The Planck Era

Written by Sten Odenwald

Copyright (C) 1984 Kalmbach Publishing. Reprinted by permission

Astronomy Cafe

The Big Bang theory says that the entire universe was created in a tremendous explosion about 20 billion years ago. The enormity of this event is hard to grasp and it seems natural to ask ourselves 'What was it like then?' and 'What happened before the Big Bang?'. To try to answer these queries, lets take a brief journey backwards in time.
We first see the formation of our own sun about 15 billion years after the Big Bang and then by 5 billion years, the formation of the first galaxies. By 700,000 years, the universe is awash with the fireball radiation that keeps all matter at a temperature of 4,000 degrees. Because of this, darkness is completely absent since every point in the sky glows with the brilliance of the sun. No stars, planets or even dust grains exist, just a hot dense plasma of electrons, protons and helium nuclei. By 3 minutes, we see helium form from the fusion of hydrogen atoms while the universe seeths at a temperature of nearly 1 billion degrees. The average density of matter is that of lead. By 1 second, the Lepton Era ends and the ratio of neutrons to protons has become fixed at 1 neutron for every 5 protons. The temperature is now 5 billion degrees everywhere. At about .0001 second, we watch as the Quark Era ends and the temperature of the fireball radiation rises to an incredable 1 trillion degrees. Quarks, for the first time, can combine in groups of two and three to become neutrons, protons and other types of heavy particles. The universe is now packed with matter as densly as the nucleus of an atom. A mountain like Mt. Everest could be squeezed into a volume no greater than the size of a golf ball!

By 1 billionth of a second, the temperature is 1 thousand trillion degrees and we see the electromagnetic and weak forces merge into one force. The density of the universe has increased to the point where the entire earth could be contained in a thimble. Quarks and anti-quarks are no longer confined inside of particles like neutrons and protons but are now part of a superheated plasma of unbound particles. As the remaining history of the universe unfolds, a long period seems to pass when nothing really new happens. Then, at a time 10(-35) second after the Big Bang, a spectac ular change in the size of the universe occurs. This is the GUT Era when the strong nuclear force becomes distinguishable from the weak and electromagnetic forces. The temperature is an incredable 10 thousand trillion trillion degrees and the density of matter has sored to nearly 10(75) gm/cm3. This number is so enormous that even our analogies are almost beyond comprehension. At these densities, the entire Milky Way galaxy could easily be stuffed into a volume no larger than a single hydrogen atom! Electrons and quarks together with their anti-particles, were the major constituents of matter and very massive particles called Leptoquark Bosons caused the quarks to decay into electrons and vice versa. If we now move forward in time we would witness the vacuum of space undergoing a 'phase transition' from a higher energy state to a lower energy state. This is analogous to a ball rolling down the side of a mountain and coming to rest in the lowest valley. As the universe 'rolls down hill' it begins a brief but stupendous period of expansion. The universe swells to billions of times its former size in almost no time at all.

In addition to this, a slight excess of matter over anti-matter appears becaus of the decay of massive particles called X Higgs Bosons. As we continue to watch the universe age, the remaining pairs of particles and anti-particles find themselves and vanish in a tremendous burst of annihilation. From this paroxysm, the bulk of the fireball radiation that we now observe is born.

The GUT Era is the last stop in our fanciful journey through time. If we had asked what it was like before the GUT Era, we would immediately have entered a vast no mans land where few indisputable facts would serve to gui de us. What does seem clear is that gravity is destined to grow in importance, eventually becoming the dominant force acting between parti cles, even at the microscopic level.


According to theories developed since the 1930's, what we call a 'force' is actually a collective phenomenon caused by the exchange of innumerable, force-carrying particles called gauge bosons. The electromagnetic force, which causes like charges to attract and dissimilar ones to repel, is transmitted by gauge bosons called photons, the strong force that binds nucleii together is transmitted by gluons and the weak force which causes particles to decay is transmitted by the, recently discovered, W and Z Intermediate Vector Bosons. In an analogous way, physicists believe that gravity is transmitted by particles called Gravitons. If gravity really does have such a quantum property, its effects should appear once quarks and electrons can be forced to within 10(-33) centimeter of one another, a distance called the Planck length. To acheive these conditions, quarks and electrons will have to be collided at energies of 10(19) GeV. An accelerator patterned after the 2-mile, Stanford Linear Accelerator would have to be 1 light-year in length to push particles to these incredable energies! Fortunatly, what humans find impossible to do, Nature with its infinite resources finds less difficult. Before the universe was 10(-43) second old, matter routinely experienced collisions at these energies. This period is what we call the Planck Era.


Since our technology will not allow us to physically reproduce the conditions during these ancient times, we must use our mathematical theories of how matter behaves to mentally explore what the universe was like then. We know that the appearence of the universe before 10(-43) second can only be adequatly described by modifying the Big Bang theory because this theory is, in turn, based on the General Theory of Relativity. General Relativity tells us how gravity operates on the macroscopic scale of planets, stars and galaxies. At the Planck scale, we need to extend General Relativity so that it includes not only the macroscopic properties of gravity but also is microscopic characteristics as well. The theory of 'Quantum Gravity' is still far from completion but physicists tend to agree that, at the very least, Quantum Gravity must combine the conceptual elements of the two great theories of modern physics: General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics.

In the language of General Relativity, gravity is a consequence of the deformati on of space caused by the presence of matter and energy. Gravity is just another name for the amount of curvature in the geometry of 3-dimensional space. In Quantum Gravity theory, gravity is produced by massless gravitons so that gravitons now represent individual packages of curved space that travel through space at the speed of light.

The appearence and dissappearence of innumerable gravitons gives the geometry of space a very lumpy and dynamic appearance. John Wheeler at Princeton University thinks of this as a foamy, sub-structure to space where the geometry of space twists and contorts so that far flung regions of space may suddenly find themselves connected by 'wormholes' which constantly appear and dissappear within 10(-43) seconds. Even as you are reading this article, this frenetic activity is occurring in the hyper-microscopic domain, 100 billion billion times smaller than the nucleus of an atom. For a comparison, the size of the sun and the size of a single atom stand in about this same proportion. Although Quantum Gravity effects are completely undetectable today at the atomic and nuclear scale, during the Planck Era, macroscopic and microscopic worlds merged and the Quantum Gravity of the microcosm suddenly became the Quantum Cosmology of the macrocosm!


As we approach the end of the Planck Era, the random appearance and dissappearance of innumerable gravitons will eventually force us to give up the concept of a specific geometry to 3-dimensional space. Instead, the geometry at a given moment will have to be thought of as an average over all 3-dimensional space geometries that are possible. Once again, the reason for this is that particles are squeezed so closely together that we can now see individual gravitons moving around in the space between them causing space to become curved. We can no longer get away with saying that the space between two quarks, for example, is flat. This is what we mean when we say that the gravitational force between them is insignificant when compared to the other three forces of Nature.

To make matters much worse, not only will Quantum Gravity not allow us to calculate the exact 3-dimensional geometry to space but, at the Planck scale, it will not allow us to simultaneously determine its exact geometry and precise rate of change in time. What this means is that we may never be able to calculate with any certainty exactly what the history of the universe was like before 10-43 second. Today, the large-scale geometry of space is one of three possible types: flat and infinite, negatively curved and infinite or positively curved and finite. During the Planck Era, the 'large-scale' geometry was contorted by wormholes and and infinite number of possibilities were possible. To probe the history of the universe then would be like trying to trace your ancestral roots if every human being on earth had a possibility of being one of your parents. Now try to trace your family tree back a few generations! The farther back in time you go, the greater are the number of possible ancestors you could have had. An entirely new conception of what we mea n by 'a history for the universe' will have to be developed. Even the concepts of space and time will have to be completely re-evaluated in the face of the qua ntum fluctuations of spacetime at the Planck Era!


The picture that seems to emerge from using our sketchy outline of what Quantum Gravity theory might look like is that as we approach the Planck Era, gravitons are exchanged between quarks and electrons with increasingly higher energy and in greater number. By the time we reach the end of the Planck Era at 10(-43) second, gravitons will begin to carry as much energy as the other force carriers (Gluons, IVBs and Photons). At still earlier times, a period of complet e symmetry and unification between all the natural forces will ensue. Only one super-unified force exists here (gravity) and only one kind of particle dominates the activity of this age(Gravitons).

During the early 70's, the Russian physicists Ya. Zel'dovitch and A. Starobinski of the USSR Academy of Science proposed that the rapidly changing geometry of space during the Planck Era may actually have created all the matter, anti-matter and radiation that existed soon after Creation. In their picture of Creation, the rapidly changing geometry of space created particles and anti-particles with masses of 10(19) GeV. This production of matter and anti-matter removed energy from the enormous fluctuations occuring in the geometry of space and eventually succeeded in damping them out altogether by the end of the Planck Era. They also found that the rate of particle creation increased as more and more particles were created.

Several recent studies by Physicists Edward Tryon of Hunter College, R. Brout, F. Englert and E. Gunzig of the University of Brussels and david Atkatz and Heinz Pagels of the Rockefeller University have shed additional light on what Creation may have been like. Imagine if you can, nothing at all! This is the primordial vacuum of space. There is complete darkness here, no light yet exists. The number of dimensions to space was probably not the normal 3 that we are so accustomed to but may have been as high as 11 according to Supergravity theory! In this infinite emptiness, random fluctuations occurred that ever so slightly changed the energy of the vacuum at various points in space. Eventually, one of these fluctuations attained a critical energy and began to grow. As it grew, very massive particles called leptoquarks and anti-leptoquarks were created, causing the expansion to accelerate. This is much like a ball rolling down a hill that moves slowly at first and then gains momentum. The expansion of the proto-universe, in turn, caused still more leptoquarks to be created. This furious cycle continued until, at long last, the leptoquarks decayed into quarks, leptons (electrons, muons etc) and their anti-particles and the universe emerged from the Planck Era. Particle creation stopped once the fluctuations in the geometry of space subsided.

So, we are left with the remarkable possibility that, in the beginning, there ex isted quite literally, nothing at all and from it emerged nearly all of the matter and radiation that we now see. This process has been described by the physicist Frank Wilczyk at the University of California, Santa Barbara by saying, " The reason that there is something instead of nothing is that nothing is unstable". A ball sitting on the summit of a steep hill needs but the slightest tap to set it in motion. A random fluctuation in space was apparently all that was required to unleash the incredable latent energy of the vacuum, thus creating matter and energy and an expanding universe from 'nothing at all'.

The universe did not spring into being instantaneously but was created a little bit at a time in a 'bootstrap' process. Once a few particles were created by quantum fluctuations of the empty vacuum, it became easier for a few more to appear and so, in a rapidly escalating process, the universe gushed forth from nothingness.

How long did this take? The primordial vacuum could have existed for an eternity before the particular fluctuation that gave rise to our universe happened. Physicist Edward Tryon expresses this best by saying that " Our universe is simply one of those things that happens from time to time".

The principles of Quantum Gravity may ultimatly force us to reconsider questions like 'What happened before the Big Bang?' because they imply the existence of something (time) that may not have any meaning at all. These questions may be as empty of meaning as an explorer on the north pole asking, 'Which way is North?'. Only the complete theory of Quantum Gravity may tell us how to ask the right questions!