In celebration of Professor Stephen Hawkin's seventieth birthday, The BBC has organised a programme in which a wide range of 'ordinary' people put their questions to him. One example given in this morning's announcement of the programme asked what happened before the big bang.
Stephen Hawkin's reply was to the effect that nothing happened, or rather that the question was a category error. Using an analogy to explain (surely a technique close to a category error itself), he said it was like asking what was south of the South Pole.
I don't think it will entirely satisfy (though perhaps there was more in the full answer) most 'ordinary' people - or at least will not prevent the question recurring. Were we to stand at the South Pole we would have a sense of something further 'south', although strictly speaking we had reached the ultimate. Yet above our heads, still in the direction we falsely though understandably label 'south', we perceive, not more land, but other matter in sky and space beyond. I think Profesor Hawkin's questioner was probably asking the nature of that otherness 'before' 'time'. I suppose the answer is that we cannot know, or perhaps, signalled by the increasing need to put 'ordinary' words here into inverted commas, we can know only in abstruse mathematical notation. 'Ordinary' people may find a requirement to accept that time has a beginning as problematic as the requirement to accept that space has no end, and wonder whether any image they can summon up of the boundary of time would be less fanciful than the image of the finite universe as a saucer balanced on the back of an elephant.