Journey to the Dawn of Time
Will humans colonize Mars? Soon? Are we alone in the universe, or is there life beyond the stars? And where is the beginning of everything — that single, distant, infinitesimal point that propelled all of creation? Thomas Zurbuchen, Switzerland’s own son and America’s NASA research director, leads us across the Universe.
“We are at the verge of really breaking new ground,” says this tall man with sparkling eyes. “We will transform life on Earth for everyone and everywhere.” The enthusiasm is written on his face. And it is contagious.
We meet Thomas Zurbuchen under the dome of the observatory on the roof of Kirchenfeld High School in Berne, Switzerland. The astrophysicist is on a brief, holiday visit to his native country. Growing up as a pastor's son in the farming village of Heiligenschwendi in the Bernese Oberland, he left for America to, literally, reach for the stars. Since 2016, Zurbuchen has led the research missions of the United States space agency, NASA. As its science director, the fifty-year old is responsible for around 10,000 scientists and oversees an annual budget of 6 Billion dollars.
Just before Christmas, at the University of Bern, a foundation associated with his alma mater awarded Zurbuchen with the prestigious Heinrich Greinacher Prize in recognition of his outstanding work and for “becoming one of the most supreme advocates of space science.” During his acceptance speech, the space explorer set his academic colleagues to a simple challenge, “How do we make our science understood to the person that sits next to you on the train?”
DIE WELTWOCHE has asked him to do just that. Like a modern Jules Verne, the Swiss-American dual citizen and father of two takes us on a journey through space and time, to planets and distant galaxies. “In 2021, we will experience something gigantic,” Zurbuchen promises with a broad smile. “We will see the origin of the Universe with our own eyes!”
Before starting a journey, it's always good to know our home address. We are standing on the rooftop of Kirchenfeld Gymnasium in Bern, Switzerland, Planet Earth. Can you locate our place in the universe?
If you asked that question 500 years ago, it would have been very simple to answer. The answer was, “We're in the center of the universe.” At that time, we thought we were the center of the universe, and everything turned around us. And, of course, what happened is what you could call a series of great demotions.
Today the answer is, “We are somewhere in the universe at some average location in an average galaxy, on a very average arm of that galaxy, with an average star, with an average planet next to it.” As an alien looking from the outside, there’s nothing unusual about this place, at all. The only thing that's really special about it is that we're here. So, our address is an average place in the universe that happens to be our home.
Your home is Heiligenschwendi above Lake of Thun, not far from here. Do you remember when you consciously looked into the sky for the first time?
I remember that I spent quite a lot of time on the roof of our house watching the sky. I laid on my back so I could see the stars. Our home is on a hill, so there's a lot less light that hits us there than in the city. The thought that I always had was a sense of awe — a sense that the sky and the stars in it are important. Some people tell me that they have the same feeling when they're at the sea. It's clear that the sea is huge — much bigger than we can imagine. I have the same feeling when I look at the stars. We're at “the shore of the cosmic ocean,” as Carl Sagan the American astronomer and science popularizer said. Today, I know a lot more about the stars, of course. I know that some of these stars are not really stars but galaxies. Some are gas clouds, birth places of new stars. So, looking at stars is much richer now. But as a child, for me, it was all about the beauty and the importance of the night sky.
Curiosity. That's right.
50 years ago, on 21st of December 1968, the first mission to fly around the moon was launched. The mission was a very risky gamble to beat the Soviet Union. As an Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA, would you take that risk today?
It's hard to imagine, but I would like to say the answer is “yes.” The risk was worth taking because of political reasons. Until then, NASA (the US) was always second in every single race: getting into space; having an object go around the Earth; having humans in space; going around the Earth; having the first woman in space. It was really frustrating. And they had indications that the Soviets would try to fly to the moon, again, as a first. So, they basically put the bet on the table against very long odds.
The wife of Apollo 8 Commander Frank Borman was discretely warned by NASA that her husband only had a 50% chance of surviving.
There were major problems in the previous test flights. Recall that Apollo 1 killed all three astronauts during a test. To be successful for Apollo 8, NASA engineers had to build a rocket that needed to be restarted when orbiting the moon. Otherwise, they would die in space. During the test flight, this restart did not work. And during Apollo 8, this would happen not on any day but on Christmas Eve. Imagine! If things failed, the whole world would be watching the US kills its people. Yet, NASA took the risk to do that. Now, my risks do not generally have that kind political context. But I'm perfectly willing to take risks. In fact, we have to in order to be successful flying in space.
What are the risks you take?
The risk of landing on Mars, statistically, is also 50/50. Generally speaking, we always think of failure as an option. So, I take risks all the time – whether we launch, whether we land, or also operate spacecraft in deep space. Would I take the risk that Apollo 8 took? Probably not as it affected lives of astronauts. But I would take it, even today, if there was a national imperative for it of the type that we saw, then.
Apollo 8 was a success. And soon after, in July 1969, the first men were walking on the moon.
Apollo 11 is what historians are still talking about today. But Apollo 8, in many ways, was more important than Apollo 11. It was like at a car race; you were taking the risk to attack the leading car. When you overtake it is when you start winning. With Apollo 8, the US overtook the Soviets. The rest was just pulling ahead.
You want to put men back on the moon...
But, we have “been there, done that.” Why do it again?
The first time we went there it was for national pride — for flags and footprints. Astronauts were putting flags there, setting their footprints down and then they left. We have a very different objective now. The way we think about it, now, is we don't go back to the moon. We go forward to the moon. So, basically, what we've learned in the meantime is how to live in space. For decades, there have been people in the Space Station, an international construct coming together. Even when the politicians were not working together so well, the astronauts were. What we're trying to do by going to the Moon is not just to stay as a destination but as a stop on the way to Mars. What we're trying to do is increase the range of places where we live. We live on Earth and in lower orbit. We’ve learned how to do that. Now, the challenge is: How do we live beyond that world? The next best place to prove that we can live not only hours from safety but days from safety, is the lunar vicinity. What we want to learn is how to live years from safety, and that's Mars. So, for us, it's moon to Mars. It’s enlarging the space in which we can live and work.
What is it exactly you plan to establish on the moon?
The first thing we're going do is build the command module near the moon. It's a small space station, and the goal is to live there for an extended time. That's what we need to do if you want to go to Mars. There are systems that we need to develop that we currently don't have. For example, we don't have reliable systems to sustain life that work without any help from the ground for the duration of many years.
And why do you go back to the surface of the Moon?
We will go there for two reasons. First, there's science we'd like to do there. There are totally new questions about the moon that we didn't have fifty years ago. For example, we know that the moon has quite a lot of water in it. We were sure that the moon was dry. The fact that it has water tells us about its history. But it also tells us about its resources; so, we want to go explore the moon as a celestial body.
The second goal is we would like to see whether the moon can sustain us to stay there. The way we want to do that is not with NASA, alone, but with commercial and international partners. Think of it as a base camp — like a base camp in the mountains. You could take a trip, stay there and store resources you need for further exploration. That's the vision. So, going to the moon is about science and human exploration.
A few weeks ago, you were sitting in a control room in California. You were concentrating intensely as NASA was landing the robotic spacecraft “InSight” on Mars. Why was it so important to send that vehicle to the Red Planet?
Mars and the Earth are twins. Three billion years ago, they were a lot more similar than today. The Earth had oceans, three billion years ago, as did Mars — even though the Mars oceans were only 150 meters in depth. Indeed, a large fraction of the martian surface would have been covered by water. Mars would have had an atmosphere, too. It may even have had the beginning of life, just like on Earth, about three billion years ago. We don't know. But then something happened that we don't understand which made Mars and Earth very different, today.
We think that part of the explanation of what happened three billion years ago is below the martian surface. InSight was the first robotic geologist on the surface of Mars. We've never seen the inside of this planet. We think that a lot of the history of Mars, and also the history of Earth, is on the inside of the planet. We want to learn about it.
Are you hopeful that one day humans will be living on Mars?
Yes. The question arises, “How would we take advantage of that?” I think curiosity – focusing on a big enough question — is a good enough reason for a mission. Many of the big transformations of knowledge happen because of a good question not because of a well-defined value proposition at the beginning. Great transformations often are not coming from applied research or a startup. The startups come later after great research. The first achievement through a big transformation is a very good question. That's what science is about.
To be honest, for most humans who love to go outdoors in fresh air and move freely, it's rather awkward to imagine living up there. How do you envision life on Mars?
First of all, I don't think of Mars as a replacement of Earth. A very good and suitable way to think of living on Mars is like living in a base camp of a very high mountain. Not everybody and their children is moving to Tibet or wherever the famous base camps are. But some of us do — some explorers, some people with huge experience. Sometimes, there's really utility in doing just that.
Do you envision a long-term presence on Mars beyond base camps?
There are some people who think we can change the whole planet of Mars to make it more Earth-like; it's called “terraforming.” That might be a good idea. How realistic is it? I don't know. The first humans who will be on Mars will have a really harsh environment. They will want to come back to Earth as soon as they can. The first stage of such an exploration program is to learn how to sustain life on Mars. The radiation is so bad that if you put anything that's alive on the surface of Mars — plants, bacteria — within minutes they're dead because of the ultraviolet light and radiation that's burning down. There's no filter. There's only an atmosphere of 5% of that of Earth. And the temperature variations are horrendous. It's just terribly hard to live there. But, you know, it's also hard to go up big mountains. We do it because we're human. We’re explorers.
As we are in Bern, I would like to address one question about the University of Bern, your alma mater. Its achievements are not well known to the wider public. How important is the University of Bern for space science and for Mars exploration, especially?
The University of Bern is one of the most significant research institutions in space and one of the most relevant educational institution for space science in the entire world. It’s that simple. The Bern experiment on the moon during Apollo 11 is when it started, fifty years ago. The Bern experiment was very simple: a foil exposed to the solar wind on the surface of the moon. Bern leadership has never stopped, since. If you just look at the body of work that's done here in Bern, you realize it's one of the top organizations anywhere. It is unique in many ways, and there are some things nobody does better anywhere on Earth than right here in Bern.
What's the key for that success?
It is the people. People are resilient, here. People do hard work. Many will talk about professors. I think they're important but not the most important. I think great team members enabling success here are good engineers, good technicians. When they build something, it works. Not many people can do that as well as some of the teams here in Bern. The other thing is stability. If you come back to Earth in 100 years, the universities will, likely, still be here. I would take a bet on that. I'm not sure about all the other things. Do we still have a train station? I don't know. But a University? Absolutely. This stability has helped the University of Bern grow and become really important. So, it's the talent, and it's the environment that are the keys of success.
Before we travel further out from Mars — to “infinity and beyond” as Buzz Lightyear says — let's focus on the center, on our sun. You have a mission going on. It's called the Parker Solar Probe. It was one of the big missions you at NASA launched in the past year. What are you expecting from Parker Solar Probe?
It is exploring the only star that's really in our reach. My hope is that we're at the next star, thirty years from now. We're building a spacecraft that can fly to the next star. But, for the time being, the only star we can investigate is ours. The Parker Solar Probe is an idea that scientists had fifty years ago. We needed to develop the technologies to actually make it happen. Last August, we launched the Parker Probe for the first time. It broke many records. It’s the fastest human-made object ever made, and it traveled the closest to our star, ever.
If everything turns out successfully, we will learn how any star relates to its atmosphere. That turns out to be a very profound question, especially if you're interested in building a life elsewhere. The star is, basically, a nuclear oven that is so hot at the inside that the entire star boils. If you look at the surface of a star, it's almost like if you put oil in a pan and you heat it up. You see the bubbles coming up, so-called convective cells. What's strange about it is that the environment of a star is even more crazy. Because it’s so hot, this whole thing is charged, electrically. It doesn’t just move gases, it also creates big electric fields in such a way that the atmosphere is about two hundred times hotter than the surface of the sun. Now, that stellar environment is what our space environment is about. We have to be protected from that violent radiation environment for us to have and sustain life. For example, it’s really hard to sustain life on the surface of Mars because it does not have that protection. There's no global-scale magnetic field. There's no atmosphere to protect us from the incident radiation. Some of the other stars in our galaxy that we observe are so active that they, basically, would burn away the Earth's atmosphere in a single eruption, once every few years.
What are the forces that are at play?
We’re trying to explore that right here at our sun. We are trying to achieve a fundamental understanding about how a star forms an atmosphere and how that atmosphere extends. It happens to be practically relevant for us on Earth because the very storms — the weather that comes from the sun (we call it space weather) — are actually affecting us, now. We're depending on satellites, right now. Weather forecasts are from space. GPS is in space, too. Distortions in our space weather affect all of us. So, by learning more we can predict such perturbations much better.
The probe is named after Eugene Parker the American solar astrophysicist...
This is the first time a spacecraft has been named after a human being.
Absolutely. We bent some rules to do that.
That was your idea?
Absolutely. Even though I'm very excited about machines, I'm more excited about the people behind those machines. And the story of researcher Dr. Eugene Parker is one of those most amazing ones. He is that kind of a guy who came up with a lot of the key ideas that I just described that were not yet known. He made the predictions and experienced a lot of adversity — and was correct! I felt his work was deeply under-appreciated. In fact, leading scientists agreed. His was the only name that could be on that mission. And he happens to be alive and ninety years old. So, I advocated within the agency to name the spacecraft after this tremendous leader. To be very frank, very few knew about that mission before we named it after him. Having him there at the launch with his family in tears of joy... I will never forget that.
On we travel further out into our solar system. We learned about it through the Voyager missions that were launched in 1977. Compared to the smartphone I’m recording our conversation with, the technology of Voyager 1 and 2 was Stone Age. They have been going for more than forty years. Can you comment on the breathtaking success of these missions?
Nobody would have bet that they would last that long when they built them. This was, in every way, a very risky mission.
It was launched to investigate Jupiter and Saturn.
Jupiter and Saturn, yes. They basically said, “We'll do two. And, if we're lucky, we will fly to Uranus and Neptune.” Because it just so happens that every 175 years they are all in alignment, you can take them out one-by-one — one, two, three, four. So, basically, people said, “Let's go try it because we're not going to miss this historical chance.” There was a risk that they would not be able to make it to Jupiter because the radiation environment there is so horrible. So, they built two Voyagers. They both kept flying, and pretty soon the scientists renamed it the “Interstellar Mission.”
Both Voyager 1 and 2 have left our solar system, but are still sending signals.
Voyager is as relevant for exploration as the Apollo program was for human exploration. It's a demonstration of what science can be about. The thing people don't realize is how young the researchers were who made the Voyager possible. There was little relevant experience. Many of these guys were 30-year-olds who, you know, did something cool — one for the ages. In every school book in the entire world, the pictures that we have of Neptune and Uranus still come from Voyager. Voyager transformed how we look at our own solar system; how we look at our own world. And it's still going today. In fact, we had an announcement the other week that Voyager 2 just went through that surface that separates solar material from galactic material from interstellar space.
One of the instruments the Voyager team designed has a motor that moves back and forth. Every minute, or so, it turns its head to make sure it can look at the whole environment. That engine has been turning well over 100 times longer than the engineers said it would. Its robustness, its built-in genius and design, is as impressive as the ambition behind all of Voyager — the ambition to do this crazy mission, taking advantage of the celestial opportunity of the alignment of the planets, and getting the best of it.
The first object of interest was Jupiter, this giant of a planet. Why is Jupiter important to us?
The giant planets are very different from our terrestrial planets. Giant planets are gas balls, so they have entirely different physics than our Earth. They look like enormous storms interacting with each other. A thousand Earths would fit into Jupiter. It's much, much bigger than anything around here. In addition, Jupiter has very interesting moons.
How many moons does Jupiter have?
Jupiter has between seventy and eighty known moons. In fact, some of these moons are a lot more exciting than we thought. One particular moon of interest is Europa. It literally lives in hell. Its radiation environment is worse than that near the sun because Jupiter makes all that radiation in its magnetic field. Europa is basically an ocean world covered by ice. There's so much water that if you emptied it and replaced it with all of the water from Earth, it would not even be filled to half. So, it's an ocean world that's very unusual. And you go further out to Saturn, another big body, and it has the rings.
We heard surprising news, recently, that Saturn is losing its rings.
Absolutely. Only in less than a hundred million years.
You tweeted, “Research confirms that gravity is pulling the rings into Saturn as a dusty rain of ice particles.” What does that reveal about the planet's history?
Whenever we look at the sky, we think of it as something that has to be that way all the time. It’s just because we don't live long enough. All of these things in the night sky are changing. If you were looking at Saturn a hundred million years ago, which is not long compared to the age of the Earth, it may have looked different. It looks like the rings are much younger than we ever thought. And we have to go there to measure it. It is like a bucket of sand that's leaking a little bit. You need to go measure how much it's leaking.
We did the first measurement of the leak. We had to fly a spacecraft on the inside of the rings. That seemed dangerous and perhaps even a little bit crazy, but we did it. We basically slotted the spacecraft so that it didn't quite hit the surface of the planet. We were actually not sure whether the spacecraft was going to survive. If the rings leaked a lot, the spacecraft would hit dust and probably be knocked out by it; the dust grains come in sizes from tennis ball size to the size of small houses. If one of them hits you, it's over. But the spacecraft survived, and we made the measurements. The big surprise was that the rings are much younger than we thought. It teaches us that planets are evolving, and it also gives us an idea how these rings came about.
Now Voyager 1 and 2 travel in interstellar space. What do the Earth and the other planets look like from the edge our solar system?
It's an interesting question. I actually asked my team, “Can we turn the Voyager around and take one last picture looking back?” If we did that, the brightest star is still the sun. Even though Voyager has traveled since I was a child, we’ve barely left the station to Paris, if you want. We're not even a percent of the distance to the next star. So, we are still really, really, really close to our own star.
Can you describe the direct vicinity where Voyager 1 and 2 are, now?
They are in the gas of the galaxy, and there's still debris. There are still rocks out there that belong to our solar system. It’s called the “Oort Cloud.” If you looked out at the stars, they are the same stars that you see when you sit on a mountain somewhere in Switzerland. They look very similar, almost identical. And there are some planets that you would see, as well, but located much closer to the sun. They oscillate back and forth. They don't go around you anymore, because you're on the other side of that rotation. Other than that, it's just a night’s sky with a bright star.
What is the star closest to our solar system? Alpha Centauri?
Proxima Centauri. It's a few hundred thousand times the Sun-Earth distance.
4.3 light years away.
That’s right. To give an idea of that distance: to send light to Voyager II from Earth takes nearly 17 hours, one way. It is at a distance of more than 120 Astronomical Units (AU) — 120 times the Sun-Earth distance. One goal is to build spacecraft to travel a thousand or 10,000 AU. That’s a lot easier than going 100,000 AU all at once. Whenever you innovate, you never go the whole way at once. If you are going the whole way at once, you will have to be working, working, working all at once, but you are not giving yourself a chance to learn from trying to go 10% the distance. So, it's better and much cheaper to not solve the whole problem at once. Solve only 10% of the problem and learn. Then, go the whole way. By learning from experiments, we're going to think of solutions that we can't even think of right now.
A lot of things in space are hard to think of. Other things are easy to comprehend. Take Michael Collins the forgotten hero of Apollo 11 who was orbiting the moon while Armstrong and Aldrin were walking on the moon taking all of the fame. Of Collins, it was said that “not since Adam has any human known such solitude as he did when he was on the dark side of the moon.” When I was studying your outstanding work in space until 3:00 in the morning, I sometimes felt a bit like Collins — very lonely. Do you ever feel lonely doing your work?
Loneliness is something that people don't want to talk about. As a leader, you will feel lonely from time to time. It’s just the way it is. The simple reason is that if I'm wrong, I'm going to be attacked — not my team. I don't feel lonely in an emotional or psychological sense, because I have my family and I have friends. But leaders or innovators are beyond where most people live their lives. There are times you feel lonely, but you learn to embrace that, too. At 3:00 in the morning, in solitude, you sometimes have the best ideas. The clutter of the world is gone, and you can build worlds that you don't have time to construct usually — worlds that are beautiful, futures that are beautiful. So, there is power in solitude, too; it's not only frightful. Many religious experiences relate to solitude because there are spaces that are opening when you’re alone.
In the capsule of Voyager I, there are two, golden, 12 inch records. They contain greetings in dozens of languages; sounds and images of animals and life on Earth. Not only that, there are also instructions how to find us on the Earth. Is there an inkling of a chance that this message in a capsule will be found by other living beings?
Yes. It's small... But there's an inkling of a chance.
So, there’s hope for life in space somewhere?
What is your evidence?
I didn't say I knew that there is life. As scientists, we know certain criteria of how life evolves. We know certain environments of how physical and chemical systems start. Oxygen, for example, that is part of water. Oxygen, by itself, is a really tough chemical; it can destroy many things it touches. It makes iron rust, for example. There's a lot of oxygen in the universe. So, water is really useful because it ties down a horrible chemical and makes it useful. Water is also useful because it allows chemicals to move and find each other. We think of water as a really important part. There are others. But those are the fundamental reasons.
What others do we know of?
Now, we need to build complex chemicals for life to evolve. Well, the Bern group that we talked about earlier found glycine in comets. Glycine is the shortest of all amino acids, yet, glycine is made by comets. Comets contain some of the oldest material in the solar system. That's amazing.
We think chemical complexities and life relate to each other. So, we build our bridge there. Science is not only about everything you can prove, it's also about things that make sense that you can't prove, yet. As scientists, there are certain things we don't yet understand. In that evolution, there may be a cliff somewhere where we're totally wrong because it's so hard from one life to judge other life.
By the way, there's a good example of that. When I went to school, there was one solar system - our own - with terrestrial planets, rocky planets on the inside and gas planets on the outside. Every solar system model, every stellar system model, had those characteristics. There were theories why it had to be that way. Now, we're looking at close to 4,000 planets. You know what the most abundant planets are?
The most abundant planets have no analog in the solar system. They're not terrestrial, rocky planets, and they’re not gaseous giants; they're in the middle. Every single model we had prior to discovering solar systems outside of ours was basically wrong. We know, now, that there is a whole spectrum of planets, and the central element to understand our own system is to recognize that our solar system – as well as others – are evolutionary. That's what we learned. Research is very much about disproving your assertions, not about proving them.
What are the three key lessons you have learned in your life as a scientist?
There's a famous African proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” So, if you want to go far in science, learn to work in teams. Teams with diverse members are particularly strong. It took me a while to learn that. You may start like an arrogant person, but you quickly hit your head and you realize, “The only way I'm going to be successful is having great people helping me.” The key questions is, “How do I get that person to be as excited about this goal as I am?” Once you learn that, many doors will open. Science is a team sport. That's the first key lesson.
Second, don't underestimate what we can do. Humans are usually overestimating what they can do in a year, like, “Next year I'm going to do X, Y and Z.” You're not going to do all of that stuff. But you almost certainly underestimate what you can do in twenty years. Use your aspiration to pull yourself forward. Don't use realism to hold yourself back, too much. Finding the right balance between aspirations and realism is really something that is critical to build teams to build worthwhile futures.
And the third lesson is to be open to surprises. That’s what science is about: to be open to surprises.
Let’s look ahead to your upcoming projects in 2019 and beyond. What excites you most? And why is it important for our children and all mankind to know about them?
What excites me is that we're at the verge of really breaking new ground. If everything goes well, in 2021 we'll have the new telescope up there.
The James Webb Telescope, the successor of Hubble.
Yes. It’s three times bigger than any other telescope we've had relative to the mirror size. And we will see the dawn of time — the very beginning of the universe.
That's going to be mind-blowing!
Oh, it's huge providing everything works out [knocks on wooden table]. And there are other groundbreaking developments which we expect to achieve. We're at the verge of increasing the accuracy of weather forecasting. We will increase the ability to deal with catastrophes in a way that saves lives. There will be groundbreaking things happening in the commercial sector, too. In just five years, you'll have the Internet everywhere — Internet from the sky. In Africa, they don't have to build telephone lines or data lines, anymore. This will, basically, transform the way we communicate with each other on Earth everywhere.
So, why does space science matter to your son and daughter? To all mankind? It's very useful, but, most importantly, it will teach us about nature. That's why we go to mountains. Not just because of the good exercise, but because we experience nature. It's important, and I hope you, your friends, your daughter all recognize that there is something more important than just our little lives.
We started off our discussion with Heiligenschwendi, your home. Your father was a preacher. As a scientist exploring space, have you ever felt the presence of God?
The feeling I just told you about many people associate with religion. There are people who are even better scientists than I am who will talk about their personal God in that experience. Some people are atheists, and they still have that experience. You could easily take that experience I just described and describe it as a Divine experience. I would have no problem with that. For me, personally, it has to do with that. Just less defined. Perhaps it's the scientist in me that I think we have to have all of the details right all of the time.
You just announced that we soon will see the very beginning of the universe. So, when we come to the beginning of everything, that triggers the eternal question: Who, or what, created everything? What is your answer?
I don't know. As a scientist, that has to be my answer. You ask what is at the very beginning, just ahead of the Big Bang. The problem I have is that I don't even have a good idea about how to put that in my mind and how to go about this question. As a scientist, I have become very comfortable with the answer, “I don’t know.” I am very comfortable saying, “It's in the bucket of things I don't know.” By the way, that bucket is huge! Most of things in the universe are in that bucket. We don’t know a whole bunch of facts.
The good news is: We can, yet, learn a lot of things. I’m very good with that!