Einstein’s general theory of relativity says that the universe began with the big bang singularity, a moment when all the matter we see was concentrated at a single point of infinite density. But the theory does not capture the fine, quantum structure of spacetime, which limits how tightly matter can be concentrated and how strong gravity can become. To figure out what really happened, physicists need a quantum theory of gravity.
According to one candidate for such a theory, loop quantum gravity, space is subdivided into “atoms” of volume and has a finite capacity to store matter and energy, thereby preventing true singularities from existing.
If so, time may have extended before the bang. The prebang universe may have undergone a catastrophic implosion that reached a point of maximum density and then reversed. In short, a big crunch may have led to a big bounce and then to the big bang.
Atoms are now such a commonplace idea that it is hard to remember how radical they used to seem. When scientists first hypothesized atoms centuries ago, they despaired of ever observing anything so small, and many questioned whether the concept of atoms could even be called scientific. Gradually, however, evidence for atoms accumulated and reached a tipping point with Albert Einstein’s 1905 analysis of Brownian motion, the random jittering of dust grains in a fluid. Even then, it took another 20 years for physicists to develop a theory explaining atoms—namely, quantum mechanics—and another 30 for physicist Erwin Müller to make the first microscope images of them. Today entire industries are based on the characteristic properties of atomic matter.
Physicists’ understanding of the composition of space and time is following a similar path, but several steps behind. Just as the behavior of materials indicates that they consist of atoms, the behavior of space and time suggests that they, too, have some fine-scale structure—either a mosaic of spacetime “atoms” or some other filigree work. Material atoms are the smallest indivisible units of chemical compounds; similarly, the putative space atoms are the smallest indivisible units of distance. They are generally thought to be about 10–35 meter in size, far too tiny to be seen by today’s most powerful instruments, which probe distances as short as 10–18 meter. Consequently, many scientists question whether the concept of atomic spacetime can even be called scientific. Undeterred, other researchers are coming up with possible ways to detect such atoms indirectly.
… the atomic structure of spacetime changes the nature of gravity at very high energy densities, making it repulsive. … According to this model, matter in the early universe had a very high but finite density, the equivalent of a trillion suns in every proton-size region. At such extremes, gravity acted as a repulsive force, causing space to expand; as densities moderated, gravity switched to being the attractive force we all know. Inertia has kept the expansion going to the present day. In fact, the repulsive gravity caused space to expand at an accelerating rate. – sciam