When Was the First Light in the Universe?

When Was the First Light in the Universe?


The speed of light gives us an amazing tool for studying the Universe. Because light only travels a mere 300,000 kilometers per second, when we see distant objects, we’re looking back in time.

You’re not seeing the Sun as it is today, you’re seeing an 8 minute old Sun. You’re seeing 642 year-old Betelgeuse. 2.5 million year-old Andromeda. In fact, you can keep doing this, looking further out, and deeper into time. Since the Universe is expanding today, it was closer in the past.

Run the Universe clock backwards, right to the beginning, and you get to a place that was hotter and denser than it is today.  So dense that the entire Universe shortly after the Big Bang was just a soup of protons, neutrons and electrons, with nothing holding them together.

Illustration of the Big Bang Theory
The Big Bang Theory: A history of the Universe starting from a singularity and expanding ever since. Credit: grandunificationtheory.com

In fact, once it expanded and cooled down a bit, the entire Universe was merely as hot and as dense as the core of a star like our Sun. It was cool enough for ionized atoms of hydrogen to form.

Because the Universe has the conditions of the core of a star, it had the temperature and pressure to actually fuse hydrogen into helium and other heavier elements. Based on the ratio of those elements we see in the Universe today: 74% hydrogen, 25% helium and 1% miscellaneous, we know how long the Universe was in this “whole Universe is a star” condition.

It lasted about 17 minutes. From 3 minutes after the Big Bang until about 20 minutes after the Big Bang.  In those few, short moments, clowns gathered all the helium they would ever need to haunt us with a lifetime of balloon animals.

The fusion process generates photons of gamma radiation. In the core of our Sun, these photons bounce from atom to atom, eventually making their way out of the core, through the Sun’s radiative zone, and eventually out into space. This process can take tens of thousands of years. But in the early Universe, there was nowhere for these primordial photons of gamma radiation to go. Everywhere was more hot, dense Universe.

The Universe was continuing to expand, and finally, just a few hundred thousand years after the Big Bang, the Universe was finally cool enough for these atoms of hydrogen and helium to attract free electrons, turning them into neutral atoms.

Artist's impression of how huge cosmic structures deflect photons in the cosmic microwave background (CMB). Credit: ESA and the Planck Collaboration
Artist’s impression of how huge cosmic structures deflect photons in the cosmic microwave background (CMB). Credit: ESA and the Planck Collaboration

This was the moment of first light in the Universe, between 240,000 and 300,000 years after the Big Bang, known as the Era of Recombination. The first time that photons could rest for a second, attached as electrons to atoms. It was at this point that the Universe went from being totally opaque, to transparent.

And this is the earliest possible light that astronomers can see. Go ahead, say it with me: the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation. Because the Universe has been expanding over the 13.8 billion years from then until now, the those earliest photons were stretched out, or red-shifted, from ultraviolet and visible light into the microwave end of the spectrum.

If you could see the Universe with microwave eyes, you’d see that first blast of radiation in all directions. The Universe celebrating its existence.

After that first blast of light, everything was dark, there were no stars or galaxies, just enormous amounts of these primordial elements. At the beginning of these dark ages, the temperature of the entire Universe was about 4000 kelvin. Compare that with the 2.7 kelvin we see today. By the end of the dark ages, 150 million years later, the temperature was a more reasonable 60 kelvin.

Artist's concept of the first stars in the Universe turning on some 200 million years after the Big Bang. These first suns were made of almost pure hydrogen and helium. They and later generations of stars cooked up the heavier elements from these simple ones. Credit: NASA/WMAP Science Team
Artist’s concept of the first stars in the Universe turning on some 200 million years after the Big Bang. These first suns were made of almost pure hydrogen and helium. They and later generations of stars cooked up the heavier elements from these simple ones. Credit: NASA/WMAP Science Team

For the next 850 million years or so, these elements came together into monster stars of pure hydrogen and helium. Without heavier elements, they were free to form stars with dozens or even hundreds of times the mass of our own Sun. These are the Population III stars, or the first stars, and we don’t have telescopes powerful enough to see them yet. Astronomers indirectly estimate that those first stars formed about 560 million years after the Big Bang.

Then, those first stars exploded as supernovae, more massive stars formed and they detonated as well. It’s seriously difficult to imagine what that time must have looked like, with stars going off like fireworks. But we know it was so common and so violent that it lit up the whole Universe in an era called reionization. Most of the Universe was hot plasma.

Scientists have used ESO’s Very Large Telescope to probe the early Universe at several different times as it was becoming transparent to ultraviolet light. This brief but dramatic phase in cosmic history — known as reionisation — occurred around 13 billion years ago. By carefully studying some of the most distant galaxies ever detected, the team has been able to establish a timeline for reionisation for the first time. They have also demonstrated that this phase must have happened quicker than astronomers previously thought.
Scientists have used ESO’s Very Large Telescope to probe the early Universe at several different times as it was becoming transparent to ultraviolet light. This brief but dramatic phase in cosmic history — known as reionisation — occurred around 13 billion years ago.

The early Universe was hot and awful, and there weren’t a lot of the heavier elements that life as we know it depends on. Just think about it. You can’t get oxygen without fusion in a star, even multiple generations. Our own Solar System is the result of several generations of supernovae that exploded, seeding our region with heavier and heavier elements.

As I mentioned earlier in the article, the Universe cooled from 4000 kelvin down to 60 kelvin. About 10 million years after the Big Bang, the temperature of the Universe was 100 C, the boiling point of water. And then 7 million years later, it was down to 0 C, the freezing point of water.

This has led astronomers to theorize that for about 7 million years, liquid water was present across the Universe… everywhere. And wherever we find liquid water on Earth, we find life.

An artists illustration of the early Universe. Image Credit: NASA
An artists illustration of the early Universe. Image Credit: NASA

So it’s possible, possible that primitive life could have formed with the Universe was just 10 million years old. The physicist Avi Loeb calls this the habitable Epoch of the Universe. No evidence, but it’s a pretty cool idea to think about.

I always find it absolutely mind bending to think that all around us in every direction is the first light from the Universe. It’s taken 13.8 billion years to reach us, and although we need microwave eyes to actually see it, it’s there, everywhere.

Big Bang Theory: Evolution of Our Universe

Illustration of the Big Bang Theory

How was our Universe created? How did it come to be the seemingly infinite place we know of today? And what will become of it, ages from now? These are the questions that have been puzzling philosophers and scholars since the beginning the time, and led to some pretty wild and interesting theories. Today, the consensus among scientists, astronomers and cosmologists is that the Universe as we know it was created in a massive explosion that not only created the majority of matter, but the physical laws that govern our ever-expanding cosmos. This is known as The Big Bang Theory.

For almost a century, the term has been bandied about by scholars and non-scholars alike. This should come as no surprise, seeing as how it is the most accepted theory of our origins. But what exactly does it mean? How was our Universe conceived in a massive explosion, what proof is there of this, and what does the theory say about the long-term projections for our Universe?

Continue reading “Big Bang Theory: Evolution of Our Universe”

What Would It Be Like To Fall Into A Black Hole?

Let’s say you happened to fall into the nearest black hole? What would you experience and see? And what would the rest of the Universe see as this was happening?

Let’s say you decided to ignore some of my previous advice. You’ve just purchased yourself a space dragon from the Market on the Centauri Ringworld, strapped on your favorite chainmail codpiece and sonic sword and now you’re going ride head first into the nearest black hole.

We know it won’t take you to another world or galaxy, but what would you experience and see on your way to your inevitable demise? And what would the rest of the Universe see as this was happening, and would they point and say “eewwwwww”?

If you were falling toward a black hole, most of the time you would simply feel weightless, just as if you were playing Bowie songs and floating in a most peculiar way in the International Space Station. The gravity of a black hole is just like the gravity of any other large mass, as long as you don’t get too close. But, as we’ve agreed, you’re ignoring my advice and flying dragon first into this physics nightmare. As you get closer, the gravitational forces on various parts of your and your dragon’s body would be different. Technically this is always true, but you wouldn’t notice it… at least at first.

Suppose you were falling feet first toward a black hole. As you got closer, your feet would feel a stronger force than your head, for example. These differences in forces are called tidal forces. Because of the tidal forces it would feel as if you are being stretched head to toe, while your sides would feel like they are being pushed inward. Eventually the tidal forces would become so strong that they would rip you apart. This effect of tidal stretching is sometimes boringly referred to as spaghettification.

I’ve made up some other names for it, such as My Own Private String Cheese Incident, “the soft-serve effect” and “AAAHHHHH AHHHH MY LEGS MY LEGS!!!”.

So, let’s summarize. You wouldn’t survive falling toward a black hole because you wouldn’t listen. Why won’t you ever listen?

A friend watching you fall toward a black hole would never see you reach the black hole. As you fall towards it, gravity would cause any light coming from you to be redshifted. So as you approached the black hole you would appear more and more reddish, and your image would appear dimmer and dimmer. Your friend would see you redden and dim as you approach, but never quite reach, the event horizon of the black hole. If they could still see you past this point, there would be additional red from the inside of you clouding up the view.

Artist's conception of the event horizon of a black hole. Credit: Victor de Schwanberg/Science Photo Library
Artist’s conception of the event horizon of a black hole. Credit: Victor de Schwanberg/Science Photo Library

Hypothetically, if you could survive crossing the event horizon of a black hole, what
would you see then? Contrary to popular belief, you would not see the entire future of the universe flash before you.

What you would see is the darkness of the black hole fill your view and as you approached the event horizon you would see stars and galaxies on the edge of your view being gravitationally lensed by the black hole. The sky would simply appear more and more black until you reach the event horizon.

Many people think that it is at the event horizon where you would be ripped apart, and at the event horizon all sorts of strange things occur. Unfortunately, this goes along with those who suspect black holes are actually some sort of portal. For a solar mass black hole, the tidal forces near the event horizon can be quite large, but for a supermassive black hole they aren’t very large at all.

In fact, the larger the black hole, the weaker the tidal forces near its event horizon. So if you happened to be near a supermassive black hole, you could cross the event horizon without really noticing. Would you still be totally screwed? YOU BETCHA!

What do you think? If you could drop anything into a black hole, what would it be? Tell us in the comments below.