#5192: Understanding the origins of our physical universe

Editor: Dustin LindenSmith

Physicist-turned-filmmaker Mark Levinson has made a documentary called Particle Fever which covers the story of the construction of the Large Hadron Collider and the subsequent discovery of the Higgs boson, a.k.a. The God Particle. Here’s the trailer:

“Whatever we learn is going to have a dramatic impact on the way humans think about the universe forever.”

http://particlefever.com/

Side note: The film was also edited by the legendary Oscar-winner Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now, The English Patient), and has a rare 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the website that aggregates critics’ and audience members’ ratings of a film:

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/particle_fever/

The discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012 (and its confirmation in 2013) is perhaps a precursor of sorts to a huge, albeit esoteric, science news story that emerged this week confirming the theory of Cosmic Inflation. Until now, Inflation has been sort of an inference based on what might be called circumstantial evidence we’ve collected while observing the shape of the visible universe as well its oldest visible light. It provides a theory for explaining how our physical universe expanded in a super-rapid fashion just after The Big Bang. Now, however, this theory has effectively been proven:

http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-26605974

“This is spectacular,” commented Prof Marc Kamionkowski, from Johns Hopkins University. “I’ve seen the research; the arguments are persuasive, and the scientists involved are among the most careful and conservative people I know,” he told BBC News.

Astronomer Phil Plait also writes lucidly on this topic on Slate, providing several additional useful references and links to other resources:

http://www.slate.com/blogs/bad_astronomy/2014/03/17/evidence_of_inflation_astronomers_detect_gravitational_waves_from_the_early.html

Inflationary models predict that the rapid expansion that occurred directly after The Big Bang would have created certain noticeable patterns in the cosmos called “gravitational waves,” whose existence having been observed in 1993 resulted in that year’s Nobel prize. Plait explains:

We don’t see the waves themselves, but we can detect the effect they had on light coming from the early Universe. The waves would polarize the light, in a sense aligning the waves of light in certain ways. There are many different ways light can be polarized, but gravitational waves left over from inflation would do so in a very specific way (called B mode polarization, which twists and curls the direction of the polarization; see the image at the top of this post). Finding this kind of polarization in the light leftover from the fires of the Big Bang would be clear evidence of gravitational waves… and it was precisely this type of polarization that was finally detected by a telescope called BICEP2 (Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization), located in Antarctica.

This video of BICEP2 project co-lead Professor Chao-Lin Kuo delivering the news to inflationary theory founder Professor Andrei Linde that his theory has just been proven is quite entertaining to watch:

This is kind of heady, inside-baseball stuff that physics PhDs are more qualified to discuss, but the BBC has several articles on the topic that help to unpack it in lay terms, such as this one:

http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-26610768

From that article:

It’s an “add on” to BBT (Big Bang Theory). It proposes that about a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after our observable Universe got going, it went through a super-rapid expansion, taking an infinitesimally small patch of space to something about the size of a marble, before then continuing to coast outwards. (Note: space may open up faster than light, but nothing in it is moving faster than light). One of the pioneers of inflationary theory, the American Alan Guth, describes inflation “as sort of the bang in the Big Bang”. And it fixes some puzzling aspects in BBT. For example, it explains why the Universe looks so smooth on the largest scales. Inflation would have stretched away any unevenness. It also explains the structure we see in the Universe – all those galaxies and clusters of galaxies. The random quantum fluctuations that existed before inflation would have been amplified to provide the seeds for everything that came after.

While contemplating all of these questions, I find it impossible not to consider the question of what existed prior to The Big Bang. I’ve long thought it was just nothing, a pure void, what the French would call “nul,” but Einstein might have scoffed at me, saying it’s it’s a nonsensical question. One article I read compared it to asking, “What’s farther north than the North Pole?”

The shortest answers to the question of what existed before The Big Bang may either be that we simply don’t know, or else that the question cannot be meaningfully answered because our notion of time only started with The Big Bang. Prior to that event, there was simply an unmanifest singularity, a sort of void potentiality that had yet to spring into physical existence.

Sound familiar, that?

Another well-formed overview of this topic can be found in this 2013 piece on the BBC by physicist and science writer Matthew Francis:

http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20130502-what-came-before-the-big-bang

First of all, the language we use to describe what we know and don’t know can sometimes be muddy. For instance, the Universe may be defined as all that exists in a physical sense, but we can only observe part of that. Nobody sensible thinks the observable Universe is all there is, though. Galaxies in every direction seem similar to each other; there’s no evident special direction in space, meaning that the Universe doesn’t have an edge (or a centre). In other words, if we were to instantaneously relocate to a galaxy far, far away, we’d see a cosmos very similar to the one we observe from Earth, and it would have an effective radius of 46 billion light-years. We can’t see beyond that radius, wherever we’re located.

To be honest, this is really a bit much for my primitive musician brain to grasp. Near the end of my research, I came across this interview with superstar astrophysicist Neil deGrasse-Tyson that cleared everything up for me. The video playback has been noticeably slowed down, which has created the fascinating and amusing effect of making him sound like he’s having a sort of nondual acid trip:

Speaking of the beginning of physical time, you might enjoy this last piece that explains the functioning and administration of the US Naval Observatory’s atomic clocks:

http://www.theatlantic.com/video/index/358609/where-time-comes-from/

In that video, Chief Scientist of Time Sciences at the Observatory Dr. Demetrios Matsakis says, “I like to tell people that I don’t know exactly what time is, but I do know exactly what a second is: it’s 9 billion, 192 million, 631 thousand, and 770 periods of oscillation of an undisturbed caesium atom.”

Indeed.

Dustin

One thought on “#5192: Understanding the origins of our physical universe

  1. Bob OHearn

    Every once in a while in the course of timelessness, as the story goes, the universe contracts down to a point that is smaller than the period at the end of this sentence. As it nears the extreme extent of its contraction, sentient beings for the most part are shipped off to a happy land of radiant joy in the upper reaches of the possible places to land in such event. For a very long while, they live and play there with the greatest of ease, unbothered by snakes and fleas, with rays of pure light flashing from their mind-made bodies as they feed on rapture, float through the air as if there was nothing to it, and generally have a real good time. Every so often you can hear them shouting out in joy, “Hey, alright!” That’s because they are feeling good, and are moved spontaneously to make that understood! They may even start to imagine, given the extended happiness that they are experiencing, that this pleasurable condition will just go on forever. After all, it certainly seems like heaven, so why not?

    Because things are the way they are, however, and sooner or later, after the lapse of a very long period as we might measure time, the cosmos begins to expand once again. In the course of this re-evolution, a vacancy one level down from Joy City opens up. As possible dwelling places go, it is really like a mansion with many attractive features, great views, excellent curb appeal, and so forth. Then a certain being, having reached his expiration code date, drops down from Happy Land and proceeds to occupy the vacancy made available in the course of the expanding universe. There he lives and plays with the greatest of ease, unbothered by snakes and fleas, with rays of pure light flashing from his mind-made body as he feeds on rapture, floats through the air as if there was nothing to it, and generally has a real good time (although not quite as good as the previous engagement). And he continues on in that enjoyment for a long, long period of time.

    After a while, however, as a result of dwelling there all alone for so long a time, there arises in him dissatisfaction and agitation, and so he says to himself: “Oh, I wish that other beings would come to this place!” Sure enough, just at that moment, due to their number coming up, certain other beings drop down from Joy City and find themselves knocking on the door of the first guy’s mansion. He is happy to welcome them in, and there they live and play with the greatest of ease, unbothered by snakes and fleas, with rays of pure light flashing from their mind-made bodies as they feed on rapture, float through the air as if there was nothing to it, and generally have a real good time (although it is not quite as much fun as the last place). And they continue on in that enjoyment for a long, long period of time.

    Eventually, the one who re-arose there first, pauses in the midst of his fun and thinks to himself: “Hey, I must be God, the Great One, the King of the Hill, the Top of the Heap, the Lord Himself, the Creator, the Supreme Being, the Almighty, the Father of all, and these beings have been created by me. Why? Because first I made the wish, and sure enough, they all appeared!”
    Moreover the beings who re-arose there after him also think: “This must be God, the Great One, the King of the Hill, the Top of the Heap, the Lord Himself, the Creator, the Supreme Being, the Almighty, the Father of all. And we have been created by him. Why? Because we see that he was here first, and we appeared here after him.”

    Just so, the being who re-arose there first possesses longer life, greater beauty, and greater authority than the beings who re-arose there after him. One might say it’s an “early bird” kind of deal. In any case, in the course of time, it comes to be that a certain being, after dropping down from that glorious plane at the expiration of his code date, takes rebirth in this world. Having come to this world, it feels as if he has gone from home to homelessness. He sits down to ponder his fate, and after considering the matter for a good long time, he begins to remember his immediately preceding life (but none previous to that). In the meantime, others gradually drop down and join him in this world, filled alas with snakes and fleas and other bothersome things.

    Remembering what had gone before, he exclaims to his new disciples: “We were created by Him, by God, the Great One, the King of the Hill, the Top of the Heap, the Lord Himself, the Creator, the Supreme Being, the Almighty, the Father of all. He lives and plays there in His heaven with the greatest of ease, unbothered by snakes and fleas, with rays of pure light flashing from His Body. He feeds on rapture, floats through the air as if there was nothing to it, and generally has a real good time. But we, who have been created by Him and born into this world, are impermanent, miserable, and doomed to perish. We better start offering stuff to Him, like those sheep over there.”

    Just so, theistic religion is born, and what follows next – the confused history of the people — is based on that initial misunderstanding about God and the universe.

    ~Based on a free transliteration of the Brahmajāla Sutta

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