The Origins of the Universe for Dummies
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Probing back to the origin of the universe involves a lot of estimation and guesswork. Imagine that the word ‘roughly’ is written before each date!

  • 0: The Big Bang. Time and space are created.

  • 10-43 seconds: Gravity separates from the three other fundamental forces (electromagnetism, and the weak and strong nuclear forces). This is the earliest time that theoretical physicists have probed so far. The strong force and electroweak forces become distinct soon after.

  • 10-35 seconds: The universe expands, undergoing a spectacular acceleration known as inflation. This process takes tiny regions of space and blows them up into much larger volumes, ironing out any wrinkles in the process.

  • 10-6 seconds: Particles gain mass. The electroweak forces break down into the electromagnetism and weak forces we observe today. Sub-atomic particles gain mass.

  • * 1 second: The first composite particles. Protons and neutrons form from a very hot soup of quarks and gluons.

  • 3 minutes: The first elements (mostly hydrogen and helium) form. The universe expands and cools so fast that heavier elements don’t even have a chance to be created.

  • 380,000 years: The universe’s temperature drops enough for the protons and neutrons to begin capturing electrons. Also, for the first time, light travels freely through space, and the fog of the early universe clears. This light is still detectable today as the cosmic microwave background.

  • 30 million years: Stars first appear in the universe. Computer models suggest that the first stars may have formed at this point, along with the creation of heavy elements.

  • 200 million years: The Milky Way forms. The Earth’s home galaxy was formed not long (well, in cosmic terms) after the first stars.

  • 9 billion years: The Earth’s solar system forms. The disk of material left over after the formation of the Sun begins to get clumpy.

  • 10 billion years: Life on Earth begins. The effect of harsh solar radiation and lightning on a primordial soup of organic material may have kick-started life.

  • 11 billion years: Oxygen accumulates in the atmosphere of the Earth. The essential gas for animals to breathe appears for the first time.

  • 13.5 billion years: Early humans evolve in Africa. Modern humans first appear on the continent and colonise the rest of the planet.

  • 13.7 billion years: You check out this list. The origins of the universe are explained!

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book authors:

Stephen Pincock has been writing about science for the past 15 years, after finishing a degree in Microbiology at the University of New South Wales, Australia, and realising that while the whole science thing is utterly fascinating, he was less than eager to spend the rest of his life peering down a microscope.
Stephen’s currently a regular science contributor to The Financial Times and The Lancet among many other publications, and is the international correspondent for The Scientist. For quite a while he was an editor at Reuters Health.

Mark Frary is a science and technology writer. He studied astronomy and physics at University College London, writing a dissertation on the production of positronium. While there, he worked at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory on atmospheric plasma physics. After completing his degree, he moved to Geneva and worked on the OPAL experiment at the European particle physics laboratory CERN.
Mark co-wrote the book You Call This The Future?, a look at the 50 best sciencefiction gadgets ever conceived and how they have become reality. He lives in Ampthill in Bedfordshire with his wife and two children.
Mark and Stephen are the authors of Codebreaker: The History of Secret Communication.

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