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The question of whether or not the universe had a beginning is, of course, by no means an easy question. When you ask a scientist a question that is not easy, he never gives just one answer, but instead gives a succession of answers. In this case, I would like to offer two levels of answers.

At the first level, I would argue that the answer to the question is yes, the universe had a beginning in the event that is usually referred to as the big bang.

I think that at least 99.9 percent of the people working in scientific cosmology today believe that the universe evolved from a hot dense state, exactly as Sandra Faber spoke about earlier. This theory is strongly supported by the direct observation of the expansion of the universe via the redshift of the light from distant galaxies, by the measurement of the abundances of the light chemical elements, and by the now very precise measurements of both the spectrum and the very small nonuniformities of the cosmic microwave background radiation. Thus, most scientists (including me) believe that the universe as we know it began in a “big bang” some 11 to 16 billion years ago.An excellent semi-popular-level book on the standard big bang theory is Steven Weinberg, The First Three Minutes, 2nd updated edition (Basic Books, 1993). For a technically more sophisticated approach,...

However, as Sandra has already emphasized, there is another level to the question of beginning. When cosmologists say that they are persuaded that the big bang theory is valid, they are using a rather precisely defined and restricted interpretation of the term "big bang. As it is used by scientists the term refers only to the expansion of the universe from an initially hot dense state. But it says nothing about whether the universe really began there, or whether there was something else that preceded what we call the big bang.

So, beyond the standard big bang, there is now a very significant body of research concerning the possibility of cosmic inflation.A. H. Guth, Phys. Rev. D 23, 347-356 (1981). ; A. D. Linde, Phys. Lett. 108B, 389-393 (1982). ; A. Albrecht and P. J. Steinhardt, Phys. Rev. Lett. 48, 1220-1223 (1982).For a semi-popular-level description of inflation the author recommends Alan H. Guth, The Inflationary Universe (Perseus Books, 1997). For a technical treatment, see Andrei Linde, Particle Physics and... Today I want to talk about inflation, and in particular I want to talk about a very likely ramification called eternal inflation. As you will see, the theory of inflation does not give a clear answer to the question of whether the universe had a beginning, but it does provide at least a context for discussing this question.

To begin, I would like to highlight the distinction between the questions that the standard big bang theory answers and the questions that inflation is intended to answer.

The standard big bang theory is, of course, a very significant scientific theory. It describes how the early universe expanded and cooled from an initially very hot dense state. It describes how the light chemical elements that we observe today were synthesized during the first 200 seconds or so of this expansion period. And finally, although work in this area is still in progress, it seems to describe very well how the matter in the universe eventually congealed to form the stars, galaxies, and clusters that we observe in the universe today.

There is, however, a key issue that the standard big bang theory does not discuss at all: it does not tell us what banged, why it banged, or what happened before it banged. Despite its name, the big bang theory does not describe the bang at all. It is really only the theory of the aftermath of a bang.

So, in particular, the standard big bang theory does not address the question of what caused the expansion; rather, the expansion of the universe is incorporated into the equations of the theory as an assumption about the initial state - the state of the universe when the theory begins its description.

Similarly, the standard big bang theory says nothing about where the matter in the universe came from. In the standard big bang theory all the matter that we see here, now, was already there, then. The matter was just very compressed, and in a form that is somewhat different from its present state. The theory describes how the matter evolved from one form to another as the universe evolved, but the theory does not address the question of how the matter originated.

While inflation does not go so far as to actually describe the ultimate origin of the universe, it does attempt to provide a theory of the bang: a theory of what it was that set the universe into expansion, and at the same time supplied essentially all of the matter that we observe in the universe today.

Contributed by: Dr. Alan Guth

Cosmic Questions

Did the Universe Have a Beginning? Topic Index
Eternal Inflation


How Does Inflation Work?
Evidence for Inflation
Eternal Inflation: Mechanisms
Eternal Inflation: Implications
Did the Universe Have a Beginning?


Alan Guth

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