See Inside A Matter of Time

The Myth of the Beginning of Time [Preview]

String theory suggests that the big bang was not the origin of the universe but simply the outcome of a preexisting state

In Brief


  • Philosophers, theologians and scientists have long debated whether time is eternal or finite--that is, whether the universe has always existed or whether it had a definite genesis. Einstein's general theory of relativity implies finiteness. An expanding universe must have begun at the big bang.
  • Yet general relativity ceases to be valid in the vicinity of the bang because quantum mechanics comes into play. The leading candidate for a full quantum theory of gravity--string theory--introduces a minimal quantum of length as a new fundamental constant of nature, making the very concept of a bangian genesis untenable.
  • The bang still took place, but it did not involve a moment of infinite density, and the universe may have predated it. The symmetries of string theory suggest that time did not have a beginning and will not have an end. The universe could have begun almost empty and built up to the bang, or it might even have gone through a cycle of death and rebirth.


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?

The ancient Greeks debated the origin of time fiercely. Aristotle, taking the no-beginning side, invoked the principle that out of nothing, nothing comes. If the universe could never have gone from nothingness to somethingness, it must always have existed. For this and other reasons, time must stretch eternally into the past and future. Christian theologians tended to take the opposite point of view. Augustine contended that God exists outside of space and time, able to bring these constructs into existence as surely as he could forge other aspects of our world. When asked, “What was God doing before he created the world?” Augustine answered, “Time itself being part of God's creation, there was simply no before!”

Einstein's general theory of relativity led modern cosmologists to much the same conclusion. The theory holds that space and time are soft, malleable entities. On the largest scales, space is naturally dynamic, expanding or contracting over time, carrying matter like driftwood on the tide. Astronomers confirmed in the 1920s that our universe is currently expanding: distant galaxies move apart from one another. One consequence, as physicists Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose proved in the 1960s, is that time cannot extend back indefinitely. As you play cosmic history backward in time, the galaxies all come together to a single infinitesimal point, known as a singularity—almost as if they were descending into a black hole. Each galaxy or its precursor is squeezed down to zero size. Quantities such as density, temperature and spacetime curvature become infinite. The singularity is the ultimate cataclysm, beyond which our cosmic ancestry cannot extend.

The unavoidable singularity poses serious problems for cosmologists. In particular, it sits uneasily with the high degree of homogeneity and isotropy that the universe exhibits on large scales. For the cosmos to look broadly the same everywhere, some kind of communication had to pass among distant regions of space, coordinating their properties. Yet the idea of such communication contradicts the old cosmological paradigm.

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