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The Ultimate Origin Story

By Guido Tonelli
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  • Contains 7 key ideas
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Genesis by Guido Tonelli

Genesis (2019) lays out a gripping, blow-by-blow account of the first 13.8 billion years of our universe. From the mysterious initial void to the birth of the very first stars, it conjures up vistas no less dizzying than the grand creation myths of old.

Key idea 1 of 7

The universe springs from a void, and inflates rapidly.

In the beginning, all that exists is a void – a kind of mysterious vacuum which technically contains nothing, but inside of which some very important events take place.

According to the laws of physics, even an apparently “empty” void, like the one that predates our universe, undergoes quantum fluctuation, a process by which fleeting virtual particles appear and then disappear again in the blink of an eye.

At first, these fluctuations happen only on a tiny scale. But suddenly something occurs that magnifies this process – and afterward, nothing will ever be the same.

The key message here is: The universe springs from a void, and inflates rapidly.

As the vacuum fluctuates, a particle known as an inflaton begins to exert a powerful effect. The void bubbles with ephemeral energy and the field of this inflaton does something immensely consequential: it inflates the process out of all proportion.

With this single action, the tiny bubble of a vacuum expands at an unimaginable pace – faster even than the speed of light. What was microscopic becomes macroscopic in an instant, and rushes outward at a ferocious pace. The universe has come into existence.

This period of the birth of the universe is still poorly understood – and the closer you approach the origin, the murkier things become. But the fact that the universe sprang from a void has an interesting implication – in short, that the universe is still just a kind of vacuum that’s undergone a transformation.

Now, on the face of it, this claim makes no sense. Looking around, you can see lots of things that you know for a fact exist – like your own body, for starters. Doesn't the existence of your hands and legs prove that we don’t live in a void?

Well, no. The notion that we live in a void doesn’t mean that nothing exists: It means that the universe contains zero net energy. In other words, all the positive energy the universe possesses in the form of matter is canceled out by the negative energy of its gravitational fields.

If you were able to take a calculator and add up all the energy the universe contains, and then subtract the negative energy of gravity, you’d be left with one number, zero, in a further indication that we emerged from a fluctuation in the void.

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