’t very mysterious. Matter isn’t actually conserved, mass is just energy you haven’t met yet. Deep down, the universe is just a bunch of rippling quantum fields, with different ones more or less active at different times. Space-time itself is just another field, the gravitational field. When people say that in the Big Bang matter emerged from nothing, all they mean is that energy moved from the gravitational field to fields like the electron and quark, giving rise to particles. As we wind the model back, we can pretty well understand how this could happen.
If we extrapolate, winding Einstein’s equations back all the way, we reach a singularity: the whole universe, according to those equations, would have emerged from a single point, a time when everything was zero distance from everything else. This assumes, though, that Einstein’s equations keep working all the way back that far. That’s probably wrong, though. Einstein’s equations don’t include the effect of quantum mechanics, which should be much more important when the universe is at its hottest and densest. We don’t have a complete theory of quantum gravity yet (at least, not one that can model this), so we can’t be certain how to correct these equations. But in general, quantum theories tend to “fuzz out” singularities, spreading out a single point over a wider area. So it’s likely that the universe didn’t actually come from just a single point, and our various incomplete theories of quantum gravity tend to back this up.
So, starting from what we can see, we extrapolate back to what we can’t. We’re quite confident in some parts of the Big Bang theory: the emergence of the first galaxies, the first stars, the first atoms, and the first elements. Back far enough and things get more mysterious, we have proposals but no definite answers. And if you try to wind back up to the beginning, you find we still don’t have the right kind of theory to answer the question. That’s a task for the future.