In many places you will read that just after the big bang, the universe was filled with very hot gas which appeared to be in thermal equilibrium. You will then read that this is actually quite a low entropy state, due to gravity. Though all the matter particles and radiation are in thermal equilibrium, the spacetime where they live is unusually flat. A state of much higher entropy would be to have things clumped together in complicated ways, with a bunch of large black holes hanging around.

Fast forward several billion years, and we get to today, where the sun is shining, allowing us Earth lifeforms to exist. This works because space is cold, while the sun is hot, so we can live off the temperature difference. If we ask why the sun is hot, we find that it's hot because it's fusing hydrogen into helium.

So I know the beginning of the story and the end of the story, but not the middle. How do we get from "spacetime is unusually flat" to "there are hydrogen atoms around that you can fuse into helium"? In particular, how does gravity make a difference: if $G$ was 0, would all the nuclei in universe already be helium (or I guess iron)?

EDIT: To clarify the question consider the following two scenarios:

  • The "no fusion" universe: In this universe, nuclear fusion is impossible. Stars still form due to gravity and they still get hot as they collapse, but they don't shine for nearly as long, since there are no fusion reactions happening in the core to replace the energy lost to radiation. Stars rapidly become white dwarfs without passing through a fusion stage. This example makes it seem like nuclear physics is somehow important to answering this question.

  • The $G=0$ universe: This universe has no force of gravity, it's spatially uniform. We can still allow it to expand like our own universe, but I guess it wouldn't be due to dark energy or anything, that would just be the shape that spacetime happens to have. After 13 billion years, I'm guessing this universe would be uniformly full of cold hydrogen gas? Though the lack of gravity definitely rules out the existence of stars, it seems like an alien civilization that travelled to this universe could sustain themselves by collecting hydrogen gas and building fusion reactors. If an alien civilization could live there, then entropy must not be at a maximum yet. This example makes it seem like gravity is almost irrelevant to the issue, though I don't think that can actually be right.

  • $\begingroup$ More on low entropy at Big Bang. $\endgroup$
    – Qmechanic
    Jul 2 at 5:56
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    $\begingroup$ this is an interesting question physics.stackexchange.com/questions/35431/… $\endgroup$
    – anna v
    Jul 2 at 10:23
  • $\begingroup$ Regarding the relevance of gravity, it is important to realize that "fusing hydrogen into helium" is not the original reason why the Sun is hot. There is a lot of cold hydrogen in the Universe. The Sun is hot because it gravitationally condensed. $\endgroup$
    – Sten
    Jul 6 at 7:46
  • $\begingroup$ @Sten: I'm of course aware that stars require gravity to form, but I think I've read that the sun would not shine for nearly as long if it was only hot due to gravitational collapse. Only a few millions of years, IIRC. Most of the energy output is due to fusion. Hence the question of how entropy plays into all this. $\endgroup$ Jul 7 at 4:58

1 Answer 1


Gravity is what allows a the small initial fluctuations in the matter density after the "big bang" (or after exiting inflation), to grow into large differences. Dark matter, followed by baryonic (ordinary) matter, clump, thanks to gravity, into various filaments, galaxies, and in the small(er) scale, stars. Our Sun is one of these stars which gravity clumped together from a cloud of dilute matter, mostly hydrogen. As gravity continues to act, at some point the hydrogen density in the cloud exceeded some density where fusion begins to happen - and the Sun "turned on".

There's a popular misconception that the Sun needed to reach extremely high densities and temperatures to guarantee fusion. This is not true - the Sun is not a thermonuclear bomb, and does not fuse all its hydrogen in one big explosion. Instead, the Sun is well, well, below the temperature needed to sustain fusion, and the reason why a bit of fusion is happening is quantum tunneling - even though the protons (hydrogen nuclei) in the sun do not have enough energy to fuse, they sometimes (with very low probability) "loan" the missing energy, fuse, and "return" the loan from the huge amount of energy produced in the fusion reaction. The rest of the energy heats up the Sun and causes it to shine as we know it.

The energy produced by fusion is also what generates the pressure which prevents the Sun from collapsing further with gravity. When the fusion processes in the Sun will eventually die out, this pressure will disappear, and the sun will collapse into a so-called "white dwarf" (our Sun isn't massive enough to collapse into a neutron star or a black hole).

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the answer, it presents some good information, but I'm not inclined to accept it as answer to the original question in its current form. I was mainly asking about how the entropy flows. Certainly gravitational clumping increases entropy, but it seems like at some point rather a lot of entropy has to flow from the star material to the gravitational field, no? I'm asking about the details of that process. $\endgroup$ Jul 7 at 5:07
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    $\begingroup$ No, the entropy doesn't "flow" from place to place, so I don't know what process you are asking to describe. The whole point is that the entropy of the star is still relatively low, it is not in thermal equilibrium (the maximal entropy). This is why the energy (not entropy) flowing from the Sun to use can do work (photosynthesis, for example). The Earth receives low-entropy energy (a few high-energy (UV side of spectrum) photons) and reflects high-entropy energy (heat, radiated as many low-energy (red side of spectrum) photosn). $\endgroup$ Jul 7 at 10:55
  • $\begingroup$ Right, so when the universe started, it was full of gas that pretty much was in thermal equilibrium, so something must have happened in between that and when some of that gas formed into stars. Yes, gravity clumped a bunch of gas together, but the question is about what the entropy was doing at the time. Certainly entropy sometimes flows from one system to another in physics, eg. heat transfer, so if you know that it wasn't flowing in this case, that sounds like an interesting fact. Could you explain how we know that's true? And which process actually caused the stars to be low-entropy? $\endgroup$ Jul 8 at 8:39
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    $\begingroup$ Ricky, maybe this will help? physics.stackexchange.com/questions/414782/… $\endgroup$ Jul 8 at 20:05
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the link, I think that does indeed explain what entropy is doing for stars in the "no fusion" universe. The only remaining issue is that in our own universe, stars shine for much longer because they go though a fusion stage which temporarily halts their collapse and puts out loads of energy. That corresponds to being able to run a heat engine on the star's radiation for a longer period of time, so it would be nice to also know what the entropy is doing there. $\endgroup$ Jul 9 at 19:15

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