ellie_l: (Phun Physics)
[personal profile] ellie_l
"Space," it says, "is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly hugely mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist, but that's just peanuts to space."
-The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Chapter 8

There was a time where all of this, the building you're in, the city you call home, the planet we walk on, the mountains of the Himalayas, the moon, the sun, Jupiter, Pluto, the North Star, the Andromeda galaxy, every swirling collection composed each of billions of stars in that picture above, All of Everything was much smaller. Smaller than a baseball, smaller than the tip of a needle, smaller than a piece of dust you see floating in the morning light, smaller than the cells that make up your finger, smaller than a single link on the chain of DNA, smaller than a single atom.

All of Everything was once small enough to hold in what has evolved over 13.7 billion years to become your hand.

Now, this time didn't last very long. The Universe remained this tiny for about 10-32 seconds at which point it began to rapidly grow in an era that cosmologists call "inflation." To put this number in comparison, the average length of a human blink is on the order of 10-4 seconds. The amount of time the Universe was tiny was 0.00000000000000000000000000000001 second.

The Universe is still expanding today although it's nowhere near the expansion that happened during this inflation period. It was during this inflation that we got a huge portion of the space that we think of when we look into the sky.

We wouldn't have survived in this early Universe, though. At this point in time all that existed and filled All of Everything was an extremely hot plasma made of the most basic of elementary particles. As things began to cool down this plasma began turning into things that we are more familiar with: electrons, protons, and neutrons. It also turned into the antimatter partners of these particles: positrons, anti-protons, and anti-neutrons.

The vast majority of this mix of matter and antimatter destroyed itself, as happens when any type of matter meets its antimatter partner. This sent off a huge burst of light as Most of Everything annihilated itself. The burst of light was so massive that we can still make it out today, although it is not in the visible range. Turn on a radio to a frequency where there is not station. That static you hear is called the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation. It's a remnant of an explosion that happened 13.7 billion years ago. It has been mapped recently by scientists and continues to be to ever greater resolution. You may have seen the image circulating and not have known what it was.

The Universe then began to cool and hydrogen atoms began to form. A hydrogen atom is made up of a proton in the center with an electron orbiting around it. Different types of hydrogen that are chemically the same are called isotopes, we get them by adding neutrons onto the proton in the middle. At this point there were no stars, no galaxies, just a bunch of space filled with the same material that we used to put in blimps. This time is called the Dark Ages.

Eventually these hydrogen atoms began getting closer together because of the force of gravity. Slowly they would coalesce into great disks of rotating gas. When enough hydrogen pulled together gravity acted on it so strongly that it could actually make two individual atoms of hydrogen (or, more specifically, the nuclei of two hydrogen atoms) fuse together to become an atom of helium. The huge amount of energy released during this nuclear fusion ignited the first stars.

Many of these stars were very large and burned through their hydrogen fuel extremely quickly and as such had short lives of less than a million years. When these stars would run out of hydrogen fuel they would be made up of helium, as that's what they had spent the million years producing. This helium would then come crashing inwards under the force of gravity and fuse into heavier elements. This would lead to lithium, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, all the way up to uranium. The material of the stars was pulled inward and then bounced off of the heavier core of the star in massive explosions we call novae and supernovae and spew what used to be their material outwards into the heavens. These explosions happened again and again and filled our universe with much more, albeit in much smaller quantities, than hydrogen.

Eventually smaller stars with much longer life spans came into existence. Our own sun ignited about 5 billion years ago and it will be another 5 billion years before it dies out. A swirling mass of hydrogen gas mixed with the heavier atoms created during the death throes of massive stars eventually found its way to our little corner of the Universe and as gravity pulled these pieces together our sun and planets began to form.

One particular planet which gathered much rock and water and happened to be just far enough away from the sun so that the water didn't evaporate and not so far that it all froze managed to collect enough material to create an atmosphere on it of nitrogen, oxygen, carbon, and hydrogen left over from the destruction of ancient stars.

On this small, blue, wet planet, life began to form. In the oceans conditions were right for proteins to fold together in a way that created the building blocks of life. DNA formed and developed protective cell walls, these cells began working together and created larger organisms that adapted to each of their unique environments and changing to meet new ones. Over the course of millennia this lead to strange upright mammals whose brains were wired in such a way as to be able to look into the night sky and think about all that must be out there and ask questions as to where it all came from.

Date: 2010-01-08 09:50 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] paradox-puree.livejournal.com
This post is awesome. Been watching Cosmos?

Date: 2010-01-08 10:23 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ellie-l.livejournal.com
A little bit. Actually, almost immediately after writing that I watched an episode that, well, described what I just wrote...

Really it came more out of a movie about Fermi Lab I saw on PBS the other day that made me really sad when it came to non-scientists view of science.

Date: 2010-01-08 09:52 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] paradox-puree.livejournal.com
And what a waste of energy. You blow up the majority of the universe to get a few meager specs out of it. Oy. Surely we could have instituted a more efficient system. Perhaps involving pie. I like pie.

Date: 2010-01-08 10:20 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ellie-l.livejournal.com
If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch you must first invent the universe.

Date: 2010-01-09 01:20 am (UTC)

Date: 2010-01-09 05:14 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] teraflops.livejournal.com
Thank you for posting this; it's wonderful.
I like this creation narrative a lot more than the much sillier ones I was told as a kid.

Date: 2010-01-09 03:57 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ellie-l.livejournal.com
And it's the only one that I can show you evidence of why we think it happened that way!

Date: 2010-01-10 04:11 am (UTC)

Date: 2010-01-11 10:43 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] greenie9.livejournal.com
Um....have I mentioned lately how much you FUCKING ROCK MY WORLD, MS. ELLIE?!?!?!

...Yeah.......not often enough it seems.

BTW - I wuv you.


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