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What happened before the Big Bang?

Astronomers and cosmologists have long ceded the question of what happened before the Big Bang? to the worlds religions. But now, new discoveries in astrophysics are shedding light on what may have existed before our universe boomed into existence. A new mathematical model suggests that another universes collapse probably gave birth to the one we live in today. Martin Bojowald, assistant professor of physics at Pennsylvania State University, suggests that the behavior of quantum matter affected how the Big Bang happened. Bojowold, and others, calls this new theory the Big Bounce. The theory has been proposed as an alternative to the Big Bang. It goes, more or less, thus: After a big bang, a universe expands for a while before the gravitational attraction of matter forces it to collapse back in on itself; a bounce then creates another universe. According to a recent Penn State news release, Bojowalds research is exploring the time before the Big Bang using a mathematical time machine called loop quantum gravity. Bojowolds work combines Einsteins Theory of General Relativity with equations of quantum physics that did not exist in Einsteins day; this Big Bounce theory opens a crack in the barrier that was the Big Bang. Einsteins Theory of General Relativity does not include the quantum physics that you must have in order to describe the extremely high energies that dominated our universe during its very early evolution, Bojowald explained. But we now have loop quantum gravity, a theory that does include the necessary quantum physics. Loop quantum gravity is now a leading approach to the goal of unifying general relativity with quantum physics. Scientists using this theory to trace our universe backward in time have found that its beginning point had a minimum volume that is not zero and a maximum energy that is not infinite. As a result of these limits, the theorys equations continue to produce valid mathematical results past the point of the classical Big Bang, giving scientists a window into the time before the Big Bounce. According to the Penn State release, Quantum-gravity theory indicates that the fabric of space-time has an atomic geometry that is woven with one-dimensional quantum threads. This fabric tears violently under the extreme conditions dominated by quantum physics near the Big Bounce, causing gravity to become strongly repulsive so that, instead of vanishing into infinity as predicted by Einsteins Theory of General Relativity, the universe rebounded in the Big Bounce that gave birth to our expanding universe. The theory reveals a contracting universe before the Big Bounce, with space-time geometry that otherwise was similar to that of our universe today. Perhaps the best way to describe the time before our universe was born is to picture a series of oscillating universes exploding into creation out of collapsing earlier universes. But even with sciences new ideas about the time before the Big Bang, the Ultimate Question of what got the entire creation ball rolling, remains beyond reach. Whats in the Sky: Look for the Moon, Mars, and the constellation Gemini high in the western sky after sunset this weekend. Mars is left of the Moon May 9; the Gemini twins Pollux and Castor are to the upper right. The Moon moves past Mars May 10. Lou Varricchio, M. Sc., lives in Vermont. He was a NASA senior science writer and worked on the defunct X-33 VentureStar space shuttle-replacement project. He is now part of the NASA-JPL Solar System Ambassador outreach-education program in Vermont. He is also managing editor for New Market Press newspapers.

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