The Big Bang - Before and After

Sunday, May 12, 2019
First Aired: 
Sunday, August 14, 2016

What is it

The Big Bang theory is the prevailing theory about the “birth” of the universe. It posits a singularity, or super high density state from which the entire universe expanded and continues to expand. But what exactly is the Big Bang, and what’s the evidence that it took place? How do we account for the “Big Bang state”? Was there something before the Big Bang? What does the theory posit about the future of the universe? And what role does philosophy play in answering these mysteries? John and Ken have a singular conversation with Katherine Freese from the University of Michigan, author of The Cosmic Cocktail: Three Parts Dark Matter.

Part of our series A Philosophical Guide to the Cosmos.

Listening Notes

The Big Bang must have been one hell of an explosion, John remarks! But Ken says that it likely wasn’t an explosion. An explosion would require matter being thrown out in all directions, and it could not have happened that way – notions like outward or centered only apply to things that happen in a place, and the Big Bang didn’t happen in a place. John is befuddled. The Big Bang happened…nowhere? How could that be, when everything happens somewhere? It’s the very notion of a priori. Ken says this applies only to things after the Big Bang. The Big Bang itself is what created space in the first place. John is still puzzled – so what’s on the other side of space, then? Furthermore, he adds, modern cosmology says the universe is expanding, so it has to be expanding into something, that something being pre-existing empty space. And what caused the Big Bang? Causes precede their effects in time! If nothing preceded the Big Bang, where did it come from? The two discuss these questions and more in the upcoming segments.

John and Ken welcome guest Katherine Freese, Professor of Physics at the University of Michigan and author of The Cosmic Cocktail: Three Parts Dark Matter. John asks Katherine what got her interested in studying the hard, deep, esoteric questions about the origins of the universe. She explains that she went to an all-girls high school that didn’t offer physics, so she took a summer school class, and by the time they got to Einstein’s theory of relativity, she was sold. She majored in physics in college, and the rest unfolded. John follows up on his opening statements: if the Big Bang wasn’t an explosion, then just what was it? Katherine explains that the very earliest times of the universe were basically a primordial soup of densely packed particles – of quarks, electrons, dark matter particles, and so forth. These interacted with each other constantly, and as the universe began to cool down, some of these particles began to merge. What it comes down to, Katherine says, is: the universe started off as really hot, then began cooling down and expanding to create the structures – stars, galaxies – that we now recognize. The expansion wasn’t sudden, it wasn’t an explosion, per se. Ken then wonders about how much space there really was at the beginning. Katherine explains that if the universe is infinite, as scientists now believe, then even if you squeeze all the things in the universe tightly together, you still have some degree of things you cannot condense.

Ken asks Katherine about the pillars of the Big Bang. This includes wondering what the role of background microwave radiation plays in the Big Bang. Microwave radiation is everywhere, Katherine explains, and the hot early phase needed to happen to give rise to the photons that we have today. Ken also asks Katherine: what does dark matter have to do with the Big Bang? Katherine responds by adding another question to the mix: what is the universe made of? Everything – from our bodies to the stars – only adds up to 5% of the universe. So what is the other 95%? The trio discuss.

Katherine, John, and Ken welcome questions from the audience, and they continue the discussion by tackling questions such as: was there an order to the creation of the elements? What’s the origin of the nomenclature “Dark Matter?” Is it because we don’t understand it, or is it due to something else?

• Roving Philosophical Reporter (Seek to 7:58): Shuka Kalantari tracks down the ultimate origins of the universe with Lawrence Krauss, from Arizona State University. He discusses two theories for what came before the Big Bang: either nothing or a multiverse. He discusses how we cannot seek a cause for the Big Bang, because the notion of cause and effect is tied to space and time, which did not exist pre-Big Bang.

• 60-Second Philosopher (Seek to 48:30): Ian Shoales starts from the beginning and speeds through the role of faith in understanding the beginning of the universe. 

Comments (3)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, April 29, 2019 -- 12:09 PM

Revisiting the comments from

Revisiting the comments from 2016, I thought I'd see if there was anything new to say about this great cosmological mystery. I have, since that time (2016), been writing some things marginally philosophical. The great thing about physics and cosmology is that these fields offer much room for philosophic musings. And food for other aspects of imagination. In a short paper, titled: To Infinity, and Then Some, I wrote my notions about the significance of infinity, in light of some of those of men like Locke. Mr. Locke worried the topic almost into a migraine, without really saying much of anything intelligible. I said that it really did not matter a whole lot what we think about infinity. It has little impact upon everyday life (unless you are a thinker, physicist, cosmologist, or philosopher). It is not a destination. Nor is it a goal or an objective. Neither you nor I nor anyone else will ever get there, because there is no 'there' to get to. So what about this big bang thing? Pretty much the same blind alley, seems to me. Unless understanding leads to practical applications (such as, say, interstellar travel) the science of such knowledge is nice to know---maybe even elegant, but not all that useful to the pragmatist. When we let the atomic D jinn out of his bottle, we found out, soon enough the problematic of all that. So, do not worry over the Big Bang. Unless you fear a collapsing universe. Even then, it is well to remember there is diddly you can do about it.

detail's picture


Thursday, May 9, 2019 -- 4:39 AM

The problem of stating a big

The problem of stating a big bang is the problem of solving the einstein equations correctly according to the boundary conditions. At exactly that state mathematical considerations come into place , how about two charged rotating black holes in the galaxy and a simple capacitor that is getting loaded in lets say 60 parsec's distance, although the loading of a capacitor is a simple thing in electrostatics it turns out that that exactly this loading in a quite far neglectable distance could be some kind of unsolvable for general relativity. How come that the boundary
conditions are some kind of obstruse to formulate the problem of loading a capacitor in a superfar distance of two
rotating and charged black holes. This is an astronomical event , due to the fact , that interstellar clouds can load via
friction huge amount of charges and then destore it via deloading via two cloud fronts of two interstellar clouds.
Thus the weird imagination of charging a capacitor in a large distance is set to real existing astronomical features , two clouds , producing via friction against each other the charging of a capacitor , but how to fomulate the solving of the boundary conditons for the differential forms of general relativity. Is there truly a unique solution ? Who knows , perhaps i will never perceive a glimpse to this question.

stevegoldfield's picture


Sunday, May 12, 2019 -- 11:19 AM

There is a basic

There is a basic misconception in your presentation today. Cosmologists such as Max Tegmark believe that our universe, which started with a big bang, is only one of many universes with a variety of physical laws and values for fundamental constants. The universe we live in has physical constants which allow life to evolve. There could be other such universes along with universes with no life. So, it is a mistake to speak of "the universe" when you are speaking only about our universe. These ideas spring from string and brane theory.



Katherine Freese, Professor of Physics, University of Michigan


Bonus Content


Upcoming Shows

26 May 2019

John Dewey and the Ideal of Democracy

John Dewey is regarded by some as the American philosopher. In the first half of the 20th century, he stood as the most prominent public intellectual...

02 June 2019

Matter and Energy - The Dark Side

All the matter we have ever observed accounts for less than 5% of the universe. The rest? Dark energy and dark matter: mysterious entities that we...

09 June 2019

The Limits of Tolerance

In order to reach compromise, people try to be tolerant of others with different beliefs. Despite its value, there are numerous factors that may...