Golf ball singularity or the big bang?

20:54, Mar 26 2014
Joe Bennett
Joe Bennett is an English-born travel writer and columnist who lives in New Zealand with dogs. His columns are syndicated in newspapers throughout New Zealand.

In the beginning was the word and the word was bang. Or so the boffins have been telling us since the 1920s, and the more they look into it the more it seems that they are right. The universe began with a bang about 13.8 billion years ago.

As a little boy I sometimes lay in bed at night and worried about the universe. I wanted to know where it was. Everything had to be somewhere, I reasoned, but if the universe was somewhere there had to be something beyond it. What was that something? And what, in turn, was beyond that something, and beyond that, and beyond that, and my mind would reel and I'd feel existentially giddy and not a little scared.

Sometimes I'd put the question to adults who I thought ought to know.

"Where's the universe?" I'd say, "and what's beyond it?" Those that did more than pat me on the head and chuckle, all said the same thing. "The universe is infinite," they said, "which means it just goes on and on, world without end. So there's nothing beyond it but more of itself and your question has no meaning."

I considered that a cop-out, a non-answer. I still do.

Two hundred years ago a clever man could understand everything that was known by human beings. Five hundred years ago he could actually know it. There were people back then who held in their heads the whole of society's knowledge, walking encyclopedias before the non-walking sort existed. These renaissance men wrote poetry and laws, performed surgery, designed buildings, played musical instruments, commanded armies, bred animals, and advised monarchs on the best way to steal territory (which is just to go ahead and steal it. Because it is always easier to apologise later, if you have to, than to seek permission first. Ask Putin.).


Today, however, there are few renaissance men or women because in the last couple of centuries there has been an explosion in human knowledge, an intellectual big bang. The layman can now no more keep up with all the boffins than he can fly.

The archetypal boffin is and always will be Einstein, and the archetypal boffinism is and always will be his theory of relativity. That space can bend, that time can change speed, these and other bits of it seem so spectacularly improbable, that when experiment confirmed them it turned the world on its head. It showed that many of the truths we take to be self-evident are illusions.

Einstein was back in the news this week because boffins near the South Pole have confirmed a prediction of his about something that should have happened shortly after the Big Bang. Shortly means very shortly indeed, about one trillionth of a second into the life of the universe.

At that moment the universe was undergoing a period of inflation, expanding at many times the speed of light. It is true, of course, that nothing in the universe can go faster than the speed of light but this wasn't anything in the universe. This was the universe itself, expanding exponentially, expanding unimaginably, in the tiniest fraction of a second. And if your head doesn't reel at that idea you have a stronger head than I.

Anyway, Einstein calculated that forces would be generated in that moment that would warp light into a sort of spiral pattern. He called these spirals gravitational waves. And now the boffins on the ice have captured some light that is 13.8 billion years old and found those spiral patterns. It's not just a vindication of Einstein. It's also a powerful piece of evidence to suggest that the Big Bang happened just as the boffins have described.

And if it did we have to accept that a trillionth of a second before these gravitational waves were formed there was no universe. Nor was there time or space or gravity or anything. There was only the thing they call the singularity, a thing the size of a golf ball (though since space and dimensions did not yet exist the description is meaningless). The singularity comprised all the stuff that would later become the universe (and possibly several other parallel universes.)

I don't for one second understand the things that I have written above. I am in awe of the boffins who do and I accept their words on faith just as the medieval peasant accepted the Book of Genesis on faith. But the little boy in me still wants to ask two questions. He wants to know why the golf ball suddenly went bang.

But above all he wants to know why there was a golf ball at all.

The Southland Times