Was the big bang really the beginning of time? Or did the universe exist before then? Such a question seemed almost blasphemous only a decade ago. Most cosmologists insisted that it simply made no sense--that to contemplate a time before the big bang was like asking for directions to a place north of the North Pole. But developments in theoretical physics, especially the rise of string theory, have changed their perspective. The pre-bang universe has become the latest frontier of cosmology.
The new willingness to consider what might have happened before the bang is the latest swing of an intellectual pendulum that has rocked back and forth for millennia. In one form or another, the issue of the ultimate beginning has engaged philosophers and theologians in nearly every culture. It is entwined with a grand set of concerns, one famously encapsulated in an 1897 painting by Paul Gauguin: D'ou venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Ou allons-nous? "Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?" The piece depicts the cycle of birth, life and death--origin, identity and destiny for each individual--and these personal concerns connect directly to cosmic ones. We can trace our lineage back through the generations, back through our animal ancestors, to early forms of life and protolife, to the elements synthesized in the primordial universe, to the amorphous energy deposited in space before that. Does our family tree extend forever backward? Or do its roots terminate? Is the cosmos as impermanent as we are?