The universe, at the instant of the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago, was an 'infinitely small dot' containing its total (and constant) energy. At that point — just before space-time came into existence — some of the energy within our energy-only 'dot universe', for some unknown reason, began to convert into matter, creating at the same time the energy-matter-space-time framework we perceive as our universe...

The Magnificent Dot.

After a lot of conjecture and speculation and theorizing, pretty much all working astronomers believe in this so-called Big Bang picture, in which the universe started out really small at some time roughly 15 billion years ago. It exploded. All of this stuff came out of it. But the thing that's so hard for us to picture is, the explosion of something that started the size of a dot, all the matter and all the energy, but in addition, all the space was in there. And when the thing exploded, not only did all this matter and energy come out of this explosion, but all the space came out of it too. So we were in there. And the concept of what was outside the dot before the dot exploded, it turns out is a non-concept because all the space was inside there too. Imponderable stuff. And so the subject of cosmology, the origin of the universe, and all that kind of stuff is a kind of mixture of science and philosphy, a very interesting subject and very hard to come to grips with.

-- Frank Bash - Director, McDonald Observatory

The Singularity That Started It All

The universe began 15 billion years ago with an explosion from an infinitely small mathematical singularity. The singularity was not "somewhere." The fabric of space-time came into existence with explosion. There was no "before," at least none that we can presently know. Space swelled from the singularity like a balloon inflating from nothing.

During the first trillion-trillion-trillionth of a second, matter and antimatter flickered in and out of existence. The fate of the universe hung precariously in the balance, it might grow, or it might collapse back into nothingness. Suddenly it ballooned to enormous size (after all, we are here), in what cosmologists call the inflationary epoch, bringing the first true particles of matter — the quarks — into existence. Within a millionth of a second the rapid swelling ceased, and the quarks began to be confined to protons, neutrons and electrons. The universe continued to expand and cool, but now at a more stately pace. Already the universe was vastly larger than what we are able to observe today. Within a few more minutes, protons and neutrons combined into the first atomic nuclei — hydrogen and helium — but still the universe was too hot for the nuclei to shag electrons and make atoms. Not until 300,000 years after the beginning did the first atoms appear.

Irregularities in the gassy universe of hydrogen and helium were accentuated by gravity. Within a billion years after the beginning, the first stars and galaxies were born. There were not yet any Earthlike planets orbiting the stars of the earliest galaxies, because there were not yet significant quantities of the heavy elements (these would be cooked up later in stars). Nor had the Sun yet been born. But within a few billion years, the universe had begun to look familiar on the largest scale.

--An Intimate Look at the Night Sky, Boston Globe Science Columnist Chet Raymo

The Astonishing Origin of the Universe

The age of the universe is estimated to be anywhere from thirteen to fifteen billion years. That kind of time is incomprehensible. More staggering yet is the almost universally accepted scenario among cosmologists that in the blink of an eye, our current cosmos burst forth from a pinpoint of extremely dense and hot "quark-gluon plasma" — a primordial state of matter best described as a remarkably tiny dot of free-wheeling quark particles and the gluons binding them. This pinpoint of plasma expanded so rapidly the "event" has become widely known as the "big bang."

That term was first coined by the late British astronomer Fred Hoyle, who tackled some of the biggest questions in twentieth-century science. Later, in an international competition for a better name, the term survived over thirteen thousand proposed alternatives judged by a panel of my former ABC colleague Hugh Downs, the later astronomer Carl Sagan and the exceptional science writer Timothy Ferris.

Before the "bang," say the experts, there was no space — everything was contained in the pinpoint. Today, the process of space expansion continues as the galaxies in our cosmos are flung farther away from each other. One obvious question is what preceded the big bang, and what existed outside the "boundaries" of space as it was exploding. When I put this to a friend who is a world-renowned cosmologist, he started trying to explain to me the virtual vacuum-concept before stopping with a smile and saying, "You just go back to the beginning — and that's it."

--Finding God in the Questions, Timothy Johnson