I can never resist a weird scenario, especially when it’s scientifically plausible. In my short story “A Hole in the Light,” published a few days ago in the excellent Sunday Morning Transport newsletter, I went deep on the weirdly plausible. The story is about a civilization of amoebas living in the early universe, right around the time that the ambient gas left after the Big Bang started to coalesce into stars and galaxies on a massive scale. I first started mulling this one over back in 2014, when I read a paper by Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb (yes, the guy who is convinced that meteor ‘Oumuamua was a spacecraft) about what he called the “habitable epoch” of the universe.
What Loeb pointed out in this paper is that we’re used to thinking of our current universe, with its galaxies and vast lightless voids between, as the most obvious time for life to arise. But what if the early universe was a better time? Billions of years ago, shortly after the Big Bang, the universe would have been full of warm gas. It could keep every planetary body as warm as Earth is in the glow of our yellow star. As Loeb told me in an interview, “For a long time, we’ve had this preconception that life is here on Earth, but the universe is dead. But maybe we should be thinking of this as a living universe. We may be relative latecomers to the game.”
When I asked him what life might have been like in this universe of cozy, illuminated gas, Loeb said it would probably have been quite simple. “Algae,” he suggested. At that time in cosmic history, environmental conditions changed so rapidly that species would have to evolve quickly before everything transformed. It seems unlikely a complex civilization like ours would arise in such difficult conditions. But what if it could?
I spent a very long lunch pumping ASU astronomer Jackie Monkiewicz for more details about exactly what the early universe might have looked like, especially when it came to the behavior of stars.