Astronomers Count all the Photons in the Universe. Spoiler Alert: 4,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 Photons

Imagine yourself in a boat on a great ocean, the water stretching to the distant horizon, with the faintest hints of land just beyond that. It’s morning, just before dawn, and a dense fog has settled along the coast. As the chill grips you on your early watch, you catch out of the corner of your eye a lighthouse, feebly flickering through the fog.

And – yes – there! Another lighthouse, closer, its light a little stronger. As you scan the horizon more lighthouses signal the dangers of the distant coast.
Continue reading “Astronomers Count all the Photons in the Universe. Spoiler Alert: 4,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 Photons”

We May Soon Be Able To See the First, Supergiant Stars in the Universe

We need to talk about the dark ages. No, not those dark ages after the fall of the western Roman Empire. The cosmological dark ages. The time in our universe, billions of years ago, before the formation of the first stars. And we need to talk about the cosmic dawn: the birth of those first stars, a tumultuous epoch that completely reshaped the face the cosmos into its modern form.

Those first stars may have been completely unlike anything we see in the present universe. And we may, if we’re lucky, be on the cusp of seeing them for the first time.

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Whoa. That’s the Milky Way, Bouncing off the Moon in Radio Waves

Radio waves from our galaxy, the Milky Way, reflecting off the surface of the Moon. Image Credit: Dr Ben McKinley, Curtin University/ICRAR/ASTRO 3D. Moon image courtesy of NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University.

The universe wasn’t always such a well-lit place. It had its own Dark Ages, back in the days before stars and galaxies formed. One of the big questions in astronomy concerns how stars and galaxies shaped the very early days of the Universe. The problem is, there’s no visible light travelling through the Universe from this time period.

Now, a team of astronomers led by Dr. Benjamin McKinley of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) and Curtin University are using the Moon to help unlock these secrets.

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Gravitational waves were only recently observed, and now astronomers are already thinking of ways to use them: like accurately measuring the expansion rate of the Universe

Neutron stars scream in waves of spacetime when they die, and astronomers have outlined a plan to use their gravitational  agony to trace the history of the universe. Join us as we explore how to turn their pain into our cosmological profit.

Continue reading “Gravitational waves were only recently observed, and now astronomers are already thinking of ways to use them: like accurately measuring the expansion rate of the Universe”

Has a New Dwarf Galaxy Been Found Hiding Behind Andromeda?

The Andromeda Galaxy will collide with the Milky Way in the future. Credit: Adam Evans

One of the greatest challenges of astronomy is locating objects in space that are obscured by the light of nearby, brighter objects. In addition to making extra-solar planets very difficult to directly image, this problem also intrudes on surveys of the local Universe, where astronomers are unable to detect dwarf and isolated galaxies because of all the brighter ones surrounding them.

Because of this, astronomers are unable to do a full inventory of small galaxies in the volume of space surrounding the Milky Way (aka. the Local Volume). However, thanks to the efforts of an amateur astronomer and an international team of scientists, a dwarf spheroidal galaxy was recently discovered lurking behind the Andromeda Galaxy. The discovery of this object, named Donatiello I, could help astronomers learn more about the process of galaxy formation.

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What is the Cosmic Microwave Background?

For thousands of years, human being have been contemplating the Universe and seeking to determine its true extent. And whereas ancient philosophers believed that the world consisted of a disk, a ziggurat or a cube surrounded by celestial oceans or some kind of ether, the development of modern astronomy opened their eyes to new frontiers. By the 20th century, scientists began to understand just how vast (and maybe even unending) the Universe really is.

And in the course of looking farther out into space, and deeper back in time, cosmologists have discovered some truly amazing things. For example, during the 1960s, astronomers became aware of microwave background radiation that was detectable in all directions. Known as the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), the existence of this radiation has helped to inform our understanding of how the Universe began. Continue reading “What is the Cosmic Microwave Background?”

If There is a Multiverse, Can There be Life There Too?

The Multiverse Theory, which states that there may be multiple or even an infinite number of Universes, is a time-honored concept in cosmology and theoretical physics. While the term goes back to the late 19th century, the scientific basis of this theory arose from quantum physics and the study of cosmological forces like black holes, singularities, and problems arising out of the Big Bang Theory.

One of the most burning questions when it comes to this theory is whether or not life could exist in multiple Universes. If indeed the laws of physics change from one Universe to the next, what could this mean for life itself? According to a new series of studies by a team of international researchers, it is possible that life could be common throughout the Multiverse (if it actually exists).

The studies, titled “The impact of dark energy on galaxy formation. What does the future of our Universe hold?” and “Galaxy formation efficiency and the multiverse explanation of the cosmological constant with EAGLE simulations“, recently appeared in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. The former study was led by Jaime Salcido, a postgraduate student at Durham University’s Institute for Computational Cosmology.

Einstein Lecturing
Albert Einstein during a lecture in Vienna in 1921. Credit: National Library of Austria/F. Schmutzer/Public Domain

The latter was led by Luke Barnes, a John Templeton Research Fellow at the University of Sydney’s Sydney Institute for Astronomy. Both teams included members from the University of Western Australia’s International Center for Radio Astronomy Research, the Liverpool John Moores University’s Astrophysics Research Institute, and Leiden University’s Leiden Observatory.

Together, the research team sought to determine how the accelerated expansion of the cosmos could have effected the rate of star and galaxy formation in our Universe. This accelerate rate of expansion, which is an integral part of the Lambda-Cold Dark Matter (Lambda-CDM) model of cosmology, arose out of problems posed by Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity.

As a consequence of Einstein’s field equations, physicist’s understood that the Universe would either be in a state of expansion or contraction since the Big Bang. In 1919, Einstein responded by proposing the “Cosmological Constant” (represented by Lambda), which was a force that “held back” the effects of gravity and thus ensured that the Universe was static and unchanging.

Shortly thereafter, Einstein retracted this proposal when Edwin Hubble revealed (based on redshift measurements of other galaxies) that the Universe was indeed in a state of expansion. Einstein apparently went as far as to declare the Cosmological Constant “the biggest blunder” of his career as a result. However, research into cosmological expansion during the late 1990s caused his theory to be reevaluated.

Artist’s impression of the Lambda Cold Dark Matter (LCDM) cosmological model of the Universe. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Alex Mittelmann, Coldcreation

In short, ongoing studies of the large-scale Universe revealed that during the past 5 billion years, cosmic expansion has accelerated. As such, astronomers began to hypothesize the existence of a mysterious, invisible force that was driving this acceleration. Popularly known as “Dark Energy”, this force is also referred to as the Cosmological Constant (CC) since it is responsible for counter-effecting the effects of gravity.

Since that time, astrophysicists and cosmologists have sought to understand how Dark Energy could have effected cosmic evolution. This is an issue since our current cosmological models predict that there must be more Dark Energy in our Universe than has been observed. However, accounting for larger amounts of Dark Energy would cause such a rapid expansion that it would dilute matter before any stars, planets or life could form.

For the first study, Salcido and the team therefore sought to determine how the presence of more Dark Energy could effect the rate of star formation in our Universe. To do this, they conducted hydrodynamical simulations using the EAGLE (Evolution and Assembly of GaLaxies and their Environments) project – one of the most realistic simulations of the observed Universe.

Using these simulations, the team considered the effects that Dark Energy (at its observed value) would have on star formation over the past 13.8 billion years, and an additional 13.8 billion years into the future. From this, the team developed a simple analytic model that indicated that Dark Energy – despite the difference in the rate of cosmic expansion – would have a negligible impact on star formation in the Universe.

Timeline of the Big Bang and the expansion of the Universe. Credit: NASA

They further showed that the impact of Lambda only becomes significant when the Universe has already produced most of its stellar mass and only causes decreases in the total density of star formation by about 15%. As Salcido explained in a Durham University press release:

“For many physicists, the unexplained but seemingly special amount of dark energy in our Universe is a frustrating puzzle. Our simulations show that even if there was much more dark energy or even very little in the Universe then it would only have a minimal effect on star and planet formation, raising the prospect that life could exist throughout the Multiverse.”

For the second study, the team used the same simulation from the EAGLE collaboration to investigate the effect of varying degrees of the CC on the formation on galaxies and stars. This consisted of simulating Universes that had Lambda values ranging from 0 to 300 times the current value observed in our Universe.

However, since the Universe’s rate of star formation peaked at around 3.5 billion years before the onset of accelerating expansion (ca. 8.5 billion years ago and 5.3 billion years after the Big Bang), increases in the CC had only a small effect on the rate of star formation.

 

Taken together, these simulations indicated that in a Multiverse, where the laws of physics may differ widely, the effects of more dark energy cosmic accelerated expansion would not have a significant impact on the rates of star or galaxy formation. This, in turn, indicates that other Universes in the Multiverse would be just about as habitable as our own, at least in theory. As Dr. Barnes explained:

“The Multiverse was previously thought to explain the observed value of dark energy as a lottery – we have a lucky ticket and live in the Universe that forms beautiful galaxies which permit life as we know it. Our work shows that our ticket seems a little too lucky, so to speak. It’s more special than it needs to be for life. This is a problem for the Multiverse; a puzzle remains.”

However, the team’s studies also cast doubt on the ability of Multiverse Theory to explain the observed value of Dark Energy in our Universe. According to their research, if we do live in a Multiverse, we would be observing as much as 50 times more Dark Energy than what we are. Although their results do not rule out the possibility of the Multiverse, the tiny amount of Dark Energy we’ve observed would be better explained by the presence of a as-yet undiscovered law of nature.

As Professor Richard Bower, a member of Durham University’s Institute for Computational Cosmology and a co-author on the paper, explained:

“The formation of stars in a universe is a battle between the attraction of gravity, and the repulsion of dark energy. We have found in our simulations that Universes with much more dark energy than ours can happily form stars. So why such a paltry amount of dark energy in our Universe? I think we should be looking for a new law of physics to explain this strange property of our Universe, and the Multiverse theory does little to rescue physicists’ discomfort.”

These studies are timely since they come on the heels of Stephen Hawking’s final theory, which cast doubt on the existence of the Multiverse and proposed a finite and reasonably smooth Universe instead. Basically, all three studies indicate that the debate about whether or not we live in a Multiverse and the role of Dark Energy in cosmic evolution is far from over. But we can look forward to next-generation missions providing some helpful clues in the future.

These include the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), and ground-based observatories like the Square Kilometer Array (SKA). In addition to studying exoplanets and objects in our Solar System, these mission will be dedicated to studying how the first stars and galaxies formed and determining the role played by Dark Energy.

What’s more, all of these missions are expected to be gathering their first light sometime in the 2020s. So stay tuned, because more information – with cosmological implications – will be arriving in just a few years time!

Further Reading: Durham University

Here’s Stephen Hawking’s Final Theory About the Big Bang

Stephen Hawking is rightly seen as one of the most influential scientists of our time. In his time on this planet, the famed physicist, science communicator, author and luminary became a household name, synonymous with the likes of Einstein, Newton and Galileo. What is even more impressive is the fact that he managed to maintain his commitment to science, education and humanitarian efforts despite suffering from a slow, degenerative disease.

Even though Hawking recently passed away, his influence is still being felt. Shortly before his death, Hawking submitted a paper offering his final theory on the origins of the Universe. The paper, which was published earlier this week (on Wednesday, May 2nd), offers a new take on the Big Bang Theory that could revolutionize the way we think of the Universe, how it was created, and how it evolved.

The paper, titled “A smooth exit from eternal inflation?“, was published in the Journal of High Energy Physics. The theory was first announced at a conference at the University of Cambridge in July of last year, where Professor Thomas Hertog (a Belgian physicist at KU Leuven University) shared Hawking’s paper (which Hertog co-authored) on the occasion of his 75th birthday.

Stephen Hawking’s final theory on the Big Bang, submitted shortly before he passed away, was recently published. Credit: University of Cambridge

According to the current scientific consensus, all of the current and past matter in the Universe came into existence at the same time – roughly 13.8 billion years ago. At this time, all matter was compacted into a very small ball with infinite density and intense heat. Suddenly, this ball started to inflate at an exponential rate, and the Universe as we know it began.

However, it is widely believed that since this inflation started, quantum effects will keep it going forever in some regions of the Universe. This means that globally, the Universe’s inflation is eternal. In this respect, the observable part of our Universe (measuring 13.8 billion light-years in any direction) is just a region in which inflation has ended and stars and galaxies formed.

As Hawking explained in an interview with Cambridge University last autumn:

“The usual theory of eternal inflation predicts that globally our universe is like an infinite fractal, with a mosaic of different pocket universes, separated by an inflating ocean. The local laws of physics and chemistry can differ from one pocket universe to another, which together would form a multiverse. But I have never been a fan of the multiverse. If the scale of different universes in the multiverse is large or infinite the theory can’t be tested. ”

In their new paper, Hawking and Hertog offer a new theory that predicts that the Universe is not an infinite fractal-like multiverse, but is finite and reasonably smooth. In short, they theorize that the eternal inflation, as part of the theory of the Big Bang, is wrong. As Hertog explained:

“The problem with the usual account of eternal inflation is that it assumes an existing background universe that evolves according to Einstein’s theory of general relativity and treats the quantum effects as small fluctuations around this. However, the dynamics of eternal inflation wipes out the separation between classical and quantum physics. As a consequence, Einstein’s theory breaks down in eternal inflation.”

In contrast to this, Hawking and Hertog offer an explanation based on String Theory, a branch of theoretical physics that attempts to unify General Relativity with quantum physics. This theory was proposed to explain how gravity interacts with the three other fundamental forces of the Universe (weak and strong nuclear forces and electromagnetism), thus producing a Theory of Everything (ToE).

To put it simply, this theory describes the fundamental constituents of the Universe as tiny, one-dimensional vibrating strings. Hawking and Hertog’s approach uses the holography concept of string theory, which postulates that the Universe is a large and complex hologram. In this theory, physical reality in certain 3D spaces can be mathematically reduced to 2D projections on a surface.

 

This illustration shows the evolution of the Universe, from the Big Bang on the left, to modern times on the right. Image: NASA

Together, Hawking and Hertog developed a variation of this concept to project out the dimension of time in eternal inflation. This enabled them to describe eternal inflation without having to rely on General Relativity, thus reducing inflation to a timeless state defined on a spatial surface at the beginning of time. In this respect, the new theory represents a change from Hawking’s earlier work on “no boundary theory”.

Also known as the Hartle and Hawking No Bounary Proposal, this theory viewed the Universe like a quantum particle – assigning it a wave function that described all possible Universes. This theory also predicted that if you go back in time to the beginning of the Universe, it would shrink and close off like a sphere. Lastly, it predicted that the Universe would eventually stop expanding and collapse in on itself.

As Hertog explains, this new theory is a departure from that earlier work:

“When we trace the evolution of our universe backwards in time, at some point we arrive at the threshold of eternal inflation, where our familiar notion of time ceases to have any meaning. Now we’re saying that there is a boundary in our past.”

Using this theory, Hawking and Hertog were able to derive more reliable predictions about the global structure of the Universe. In addition, a Universe predicted to emerge from eternal inflation on the past boundary is also finite and much simpler. Last, but not least, the theory is more predictive and testable than the infinite Multiverse predicted by the old theory of eternal inflation.

 

In February 2016, LIGO detected gravity waves for the first time. As this artist's illustration depicts, the gravitational waves were created by merging black holes. The third detection just announced was also created when two black holes merged. Credit: LIGO/A. Simonnet.
Artist’s impression of merging binary black holes. Credit: LIGO/A. Simonnet.

“We are not down to a single, unique universe, but our findings imply a significant reduction of the multiverse, to a much smaller range of possible universes,” said Hawking. In theory, a finite and smooth Universe is one we can observe (at least locally) and will be governed by physical laws that we are already familiar with. Compared to an infinite number of Universes governed by different physical laws, it certainly simplifies the math!

Looking ahead, Hertog plans to study the implications of this theory on smaller scales using data obtained by space telescopes about the local Universe. In addition, he hopes to take advantage of recent studies concerning gravitational waves (GWs) and the many events that have been detected. Essentially, Hertog believes that primordial GWs generated at the exit from eternal inflation are the most promising means to test the model.

Due to the expansion of our Universe since the Big Bang, these GWs would have very long wavelengths,  ones which are outside the normal range of the Laser Interferometry Gravitational-Wave Observatory‘s (LIGO) or Virgo‘s detectors. However, the Laser Interferometry Space Antenna (LISA) – an ESA-led plan for a space-based gravitational wave observatory – and other future experiments may be capable of measuring them.

Even though he is longer with us, Hawking’s final theory could be his profound contribution to science. If future research should prove him correct, then Hawking will have resolved one of the most daunting problems in modern astrophysics and cosmology. Just one more achievement from a man who spent his life changing how people think about the Universe!

Further Reading: University of Cambridge

Researchers Create the Most Detailed Simulation of the Universe Ever Made

Since time immemorial, philosophers and scholars have sought to determine how existence began. With the birth of modern astronomy, this tradition has continued and given rise to the field known as cosmology. And with the help of supercomputing, scientists are able to conduct simulations that show how the first stars and galaxies formed in our Universe and evolved over the course of billions of years.

Until recently, the most extensive and complete study was the “Illustrus” simulation, which looked at the process of galaxy formation over the course of the past 13 billion years. Seeking to break their own record, the same team recently began conducting a simulation known as “Illustris, The Next Generation,” or “IllustrisTNG”. The first round of these findings were recently released, and several more are expected to follow.

These findings appeared in three articles recently published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. The Illustris team consists of researchers from the Heidelberg Institute for Theoretical Studies, the Max-Planck Institutes for Astrophysics and for Astronomy, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, and the Center for Computational Astrophysics in New York.

This illustration shows the evolution of the Universe, from the Big Bang on the left, to modern times on the right. Image: NASA

Using the Hazel Hen supercomputer at the High-Performance Computing Center Stuttgart (HLRS) – one of the three world-class German supercomputing facilities that comprise the Gauss Centre for Supercomputing (GCS) – the team conducted a simulation that will help to verify and expand on existing experimental knowledge about the earliest stages of the Universe – i.e. what happened from 300,000 years after the Big Bang to the present day.

To create this simulation, the team combined equations (such as the Theory of General Relativity) and data from modern observations into a massive computational cube that represented a large cross-section of the Universe. For some processes, such as star formation and the growth of black holes, the researchers were forced to rely on assumptions based on observations. They then employed numerical models to set this simulated Universe in motion.

Compared to their previous simulation, IllustrisTNG consisted of 3 different universes at three different resolutions – the largest of which measured 1 billion light years (300 megaparsecs) across. In addition, the research team included more precise accounting for magnetic fields, thus improving accuracy. In total, the simulation used 24,000 cores on the Hazel Hen supercomputer for a total of 35 million core hours.

As Prof. Dr. Volker Springel, professor and researcher at the Heidelberg Institute for Theoretical Studies and principal investigator on the project, explained in a Gauss Center press release:

“Magnetic fields are interesting for a variety of reasons. The magnetic pressure exerted on cosmic gas can occasionally be equal to thermal (temperature) pressure, meaning that if you neglect this, you will miss these effects and ultimately compromise your results.”

Illustris simulation overview poster. Shows the large scale dark matter and gas density fields in projection (top/bottom). Credit: Illustris Project

Another major difference was the inclusion of updated black hole physics based on recent observation campaigns. This includes evidence that demonstrates a correlation between supermassive black holes (SMBHs) and galactic evolution. In essence, SMBHs are known to send out a tremendous amount of energy in the form of radiation and particle jets, which can have an arresting effect on star formation in a galaxy.

While the researchers were certainly aware of this process during the first simulation, they did not factor in how it can arrest star formation completely. By including updated data on both magnetic fields and black hole physics in the simulation, the team saw a greater correlation between the data and observations. They are therefore more confident with the results and believe it represents the most accurate simulation to date.

But as Dr. Dylan Nelson – a physicist with the Max Planck Institute of Astronomy and an llustricTNG member – explained, future simulations are likely to be even more accurate, assuming advances in supercomputers continue:

“Increased memory and processing resources in next-generation systems will allow us to simulate large volumes of the universe with higher resolution. Large volumes are important for cosmology, understanding the large-scale structure of the universe, and making firm predictions for the next generation of large observational projects. High resolution is important for improving our physical models of the processes going on inside of individual galaxies in our simulation.”

Gas density (left) and magnetic field strength (right) centered on the most massive galaxy cluster. Credit: Illustris Team

This latest simulation was also made possible thanks to extensive support provided by the GCS staff, who assisted the research team with matters related to their coding. It was also the result of a massive collaborative effort that brought together researchers from around the world and paired them with the resources they needed. Last, but not least, it shows how increased collaboration between applied research and theoretical research lead to better results.

Looking ahead, the team hopes that the results of this latest simulation proves to be even more useful than the last. The original Illustris data release gained over 2,000 registered users and resulted in the publication of 130 scientific studies. Given that this one is more accurate and up-to-date, the team expects that it will find more users and result in even more groundbreaking research.

Who knows? Perhaps someday, we may create a simulation that captures the formation and evolution of our Universe with complete accuracy. In the meantime, be sure to enjoy this video of the first Illustris Simulation, courtesy of team member and MIT physicist Mark Vogelsberger:

Further Reading: GCS, Illustrus