A recent episode of The Universe, the thought-provoking series about (you guessed it) the universe, explained man’s increasing understanding of the origin of the universe as well as our place in it. Through the work of Galileo, Kepler, Einstein and Hubble we’ve come to understand more about the true nature of our universe and discovered with some trepidation that the more we understand about our universe, the further removed we become from the center of it.
What got me thinking were two competing models of the origin of the universe from the late 1940s. (As an aside, it’s unbelievable that what seems like a given fact today about the origin and nature of the universe was only a theory as recently as 1965.) These two theories were the Big Bang theory behind the creation of the universe — perhaps you’ve heard of it? — versus the Steady State model, which states that while it is expanding, the universe did not originate in a single explosion, but the way it is now is the way it will always be through the steady but infinitesimal introduction of new matter.
SPOILER ALERT: The Big Bang model has become the accepted theory.
Anyway, the thing that concerned me was the amount of heavier elements in the universe. Steady State said that at the non-moment of creation, we got all the heavier elements we have now: carbon, nitrogen, iodine, whatever. The big bang states that all matter originally formed from hydrogen, which was later fused together in the core of stars. That makes everything in the universe a byproduct of solar fusion, or to borrow one of Carl Sagan’s more popular terms, we are “star stuff”.
But if the heat and pressure of billions and billions of tons of hydrogen at millions of degrees is enough to fuse hydrogen into heavier elements, why did the heat and pressure of the big bang (roughly the mass of everything compressed into a space the size of nothing) result in only the creation of hydrogen, nature’s lightest element?
The easy out here is that the rules of general relativity are kind of thrown out for oddball situations like the big bang or when mass, velocity, or scale are very large, but it seems atypical — or at least unusual — that the universe’s largest explosion produced just one kind of matter.