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Time stand still. Photo: © 2010 Josh Blackmon. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution License.

What If the Universe Has Always Existed?

The BICEP2 gravitational waves discovery is officially dead. Most scientists still believe the Big Bang happened, and the case in its favor is still pretty solid, but we shouldn’t dismiss the alternatives. So what are we really saying if we say that time and matter didn’t originate with the Big Bang?

Egyptian scientist Ahmed Farag Ali and Canadian scientist Saurya Das have recently calculated one possible, mathematically sound answer: that the cosmic effects we attribute to the Big Bang may actually represent the steady state of a permanent universe that had no beginning. And even if their findings don’t hold up, it’s still entirely possible that the Big Bang represents a single event in the history of an infinitely old universe.

We haven’t reckoned with the implications of a finite or infinite universe; both seem to introduce problems we can’t resolve. If we say the universe exists because of the Big Bang and didn’t exist until the Big Bang happened, then we’re quite literally saying there was a point before time at which nothing became everything and exploded. I don’t think there are recreational drugs powerful enough to make that feel like a coherent idea.

But if we say the universe has always existed, that arguably makes even less sense. As University of Nottingham philosopher Mark Jago explains here, the idea of infinity is—perhaps by definition—marginally nonsensical, and certainly beyond our capacity to fully comprehend: 

Imagine the cosmological timeline we’re accustomed to dealing with: 13.8 billion years, give or take. How much of an infinite universe’s timescale does that represent? An infinitely small portion. Compare a single hydrogen molecule with the scale of the universe; now, consider the fact that 13.8 billion years is literally infinitely smaller in relation to the age of the universe than that. Everything that has ever happened since the beginning of observable time would be infinitely recent in the grand scheme of things—shorter than a tenth of a second relative to 100 trillion years. Our lives and all timescales we can comprehend would be, quite literally, infinitely brief.

But at least most astrophysicists accept the idea that the universe began with the Big Bang, right? Sure. But an increasing number of them also think that our universe came from other universes. And how far back do these other universes stretch? Well, if they go infinitely far back, we face the same paradoxes we face in an infinitely old universe. And if they have a beginning, we’re back to saying  that, at some point, nothing became everything and exploded. No matter what model of spacetime we accept, it probably won’t make any damn sense. Personally, I find that humbling—and a little bit liberating.

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  • RobertArend

    Perhaps the Universe exists only because I think it does. Perhaps everything–including all of you–are nothing more than than my imaginings. When I close my eyes and sleep, all else ceases to be until I reawaken and imagine the Universe again. Everything flashes off and on, every time my eyelids blink….

  • jb

    But where did everything come from? And why is there something rather than nothing?

  • mph23

    I’ve believed, for a while now, that the big bang (and a following collapse) creates and destroys our ‘universe’ regularly. This forms a vibration that exists inside a subatomic particle, which makes up some matter in an even larger universe. So, there are (nearly) infinite universes, across (nearly) infinite scales. Plus, there might be ‘universes’ that overlap ours, but share the same scale.

    Either that, or it’s all a simulation.

  • jcous

    Love that Blood Orange song

  • steve philbrook

    It’s really quite simple. It just takes a bit to wrap Your mind around. There cannot “be ” nothing, its a contradiction. So there has to be something. And since the nothing that would be if it could be, is infinite, TA -DA! An infinite universe (or multiverse) for Your viewing pleasure.

  • Justin Williams

    Your right.

  • Justin Williams

    Anything is possible. Nothing is impossible.

  • Nicky Love

    It always existed…