Here Is How We Know The Big Bang Happened

At 13.8 billion years ago, our entire observable universe was the size of a peach and had a temperature of over a trillion degrees. That’s a pretty simple, but very bold statement to make, and it’s not a statement that’s made lightly or easily. Indeed, even a hundred years ago, it would’ve sounded downright preposterous, but here we are, saying it like it’s no big deal. But as with anything in science, simple statements like this are built from mountains of multiple independent lines of evidence that all point toward the same conclusion — in this case, the Big Bang, our model of the history of our universe. But, as they say, don’t take my word for it. Here are five pieces of evidence for the Big Bang:

#1: The night sky is dark

Imagine for a moment that we lived in a perfectly infinite universe, both in time and space. The glittering collections of stars go on forever in every direction, and the universe simply always has been and always will be. That would mean wherever you looked in the sky — pick a random direction and stare — you’d be bound to find a star out there, somewhere, at some distance. That’s the inevitable result of an infinite universe. And if that same universe has been around forever, then there’s been plenty of time for light from that star, crawling through the cosmos at a relatively sluggish speed of c, to reach your eyeballs. Even the presence of any intervening dust wouldn’t diminish the accumulated light from an infinity of stars spread out over an infinitely large cosmos. Ergo, the sky should be ablaze with the combined light of a multitude of stars. Instead, it’s mostly darkness. Emptiness. Void. Blackness. You know, space. The German physicist Heinrich Olbers may not have been the first person to note this apparent paradox, but his name stuck to the idea: It’s known as Olbers’ paradox. The simple resolution? Either the universe is not infinite in size, or it’s not infinite in time. Or maybe it’s neither.

#2: Quasars exist

As soon as researchers developed sensitive radio telescopes, in the 1950s and ’60s, they noticed weirdly loud radio sources in the sky. Through significant astronomical sleuthing, the scientists determined that these quasi-stellar radio sources, or “quasars,” were very distant but uncommonly bright, active galaxies. What’s most important for this discussion is the “very distant” part of that conclusion. Because light takes time to travel from one place to another, we don’t see stars and galaxies as they are now, but as they were thousands, millions or billions of years ago. That means that looking deeper into the universe is also looking deeper into the past. We see a lot of quasars in the distant cosmos, which means these objects were very common billions of years ago. But there are hardly any quasars in our local, up-to-date neighbourhood. And they’re common enough in the far-away (that is, young) universe that we should see a lot more in our vicinity. The simple conclusion: The universe was different in its past than it is today.

#3: It’s getting bigger

We live in an expanding universe. On average, galaxies are getting farther away from all other galaxies. Sure, some small local collisions happen from leftover gravitational interactions, like how the Milky Way is going to collide with Andromeda in a few billion years. But at large scales, this simple, expansionary relationship holds true. This is what astronomer Edwin Hubble discovered in the early 20th century, soon after finding that “galaxies” were a thing. In an expanding universe, the rules are simple. Every galaxy is receding from (almost) every other galaxy. Light from distant galaxies will get redshifted — the wavelengths of light they’re releasing will get longer, and thus redder, from the perspective of other galaxies. You might be tempted to think that this is due to the motion of individual galaxies speeding around the universe, but the math doesn’t add up. The amount of redshift for a specific galaxy is related to how far away it is. Closer galaxies will get a certain amount of red-shifting. A galaxy twice as far away will get twice that redshift. Four times the distance? That’s right, four times the redshift. To explain this with just galaxies zipping around, there has to be an odd conspiracy where all the galactic citizens of the universe agree to move in this very specific pattern. Instead, there’s a far simpler explanation: The motion of galaxies is due to the stretching of space between those galaxies. We live in a dynamic, evolving universe. It was smaller in the past and will be bigger in the future.

#4: The relic radiation

Let’s play a game. Assume the universe was smaller in the past. That means it would have been both denser and hotter, right? Right — all the content of the cosmos would’ve been bundled up in a smaller space, and higher densities mean higher temperatures. At some point, when the universe was, say, a million times smaller than it is now, everything would have been so smashed together that it would be a plasma. In that state, electrons would be unbound from their nuclear hosts and free to swim, all of that matter bathed in intense, high-energy radiation. But as that infant universe expanded, it would’ve cooled to a point where, suddenly, electrons could settle comfortably around nuclei, making the first complete atoms of hydrogen and helium. At that moment, the crazy-intense radiation would roam unhindered through the newly thin and transparent universe. And as that universe expanded, light that started out white-hot would’ve cooled, cooled, cooled to a bare few degrees above absolute zero, putting the wavelengths firmly in the microwave range. And when we point our microwave telescopes at the sky, what do we see? A bath of background radiation, surrounding us on all sides and almost perfectly uniform (to one part in 100,000!) in all directions. A baby picture of the universe. A postcard from a long-dead era. Light from a time nearly as old as the universe itself.

#5: It’s elemental

Push the clock back even further than the formation of the cosmic microwave background, and at some point, things are so intense, so crazy that not even protons and neutrons exist. It’s just a soup of their fundamental parts, the quarks and gluons. But again, as the universe expanded and cooled from the frenetic first few minutes of its existence, the lightest nuclei, like hydrogen and helium, congealed and formed. We have a pretty decent handle on nuclear physics nowadays, and we can use that knowledge to predict the relative amount of the lightest elements in our universe. The prediction: That congealing soup should have spawned roughly three-fourths hydrogen, one-fourth helium and a smattering of “other.” The challenge then goes to the astronomers, and what do they find? A universe composed of, roughly, three-fourths hydrogen, one-fourth helium and a smaller percentage of “other.” Bingo. There’s more evidence, too, of course. But this is the starting point for our modern Big Bang picture of the cosmos. Multiple independent lines of evidence all point to the same conclusion: Our universe is around 13.8 billion years old, and at one time, it was the size of a peach and had a temperature of over a trillion degrees.

Credit: Paul Sutter for LiveScience 23 April 2018.