When the universe was born, it was a beginning like no other. There was no time, no space, no matter, no eyes to behold the moment when, in an ecstatic trillionth of a second, infinite energy exploded out of nothingness. From a ripple, smaller than an atom, the fabric of space and time flashed forth in seething vibrations as the newborn universe inflated faster than the speed of light to a size larger than a galaxy in almost no time at all. This was a detonation like none other, perfect in all its measurements: a trillionth of a second faster, and the universe would have spun out into nothingness; a trillionth of a second slower, and it would have collapsed back on itself. Inflation continued but no longer accelerated; gravity appeared as a fundamental force.
Ultrarapid expansion meant cooling, and the infant universe cooled to near absolute zero. In the process, other fundamental forces became distinct. As they separated, they gave out energy so that the universe, now a millionth of a second old, heated up again and created a cauldron of quarks and antiquarks that annihilated each other. From this seething chaos, only a billionth of the previously available mass survived as protons and neutrons.
After three minutes, from the surviving protons and neutrons, nuclei of hydrogen and helium were formed, yet the formation of atoms of these primordial gases took more time, in fact three hundred thousand years, as the positive protons captured the negatively charged electrons.
As matter and radiation separated, more energy was released in the form of radiation, and the entire universe ignited as a white-hot fireball, whose light is still detectable today and is known as cosmic microwave background radiation. At this point, the infant universe was still completely ruled by radiation. The only substance that existed was a submicroscopic precipitate, suspended in the white-hot fireball whose “light” consisted of powerful X-rays and gamma rays far too fierce to permit atoms to form.
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