Big Bang Fingerprints
We all leave our traces. Even campers who fastidiously carry their garbage out of the woods leave footprints behind. Flora and fauna from millions of years ago are found fossilized in the sand. The universe leaves traces behind, too. On March 17, scientists announced that the Big Bang, the universe-creating explosion, left its own traces all those 13.8 billion years ago. And now, we have found them.
For one hundred-million-billion-billion-billionth of a second after the Big Bang, the universe inflated insanely rapidly. Since then, it’s expanded at a more leisurely pace. But that first period of inflation gave off a particular kind of gravitational waves, imprints of which have now been detected by the BICEP2 radiotelescope at the South Pole. Like fingerprints left at the scene of the crime, imprints of these gravitational waves show that the explosion and consequential inflation of the universe was there. It happened. We have scientific proof that says, “This, right here, this explosion and inflation is how it all began.”
I read the news alone in my studio apartment, sitting quietly on my bed. My eyes focused loosely on the industrial weave on my Target Essentials sheets, noting how infinitely tiny things can be—so much tinier than weave in cotton—yet how incomprehensibly large. The BICEP2 news enveloped me in a bubble of silent stillness.
Einstein predicted the existence of the gravitational waves from the Big Bang more than 100 years ago, but this is the first time scientists have found tangible support for their existence. It is a big-deal discovery, the type of thing that makes my pride in human ingenuity and imagination soar. And the imprints of the waves themselves suggest a beauty, too, a rolling and continuous swell and release that has been happening since the beginning of all things. Like ripples from a rock dropped in a pond going on endlessly. And even once the ripples are no longer visible, the water itself has changed, is imprinted.
It is beautiful, that something from so long ago can still be felt and be of huge consequence today. I find the presence of those gravitational waves just as awe-inspiring as any Garden of Eden story. But their implications can be frightening, too.
The gravitational waves, the Big Bang, and the science behind them, do not tell us why we are here, or what we are to do with our time. They suggest that there may be no answer at all, beyond the physiological. It makes me wonder—when life, the universe, and everything is explainable in numbers and when the things that make lasting impressions are the biggest things that happened ever, what room is there for us humans, with our small rocks in small ponds? The thought makes me want to be still, to be quiet, to find grounding in myself while the waves continue to ripple throughout the expanding universe, leaving their imprints.
So I sat still and stared at my sheets.
My stillness was an illusion, of course; the Big Bang exemplifies that. Our universe is constantly expanding. The gravitational waves, too, are moving, floating through time and space. While I sat quietly and while scientists studied BICEP2’s findings, our organs and atoms buzzed. We sat on a planet hurtling through the sky. The one constant in life—even the life of the universe—is change. Movement. New theories come about, new discoveries prove the theories. Human knowledge expands, the universe expands.
I want to embrace this, to wrap myself up in the awe of all of it. The beauty of the universe, that infinite-seeming blackness, those waves that have been reverberating on their mathematically perfect course since the beginning of it all. I believe in science. I am impressed by those who do it, by its power and accuracy. I find a scientifically explained world enchanting in many ways.
At the same time, I want my conception of science, of the universe, of the spiritual and the transcendent to allow space for something more than myself. Than humans, than Earth, than astrophysics, than even the Big Bang. And so after a while I got up from my bed and moved in the world, thinking that in this great universe of ours there is room for the unexplainable. When that great explosion happened and our universe shot out like an inflating balloon and those gravitational waves started thumping and it all began—I think there is space to believe that perhaps in that moment, some sort of transcendental force also started reverberating. Math and science may never find its fingerprints. But that doesn’t mean that it has left no trace.
Jessie Szalay is a contributing writer for LiveScience and nonfiction editor of So to Speak Journal. Her work has appeared in The Jewish Daily Forward, Waccamaw Literary Journal, and National Geographic Traveler--Personal Explorer, among other places. She lives in Washington, DC and is working on a book of personal narrative and social inquiry regarding interfaith issues and non-LDS identity within Utah.