What Existed Before the Big Bang?

Did Our Universe Bubble Out of a Previous One?

cosmic microwave background — radiation cosmic microwave background — radiation
This illustration shows the cosmic microwave background — radiation left over from the Big Bang — gathered by the Planck orbital observatory. ESA and the Planck Collaboration

Here's a thought: What if our universe is but the offspring of another, older universe? Some astrophysicists speculate that this story is written in the relic radiation left over from the Big Bang: the cosmic microwave background (CMB).

Astronomers first observed the CMB in 1965, and it quickly created problems for the Big Bang theory -- problems that were subsequently addressed (for a while) in 1981 with the inflation theory. This theory entails an extremely rapid expansion of the universe in the first few moments of its existence. It also accounts for temperature and density fluctuations in the CMB, but dictates that those fluctuations should be uniform.

That's not the case. Recent mapping efforts actually suggest that the universe is lopsided, with more fluctuations in some areas than in others. Some cosmologists see this observation as supporting evidence that our universe "bubbled off" from a parent universe, in the words of California Institute of Technology researcher Adrienne Erickcek [source: Lintott]

In chaotic inflation theory, this concept goes even deeper: an endless progression of inflationary bubbles, each becoming a universe, and each of these birthing even more inflationary bubbles in an immeasurable multiverse [source: Jones].

Still other models revolve around the formation of the pre-Big Bang singularity itself. If you think of black holes as cosmic trash compactors, they stand as prime candidates for all that primordial compression, so our expanding universe could theoretically be the white hole output from a black hole in another universe. A white hole is a hypothetical body that acts in the opposite manner of a black hole, giving off serious energy and matter rather than sucking it in. Think of it as a cosmic exhaust valve. Some scientists propose that our universe may have been born inside a black hole, and every black hole in our own universe could each contain separate universes as well [source: Choi].

But some scientists think the universe started, not with a Big Bang, but with a Big Bounce.