The Big Bang is the cosmological model of the universe that is best supported by all lines of scientific evidence and observation. As used by scientists, the term Big Bang generally refers to the idea that the universe has expanded from a primordial hot and dense initial condition at some finite time in the past, and continues to expand to this day. Georges Lemaître proposed what became known as the Big Bang theory of the origin of the Universe, although he called it his 'hypothesis of the primeval atom'. The framework for the model relies on Albert Einstein's General Relativity as formulated by Alexander Friedmann. After Edwin Hubble discovered in 1929 that the distances to far away galaxies were generally proportional to their redshifts, this observation was taken to indicate that all very distant galaxies and clusters have an apparent velocity directly away from our vantage point. The farther away, the higher the apparent velocity. If the distance between galaxy clusters is increasing today, everything must have been closer together in the past. This idea has been considered in detail back in time to extreme densities and temperatures, and large particle accelerators have been built to experiment on and test such conditions, resulting in significant confirmation of the theory, but these accelerators have limited capabilities to probe into such high energy regimes. Without any evidence associated with the earliest instant of the expansion, the Big Bang theory cannot and does not provide any explanation for such an initial condition; rather, it describes and explains the general evolution of the universe since that instant. The observed abundances of the light elements throughout the cosmos closely match the calculated predictions for the formation of these elements from nuclear processes in the rapidly expanding and cooling first minutes of the universe, as logically and quantitatively detailed according to Big Bang nucleosynthesis.
Fred Hoyle is credited with coining the phrase 'Big Bang' during a 1949 radio broadcast, as a derisive reference to a theory he did not subscribe to. Hoyle later helped considerably in the effort to figure out the nuclear pathway for building certain heavier elements from lighter ones. After the discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation in 1964, and especially when its collective frequencies sketched out a blackbody curve, most scientists were fairly convinced by the evidence that some Big Bang scenario must have occurred.
In 1931 Lemaître went further and suggested that the evident expansion in forward time required that the universe contracted backwards in time, and would continue to do so until it could contract no further, bringing all the mass of the universe into a single point, a "primeval atom", at a point in time before which time and space did not exist. As such, at this point, the fabric of time and space had not yet come into existence. This perhaps echoed previous speculations about the cosmic egg origin of the universe.
Starting in 1924, Hubble painstakingly developed a series of distance indicators, the forerunner of the cosmic distance ladder, using the Hooker telescope at Mount Wilson Observatory. This allowed him to estimate distances to galaxies whose redshifts had already been measured, mostly by Slipher. In 1929, Hubble discovered a correlation between distance and recession velocity—now known as Hubble's law. Lemaître had already shown that this was expected, given the Cosmological Principle.
During the 1930s other ideas were proposed as non-standard cosmologies to explain Hubble's observations, including the Milne model, the oscillatory universe (originally suggested by Friedmann, but advocated by Einstein and Richard Tolman) and Fritz Zwicky's tired light hypothesis.
After World War II, two distinct possibilities emerged. One was Fred Hoyle's steady state model, whereby new matter would be created as the universe seemed to expand. In this model, the universe is roughly the same at any point in time. The other was Lemaître's Big Bang theory, advocated and developed by George Gamow, who introduced big bang nucleosynthesis and whose associates, Ralph Alpher and Robert Herman, predicted the cosmic microwave background radiation. Ironically, it was Hoyle who coined the phrase that came to be applied to Lemaître's theory, referring to it derisively as "this big bang idea" during a BBC Radio broadcast in March 1949. For a while, support was split between these two theories. Eventually, the observational evidence, most notably from radio source counts, began to favor the latter. The discovery and confirmation of the cosmic microwave background radiation in 1964 secured the Big Bang as the best theory of the origin and evolution of the cosmos. Much of the current work in cosmology includes understanding how galaxies form in the context of the Big Bang, understanding the physics of the universe at earlier and earlier times, and reconciling observations with the basic theory.
Huge strides in Big Bang cosmology have been made since the late 1990s as a result of major advances in telescope technology as well as the analysis of copious data from satellites such as COBE, the Hubble Space Telescope and WMAP. Cosmologists now have fairly precise measurement of many of the parameters of the Big Bang model, and have made the unexpected discovery that the expansion of the universe appears to be accelerating.
The earliest phases of the Big Bang are subject to much speculation. In the most common models, the universe was filled homogeneously and isotropically with an incredibly high energy density, huge temperatures and pressures, and was very rapidly expanding and cooling. Approximately 10−35 seconds into the expansion, a phase transition caused a cosmic inflation, during which the universe grew exponentially. After inflation stopped, the universe consisted of a quark-gluon plasma, as well as all other elementary particles. Temperatures were so high that the random motions of particles were at relativistic speeds, and particle-antiparticle pairs of all kinds were being continuously created and destroyed in collisions. At some point an unknown reaction called baryogenesis violated the conservation of baryon number, leading to a very small excess of quarks and leptons over antiquarks and anti-leptons—of the order of 1 part in 30 million. This resulted in the predominance of matter over antimatter in the present universe.
The universe continued to grow in size and fall in temperature, hence the typical energy of each particle was decreasing. Symmetry breaking phase transitions put the fundamental forces of physics and the parameters of elementary particles into their present form. After about 10−11 seconds, the picture becomes less speculative, since particle energies drop to values that can be attained in particle physics experiments. At about 10−6 seconds, quarks and gluons combined to form baryons such as protons and neutrons. The small excess of quarks over antiquarks led to a small excess of baryons over antibaryons. The temperature was now no longer high enough to create new proton-antiproton pairs (similarly for neutrons-antineutrons), so a mass annihilation immediately followed, leaving just one in 1010 of the original protons and neutrons, and none of their antiparticles. A similar process happened at about 1 second for electrons and positrons. After these annihilations, the remaining protons, neutrons and electrons were no longer moving relativistically and the energy density of the universe was dominated by photons (with a minor contribution from neutrinos).
A few minutes into the expansion, when the temperature was about a billion (one thousand million; 109; SI prefix giga) Kelvin and the density was about that of air, neutrons combined with protons to form the universe's deuterium and helium nuclei in a process called Big Bang nucleosynthesis. Most protons remained uncombined as hydrogen nuclei. As the universe cooled, the rest mass energy density of matter came to gravitationally dominate that of the photon radiation. After about 379,000 years the electrons and nuclei combined into atoms (mostly hydrogen); hence the radiation decoupled from matter and continued through space largely unimpeded. This relic radiation is known as the cosmic microwave background radiation.
Over a long period of time, the slightly denser regions of the nearly uniformly distributed matter gravitationally attracted nearby matter and thus grew even denser, forming gas clouds, stars, galaxies, and the other astronomical structures observable today. The details of this process depend on the amount and type of matter in the universe. The three possible types of matter are known as cold dark matter, hot dark matter and baryonic matter. The best measurements available (from WMAP) show that the dominant form of matter in the universe is cold dark matter. The other two types of matter make up less than 18% of the matter in the universe.
Independent lines of evidence from Type Ia supernovae and the CMB imply the universe today is dominated by a mysterious form of energy known as dark energy, which apparently permeates all of space. The observations suggest 72% of the total energy density of today's universe is in this form. When the universe was very young, it was likely infused with dark energy, but with less space and everything closer together, gravity had the upper hand, and it was slowly braking the expansion. But eventually, after numerous billion years of expansion, the growing abundance of dark energy caused the expansion of the universe to slowly begin to accelerate. Dark energy in its simplest formulation takes the form of the cosmological constant term in Einstein's field equations of general relativity, but its composition and mechanism are unknown and, more generally, the details of its equation of state and relationship with the Standard Model of particle physics continue to be investigated both observationally and theoretically.
All of this cosmic evolution after the inflationary epoch can be rigorously described and modeled by the ΛCDM model of cosmology, which uses the independent frameworks of quantum mechanics and Einstein's General Relativity. As noted above, there is no well-supported model describing the action prior to 10−15 seconds or so. Apparently a new unified theory of quantum gravitation is needed to break this barrier. Understanding this earliest of eras in the history of the universe is currently one of the greatest unsolved problems in physics.
These ideas were initially taken as postulates, but today there are efforts to test each of them. For example, the first assumption has been tested by observations showing that largest possible deviation of the fine structure constant over much of the age of the universe is of order 10−5. Also, General Relativity has passed stringent tests on the scale of the solar system and binary stars while extrapolation to cosmological scales has been validated by the empirical successes of various aspects of the Big Bang theory.
If the large-scale universe appears isotropic as viewed from Earth, the cosmological principle can be derived from the simpler Copernican Principle, which states that there is no preferred (or special) observer or vantage point. To this end, the cosmological principle has been confirmed to a level of 10−5 via observations of the CMB. The universe has been measured to be homogeneous on the largest scales at the 10% level.
The Big Bang is not an explosion of matter moving outward to fill an empty universe. Instead, space itself expands with time everywhere and increases the physical distance between two comoving points. Because the FLRW metric assumes a uniform distribution of mass and energy, it applies to our universe only on large scales—local concentrations of matter such as our galaxy are gravitationally bound and as such do not experience the large-scale expansion of space.
Hubble's law has two possible explanations. Either we are at the center of an explosion of galaxies—which is untenable given the Copernican Principle—or the universe is uniformly expanding everywhere. This universal expansion was predicted from general relativity by Alexander Friedman in 1922 and Georges Lemaître in 1927, well before Hubble made his 1929 analysis and observations, and it remains the cornerstone of the Big Bang theory as developed by Friedmann, Lemaître, Robertson and Walker.
The theory requires the relation to hold at all times, where is the proper distance, , and , , and all vary as the universe expands (hence we write to denote the present-day Hubble "constant"). For distances much smaller than the size of the observable universe, the Hubble redshift can be thought of as the Doppler shift corresponding to the recession velocity . However, the redshift is not a true Doppler shift, but rather the result of the expansion of the universe between the time the light was emitted and the time that it was detected.
That space is undergoing metric expansion is shown by direct observational evidence of the Cosmological Principle and the Copernican Principle, which together with Hubble's law have no other explanation. Astronomical redshifts are extremely isotropic and homogenous, supporting the Cosmological Principle that the universe looks the same in all directions, along with much other evidence. If the redshifts were the result of an explosion from a center distant from us, they would not be so similar in different directions.
Measurements of the effects of the cosmic microwave background radiation on the dynamics of distant astrophysical systems in 2000 proved the Copernican Principle, that the Earth is not in a central position, on a cosmological scale. Radiation from the Big Bang was demonstrably warmer at earlier times throughout the universe. Uniform cooling of the cosmic microwave background over billions of years is explainable only if the universe is experiencing a metric expansion, and excludes the possibility that we are near the unique center of an explosion.
During the first few days of the universe, the universe was in full thermal equilibrium, with photons being continually emitted and absorbed, giving the radiation a blackbody spectrum. As the universe expanded, it cooled to a temperature at which photons could no longer be created or destroyed. The temperature was still high enough for electrons and nuclei to remain unbound, however, and photons were constantly "reflected" from these free electrons through a process called Thomson scattering. Because of this repeated scattering, the early universe was opaque to light.
When the temperature fell to a few thousand Kelvin, electrons and nuclei began to combine to form atoms, a process known as _380.2C000_years. Since photons scatter infrequently from neutral atoms, radiation decoupled from matter when nearly all the electrons had recombined, at the epoch of last scattering, 379,000 years after the Big Bang. These photons make up the CMB that is observed today, and the observed pattern of fluctuations in the CMB is a direct picture of the universe at this early epoch. The energy of photons was subsequently redshifted by the expansion of the universe, which preserved the blackbody spectrum but caused its temperature to fall, meaning that the photons now fall into the microwave region of the electromagnetic spectrum. The radiation is thought to be observable at every point in the universe, and comes from all directions with (almost) the same intensity.
In 1964, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson accidentally discovered the cosmic background radiation while conducting diagnostic observations using a new microwave receiver owned by Bell Laboratories. Their discovery provided substantial confirmation of the general CMB predictions—the radiation was found to be isotropic and consistent with a blackbody spectrum of about 3 K—and it pitched the balance of opinion in favor of the Big Bang hypothesis. Penzias and Wilson were awarded a Nobel Prize for their discovery.
In 1989, NASA launched the Cosmic Background Explorer satellite (COBE), and the initial findings, released in 1990, were consistent with the Big Bang's predictions regarding the CMB. COBE found a residual temperature of 2.726 K and in 1992 detected for the first time the fluctuations (anisotropies) in the CMB, at a level of about one part in 105. John C. Mather and George Smoot were awarded Nobels for their leadership in this work. During the following decade, CMB anisotropies were further investigated by a large number of ground-based and balloon experiments. In 2000–2001, several experiments, most notably BOOMERanG, found the universe to be almost spatially flat by measuring the typical angular size (the size on the sky) of the anisotropies. (See shape of the universe.)
In early 2003, the first results of the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy satellite (WMAP) were released, yielding what were at the time the most accurate values for some of the cosmological parameters. This satellite also disproved several specific cosmic inflation models, but the results were consistent with the inflation theory in general, it confirms too that a sea of cosmic neutrinos permeates the universe, a clear evidence that the first stars took more than a half-billion years to create a cosmic fog. Another satellite like it will be launched within the next few years, the Planck Surveyor, which will provide even more accurate measurements of the CMB anisotropies. Many other ground- and balloon-based experiments are also currently running; see Cosmic microwave background experiments.
The background radiation is exceptionally smooth, which presented a problem in that conventional expansion would mean that photons coming from opposite directions in the sky were coming from regions that had never been in contact with each other. The leading explanation for this far reaching equilibrium is that the universe had a brief period of rapid exponential expansion, called inflation. This would have the effect of driving apart regions that had been in equilibrium, so that all the observable universe was from the same equilibrated region.
The measured abundances all agree at least roughly with those predicted from a single value of the baryon-to-photon ratio. The agreement is excellent for deuterium, close but formally discrepant for 4He, and a factor of two off for 7Li; in the latter two cases there are substantial systematic uncertainties. Nonetheless, the general consistency with abundances predicted by BBN is strong evidence for the Big Bang, as the theory is the only known explanation for the relative abundances of light elements, and it is virtually impossible to "tune" the Big Bang to produce much more or less than 20–30% helium. Indeed there is no obvious reason outside of the Big Bang that, for example, the young universe (i.e., before star formation, as determined by studying matter supposedly free of stellar nucleosynthesis products) should have more helium than deuterium or more deuterium than ³He, and in constant ratios, too.
Detailed observations of the morphology and distribution of galaxies and quasars provide strong evidence for the Big Bang. A combination of observations and theory suggest that the first quasars and galaxies formed about a billion years after the Big Bang, and since then larger structures have been forming, such as galaxy clusters and superclusters. Populations of stars have been aging and evolving, so that distant galaxies (which are observed as they were in the early universe) appear very different from nearby galaxies (observed in a more recent state). Moreover, galaxies that formed relatively recently appear markedly different from galaxies formed at similar distances but shortly after the Big Bang. These observations are strong arguments against the steady-state model. Observations of star formation, galaxy and quasar distributions and larger structures agree well with Big Bang simulations of the formation of structure in the universe and are helping to complete details of the theory.
The prediction that the CMB temperature was higher in the past has been experimentally supported by observations of temperature-sensitive emission lines in gas clouds at high redshift. This prediction also implies that the amplitude of the Sunyaev-Zel'dovich effect in clusters of galaxies does not depend directly on redshift; this seems to be roughly true, but unfortunately the amplitude does depend on cluster properties which do change substantially over cosmic time, so a precise test is impossible.
The core ideas of the Big Bang—the expansion, the early hot state, the formation of helium, the formation of galaxies—are derived from many independent observations including abundance of light elements, the cosmic microwave background, large scale structure and Type Ia supernovae, and can hardly be doubted as important and real features of our universe.
Precise modern models of the Big Bang appeal to various exotic physical phenomena that have not been observed in terrestrial laboratory experiments or incorporated into the Standard Model of particle physics. Of these features, dark energy and dark matter are considered the most secure, while inflation and baryogenesis remain speculative: they provide satisfying explanations for important features of the early universe, but could be replaced by alternative ideas without affecting the rest of the theory. Explanations for such phenomena remain at the frontiers of inquiry in physics.
A resolution to this apparent inconsistency is offered by inflationary theory in which a homogeneous and isotropic scalar energy field dominates the universe at some very early period (before baryogenesis). During inflation, the universe undergoes exponential expansion, and the particle horizon expands much more rapidly than previously assumed, so that regions presently on opposite sides of the observable universe are well inside each other's particle horizon. The observed isotropy of the CMB then follows from the fact that this larger region was in causal contact before the beginning of inflation.
Heisenberg's uncertainty principle predicts that during the inflationary phase there would be quantum thermal fluctuations, which would be magnified to cosmic scale. These fluctuations serve as the seeds of all current structure in the universe. Inflation predicts that the primordial fluctuations are nearly scale invariant and Gaussian, which has been accurately confirmed by measurements of the CMB.
The flatness problem (also known as the oldness problem) is an observational problem associated with a Friedmann-Lemaître-Robertson-Walker metric. The universe may have positive, negative or zero spatial curvature depending on its total energy density. Curvature is negative if its density is less than the critical density, positive if greater, and zero at the critical density, in which case space is said to be flat. The problem is that any small departure from the critical density grows with time, and yet the universe today remains very close to flat. Given that a natural timescale for departure from flatness might be the Planck time, 10−43 seconds, the fact that the universe has reached neither a Heat Death nor a Big Crunch after billions of years requires some explanation. For instance, even at the relatively late age of a few minutes (the time of nucleosynthesis), the universe must have been within one part in 1014 of the critical density, or it would not exist as it does today.
A resolution to this problem is offered by inflationary theory. During the inflationary period, spacetime expanded to such an extent that its curvature would have been smoothed out. Thus, it is believed that inflation drove the universe to a very nearly spatially flat state, with almost exactly the critical density.
A resolution to the horizon, flatness, and magnetic monopole problems alternative to cosmic inflation is offered by the Weyl curvature hypothesis.
During the 1970s and 1980s, various observations showed that there is not sufficient visible matter in the universe to account for the apparent strength of gravitational forces within and between galaxies. This led to the idea that up to 90% of the matter in the universe is dark matter that does not emit light or interact with normal baryonic matter. In addition, the assumption that the universe is mostly normal matter led to predictions that were strongly inconsistent with observations. In particular, the universe today is far more lumpy and contains far less deuterium than can be accounted for without dark matter. While dark matter was initially controversial, it is now indicated by numerous observations: the anisotropies in the CMB, galaxy cluster velocity dispersions, large-scale structure distributions, gravitational lensing studies, and X-ray measurements of galaxy clusters.
The evidence for dark matter comes from its gravitational influence on other matter, and no dark matter particles have been observed in laboratories. Many particle physics candidates for dark matter have been proposed, and several projects to detect them directly are underway.
Negative pressure is a property of vacuum energy, but the exact nature of dark energy remains one of the great mysteries of the Big Bang. Possible candidates include a cosmological constant and quintessence. Results from the WMAP team in 2008, which combined data from the CMB and other sources, indicate that the universe today is 72% dark energy, 23% dark matter, 4.6% regular matter and less then 1% of neutrinos. The energy density in matter decreases with the expansion of the universe, but the dark energy density remains constant (or nearly so) as the universe expands. Therefore matter made up a larger fraction of the total energy of the universe in the past than it does today, but its fractional contribution will fall in the far future as dark energy becomes even more dominant.
In the ΛCDM, the best current model of the Big Bang, dark energy is explained by the presence of a cosmological constant in the general theory of relativity. However, the size of the constant that properly explains dark energy is surprisingly small relative to naive estimates based on ideas about quantum gravity. Distinguishing between the cosmological constant and other explanations of dark energy is an active area of current research.
Modern observations of accelerated expansion imply that more and more of the currently visible universe will pass beyond our event horizon and out of contact with us. The eventual result is not known. The ΛCDM model of the universe contains dark energy in the form of a cosmological constant. This theory suggests that only gravitationally bound systems, such as galaxies, would remain together, and they too would be subject to heat death, as the universe expands and cools. Other explanations of dark energy—so-called phantom energy theories—suggest that ultimately galaxy clusters, stars, planets, atoms, nuclei and matter itself will be torn apart by the ever-increasing expansion in a so-called Big Rip.
While the Big Bang model is well established in cosmology, it is likely to be refined in the future. Little is known about the earliest moments of the universe's history. The Penrose-Hawking singularity theorems require the existence of a singularity at the beginning of cosmic time. However, these theorems assume that general relativity is correct, but general relativity must break down before the universe reaches the Planck temperature, and a correct treatment of quantum gravity may avoid the singularity.
There may also be parts of the universe well beyond what can be observed in principle. If inflation occurred this is likely, for exponential expansion would push large regions of space beyond our observable horizon.
Some proposals, each of which entails untested hypotheses, are:
Proposals in the last two categories see the Big Bang as an event in a much larger and older universe, or multiverse, and not the literal beginning.