The Bottom of Time

“Cathleen, one of my Astronomy magazines had an article, claimed that James Webb Space Telescope can see back to the Big Bang. That doesn’t seem right, right?”

“You’re right, Al, it’s not quite right. By our present state of knowledge JWST‘s infrared perspective goes back only 98% of the way to the Bang. Not quite the Bottom of Time, but close.”

“Whaddaya mean, ‘Bottom of Time‘? I’ve heard people talking about how weird it musta been before the Big Bang. And how can JWST see back in time anyway? Telescopes look across space, not time.”

“So many questions, Mr Feder, and some hiding behind others. That’s his usual mode, Cathleen. Care to tag-team?”

“You’re on, Sy. Well, Mr Feder. The ‘look back in time‘ part comes from light not traveling infinitely fast. We’ve known that for three centuries, ever since Rømer—”


“Ole Rømer, a Danish scientist who lived in Newson’s time. Everyone knew that Jupiter’s innermost large moon Io had a dependably regular orbit, circling Jupiter every 49½ hours like clockwork. Rømer was an astronomer when he wasn’t tutoring the French King’s son or being Copenhagen’s equivalent of Public Safety Commissioner. He watched Io closely, kept notes on exactly when she ducked behind Jupiter and when she reappeared on the other side. His observed timings weren’t quite regular, generally off by a few minutes. Funny thing was, the irregularities correlated with the Earth‑Jupiter distance — up to 3½ minutes earlier than expected when Earth in its orbit was closest to Jupiter, similarly late when they were far apart. There was a lot of argument about how that could be, but Rømer, Huygens, even Newton, all agreed that the best explanation was that we only see Io’s passage events after light has taken its time to travel from there to here.”

“Seems reasonable. Why should people argue about that?”

“The major sticking point was the speed that Huygens calculated from Rømer’s data. We now know it’s 186000 miles or 300000 kilometers or one lightsecond per second. Different ways of stating the same quantity. Huygens came up with a somewhat smaller number but still. The establishment pundits had been okay with light transmission being instantaneous. Given definite numbers, though, they had trouble accepting the idea that anything physical could go that fast.”

“Tag, my turn. Flip that distance per time ratio upside down — for every additional lightsecond of distance we’re looking at events happening one second farther into the past. That’s the key to JWST‘s view into the long‑ago. Al, you got that JWST‘s infrared capabilities will beat Hubble‘s vis‑UV ones for distance. Unless there’s something seriously wrong with Einstein’s assumption that lightspeed’s an absolute constant throughout spacetime, we expect JWST to give us visibility to the oldest free photons in the Universe, just 379000 years upward from the Big Bang.”

“Wait, I heard weaseling there. Free photons? Like you gotta pay for the others?”

“Ha, ha, Mr Feder. During those first 379000‑or‑so years, we think the Universe was so hot and so dense that no photon’s wave had much of a chance to spread out before it encountered a charged something and got absorbed. At last, things cooled down enough for atoms to form and stay in one piece. Atoms are neutral. Quantum rules restrict their interaction to only photons that have certain wavelengths. The rest of the photons, and there’s a huge number of them, were free to roam the expanding Universe until they happen to find a suitable absorber. Maybe someone’s eye or if we’re lucky, a sensor on JWST or some other telescope.”

Thanks for this to George Derenburger

“What about before the 300‑and‑something thousand years? Like, before Year Zero? Musta been weird, huh?”

“Well, there’s a problem with that question. You’re assuming there was a Year Minus‑One, but that’s just not the case.”

“Why not? Arithmetic works that way.”

“But the Universe doesn’t. Stephen Hawking came up with a good way to think about it. What on Earth is south of the South Pole?”

“Eeayahh … nope. Can’t get any further south than that.”

“Well, there you are, so to speak. Time’s bottom is Year Zero and you can’t get any further down than that. We think.”

~~ Rich Olcott