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Essential Elements

48 49 thE bIg bang from small beginnings Once, according to a popular story, seemingly from nowhere, a pinpoint of intensely hot, immensely dense energymatter appeared. This tiny singularity seeded our entire universe. Conditions were so bizarre we have only the vaguest idea of the exotic physics at the start of time. With the young universe cooling fast and expanding at close to lightspeed, first photons, then quarks and leptons condensed out of the fizzing quantum vacuum like mist on a cold window. After one millionth of a second the quarks had formed into hadrons, primarily protons and neutrons, as vast amounts of matter and antimatter wiped each other out. Soon, just a billionth part of matter was left, plus loads of gamma rays. One second after the universes birth, the temperature had fallen enough to crystalise wizzing neutrinos from the photons. Nucleosynthesis started about this time, with protons and neutrons fusing into helium, deuterium and lithium. Ten minutes later matter consisted of three parts hydrogen to one part helium. The universe was expanding incredibly fast, and after two hours there was no longer the density of neutrons to allow any heavier nucleii to f o r m. After 100,000 years the universe was cool enough to allow the electrons to settle into orbits around atomic nucleii. Over the next few billion years matter drifted in dark clouds. In some places gravity gradually squeezed clouds into clumps, heat rising until nuclear fusion burst out, lighting the first stars.
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