What is the world coming to?

May 04, 2002

NOTHING, APPARENTLY. Or rather, an endless cycle of expansions and contractions.

That at least is the latest big scientific theory on the universe -- one that poses a challenge for those who seek a neat beginning, middle and end to things.

For decades, cosmology's prevailing theory has been grounded in the so-called Big Bang an estimated 13 billion years ago, the genesis of an ever-inflating universe. The new theory says the Big Bang was not the first such huge explosion of matter -- that instead of an expanding universe, it's an oscillating or bouncing one.

Coincidentally, publication of this theory was quickly followed this week by the display of the latest mind-blowing images from the newly upgraded Hubble Space Telescope -- images capturing light from the universe billions of years ago, as close as this world has been to the Big Bang.

These wondrous images underscore some disturbingly complex questions. What came before the Big Bang? And where is the universe headed?

According to the new cosmology, there's no end to time. Like the eternal Hindu cycle of birth, death and rebirth, there's a never-ending pattern of Big Bangs, expansions (bounces) and contractions (Big Crunches), followed by more of the same. If this is troubling, know that, at the moment, we're believed still to be in the middle of a bounce from the last Big Bang -- and that it's expected to last trillions of years.

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