Alderman Stacks

EGMT 1520: The Big Bang - The Creation of Our Universe


For many people “The Big Bang Theory” is a CBS sitcom following the tangled lives of four geeky Caltech students. But what is the real Big Bang Theory? Most people know it concerns the beginning of the Universe, but exactly what does the theory say and how firm is the evidence for it? In this class, we’ll journey out into the galaxies and back to the primordial fireball, always paying attention to how we know what we claim to know. Ultimately, we’re pursuing an idea that has been present in all cultures at all times: what is the deep origin of our world, with its land and sky, sun and stars, and even ourselves?

During the seven weeks of the course, we’ll explore the following seven themes, one each week: 1) the expansion of the Universe and our remarkable ability to directly witness the remote past; 2) the immensely bright fireball of the first million years, whose light we see today as the microwave background; 3) the first hour, when conditions everywhere were similar to those at the center of the sun; 4) how barely perceptible patches within the fireball were amplified over time by gravity to make stars and galaxies; 5) the nature of dark matter and dark energy, and how our current cosmological framework is tested using many different kinds of data; 6) the stunning fact that the total energy content of the Universe is zero – it sums to nothing – and how that fact points to a possible creation mechanism, from nothing, called inflation; 7) how life and humans fit into this cosmic narrative – including our surprising ability to understand the Universe, and what the narrative might mean to us emotionally and spiritually.

Throughout, we will honor the overall intent of the “empirical engagement” by using the Big Bang Theory as a test case to explore how science works – how observations are used to test and refine a theory that is built using the known laws of physics. Perhaps surprisingly, after a century of effort, this theory – with the exception of the creation mechanism itself – is now about as detailed and robust as the theories of, for example, evolution or atomic structure. While these other theories reached maturity some time ago, modern cosmology has only recently gelled and is therefore, arguably, the greatest scientific narrative of our current time.