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Understanding the origins of our physical universe

Posted in science and technology

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.”

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.

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:

“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 at Slate:

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 this image). 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 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:

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).

While contemplating all of these questions, it’s hard 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.

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

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.

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:

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.”

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