What Came Before the Big Bang?

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Even as a boy watching the first moon landing on TV, Brian Clegg remembers wondering, "How did it all begin?" In his latest book, Before the Big Bang, the Cambridge-educated writer examines the theories that physicists and philosophers alike have put forth to explain how we got here. TIME spoke with Clegg about science as a social network, thinking outside of the box without losing his mind, and using Buffy the Vampire Slayer to explain Einstein.

In your book, you describe the Big Bang theory as having "the feeling of something held together with a Band-Aid."

Scientists will often portray the Big Bang as if it were known fact, but it isn't. It's a theory within a very speculative field of science, cosmology, which is about as speculative as it gets. I'm not saying the Big Bang theory isn't true, but it's a work in progress.

So what are some of the theory's major flaws?

There's an expectation that the Big Bang should have produced a rippling effect, almost like an aftershock, where we could see subtle variations in gravity that have carried on ever since then. A lot of money has been spent on experiments to try and detect these gravity waves and they literally have never, ever found anything. Even if they do exist, they're probably not at levels we could detect. And why did it happen at all? There is no sensible answer for the Big Bang unless you move over into the religious side and say, "Well, it began because God began it." That's why quite a lot of scientists are nervous about the Big Bang. They quite prefer having something that doesn't require somebody sort of poking a finger in and saying, "Now it's starting."

I was disturbed to read that many scientists refuse to question the Big Bang theory because they'd built their careers on it.

The fact is science is like any other social network. It's a lot easier to go along with the crowd. Every now and then there's a revolution in science, a paradigm shift, like when Einstein came along, but it's so easy to lock people into a particular way of thinking, of trying to build on the ideas that are in vogue. In the end, there is almost a fashion in science — ideas that are in, ideas that are out.The origins of the term "Big Bang" are surprising, given that it was coined by a scientist who disagreed with the theory.

A man named Fred Hoyle came up with it during a popular science radio broadcast and he was essentially putting the theory down. He was really almost laughing at the idea. Take the concept of a black hole — this thing that nothing can get out of. Even if that idea doesn't quite fit with reality, the concept itself takes on a life of its own.

But some concepts, as you wrote in your book, still have to be translated with pop culture references like The Matrix or Groundhog Day.

So often, when people are trying to put science across, they fall into a trap of using too much jargon. When you hear a scientist speaking on the news, it does sometimes make you cringe a bit. I have to say, one of my favorite TV shows — and I don't know that I should admit this — is Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and I did go through a phase of four or five books in a row of finding a way of using Buffy the Vampire Slayer as an illustration. [Laughs]

It goes both ways too. Going back to Fred Hoyle, the guy behind the theory that competed with The Big Bang, he and his colleagues partly built their idea around a popular film at the time, Dead of Night, which was a horror movie where the last scene was the same as the first scene; it never actually had a beginning or end. They all saw this movie and said, "Yes, that's exactly what we're thinking of — a universe that goes around in a cycle that never has a beginning or an end."

You also wrote about new tools that could shed some light on the origins of the universe, like the Large Hadron Collider, which some critics still argue could wreak havoc on the world.

One of the things people fear is that it's going to produce black holes. If it did produce black holes, they'd be extremely small ones. Black holes aren't like a vacuum cleaner, sucking everything in and getting bigger and bigger. A small black hole actually caves in. It disappears. I think it's reasonable for people to be worried, just because it is pushing things further than we ever have before. It's the biggest, most complicated machine ever made. But when you look at the details there are enough reassuring aspects to say that it isn't going to destroy the world. And if you are going to spend a lot of money on science, I think something like the Large Hadron Collider is a better investment than perhaps the space program. In terms of science, the space program really didn't deliver a lot — things like going to the moon, going to Mars — it's mostly political.

I liked how you began one of the chapters by advising your readers to grab their favorite beverage and find a quiet space because your about to "twist the mind into pretzel form."

Ha, yes, that chapter was the one about time. I wrote another book awhile ago about infinity, and they both have the same sort of effect. When you start thinking about what time is, you can get in a bit of state where you think, "Hey, I'm losing it here," — because you cannot think outside of time. Time is part of how we experience the universe. Trying to think of before there was time, well, you're already in trouble because you're thinking "before," which is a way of measuring time. It's very easy to get yourself into a bit of a tangled mental state. I have to go get a large glass of wine at that point.