The Grand ah-WHOOM: the Big Bang, Inflation, and authentic Basque Sauce

The Grand ah-WHOOM

Feeling a bit science-geeky this time, and philosophical, and hungry.

[Kurt Vonnegut readers will recognize “the grand ah-WHOOM” as the cataclysmic event that happens near the end of his novel, “Cat’s Cradle.” The book features an isotope of water called Ice-Nine, which has a melting point of 114 o F. Ice-Nine acts as a “seed crystal,” so that it instantaneously converts any regular water it touches into more Ice-Nine. When the book has Ice-Nine accidentally leaking out into water, the entire planet – because there are no places where water is as hot as 114 o F – spasms with a tremendous violent shudder: the grand ah-WHOOM. End of book; end of life.]

I like to think of the Big Bang, and the cosmic inflation that followed soon after, as our own “Grand ah-WHOOM.” The “ah” part is the Big Bang itself, which is just a bit of an inhale before the monstrous WHOOM of the Inflationary Epoch. Both of them happened nearly simultaneously about 14 billion years ago.

I’ve had a discussion or two about the Big Bang with friends over the years, and as often as not they’ll ask, “So what was there before the Big Bang?” First, there was no “before” there. Second, there was no “there” there. The Big Bang was the origin of space and time in our universe, and so you can’t have a “there” or a “before” in such a state of nonexistence. Then they might ask, “well, what caused it?” And again, causation requires something that’s “before,” so we have the same unsatisfying answer – zippo, nada. Well, maybe not quite. Many cosmologists accept the notion that there was a “singularity,” a nearly infinitely small point particle with nearly infinite mass, and that it blew up. A few others, who don’t especially like the “singularity” concept, suggest the Big Bang could have erupted like a “burp” from another universe through a very tiny wormhole – the kind of fortuitous burst of cosmic acid reflux for which we can all be thankful. If we were belched into existence by someone else’s universe, so be it.

Either way, bang or burp, “the universe is the ultimate free lunch,” as Stephen Hawking has drolly noted.

I’ve done lots of research on all this, so it all should be fairly close to what is true. But if there are cosmologists out there who see it differently, please do let me know.

So the “ah” part – the “drawn breath” of the Big Bang – got the universe from essentially nothing into the size of “nothing plus a gazillionth” – still nearly infinitely small, but some say roughly the size of a proton. About 10 -36 seconds after this, the “WHOOM” hit, exploding spacetime into a vastly greater volume (100 trillion trillion trillion times as big) in another 10 -34 seconds. Wow! That must be way big!

How big everything was when inflation ended - though many physicists say inflation continued (at a much slower pace) well after 10 -32 seconds. (Wikimedia Commons image)

How big everything was when inflation ended – though many physicists say inflation continued (at a much slower pace) well after 10 -34 seconds. (Wikimedia Commons image)

Actually, no. At that point you could still hold the universe in your hand (careful! It’s hot!!).  When inflation ended, our universe was the size of a grain of sand, or a marble, or a grapefruit, or a basketball, depending on whom you talk to.

I really wanted it to be much huger, but it apparently wasn’t.

The entire history of the universe right here (Wikimedia Commons image)

The entire history of the universe right here. This is clearly not to scale, especially the wide radius ending the inflationary epoch. (Wikimedia Commons image)

I think it’s fascinating to realize that this grand ah-WHOOM would scarcely have been noticed by anyone in the vicinity. Without air, there was no noise. And light didn’t appear till some 380,000 years later, when the universe had ballooned to about 85 million light years across (continuing to explode at some 220 times light speed). So the “ah” and the “whoom” were as silent and invisible as a spider’s sigh, but apocalyptically violent.

First theorized by junior physicist Alan Guth in 1980, cosmic inflation readily resolved many Big Bang theory problems, but it needed some kind of evidence to support it. That finally came in mid-March 2014 from a team working with radio telescopes at the South Pole for three years trying to detect gravity waves from deep space. The idea is, if you blow up spacetime that fast, you’re going to have some slight irregularities in the smoothness of space, what some people have called ripples in the fabric of spacetime, and others have called bubbles. And the team got what they were looking for with near perfect certainty – evidence of slightly whorling gravity waves that can only be explained as a product of rumplings in primordial space.

Ah-WHOOM. And here we are, in the midst of a gargantuan free lunch. It includes our galaxy, our solar system, our planet and everything on it – including us and how we feel, think, and breathe.

(For an exceptional and accessible discussion of the Big Bang and Inflation, here’s an op-ed piece in the NY Times by Max Tegmark, physics professor at MIT. I don’t think I’ve seen any other discussion of this topic that’s so complete, well-written, or so fascinating. But you may need a subscription to read it – I’m not sure.)


Fall River, near PCMS. The Army wants it.

Fall River, near PCMS. The Army wants it. (courtesy Grassland Trust)

I wrote a while back about how the West isn’t funny, and introduced discussion of parts of southeast Colorado and the continuing struggle between land owners (mostly ranchers) and the U.S. Army as it seeks to expand its Pinon Canyon Maneuver Site (PCMS). Prominent in that struggle is‘s Jean Aguerre of Trinidad, with whom I’ve been corresponding for some time. I’ve written about the raw, haunting beauty of that area, stretching roughly northeast from Trinidad up to La Junta: virgin shortgrass prairie populated with mule deer, pronghorns, and elk, pinyon and juniper trees, cholla cactus and chamissa that show amazing colors in both spring and fall. I wrote about it with simple admiration; Jean writes about it with a primal passion that’s deep in her soul:

Earth, sky, moon support communities of grasses, soils, waterways, all kinds of wildlife, ancient and historic trackings taking in clear, clean air one can see through for more than a hundred and fifty miles…

Picture Canyon - the Army wants this, too. (courtesy Grassland Trust)

Picture Canyon – the Army wants this, too. (courtesy Grassland Trust)

The Grand ah-WHOOM for Jean and others was the Army’s seizure of 236,000 acres by eminent domain in 1983, affecting thousands of ranchers and their families. But the Army’s “inflationary epoch” persists with their tireless pursuit of more land, and the ongoing battle with ranchers and residents ever since. The issues and legal wranglings are complex, but the bottom line is simple: the Army has reduced a lot of the 236,000 acres to dust with its vehicles and equipment, and if they get more land the same fate awaits – in a region that has struggled to reclaim itself from Dust Bowl conditions back in the 1930s . (Jean sends an email update here – PCMSAprilUpdate – on the recent environmental issues).

The “free lunch” that surrounds us, as we know, really isn’t free.

Maine is a long way from southeast Colorado, but I venture to think its spirit and sympathies are right next door. If you can help Not 1 More Acre!, please do.


Jean’s family is of Basque heritage, and she’s offering here two Basque recipes that I’m going to try because they look delicious. These are inspired by her Basque grandmother, Nolene, who fished with her hands (the fish came right into her palm) and told her granddaughter on top of a favorite plateau, “Jean, take a look around. Everything you see and the air we breathe and the sun that warms us came before humans. Everything has been here longer than we’ve been here; we are the youngest ones. Everything here deserves our respect and consideration.”

Basque Sauce

Jean writes:

This must-have is related to the Basque classic Pipérade but the sauce is much more versatile. My family enjoys it on lamb, ham, turkey, beef, on vegetables or pasta. Simmering Basque sauce makes the entire house smell delicious – like a holiday!

Makes 2 to 3 cups. You’ll need:

  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 4 tomatoes coarsely chopped
  • 1 medium onion
  • 1 medium (2 small) red bell pepper, cored and coarsely chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 2 large jalapeños (substitute for piment d’Espelette)
  • pinch sea salt
  • pinch unrefined sugar (panela
  • ½ tbs cornstarch
  • 1 tsp oregano
  • ½ tsp cumin

Put oregano and cumin into a cast iron pan and gently warm until fragrance is released.

Warm the olive oil in a large saucepan over high heat. Add the onion, bell pepper and garlic and sauté over medium high heat until golden, about 10 minutes.

Add the tomatoes, warmed oregano and cumin, jalapeños, salt, pepper and 1/3 cup cold water; bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium, cover and simmer gently until the mixture thickens. *If canned tomatoes are used, I’d recommend mixing ½ tbs cornstarch into cold water before stirring it into the sauce. Cover and simmer gently until the sauce thickens.

Salt and pepper to taste. Enjoy immediately!


Jean also sends a terrifically tempting Basque Cornmeal Cake with Berries recipe, which I’m attaching here as a PDF. Many thanks to Jean for the food and the continuing sacrifice she makes to help save southeast Colorado.

There you have it.








Ned White

About Ned White

Ned White is a writer, novelist, crossword puzzle constructor, traveler through 49 states, and at times a danger in the kitchen. He lives with his wife in South Thomaston.