Radical New Views of the Big Bang -A Holy Grail of Science

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November 28, 2007

Radical New Views of the Big Bang -A Holy Grail of Science

Big_bang_2There simply isn't a bigger question: wrapping up "Why are we here?", "Why is everything the way it is?" and "What if I don't believe a gigantic invisible skybeard did it?" -it's a Holy Grail of science.  The theoreticians want to explain it, the experimenters want to detect it and - unlike 99% of all research - the public will actually care about the answer for a few minutes.  We report on five ways scientists have have studied the beginning of everything and, in mockery of all you might think possible, made the question even cooler.

1.  There's a hole in the sky

A piece of the universe is broken - or at least defective.  That's the current thinking of scientists from the Institute of Physics of Cantabria (IFCA) and the University of Cambridge after observing data from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe ( WMAP).  The idea is that as the universe condensed into the state we recognize from the quite insanely high temperatures and densities of the big bang, defects can be created in the same way flaws and opaque spots form as water freezes into ice.  While that analogy might give any astrophysicist an aneurysm, and is honestly enough to give you a nosebleed if you try to picture both situations at the same time, it's as good as any you can get without a graduate course in cosmology.

This discovery could revolutionize our understanding of the universe, as well as making people feel better about crashing our computers (after all, if empty vacuum itself can break what chance do we have with the complicated things?)  And after fourteen billion years (or so) we might have the answer within our lifetime.  Professor Turok took a break from examining the Big Bang (and possibly hunting dinosaurs) to announce that these results are extremely testable, they are even now extremely testing them, and we should know within ten years.

2.  Watch it on TV

All that hard science makes you want to settle down and switch your brain off for a while.  There's no better way to do that than TV, and while you're there, you can watch the creation of the cosmos, LIVE, 24/7.  But no matter how advanced your cable or HDTV this is an exclusive offer for old-school rabbit-eared television sets, which many younger readers with their YouTubes and their hip-hops might not even have heard of.  The idea (demonstrated in a video linked at the end of this article) is that 1% of the white noise seen on an untuned television is actually microwave radiation released when, not to sound to grandiose about it, Things Started.

(The science in the video is fine, but they do make one mistake when they refer to their rabbit-eared set as "an ordinary television" instead of "a stone-age relic of an earlier time before we had satellite, the internet, and probably hadn't quite gotten rid of The Plague").

3.  Stringing up a theory

A team from the University of Illinois claims that string theory can explain the birth of the universe.  They say it wasn't so much a Big Bang as a Big Brane, an object which decomposed into a vast number of strings which went on to make up our current reality.  If you want to know how much traction this theory is getting do a Google search for the phrase "Brane" - you'll find every result includes the words "theoretical construct", "mathematical object", and while the words 'zero proof' aren't actually mentioned they exist between the lines.

Part of the problem is the reasons the theory is appealing - proponents argue that the brane methodology avoids the mass and energy singularities (stupidly large values which cause our theories to break down) which occur in the classic Big Bang/Big Crunch theory (summary: everything explodes out, expands, contracts, crunches to a point, repeat until bored/end of time).  Detractors respond that "it makes the math prettier" doesn't actually constitute proof of a theory - which pretty much sums up most of the opposition to string theory, in fact, and forms an argument that has yet to be adequately refuted.  And some might say that a theory that can't even prove its own validity is getting a little ahead of itself when it claims to know the secrets of the universe and everything in it.

4.  Answering the big questions while you're there

Which is what makes results from the University of Wisconsin-Madison so interesting.  A fundamental aspect of string theory is the existence of at least six dimensions beyond those we can verify, but those dimensions are so small that they can't be directly observed under any conditions that exist.  That might sound like claiming your homework was eaten by the biggest yet most invisible dog in the world, but Professor Shiu and graduate student Bret Underwood had an idea: how about looking at a time when the necessary conditions did exist?

By examining a map of the cosmic wave background recorded by the WMAP, a record of the conditions of the early universe, they hoped to discern the influence of the otherwise undetectable dimensions from a time when they could have shaped the the tiny but incredibly energetic universe - conditions ideal for their influence to be felt.  Their results prove their method is valid, but are not yet accurate enough to provide proof of string theory.  It's incredibly interesting work, and as string theorists out to prove things one way or the other rather than repeating "But it would be so awesome if it was true!", they are to be applauded.

5.  What about before that?

It sounds like a philosophy question, but the great thing about science is that no matter how 'ultimate' or 'absolute' the question, there are minds that will go further.  They're frequently wrong, but it's still cool, and when somebody can work for years on the question of "What happened before the beginning of everything?' - not as navel-gazing pot-inspired conversation but as a serious scientific proposition - you don't want to make fun because they're either a) geniuses or b) dangerously insane.

Amazingly, theoretical physicist Martin Bojowald at Pennsylvania State University believes it may be possible to see present-day evidence of existence before the Big Bang.  After running simulations on quantum loop gravity, a phrase that sounds like it comes from Commander Data, he claims that if his theories are correct it should be possible to extrapolate information about an earlier age.  The key point is the idea that the Big Bang wasn't so much a beginning as a cosmic reset, where incredibly high but finite levels of energy rewrote the universe but didn't erase every trace of what went before.

It's epic stuff, and even if it doesn't end up proving anything about the universe it demonstrates a key point of science:  for G.I. Joe knowing may be half the battle, but for a scientist knowing gives you twenty more interesting questions to ask.

Posted by Luke McKinney.

Related Galaxy posts:

"The Elegant Universe" -A Galaxy Insight
The Big Bang or an Infinite Cycle?
"Star Trek" Warp Speeds a Reality? Scientists Claim Quantum Tunneling Exceeds Speed of Light
Quantum Physics & the Quest for the Perfect Internet
Before the Beginning: The Big Bang Theory Challenged
Weird Science: Can Time Move Backwards?
"Beyond Einstein": Search for Dark Energy of the Universe
"42" -Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Foreshadows Actual Weight of Univers
1st 3-D Map of the Universe's Dark Matter
Cosmic Collision  Sheds Light on Mystery of Dark Matter
GAIA -Mapping the Family Tree of the Milky Way
New, Revised Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Related Links:

Vacuum flaws sound impossible but aren't
The birth of the universe, live on free-per-view! 
String-brane model
String theory evidence (no, that's not an oxymoron)
Looking before the Big Bang 

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