The Big Bang Explained. Sort of.

(You can ignore the image. Light hadn’t been invented yet.)

Day 1

Imagine if our world had a diary and on the interesting days, someone pulled out a big book and wrote about it. Day 1 was such a day.

the bookPerhaps the greatest understatement, serenely floating around in the nothingness (that was whatever it was before space was invented) is the term ‘Big Bang’. Nothing comes close to describing what happened in that first second, not atomic weapons, not exploding stars, not even supernovae.

If we cherish our understatements a little longer, it was hot. Not hot like anything that could be formed on a planet, not hot like the sun which by comparison is like standing next to the air conditioning on a coolish day, but really, really hot. So hot that nothing existed, not even sub-atomic particles and everything that was to come, the stars, the planets, the universe itself was packed into a space so small, by normal definition it did not even exist.
What triggered the blast may not be fully established yet, we have some competing hypotheses to work with, however it is fairly certain science will eventually create methods for testing so we can settle the matter.

What we do know is what happened in the time slot just after the ‘pop’ but like everything else on the subject, the time slot is impossibly short, far shorter than anything we mere humans can understand. (There is an hypothesis doing the rounds that quantum physicists, who do understand these things, are in fact, human too, just not ‘mere’.)
The first Planck after ignition (a Planck is like a fraction of a second but only much smaller, a billion, billionth etc.) was too hot to have nuclear forces or even gravity.(That’s 0.000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,01th of a second if you’re interested).

As Einstein explained nothing travels faster than the speed of light, but during this briefest of periods before the second Planck (I’ll skip the zeros but there are about 32 of them) we had space inflation which did just that. Perhaps it was because there was no light yet. It was so fast, the forces blasted out were moved apart more by the expanding space than by the explosion and none of that fits with what scientists already know.
Then we had some cooling down, to temperatures that are still so hot they are way beyond our comprehension and things like gravity, nuclear forces and electromagnetism were separated into individual forces in their own right. (To be a little more accurate, the first one out of the blocks was the weak nuclear force which broke loose in the 4 zeros between the 36th and the 32nd when the inflation ended.)

Particles popped into existence by the collisions of energy particles (which have no mass or ‘weight’) into bosons which converted the energy into a particle which actually has mass. (Remember Einstein famously proved that energy and mass are the same, as is E=Mc2).
There was no ‘something from nothing’ at least from the point where the ‘bang’ occurred as there was definitely a lot of energy (another understatement) so by default there was mass as they are the same thing.
From this point on, the ‘bang’ part continued in a more prim and proper manner, ending the ‘impossible’ phase that obviously will be tested and proved eventually, but from here, the explosion was more the way we understand things behave.
The rapidly expanding universe was full of what is described as ‘a quark-gluon plasma’ which sounds unpleasant and smelly but I have on good authority, was a good thing.
When three quarks get together (facilitated by the strong nuclear force which by now had also broken into a trot) for a ménage à trois’, the result is a proton or a neutron and as you know if you throw in an electron, you end up with an atom. Quarks come in colours (who knew?) and you need three different colours to make a proton. Quarks also identify as ‘up quarks’ and ‘down quarks’ and to get the tri-colour proton, you need two ‘ups’ and one ‘down’. Electrons, by the way, are quarks that don’t go in for that sort of thing and go solo. A bit prissy by all accounts.

By the time we get to 0.000,006th of the first second, positively dawdling along, we’re got the full Monty of forces, gravity, the strong nuclear force, the weak nuclear force and electromagnetism but it is still too hot for the quarks to have their love-ins.
For this we have to wait until the first second has fully passed and the temperature a little more temperate. Now the quarks go at it like rabbits and the universe starts to fill up with protons and neutrons, anti-protons and anti-neutrons. The protons and anti-protons are more common than the neutrons and anti-neutrons but the balance of each is the same. Almost. They all get along fine until the temperature drops. By the time 10 seconds or so has passed, we’ve got our first war and the pros and the antis cancel each other out.

Well almost. For reasons yet to be explained, slightly more protons and neutrons were produced than anti-protons and anti-neutrons. After the big cancellation event, only they survived.
The surviving protons and neutrons get together in different ratios making different atoms but the temperature is so high, we have nuclear fire everywhere and some of the combinations fuse into helium. Unbelievable to non-scientists, the temperature was actually falling and by the time 17 minutes had elapsed, the fire was out.

Helium. History of the UniverseAll the neutrons were now fused into helium leaving a lot of disconsolate protons who didn’t even have an electron for company at that stage and are identified as hydrogen ions, that is, protons without an electron. To us mere mortals, the word proton and hydrogen are essentially the same thing. There are variations on the theme but isotopes devolve into complexity we don’t need to understand on the first page in our diary (or any other page for that matter).

From 20 seconds to 380,000,000 years (that’s 380 million years) may seem a bit of a jump to us with our mini time scales but for the universe it wasn’t even late morning on ‘Day 1’ of our diary, when the hydrogen ions and the helium ions begin to capture electrons to become stable, electrically charged neutral atoms. Energy was turning into solid matter at last.
Unlike the electrons that joined the atom club, their cousins the neutrinos maintained their gypsy ways and as they have no mass, some are probably streaming through your body as we speak.
Another wanderer is the photon, particles we are more familiar with as light. They interact with the protons and neutrons but as the protons and neutrons coalesce into atoms, space becomes clear for the first time and photons of light can travel everywhere. They waste no time doing it. Quickly.

With the atoms settling into their new home and 380 million years to get their act together, they set about making babies, the first molecule.

AND…this is just one line from what I believe is the greatest scientific gift poster that anyone could gift to a child. But that’s just my opinion.Dan Hughes. Everything important that ever happened. History of the Universe.

References and further reading
The First Molecule
Making a Star
The Big Bang in detail
The magic of helium
The quirky kinky life of quarks

If you would like to help me with this grand project, this project of great imagination, this almost impossible project of writing ‘the entire history of the universe and the earth’ – in chronological order, why not consider joining me?
I could use your help and your comments and guidance may be of great importance.

(You can see ALL the interesting ‘days’ in the magnificent science poster which you can download and print. What does the poster look like?)

Day 2 The First Molecule

(The DNA molecule pictured was not the first molecule)

Imagine if our world had a diary and on the interesting days, someone pulled out a big book and wrote about it. ‘Day’ 2 was such a day.

the bookThings were pretty quiet on a Saturday night at the Universe bar 13,800,000,000 years ago. The protons and the neutrons had been busy capturing electrons for the last 380 million years, well most of it anyway, creating all the stable atoms we were going to need to make stars and planets and zebras. But that was getting a bit monotonous.

In the open reaches of space, vast clouds of stable atoms of helium and hydrogen would later coalesce under gravity to ignite the nuclear fires that become the galaxies of stars that have come and gone in the inconceivable length of time since the beginning, but for now, some were joining forces to create organic molecules.
At least the lights were on. Space was ‘clear’ now that the electrons were under control. Photons had previously been restricted by the unattached electrons floating about but now the electrons were bound up in atoms of hydrogen and helium (mainly) the photons were free to travel. Infinitely.

The period before this, before space was ‘clear’ is called, predictably, The Dark Ages. No prizes for imagination there. The roundup and capture of the electrons by the neutrons making the space soup clear is called The Recombination and the issue of the travel permits for the photons is called Decoupling.
Stable atoms of both hydrogen and helium were all over the place, but seen one you’ve seen them all. What the universe needed was some molecules and that’s exactly what was about to happen. Molecule. The History of the Universe
About 13,500,000,000 years ago, simple organic molecules were formed but before we get there we should look at the helium atoms.

Helium may be colourless, odourless and tasteless and settles for second place in abundance after hydrogen, but it has other redeeming features. It is virtually inert so it does not react with other materials and when compressed with hydrogen under sufficient gravity, it makes a wonderful star.
While the helium does not ‘burn’, it does make up about 24% of stars like our Sun (which is not due on the scene for another 8,900,000,000 years) but the fusion of the hydrogen component of the star makes more helium, eventually turning all the hydrogen into helium.
It really is a fascinating gas. Almost all the helium in the universe, despite all the new stuff being made by stars and the gas created by the degradation of uranium, was created in the first few minutes after the Big Bang.
It remains a liquid no matter how cold it gets and you need to add a considerable amount of pressure as well to make it a solid. Even so, it is difficult to tell the difference but it gets even weirder. As a liquid, helium is a superfluid which means it has no measurable viscosity. It can flow over, under or through almost anything, making it a little difficult to work with. In fact it will even crawl up the side of containers to escape. Try to imagine that.

Perversely it expands as it gets colder and it’s so crystal-clear, you need to float something like a piece of polystyrene foam on top so you can see the surface. At certain temperatures it will even leak through the solid bottom of a container.
Most space helium is the plasma version quite unlike what is found on earth. The charged particles show up here as part of the solar wind that provides us with the spectacular aurora at the poles.
Despite its abundance in space, helium, well known for its Donald Duck voice trick, is relatively rare on earth. Most of our local helium is a result of radioactive decay in minerals of uranium and thorium making about 3000 metric tons a year. In order to capture the gas, one needs to be attentive as when it is released, the earth’s gravity is not sufficient to stop it escaping into space.

It was first detected as part of the spectrum of sunlight in 1868, a few years later, an Italian named Palmieri found the first helium on earth when he was analysing the lava of Mount Vesuvius. The first significant quantities were found (in concentrations of 1 or 2%) in natural gas fields in America, still the largest supplier of the gas today.

The first primary use of helium was for air-ships, although later it became the gas of choice as a shield against oxygen in arc welding and handy for atomic bombs too. In 1927 America banned the export of what was a rare commodity and this forced the German Zeppelins to use hydrogen and we know how that turned out. By the mid 1990s, Algeria was producing enough helium to supply all Europe and is now the world’s second biggest producer.

Helium is used in purging containers, welding shielding, controlled atmospheres and leak detection but small amounts are also used in breathing mixtures for underwater work (and party balloons).
However, the main use for helium today is in cryogenics, primarily as a cooling liquid for the superconductor magnets in the medical world’s 25,000 MRI scanners. Within the MRI scanner, strong and uniform magnetic fields are produced which provoke the excited hydrogen atom protons in the water molecules of human tissue. This is what creates a signal that is processed to form an image of the body.

We’ve all heard of the largest of all molecules, DNA, but molecules come in more than a few types and sizes. At its heart though, a molecule is just two or more atoms that get together. In the case of DNA, a lot of atoms get together. While this is the standard way of defining a molecule, the exception is a branch of science called ‘the kinetic theory of gases’ where they often call any gas particle a molecule. When two atoms of hydrogen are connected, they form a homonuclear molecule, but when they are joined by an atom of oxygen we get a compound chemical called water. H2O.

Generally speaking, molecules are the basic elements of ‘soft’ matter, water, trees, animals, the atmosphere and are called organic molecules to emphasise the point.
‘Hard’ matter, rocks, metals, gems, diamonds, glass and salts are also made of atoms of course, but the atoms are chemically bonded in a different way so they have no identifiable molecules.

Molecules made of two part hydrogen to one part oxygen (water) were very plentiful and some formed in large clumps to become ice and dust comets. 380,000,000 years have passed since the Big Bang and now organic molecules are common throughout the universe and eventually, will be coming our way.

AND…this is just one line from what I believe is the greatest scientific gift poster that anyone could gift to a child. But that’s just my opinion.Dan Hughes. Everything important that ever happened. History of the Universe.

References and further reading
The Big Bang Explained
A Star in Born
Molecules in detail
Helium, yes it CAN flow uphill
The Recombination. Making space soup clear.

If you would like to help me with this grand project, this project of great imagination, this almost impossible project of writing ‘the entire history of the universe and the earth’ – in chronological order, why not consider joining me?
I could use your help and your comments and guidance may be of great importance.

(You can see ALL the interesting ‘days’ in the magnificent science poster which you can download and print. What does the poster look like?)

Day 3 – A Star Is Born

 
Imagine if our world had a diary and on the interesting days, someone pulled out a big book and wrote about it. ‘Day’ 3 was such a day.

Gravity has pulled massive amounts of hydrogen and helium together. The first nuclear fires, the stars, are born.

Action at last. Frankly the last 560,000,000 years since the excitement of the Big Bang have been a bit boring. Sure the protons and neutrons were rounding up the electrons and forming into nice stable atoms and the atoms were getting together making interesting things like ice, but really, something more exciting is overdue. Continue reading Day 3 – A Star Is Born

Day 4. How To Make A Galaxy

Imagine if our universe was a book and on important days, someone opened the book and wrote about it. ‘Day’ 4 would have been such a day.

Essentially a galaxy is a whole lot of stars clumped together, but in terms of distance, “clumped together” hardly gives an accurate impression of the size of a galaxy.

Take our own galaxy The Milky Way as an example. Our Sun is just one of somewhere between 200,000 million and 400,000 million similar stars but to get from one side of the galaxy to the other, well you’d need to pack a big lunch.
Technically, it’s possible to build a craft that could travel close to the speed of light. It would have to be very large to accommodate enough fuel to burn constantly for several years, but eventually it could reach speeds approaching 186,000 miles per second. At this speed you could get to the middle of our galaxy (once you decide where exactly that is) in about 20,000 or maybe 30,000 years. Given that the distance between galaxies is many times more than the width of a galaxy, there’s probably not much chance of visiting another galaxy anytime soon. Continue reading Day 4. How To Make A Galaxy

Day 5 – The Milky Way

Imagine if our world had a diary and on the interesting days, someone pulled out a big book and wrote about it.

the bookDay 5.
It’s somehow comforting to think we have neighbours, perhaps lots of them, in our ‘city’ in the Universe, where there are between 200 and 400 million suns much like ours in town.

After an unimaginable time span of 1,800 million years since the ‘Big Bang’ stars in this area ignite forming the Milky Way, our home galaxy.

A discrepancy of 200 million stars is a tad less than accurate, but you can’t just count them.
The main problem is that our solar system is a fair way out of town, on one of the big avenues (the Orion–Cygnus arm) and there are three others just as big. (Actually we are not right on the avenue, more like a side street off one of the main avenues.)
Continue reading Day 5 – The Milky Way

Day 6 – How Many Galaxies Are Out There?

Cover: Astronomer Gerard Bodifee with wife TV Presenter Lucette Verboven

Imagine if our world had a diary and on the interesting days, someone pulled out a big book and wrote about it.

the bookDay 6.  By this stage in the life of the Universe (11,500,000,000 years ago) there exists something of the order of 170,000,000,000 (170 billion) galaxies each containing between tens of millions and billions of stars.

The name ‘galaxy’ is from the Greek word for milk which is how they described the whiteish appearance of the band of light we know as our home galaxy. Each of the 170 billion galaxies is indeed a group of stars, but much more than that. They almost certainly hold billions of planets, star systems, star clusters and in most cases, a massive black hole near the centre. They also contain a lot of material in the form of vast clouds of gas and dust particles that are mostly the remains of stars that have exploded at the end of their lives.
It has become clear that every galaxy has more mass (the ‘weight’ of something on earth) than we can measure by adding up what we can see. (A cannon ball in space may be weightless but it would still make a mess if it hit you because it still has the same mass.) This non-reflective material is predictably called ‘dark matter’ which incorporates ‘dark energy’. As Einstein showed, matter and energy are different forms of the same thing.

Galaxies come in a range of sizes and types from the dwarf galaxies with only 10 million stars to the big boys that can have one hundred trillion (that is, a hundred million million). 100,000,000,000,000. That’s a lot of zeros and it’s hard to imagine a number so large, especially when we are talking about very hot objects the size of our Sun, which itself is a million times bigger than the earth.
Continue reading Day 6 – How Many Galaxies Are Out There?

Day 7 – The First Stars In The Milky Way

Imagine if our world had a diary and on the interesting days, someone pulled out a big book and wrote about it.

the bookDay 7 was such a day.

It’s 11 billion years ago and our first stars have just reached their 1 billionth birthday. On average, that’s still childhood.

Aside from the twinkling variety, how many types of stars are there? Seems like a fair question and the answer is a very scientific one too, ‘lots’.
Actually, most of the stars are not alone with twins being the most common setup in most galaxies and a fair helping of triplets too. This is not surprising when you know how the stars get going in the first place.

It is fairly widely known that stars form from clouds of gas but we tend to think of this as a ‘one cloud – one star’ event. In reality, the clouds that start the process are so vast, as they collapse under the force of gravity, the core is usually about 100 times more massive than our Sun. This core then usually fragments into smaller clumps, each one with the potential to become a star. (No, not like an audition).
Continue reading Day 7 – The First Stars In The Milky Way

Day 21 The Birth Of The Sun

Imagine if our world had a diary and on the interesting days, someone pulled out a big book and wrote about it.

the bookDay 21 was such a day and as important as days go, this was a big one for us. Not much to The Universe, but definitely a big one for humans. There is little that could be more important to us than the birth of our star.

One could be forgiven for asking why we are already up to ‘Day’ 21 before we write about the birth of the sun. Why is it not number one or two?

The fact is, an awful lot happened before this significant (to us) but unremarkable (to the Universe) event came about. In fact, two thirds of all the time that ever existed, has passed already and our sun is just being born.

That is such a remarkable statement, I’d like to revisit it.

As ancient as our 4,630,000,000 year old sun is, on the day it was born, two thirds of all the time that has ever existed in our Universe, had already passed by.

This area in the Milky Way had been the site of a fair bit of gas in the form of atoms of hydrogen and helium. It’s way out on a side branch of one of the arms and there are plenty of stars here already, but space is big.  Not big as we know it, big like ‘beyond imagination’ big.

Right about where the centre of the sun now resides, about 30,000 lights years from the centre, two atoms of hydrogen were attracted to each other by that weakest of all forces, gravity. Soon, they were joined by a few helium atoms and then a few more and after that a few more and, well you get the idea.

Just up the road a bit, another couple of hydrogen atoms had set up in opposition and were busy collecting friends too.

After a little while, about a thousand million years or so, the sun group was clearly winning the race and had collected so many atoms, there was some serious gravity going on. The pressure, which increases temperature, forced some of the inner atoms of hydrogen to convert to helium, as though there weren’t enough already.

The conversion process is what we like to call nuclear and the steady blasting out of energy was only balanced by the enormous gravity of all the atoms piled on top. We had a slow burner, a star. There’s enough hydrogen there to convert into helium, it should last another 4,600,000,000 years and then some. It’s not quite middle aged for this size and type of star.

In terms of size, the sun, aka Yellow Dwarf star,  although the light it generates is white. is average, but far from average in terms numbers. Red Dwarf stars outnumber our star 20 to one. They start out smaller, some where between a tenth and half, but they burn for longer. Much longer. In fact, we are not aware of any burnt out red dwarfs as they happily burn away at much cooler temperatures and can live for trillions of years. The smallest ones that formed just after the big bang are not even middle aged yet.

As most of the stars in our galaxy are red dwarfs, the sun is in the top 15% in terms of brightness. If it had been a red dwarf and therefore less intense, maybe life may have evolved on Venus as it is so much closer to the sun, the earth may be been a bit too chilly.

In performance, our star is pretty normal, if such a thing exists in that it converts about 6 million tonnes of matter, by that we mean hydrogen, into energy but getting off the sun is not easy and said energy takes up to 170,000 years to get away. It’s then express to earth, in about 6 minutes flat.

What of the sun’s competitor? Most commonly, the opposition also bursts into song about the same time creating a twin star system, but  a little less commonly, only one makes it.
In our case, later, much later as it happens, humans evolved on one of the scraps of material left over and named the unsuccessful gas bubble ‘Jupiter’. It never did get enough to be a star, not even the smallest red dwarf star and I guess plenty of humans have felt that anguish, of not being a star, albeit of a different variety.

Speaking of scraps, the sun collected everything it could reach but  one tiny bit of material we call earth escaped the direct pull and like the rocky planets and the gas planets, orbits the sun under the influence of gravity, making a full circuit once a year. We’re only one millionth of the size so the sun doesn’t actually miss our contribution. Fortunately.

AND, this is just a one line entry in what I believe is the greatest scientific gift poster that anyone could gift to a child. But that’s just my opinion.Dan Hughes. Everything important that ever happened. History of the Universe.

The Big Bang Explained. Sort of

All about the SUN. Really.

(You can see ALL the interesting ‘days’ in the magnificent science poster which you can download and print. See what it looks like here.)

Day 8 How They Figured The Age Of The Universe

Imagine if our world had a diary and on the interesting days, someone pulled out a big book and wrote about it.

the bookDay 8 was such a day.

In our puny life times, we think of a couple of thousand years as a long time and that is not so surprising given the short span of our lives, a mere 7 or 8 dozen passes around the sun if you’re lucky and that’s it, you’re done.

Look at our history, a mere 500 generations back our grandfathers were just learning the art of growing food. Ten thousand generations back and we had only just become a clearly defined species in our own right, so how could we appreciate the passage of say, a million years?
If we struggle with a million, then what of this day in our diary when the Sun and the Earth were still six thousand million years in the future? Let’s just think about that again, not one million or a hundred million, but six thousand million years in the future. That’s when our Sun and Earth will come into existence. Continue reading Day 8 How They Figured The Age Of The Universe