Education

Origins of the Universe 101

[Narrator] The universe is everything. From the tiniest particles, to the largest galaxies, to the very existence ofspace, time, and life. But how did it all begin? The origin of the universeis the origin of everything. Multiple scientific theories plus creation myths from around the world have tried to explainits mysterious genesis. However, the most widelyaccepted explanation is the Big Bang theory.

The Big Bang theory statesthat the universe began as a hot and infinitely dense point. Only a few millimeterswide, it was similar to a supercharged black hole. About 13.7 billion years ago this tiny singularity violently exploded. And it is from this explosion, this bang, that all matter, energy,space, and time were created. What happened next were two major stages of the universe’s evolution.

Called the radiation and matter eras, they’re defined by key events that helped shape the universe. First came the radiation era, named for the dominance of radiation right after the Big Bang.

This era is made ofsmaller stages call epochs that occurred within the universe’s first tens of thousands of years. The earliest is the Planck epoch. No matter existed in theuniverse at this time, only energy and the ancestor to the four forces ofnature, the superforce.

At the end of this stage, however, a key event occurred in which gravity split away from the superforce. Next came the grand unification epoch, named for the three remainingunified forces of nature. This epoch ended when one of those forces, called strong, or strongnuclear, broke away.

Then the inflationary epoch began during which the universerapidly expanded. Almost instantly it grewfrom the size of an atom to the size of a grapefruit. The universe at this time was piping hot and it churned with electrons,quarks, and other particles. Then came the electroweak epoch, when the last two forces,electromagnetic and weak, finally split off. During the next stage, the quark epoch, all of the universe’singredients were present, however, the universe wasstill too hot and dense for subatomic particles to form.

Then, in the hadron epoch, theuniverse cooled down enough for quarks to bind togetherand form protons and neutrons. In the lepton and nuclear epics, the radiation era’s last two stages, the protons and neutronsunderwent a significant change. They fused and created nuclei. And in doing so, they created the first chemical element in the universe, helium. The universe’s newability to form elements, the building blocks of matter, queued the matter era. Much as the name suggests,the matter era’s defined by the presence and predominance of matter in the universe. It features three epochsthat span billions of years.

The vast majority of theuniverse’s life span, and includes the present day. The first was the atomic epoch. In this stage, the universe’s temperature cooled down enough for electrons to attach to nuclei for the first time. Called recombination,this process helped create the universe’s second element, hydrogen. This hydrogen, along with helium atoms, dotted the universe with atomic clouds.

Within the clouds, small pockets of gas may have had enough gravityto cause atoms to collect. These clusters of atoms, formedduring the galactic epoch, became the seedlings of galaxies.

Nestled inside thosegalaxies, stars began to form. And in doing so, they queued the latest and current stage of theuniverse’s development, the stellar epoch. The formation of stars then caused a tremendous ripple effect and helped shape theuniverse as we know it.

Heat within the starscaused the conversion of helium and hydrogen into almost all the remaining elements in the universe. In turn, those elementsbecame the building blocks for planets, moons, life, everything we see today. This ecosystem ofeverything was only possible because of the many stages inthe universe’s development.

While countless questionsabout the origins of our universe remain,it’s only a matter of time for some long-sought answers to emerge.

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