Trapped In This 'Snow Globe Of Photons' Forever?

Encoded in everything from streaking, mystery particles to the world's religions, the question of origins preoccupies humans. We want to know.

If time begins with a colossal release of energy, what, if anything, existed before the beginning? Is "what happened before the Big Bang?" a nonsense question? Can experimental physics provide an answer, or will inflationary cosmology and theoretical physics such as string theory continue to provide untestable - and ultimately unsatisfying - answers?

At Aeon Magazine, Ross Andersen wonders if we'll "be trapped in this snow globe of photons forever."

Has cosmology reached a dead end?

But cosmology’s hot streak has stalled. Cosmologists have looked deep into time, almost all the way back to the Big Bang itself, but they don’t know what came before it. They don’t know whether the Big Bang was the beginning, or merely one of many beginnings. Something entirely unimaginable might have preceded it. Cosmologists don’t know if the world we see around us is spatially infinite, or if there are other kinds of worlds beyond our horizon, or in other dimensions. And then the big mystery, the one that keeps the priests and the physicists up at night: no cosmologist has a clue why there is something rather than nothing.

To reconcile the famously incompatible but empirically very sound physics of the colossal big, relativity, and the vanishingly small, quantum theory, physicist Lee Smolin suggests that the laws of nature my change over time, and has written about the his ideas in a new book, Time Reborn. Brian Greene, who spoke at the very first IdeaFestival in 2000, has written extensively about string theory in popular physics books such as The Elegant Universe. Another IdeaFestival speaker, Leonard Mlodinow, wants to unite relativity and quantum theory into a single whole, quantum gravity.

There is certainly no shortage of ambition and smarts. The search goes on. And sadly, recent evidence for inflationary cosmology now appears to be far weaker than first believed.

CalTech physicist, prolific blogger, book author and 2011 IdeaFestival speaker, Sean Carroll, answers the question of what happened before the Big Bang in two ways. One, "we don't know." Two, experimental physicists might yet find testable answers, and thus produce science, although the "scenarios" he alludes to are probably understandable by about two dozen people on the planet.

His video is one of hundreds that can be found on the festival's YouTube channel, IFTV.

Stay curious.