When Did Time Really Begin? The Little Loophole in the Big Bang
A pleasurable warping of the figuring faculty to contemplate what was there before the before.
By Maria Popova
“Time says ‘Let there be,'” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote shortly before her death in her splendid “Hymn to Time,” saluting the invisible dimension that pervades and encompasses the whole of life: “the radiance of each bright galaxy. And eyes beholding radiance. And the gnats’ flickering dance. And the seas’ expanse. And death, and chance.”
But what does time say of the time before there was anything to let be, the time before being?
“The concept of time has no meaning before the beginning of the universe,” Stephen Hawking wrote in his groundbreaking 1988 book A Brief History of Time (public library) — a work of such far-reaching and lasting impact that it awakened the popular imagination to the fundamental physics of reality and, thirty years later, inspired one of the most beautiful and poignant poems of all time.
In the foreword to the final edition of the book published in his lifetime, Hawking quoted Richard Feynman’s exultation at how fortunate we are to live in an age when we are still discovering the fundamental laws of nature. Inevitably, this means we are still understanding the nature of time. As we come closer and closer to accepting that the universe might be not infinite but finite, and that Einstein’s relativity, as revolutionary as it was, has important limitations, the notion that time began at the Big Bang singularity has begun to dissolve into something more complex — and more thrilling: We might say that in the beginning of time, there was no time; but we might equally say that in the beginning of time, there was only time. (Borges touched the poetic truth behind and before the scientific fact in his exquisite refutation of time.)
In this invigorating PBS segment, New York-based Australian astrophysicist Matt O’Dowd delves into the science and splendor of when time actually began and what that illuminates about the nature of a universe which contains everything we know, including the mind that does the knowing, yet one which we are still getting to know:
In this next segment, O’Dowd considers the possibilities, as presently understood, of what might have happened before the Big Bang:
Complement with science historian James Gleick on how our cultural obsession with the scientific impossibility of time travel illuminates the central mystery of consciousness, then treat yourself to Nina Simone’s meditation on time and poet Marie Howe’s stunning ode to Hawking’s singularity.
Published May 25, 2020