Photograph courtesy NASA/Brad Hansen (UCLA)/Harvey Richer (UBC)/Steinn Sigurdsson (Penn State)/Ingrid Stairs (UBC)/Stephen Thorsett (UCSC)
The most popular theory of our universe's origin centers on a cosmic cataclysm unmatched in all of history—the big bang. This theory was born of the observation that other galaxies are moving away from our own at great speed, in all directions, as if they had all been propelled by an ancient explosive force.
Before the big bang, scientists believe, the entire vastness of the observable universe, including all of its matter and radiation, was compressed into a hot, dense mass just a few millimeters across. This nearly incomprehensible state is theorized to have existed for just a fraction of the first second of time.
Big bang proponents suggest that some 10 billion to 20 billion years ago, a massive blast allowed all the universe's known matter and energy—even space and time themselves—to spring from some ancient and unknown type of energy.
The theory maintains that, in the instant—a trillion-trillionth of a second—after the big bang, the universe expanded with incomprehensible speed from its pebble-size origin to astronomical scope. Expansion has apparently continued, but much more slowly, over the ensuing billions of years.
Scientists can't be sure exactly how the universe evolved after the big bang. Many believe that as time passed and matter cooled, more diverse kinds of atoms began to form, and they eventually condensed into the stars and galaxies of our present universe.
Origins of the Theory
A Belgian priest named Georges Lemaître first suggested the big bang theory in the 1920s when he theorized that the universe began from a single primordial atom. The idea subsequently received major boosts by Edwin Hubble's observations that galaxies are speeding away from us in all directions, and from the discovery of cosmic microwave radiation by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson.
The glow of cosmic microwave background radiation, which is found throughout the universe, is thought to be a tangible remnant of leftover light from the big bang. The radiation is akin to that used to transmit TV signals via antennas. But it is the oldest radiation known and may hold many secrets about the universe's earliest moments.
The big bang theory leaves several major questions unanswered. One is the original cause of the big bang itself. Several answers have been proposed to address this fundamental question, but none has been proven—and even adequately testing them has proven to be a formidable challenge.
The Innovators Project
Meet some of science's most important movers and shakers—from past and present.
'Live From Space' March 14
How to Feed Our Growing Planet
National Geographic explores how we can feed the growing population without overwhelming the planet in our food series.
A new study on marmoset monkeys offers some hints about the causes of stillbirth.
A National Geographic researcher is startled to see a Greenland shark where none has ever been seen before: off Russia's Franz Josef Land. Video
Shop Our Space Collection
The updated companion book to Carl Sagan's Cosmos, featuring a new forward by Neil deGrasse Tyson is now available. Proceeds support our mission programs, which protect species, habitats, and cultures.