During the attempts to try to bring cyclic ideas into modern cosmology, it was discovered in the '20s and '30s that there are various technical problems. The idea at that time was a cycle in which our three-dimensional universe goes through periods of expansion beginning from the Big Bang and then reversal to contraction and a big crunch. The universe bounces and expansion begins again. One problem is that, every time the universe contracts to a crunch, the density and temperature of the universe rises to an infinite value, and it is not clear if the usual laws of physics can be applied. Second, every cycle of expansion and contraction creates entropy through natural thermodynamic processes, which adds to the entropy from earlier cycles. So, at the beginning of a new cycle, there is higher entropy density than the cycle before. It turns out that the duration of a cycle is sensitive to the entropy density. If the entropy increases, the duration of the cycle increases as well. So, going forward in time, each cycle becomes longer than the one before. The problem is that, extrapolating back in time, the cycles become shorter until, after a finite time, they shrink to zero duration. The problem of avoiding a beginning has not been solved. It has simply been pushed back a finite number of cycles. If we're going to reintroduce the idea of a truly cyclic universe, these two problems must be overcome. The cyclic model that I will describe uses new ideas to do just that.
To appreciate why an alternative model is worth pursuing, its important to get a more detailed impression of what the consensus picture is like. Certainly some aspects are appealing. But, what I want to argue is that, overall, the consensus model is not so simple. In particular, recent observations have forced us to amend the consensus model and make it more complicated. So, let me begin with an overview of the consensus model.
The consensus theory begins with the Big Bang: the universe has a beginning. It's a standard assumption that people have made over the last 50 years, but it's not something we can prove at present from any fundamental laws of physics. Furthermore, you have to assume that the universe began with an energy density less than the critical value. Otherwise, the universe would stop expanding and recollapse before the next stage of evolution, the inflationary epoch. In addition, to reach this inflationary stage, there must be some sort of energy to drive the inflation. Typically this is assumed to be due to an inflation field. You have to assume that in those patches of the universe that began at less than the critical density, a significant fraction of the energy is stored in inflation energy so that it can eventually overtake the universe and start the period of accelerated expansion. All of these are reasonable assumption, but assumptions nevertheless. It's important that to count these assumptions and ingredients, because they are helpful in comparing the consensus model to the challenger.
Assuming these conditions are met, the inflation energy overtakes the matter and radiation after a few instants. The inflationary epoch commences and the expansion of the universe accelerates at a furious pace. The inflation does a number of miraculous things: it makes the universe homogeneous, it makes the universe flat, and it leaves behind certain inhomogeneities, which are supposed to be the seeds for the formation of galaxies. Now the universe is prepared to enter the next stage of evolution with the right conditions. According to the inflationary model, the inflation energy decays into a hot gas of matter and radiation. After a second or so, there form the first light nuclei. After a few tens of thousands of years, the slowly moving matter dominates the universe. It's during these stages that the first atoms form, the universe becomes transparent, and the structure in the universe begins to formthe first stars and galaxies. Up to this point the story is relatively simple.
But, there is the recent discovery that we've entered a new stage in the evolution of the universe. After the stars and galaxies have formed, something strange has happened to cause the expansion of the universe to speed up again. During the 15 billion years when matter and radiation dominated the universe and structure was forming, the expansion of the universe was slowing down because the matter and radiation within it is gravitationally self-attractive and resists the expansion of the universe. Until very recently, it had been presumed that matter would continue to be the dominant form of energy in the universe, and this deceleration would continue forever.
But we've discovered instead, due to recent observations that the expansion of the universe is speeding up. This means that most of the energy of the universe is neither matter nor radiation. Rather, another form of energy has overtaken the matter and radiation. For lack of a better term, this new energy form is called "dark energy." Dark energy, unlike the matter and radiation that we're familiar with, is gravitationally self-repulsive. That's why it causes the expansion to speed up rather than slow down. In Newton's theory gravity, all mass is gravitationally attractive, but Einstein's theory allows the possibility of forms of energy that are gravitationally self-repulsive.