How to Know Once and For All if the Universe Began With a Bang or a Bounce

Illustration of the Big Bang Theory

According to the Big Bang cosmological model, our Universe began 13.8 billion years ago when all the matter and energy in the cosmos began expanding. This period of “cosmic inflation” is believed to be what accounts for the large-scale structure of the Universe and why space and the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) appear to be largely uniform in all directions.

However, to date, no evidence has been discovered that can definitely prove the cosmic inflation scenario or rule out alternative theories. But thanks to a new study by a team of astronomers from Harvard University and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), scientists may have a new means of testing one of the key parts of the Big Bang cosmological model.

Continue reading “How to Know Once and For All if the Universe Began With a Bang or a Bounce”

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

Gravitational Astronomy? How Detecting Gravitational Waves Changes Everything

Is This The Future?


Just a couple of weeks ago, astronomers from Caltech announced their third detection of gravitational waves from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory or LIGO.

As with the previous two detections, astronomers have determined that the waves were generated when two intermediate-mass black holes slammed into each other, sending out ripples of distorted spacetime.

One black hole had 31.2 times the mass of the Sun, while the other had 19.4 solar masses. The two spiraled inward towards each other, until they merged into a single black hole with 48.7 solar masses. And if you do the math, twice the mass of the Sun was converted into gravitational waves as the black holes merged.

On January 4th, 2017, LIGO detected two black holes merging into one. Courtesy Caltech/MIT/LIGO Laboratory

These gravitational waves traveled outward from the colossal collision at the speed of light, stretching and compressing spacetime like a tsunami wave crossing the ocean until they reached Earth, located about 2.9 billion light-years away.

The waves swept past each of the two LIGO facilities, located in different parts of the United States, stretching the length of carefully calibrated laser measurements. And from this, researchers were able to detect the direction, distance and strength of the original merger.

Seriously, if this isn’t one of the coolest things you’ve ever heard, I’m clearly easily impressed.

Now that the third detection has been made, I think it’s safe to say we’re entering a brand new field of gravitational astronomy. In the coming decades, astronomers will use gravitational waves to peer into regions they could never see before.

Being able to perceive gravitational waves is like getting a whole new sense. It’s like having eyes and then suddenly getting the ability to perceive sound.

This whole new science will take decades to unlock, and we’re just getting started.

As Einstein predicted, any mass moving through space generates ripples in spacetime. When you’re just walking along, you’re actually generating tiny ripples. If you can detect these ripples, you can work backwards to figure out what size of mass made the ripples, what direction it was moving, etc.

Even in places that you couldn’t see in any other way. Let me give you a couple of examples.

Black holes, obviously, are the low hanging fruit. When they’re not actively feeding, they’re completely invisible, only detectable by how they gravitational attract objects or bend light from objects passing behind them.

But seen in gravitational waves, they’re like ships moving across the ocean, leaving ripples of distorted spacetime behind them.

With our current capabilities through LIGO, astronomers can only detect the most massive objects moving at a significant portion of the speed of light. A regular black hole merger doesn’t do the trick – there’s not enough mass. Even a supermassive black hole merger isn’t detectable yet because these mergers seem to happen too slowly.

LIGO has already significantly increased the number of black holes with known masses. The observatory has definitively detected two sets of black hole mergers (bright blue). For each event, LIGO determined the individual masses of the black holes before they merged, as well as the mass of the black hole produced by the merger. The black holes shown with a dotted border represent a LIGO candidate event that was too weak to be conclusively claimed as a detection. Credit: LIGO/Caltech/Sonoma State (Aurore Simonnet)

This is why all the detections so far have been intermediate-mass black holes with dozens of times the mass of our Sun. And we can only detect them at the moment that they’re merging together, when they’re generating the most intense gravitational waves.

If we can boost the sensitivity of our gravitational wave detectors, we should be able to spot mergers of less and more massive black holes.

But merging isn’t the only thing they do. Black holes are born when stars with many more times the mass of our Sun collapse in on themselves and explode as supernovae. Some stars, we’ve now learned just implode as black holes, never generating the supernovae, so this process happens entirely hidden from us.

Is there a singularity at the center of a black hole event horizon, or is there something there, some kind of object smaller than a neutron star, but bigger than an infinitely small point? As black holes merge together, we could see beyond the event horizon with gravitational waves, mapping out the invisible region within to get a sense of what’s going on down there.

This illustration shows the merger of two black holes and the gravitational waves that ripple outward as the black holes spiral toward each other. In reality, the area near the black holes would appear highly warped, and the gravitational waves would be difficult to see directly. Credit: LIGO/T. Pyle

We want to know about even less massive objects like neutron stars, which can also form from a supernova explosion. These neutron stars can orbit one another and merge generating some of the most powerful explosions in the Universe: gamma ray bursts. But do neutron stars have surface features? Different densities? Could we detect a wobble in the gravitational waves in the last moments before a merger?

And not everything needs to merge. Sensitive gravitational wave detectors could sense binary objects with a large imbalance, like a black hole or neutron star orbiting around a main sequence star. We could detect future mergers by their gravitational waves.

Are gravitational waves a momentary distortion of spacetime, or do they leave some kind of permanent dent on the Universe that we could trace back? Will we see echoes of gravity from gravitational waves reflecting and refracting through the fabric of the cosmos?

Perhaps the greatest challenge will be using gravitational waves to see beyond the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation. This region shows us the Universe 380,000 years after the Big Bang, when everything was cool enough for light to move freely through the Universe.

But there was mass there, before that moment. Moving, merging mass that would have generated gravitational waves. As we explained in a previous article, astronomers are working to find the imprint of these gravitational waves on the Cosmic Microwave Background, like an echo, or a shadow. Perhaps there’s a deeper Cosmic Gravitational Background Radiation out there, one which will let us see right to the beginning of time, just moments after the Big Bang.

And as always, there will be the surprises. The discoveries in this new field that nobody ever saw coming. The “that’s funny” moments that take researchers down into whole new fields of discovery, and new insights into how the Universe works.

The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO)facility in Livingston, Louisiana. The other facility is located in Hanford, Washington. Image: LIGO
The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) facility in Livingston, Louisiana. The other facility is located in Hanford, Washington. Image: LIGO

The LIGO project was begun back in 1994, and the first iteration operated from 2002 to 2012 without a single gravitational wave detection. It was clear that the facility wasn’t sensitive enough, so researchers went back and made massive improvements.

In 2008, they started improving the facility, and in 2015, Advanced LIGO came online with much more sensitivity. With the increased capabilities, Advanced LIGO made its first discovery in 2016, and now two more discoveries have been added.

LIGO can currently only detect the general hemisphere of the sky where a gravitational wave was emitted. And so, LIGO’s next improvement will be to add another facility in India, called INDIGO. In addition to improving the sensitivity of LIGO, this will give astronomers three observations of each event, to precisely detect the origin of the gravitational waves. Then visual astronomers could do follow up observations, to map the event to anything in other wavelengths.

Current operating facilities in the global network include the twin LIGO detectors—in Hanford, Washington, and Livingston, Louisiana—and GEO600 in Germany. The Virgo detector in Italy and the Kamioka Gravitational Wave Detector (KAGRA) in Japan are undergoing upgrades and are expected to begin operations in 2016 and 2018, respectively. A sixth observatory is being planned in India. Having more gravitational-wave observatories around the globe helps scientists pin down the locations and sources of gravitational waves coming from space. Image made in February 2016. Credit: Caltech/MIT/LIGO Lab

A European experiment known as Virgo has been operating for a few years as well, agreeing to collaborate with the LIGO team if any detections are made. So far, the Virgo experiment hasn’t found anything, but it’s being upgraded with 10 times the sensitivity, which should be fully operational by 2018.

A Japanese experiment called the Kamioka Gravitational Wave Detector, or KAGRA, will come online in 2018 as well, and be able to contribute to the observations. It should be capable of detecting binary neutron star mergers out to nearly a billion light-years away.

Just with visual astronomy, there are a set of next generation supergravitational wave telescopes in the works, which should come online in the next few decades.

The Europeans are building the Einstein Telescope, which will have detection arms 10 km long, compared to 4 km for LIGO. That’s like, 6 more km.

There’s the European Space Agency’s space-based Laser Interferometer Space Antenna, or LISA, which could launch in 2030. This will consist of a fleet of 3 spacecraft which will maintain a precise distance of 2.5 million km from each other. Compare that to the Earth-based detection distances, and you can see why the future of observations will come from space.

The Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) consists of three spacecraft orbiting the sun in a triangular configuration. Credit: NASA

And that last idea, looking right back to the beginning of time could be a possibility with the Big Bang Observer mission, which will have a fleet of 12 spacecraft flying in formation. This is still all in the proposal stage, so no concrete date for if or when they’ll actually fly.

Gravitational wave astronomy is one of the most exciting fields of astronomy. This entirely new sense is pushing out our understanding of the cosmos in entirely new directions, allowing us to see regions we could never even imagine exploring before. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

What Was Cosmic Inflation? The Quest to Understand the Earliest Universe

Cosmic Inflation?


The Big Bang. The discovery that the Universe has been expanding for billions of years is one of the biggest revelations in the history of science. In a single moment, the entire Universe popped into existence, and has been expanding ever since.

We know this because of multiple lines of evidence: the cosmic microwave background radiation, the ratio of elements in the Universe, etc. But the most compelling one is just the simple fact that everything is expanding away from everything else. Which means, that if you run the clock backwards, the Universe was once an extremely hot dense region

A billion years after the big bang, hydrogen atoms were mysteriously torn apart into a soup of ions. Credit: NASA/ESA/A. Felid (STScI)).

Let’s go backwards in time, billions of years. The closer you get to the Big Bang, the closer everything was, and the hotter it was. When you reach about 380,000 years after the Big Bang, the entire Universe was so hot that all matter was ionized, with atomic nuclei and electrons buzzing around each other.

Keep going backwards, and the entire Universe was the temperature and density of a star, which fused together the primordial helium and other elements that we see to this day.

Continue to the beginning of time, and there was a point where everything was so hot that atoms themselves couldn’t hold together, breaking into their constituent protons and neutrons. Further back still and even atoms break apart into quarks. And before that, it’s just a big question mark. An infinitely dense Universe cosmologists called the singularity.

When you look out into the Universe in all directions, you see the cosmic microwave background radiation. That’s that point when the Universe cooled down so that light could travel freely through space.

And the temperature of this radiation is almost exactly the same in all directions that you look. There are tiny tiny variations, detectable only by the most sensitive instruments.

Cosmic microwave background seen by Planck. Credit: ESA

When two things are the same temperature, like a spoon in your coffee, it means that those two things have had an opportunity to interact. The coffee transferred heat to the spoon, and now their temperatures have equalized.

When we see this in opposite sides of the Universe, that means that at some point, in the ancient past, those two regions were touching. That spot where the light left 13.8 billion years ago on your left, was once directly touching that spot on your right that also emitted its light 13.8 billion years ago.

This is a great theory, but there’s a problem: The Universe never had time for those opposite regions to touch. For the Universe to have the uniform temperature we see today, it would have needed to spend enough time mixing together. But it didn’t have enough time, in fact, the Universe didn’t have any time to exchange temperature.

Imagine you dipped that spoon into the coffee and then pulled it out moments later before the heat could transfer, and yet the coffee and spoon are exactly the same temperature. What’s going on?

Alan H. Guth
Alan H. Guth. Credit: Betsy Devine (CC BY-SA 3.0)

To address this problem, the cosmologist Alan Guth proposed the idea of cosmic inflation in 1980. That moments after the Big Bang, the entire Universe expanded dramatically.

And by “moments”, I mean that the inflationary period started when the Universe was only 10^-36 seconds old, and ended when the Universe was 10^-32 seconds old.

And by “expanded dramatically”, I mean that it got 10^26 times larger. That’s a 1 followed by 26 zeroes.

Before inflation, the observable Universe was smaller than an atom. After inflation, it was about 0.88 millimeters. Today, those regions have been stretched 93 billion light-years apart.

This concept of inflation was further developed by cosmologists Andrei Linde, Paul Steinhardt, Andy Albrecht and others.

Inflation resolved some of the shortcomings of the Big Bang Theory.

The first is known as the flatness problem. The most sensitive satellites we have today measure the Universe as flat. Not like a piece-of-paper-flat, but flat in the sense that parallel lines will remain parallel forever as they travel through the Universe. Under the original Big Bang cosmology, you would expect the curvature of the Universe to grow with time.

The horizon problem in Big Bang cosmology. How is it that distant parts of the universe possess such similar physical properties? Credit: Addison Wesley.

The second is the horizon problem. And this is the problem I mentioned above, that two regions of the Universe shouldn’t have been able to see each other and interact long enough to be the same temperature.

The third is the monopole problem. According to the original Big Bang theory, there should be a vast number of heavy, stable “monopoles”, or a magnetic particle with only a single pole. Inflation diluted the number of monopoles in the Universe so don’t detect them today.

Although the cosmic microwave background radiation appears mostly even across the sky, there could still be evidence of that inflationary period baked into it.

The Big Bang and primordial gravitational waves. Credit: bicepkeck.org

In order to do this, astronomers have been focusing on searching for primordial gravitational waves. These are different from the gravitational waves generated through the collision of massive objects. Primordial gravitational waves are the echoes from that inflationary period which should be theoretically detectable through the polarization, or orientation, of light in the cosmic microwave background radiation.

A collaboration of scientists used an instrument known as the Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization (or BICEP2) to search for this polarization, and in 2014, they announced that maybe, just maybe, they had detected it, proving the theory of cosmic inflation was correct.

Unfortunately, another team working with the space-based Planck telescope posted evidence that the fluctuations they saw could be fully explained by intervening dust in the Milky Way.

Planck’s view of its nine frequencies. Credit: ESA and the Planck Collaboration

The problem is that BICEP2 and Planck are designed to search for different frequencies. In order to really get to the bottom of this question, more searches need to be done, scanning a series of overlapping frequencies. And that’s in the works now.

BICEP2 and Planck and the newly developed South Pole Telescope as well as some observatories in Chile are all scanning the skies at different frequencies at the same time. Distortion from various types of foreground objects, like dust or radiation should be brighter or dimmer in the different frequencies, while the light from the cosmic microwave background radiation should remain constant throughout.

There are more telescopes, searching more wavelengths of light, searching more of the sky. We could know the answer to this question with more certainty shortly.

One of the most interesting implications of cosmic inflation, if proven, is that our Universe is actually just one in a vast multiverse. While the Universe was undergoing that dramatic expansion, it could have created bubbles of spacetime that spawned other universes, with different laws of physics.

Multiverse Theory
Artist concept of the multiverse. Credit: Florida State University

In fact, the father of inflation, Alan Guth, said, “It’s hard to build models of inflation that don’t lead to a multiverse.”

And so, if inflation does eventually get confirmed, then we’ll have a whole multiverse to search for in the cosmic microwave background radiation.

The Big Bang was one of the greatest theories in the history of science. Although it did have a few problems, cosmic inflation was developed to address them. Although there have been a few false starts, astronomers are now performing a sensitive enough search that they might find evidence of this amazing inflationary period. And then it’ll be Nobel Prizes all around.

The Universe

What is the Universe? That is one immensely loaded question! No matter what angle one took to answer that question, one could spend years answering that question and still barely scratch the surface. In terms of time and space, it is unfathomably large (and possibly even infinite) and incredibly old by human standards. Describing it in detail is therefore a monumental task. But we here at Universe Today are determined to try!

So what is the Universe? Well, the short answer is that it is the sum total of all existence. It is the entirety of time, space, matter and energy that began expanding some 13.8 billion years ago and has continued to expand ever since. No one is entirely certain how extensive the Universe truly is, and no one is entirely sure how it will all end. But ongoing research and study has taught us a great deal in the course of human history.

Definition:

The term “the Universe” is derived from the Latin word “universum”, which was used by Roman statesman Cicero and later Roman authors to refer to the world and the cosmos as they knew it. This consisted of the Earth and all living creatures that dwelt therein, as well as the Moon, the Sun, the then-known planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn) and the stars.

Illuminated illustration of the Ptolemaic geocentric conception of the Universe by Portuguese cosmographer and cartographer Bartolomeu Velho (?-1568) in his work Cosmographia (1568). Credit: Bibilotèque nationale de France, Paris

The term “cosmos” is often used interchangeably with the Universe. It is derived from the Greek word kosmos, which literally means “the world”. Other words commonly used to define the entirety of existence include “Nature” (derived from the Germanic word natur) and the English word “everything”, who’s use can be seen in scientific terminology – i.e. “Theory Of Everything” (TOE).

Today, this term is often to used to refer to all things that exist within the known Universe – the Solar System, the Milky Way, and all known galaxies and superstructures. In the context of modern science, astronomy and astrophysics, it also refers to all spacetime, all forms of energy (i.e. electromagnetic radiation and matter) and the physical laws that bind them.

Origin of the Universe:

The current scientific consensus is that the Universe expanded from a point of super high matter and energy density roughly 13.8 billion years ago. This theory, known as the Big Bang Theory, is not the only cosmological model for explaining the origins of the Universe and its evolution – for example, there is the Steady State Theory or the Oscillating Universe Theory.

It is, however, the most widely-accepted and popular. This is due to the fact that the Big Bang theory alone is able to explain the origin of all known matter, the laws of physics, and the large scale structure of the Universe. It also accounts for the expansion of the Universe, the existence of the Cosmic Microwave Background, and a broad range of other phenomena.

Illustration of the Big Bang Theory
The Big Bang Theory: A history of the Universe starting from a singularity and expanding ever since. Credit: grandunificationtheory.com

Working backwards from the current state of the Universe, scientists have theorized that it must have originated at a single point of infinite density and finite time that began to expand. After the initial expansion, the theory maintains that Universe cooled sufficiently to allow for the formation of subatomic particles, and later simple atoms. Giant clouds of these primordial elements later coalesced through gravity to form stars and galaxies.

This all began roughly 13.8 billion years ago, and is thus considered to be the age of the Universe. Through the testing of theoretical principles, experiments involving particle accelerators and high-energy states, and astronomical studies that have observed the deep Universe, scientists have constructed a timeline of events that began with the Big Bang and has led to the current state of cosmic evolution.

However, the earliest times of the Universe – lasting from approximately 10-43 to 10-11 seconds after the Big Bang –  are the subject of extensive speculation. Given that the laws of physics as we know them could not have existed at this time, it is difficult to fathom how the Universe could have been governed. What’s more, experiments that can create the kinds of energies involved are in their infancy.

Still, many theories prevail as to what took place in this initial instant in time, many of which are compatible. In accordance with many of these theories, the instant following the Big Bang can be broken down into the following time periods: the Singularity Epoch, the Inflation Epoch, and the Cooling Epoch.

Also known as the Planck Epoch (or Planck Era), the Singularity Epoch was the earliest known period of the Universe. At this time, all matter was condensed on a single point of infinite density and extreme heat. During this period, it is believed that the quantum effects of gravity dominated physical interactions and that no other physical forces were of equal strength to gravitation.

This Planck period of time extends from point 0 to approximately 10-43 seconds, and is so named because it can only be measured in Planck time. Due to the extreme heat and density of matter, the state of the Universe was highly unstable. It thus began to expand and cool, leading to the manifestation of the fundamental forces of physics. From approximately 10-43 second and 10-36, the Universe began to cross transition temperatures.

It is here that the fundamental forces that govern the Universe are believed to have began separating from each other. The first step in this was the force of gravitation separating from gauge forces, which account for strong and weak nuclear forces and electromagnetism. Then, from 10-36 to 10-32 seconds after the Big Bang, the temperature of the Universe was low enough (1028 K) that electromagnetism and weak nuclear force were able to separate as well.

With the creation of the first fundamental forces of the Universe, the Inflation Epoch began, lasting from 10-32 seconds in Planck time to an unknown point. Most cosmological models suggest that the Universe at this point was filled homogeneously with a high-energy density, and that the incredibly high temperatures and pressure gave rise to rapid expansion and cooling.

This began at 10-37 seconds, where the phase transition that caused for the separation of forces also led to a period where the Universe grew exponentially. It was also at this point in time that baryogenesis occurred, which refers to a hypothetical event where temperatures were so high that the random motions of particles occurred at relativistic speeds.

As a result of this, particle–antiparticle pairs of all kinds were being continuously created and destroyed in collisions, which is believed to have led to the predominance of matter over antimatter in the present Universe. After inflation stopped, the Universe consisted of a quark–gluon plasma, as well as all other elementary particles. From this point onward, the Universe began to cool and matter coalesced and formed.

As the Universe continued to decrease in density and temperature, the Cooling Epoch began. This was characterized by the energy of particles decreasing and phase transitions continuing until the fundamental forces of physics and elementary particles changed into their present form. Since particle energies would have dropped to values that can be obtained by particle physics experiments, this period onward is subject to less speculation.

For example, scientists believe that about 10-11 seconds after the Big Bang, particle energies dropped considerably. At about 10-6 seconds, quarks and gluons combined to form baryons such as protons and neutrons, and a small excess of quarks over antiquarks led to a small excess of baryons over antibaryons.

Since temperatures were not high enough to create new proton-antiproton pairs (or neutron-anitneutron pairs), mass annihilation immediately followed, leaving just one in 1010 of the original protons and neutrons and none of their antiparticles. A similar process happened at about 1 second after the Big Bang for electrons and positrons.

After these annihilations, the remaining protons, neutrons and electrons were no longer moving relativistically and the energy density of the Universe was dominated by photons – and to a lesser extent, neutrinos. A few minutes into the expansion, the period known as Big Bang nucleosynthesis also began.

Thanks to temperatures dropping to 1 billion kelvin and energy densities dropping to about the equivalent of air, neutrons and protons began to combine to form the Universe’s first deuterium (a stable isotope of hydrogen) and helium atoms. However, most of the Universe’s protons remained uncombined as hydrogen nuclei.

After about 379,000 years, electrons combined with these nuclei to form atoms (again, mostly hydrogen), while the radiation decoupled from matter and continued to expand through space, largely unimpeded. This radiation is now known to be what constitutes the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), which today is the oldest light in the Universe.

As the CMB expanded, it gradually lost density and energy, and is currently estimated to have a temperature of 2.7260 ± 0.0013 K (-270.424 °C/ -454.763 °F ) and an energy density of 0.25 eV/cm3 (or 4.005×10-14 J/m3; 400–500 photons/cm3). The CMB can be seen in all directions at a distance of roughly 13.8 billion light years, but estimates of its actual distance place it at about 46 billion light years from the center of the Universe.

Evolution of the Universe:

Over the course of the several billion years that followed, the slightly denser regions of the Universe’s matter (which was almost uniformly distributed) began to become gravitationally attracted to each other. They therefore grew even denser, forming gas clouds, stars, galaxies, and the other astronomical structures that we regularly observe today.

This is what is known as the Structure Epoch, since it was during this time that the modern Universe began to take shape. This consisted of visible matter distributed in structures of various sizes (i.e. stars and planets to galaxies, galaxy clusters, and super clusters) where matter is concentrated, and which are separated by enormous gulfs containing few galaxies.

The details of this process depend on the amount and type of matter in the Universe. Cold dark matter, warm dark matter, hot dark matter, and baryonic matter are the four suggested types. However, the Lambda-Cold Dark Matter model (Lambda-CDM), in which the dark matter particles moved slowly compared to the speed of light, is the considered to be the standard model of Big Bang cosmology, as it best fits the available data.

In this model, cold dark matter is estimated to make up about 23% of the matter/energy of the Universe, while baryonic matter makes up about 4.6%. The Lambda refers to the Cosmological Constant, a theory originally proposed by Albert Einstein that attempted to show that the balance of mass-energy in the Universe remains static.

In this case, it is associated with dark energy, which served to accelerate the expansion of the Universe and keep its large-scale structure largely uniform. The existence of dark energy is based on multiple lines of evidence, all of which indicate that the Universe is permeated by it. Based on observations, it is estimated that 73% of the Universe is made up of this energy.

During the earliest phases of the Universe, when all of the baryonic matter was more closely space together, gravity predominated. However, after billions of years of expansion, the growing abundance of dark energy led it to begin dominating interactions between galaxies. This triggered an acceleration, which is known as the Cosmic Acceleration Epoch.

When this period began is subject to debate, but it is estimated to have began roughly 8.8 billion years after the Big Bang (5 billion years ago). Cosmologists rely on both quantum mechanics and Einstein’s General Relativity to describe the process of cosmic evolution that took place during this period and any time after the Inflationary Epoch.

Through a rigorous process of observations and modeling, scientists have determined that this evolutionary period does accord with Einstein’s field equations, though the true nature of dark energy remains illusive. What’s more, there are no well-supported models that are capable of determining what took place in the Universe prior to the period predating 10-15 seconds after the Big Bang.

However, ongoing experiments using CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) seek to recreate the energy conditions that would have existed during the Big Bang, which is also expected to reveal physics that go beyond the realm of the Standard Model.

Any breakthroughs in this area will likely lead to a unified theory of quantum gravitation, where scientists will finally be able to understand how gravity interacts with the three other fundamental forces of the physics – electromagnetism, weak nuclear force and strong nuclear force. This, in turn, will also help us to understand what truly happened during the earliest epochs of the Universe.

Structure of the Universe:

The actual size, shape and large-scale structure of the Universe has been the subject of ongoing research. Whereas the oldest light in the Universe that can be observed is 13.8 billion light years away (the CMB), this is not the actual extent of the Universe. Given that the Universe has been in a state of expansion for billion of years, and at velocities that exceed the speed of light, the actual boundary extends far beyond what we can see.

Our current cosmological models indicate that the Universe measures some 91 billion light years (28 billion parsecs) in diameter. In other words, the observable Universe extends outwards from our Solar System to a distance of roughly 46 billion light years in all directions. However, given that the edge of the Universe is not observable, it is not yet clear whether the Universe actually has an edge. For all we know, it goes on forever!

Diagram showing the Lambda-CBR Universe, from the Big Bang to the the current era. Credit: Alex Mittelmann/Coldcreation

Within the observable Universe, matter is distributed in a highly structured fashion. Within galaxies, this consists of large concentrations – i.e. planets, stars, and nebulas – interspersed with large areas of empty space (i.e. interplanetary space and the interstellar medium).

Things are much the same at larger scales, with galaxies being separated by volumes of space filled with gas and dust. At the largest scale, where galaxy clusters and superclusters exist, you have a wispy network of large-scale structures consisting of dense filaments of matter and gigantic cosmic voids.

In terms of its shape, spacetime may exist in one of three possible configurations – positively-curved, negatively-curved and flat. These possibilities are based on the existence of at least four dimensions of space-time (an x-coordinate, a y-coordinate, a z-coordinate, and time), and depend upon the nature of cosmic expansion and whether or not the Universe is finite or infinite.

A positively-curved (or closed) Universe would resemble a four-dimensional sphere that would be finite in space and with no discernible edge. A negatively-curved (or open) Universe would look like a four-dimensional “saddle” and would have no boundaries in space or time.

Various possible shapes of the observable Universe – where mass/energy density is too high; too low – or just right, so that Euclidean geometry where the three anles of a triable do add up to 180 degrees. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

In the former scenario, the Universe would have to stop expanding due to an overabundance of energy. In the latter, it would contain too little energy to ever stop expanding. In the third and final scenario – a flat Universe – a critical amount of energy would exist and its expansion woudl only halt after an infinite amount of time.

Fate of the Universe:

Hypothesizing that the Universe had a starting point naturally gives rise to questions about a possible end point. If the Universe began as a tiny point of infinite density that started to expand, does that mean it will continue to expand indefinitely? Or will it one day run out of expansive force, and begin retreating inward until all matter crunches back into a tiny ball?

Answering this question has been a major focus of cosmologists ever since the debate about which model of the Universe was the correct one began. With the acceptance of the Big Bang Theory, but prior to the observation of dark energy in the 1990s, cosmologists had come to agree on two scenarios as being the most likely outcomes for our Universe.

In the first, commonly known as the “Big Crunch” scenario, the Universe will reach a maximum size and then begin to collapse in on itself. This will only be possible if the mass density of the Universe is greater than the critical density. In other words, as long as the density of matter remains at or above a certain value (1-3 ×10-26 kg of matter per m³), the Universe will eventually contract.

Alternatively, if the density in the Universe were equal to or below the critical density, the expansion would slow down but never stop. In this scenario, known as the “Big Freeze”, the Universe would go on until star formation eventually ceased with the consumption of all the interstellar gas in each galaxy. Meanwhile, all existing stars would burn out and become white dwarfs, neutron stars, and black holes.

Very gradually, collisions between these black holes would result in mass accumulating into larger and larger black holes. The average temperature of the Universe would approach absolute zero, and black holes would evaporate after emitting the last of their Hawking radiation. Finally, the entropy of the Universe would increase to the point where no organized form of energy could be extracted from it (a scenarios known as “heat death”).

Modern observations, which include the existence of dark energy and its influence on cosmic expansion, have led to the conclusion that more and more of the currently visible Universe will pass beyond our event horizon (i.e. the CMB, the edge of what we can see) and become invisible to us. The eventual result of this is not currently known, but “heat death” is considered a likely end point in this scenario too.

Other explanations of dark energy, called phantom energy theories, suggest that ultimately galaxy clusters, stars, planets, atoms, nuclei, and matter itself will be torn apart by the ever-increasing expansion. This scenario is known as the “Big Rip”, in which the expansion of the Universe itself will eventually be its undoing.

History of Study:

Strictly speaking, human beings have been contemplating and studying the nature of the Universe since prehistoric times. As such, the earliest accounts of how the Universe came to be were mythological in nature and passed down orally from one generation to the next. In these stories, the world, space, time, and all life began with a creation event, where a God or Gods were responsible for creating everything.

Astronomy also began to emerge as a field of study by the time of the Ancient Babylonians. Systems of constellations and astrological calendars prepared by Babylonian scholars as early as the 2nd millennium BCE would go on to inform the cosmological and astrological traditions of cultures for thousands of years to come.

By Classical Antiquity, the notion of a Universe that was dictated by physical laws began to emerge. Between Greek and Indian scholars, explanations for creation began to become philosophical in nature, emphasizing cause and effect rather than divine agency. The earliest examples include Thales and Anaximander, two pre-Socratic Greek scholars who argued that everything was born of a primordial form of matter.

By the 5th century BCE, pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles became the first western scholar to propose a Universe composed of four elements – earth, air, water and fire. This philosophy became very popular in western circles, and was similar to the Chinese system of five elements – metal, wood, water, fire, and earth – that emerged around the same time.

Early atomic theory stated that different materials had differently shaped atoms. Credit: github.com

It was not until Democritus, the 5th/4th century BCE Greek philosopher, that a Universe composed of indivisible particles (atoms) was proposed. The Indian philosopher Kanada (who lived in the 6th or 2nd century BCE) took this philosophy further by proposing that light and heat were the same substance in different form. The 5th century CE Buddhist philosopher Dignana took this even further, proposing that all matter was made up of energy.

The notion of finite time was also a key feature of the Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Perhaps inspired by the Zoroastrian concept of the Day of Judgement, the belief that the Universe had a beginning and end would go on to inform western concepts of cosmology even to the present day.

Between the 2nd millennium BCE and the 2nd century CE, astronomy and astrology continued to develop and evolve. In addition to monitoring the proper motions of the planets and the movement of the constellations through the Zodiac, Greek astronomers also articulated the geocentric model of the Universe, where the Sun, planets and stars revolve around the Earth.

These traditions are best described in the 2nd century CE mathematical and astronomical treatise, the Almagest, which was written by Greek-Egyptian astronomer Claudius Ptolemaeus (aka. Ptolemy). This treatise and the cosmological model it espoused would be considered canon by medieval European and Islamic scholars for over a thousand years to come.

A comparison of the geocentric and heliocentric models of the Universe. Credit: history.ucsb.edu

However, even before the Scientific Revolution (ca. 16th to 18th centuries), there were astronomers who proposed a heliocentric model of the Universe – where the Earth, planets and stars revolved around the Sun. These included Greek astronomer Aristarchus of Samos (ca. 310 – 230 BCE), and Hellenistic astronomer and philosopher Seleucus of Seleucia (190 – 150 BCE).

During the Middle Ages, Indian, Persian and Arabic philosophers and scholars maintained and expanded on Classical astronomy. In addition to keeping Ptolemaic and non-Aristotelian ideas alive, they also proposed revolutionary ideas like the rotation of the Earth. Some scholars – such as Indian astronomer Aryabhata and Persian astronomers Albumasar and Al-Sijzi – even advanced versions of a heliocentric Universe.

By the 16th century, Nicolaus Copernicus proposed the most complete concept of a heliocentric Universe by resolving lingering mathematical problems with the theory. His ideas were first expressed in the 40-page manuscript titled Commentariolus (“Little Commentary”), which described a heliocentric model based on seven general principles. These seven principles stated that:

  1. Celestial bodies do not all revolve around a single point
  2. The center of Earth is the center of the lunar sphere—the orbit of the moon around Earth; all the spheres rotate around the Sun, which is near the center of the Universe
  3. The distance between Earth and the Sun is an insignificant fraction of the distance from Earth and Sun to the stars, so parallax is not observed in the stars
  4. The stars are immovable – their apparent daily motion is caused by the daily rotation of Earth
  5. Earth is moved in a sphere around the Sun, causing the apparent annual migration of the Sun
  6. Earth has more than one motion
  7. Earth’s orbital motion around the Sun causes the seeming reverse in direction of the motions of the planets.
Frontispiece and title page of the Dialogue, 1632. Credit: moro.imss.fi.it

A more comprehensive treatment of his ideas was released in 1532, when Copernicus completed his magnum opus – De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres). In it, he advanced his seven major arguments, but in more detailed form and with detailed computations to back them up. Due to fears of persecution and backlash, this volume was not released until his death in 1542.

His ideas would be further refined by 16th/17th century mathematicians, astronomer and inventor Galileo Galilei. Using a telescope of his own creation, Galileo would make recorded observations of the Moon, the Sun, and Jupiter which demonstrated flaws in the geocentric model of the Universe while also showcasing the internal consistency of the Copernican model.

His observations were published in several different volumes throughout the early 17th century. His observations of the cratered surface of the Moon and his observations of Jupiter and its largest moons were detailed in 1610 with his Sidereus Nuncius (The Starry Messenger) while his observations were sunspots were described in On the Spots Observed in the Sun (1610).

Galileo also recorded his observations about the Milky Way in the Starry Messenger, which was previously believed to be nebulous. Instead, Galileo found that it was a multitude of stars packed so densely together that it appeared from a distance to look like clouds, but which were actually stars that were much farther away than previously thought.

In 1632, Galileo finally addressed the “Great Debate” in his treatise Dialogo sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo (Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems), in which he advocated the heliocentric model over the geocentric. Using his own telescopic observations, modern physics and rigorous logic, Galileo’s arguments effectively undermined the basis of Aristotle’s and Ptolemy’s system for a growing and receptive audience.

Johannes Kepler advanced the model further with his theory of the elliptical orbits of the planets. Combined with accurate tables that predicted the positions of the planets, the Copernican model was effectively proven. From the middle of the seventeenth century onward, there were few astronomers who were not Copernicans.

The next great contribution came from Sir Isaac Newton (1642/43 – 1727), who’s work with Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion led him to develop his theory of Universal Gravitation. In 1687, he published his famous treatise Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (“Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy”), which detailed his Three Laws of Motion. These laws stated that:

  1. When viewed in an inertial reference frame, an object either remains at rest or continues to move at a constant velocity, unless acted upon by an external force.
  2. The vector sum of the external forces (F) on an object is equal to the mass (m) of that object multiplied by the acceleration vector (a) of the object. In mathematical form, this is expressed as: F=ma
  3. When one body exerts a force on a second body, the second body simultaneously exerts a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction on the first body.
Animated diagram showing the spacing of the Solar Systems planet’s, the unusually closely spaced orbits of six of the most distant KBOs, and the possible “Planet 9”. Credit: Caltech/nagualdesign

Together, these laws described the relationship between any object, the forces acting upon it, and the resulting motion, thus laying the foundation for classical mechanics. The laws also allowed Newton to calculate the mass of each planet, calculate the flattening of the Earth at the poles and the bulge at the equator, and how the gravitational pull of the Sun and Moon create the Earth’s tides.

His calculus-like method of geometrical analysis was also able to account for the speed of sound in air (based on Boyle’s Law), the precession of the equinoxes – which he showed were a result of the Moon’s gravitational attraction to the Earth – and determine the orbits of the comets. This volume would have a profound effect on the sciences, with its principles remaining canon for the following 200 years.

Another major discovery took place in 1755, when Immanuel Kant proposed that the Milky Way was a large collection of stars held together by mutual gravity. Just like the Solar System, this collection of stars would be rotating and flattened out as a disk, with the Solar System embedded within it.

Astronomer William Herschel attempted to actually map out the shape of the Milky Way in 1785, but he didn’t realize that large portions of the galaxy are obscured by gas and dust, which hides its true shape. The next great leap in the study of the Universe and the laws that govern it did not come until the 20th century, with the development of Einstein’s theories of Special and General Relativity.

Einstein’s groundbreaking theories about space and time (summed up simply as E=mc²) were in part the result of his attempts to resolve Newton’s laws of mechanics with the laws of electromagnetism (as characterized by Maxwell’s equations and the Lorentz force law). Eventually, Einstein would resolve the inconsistency between these two fields by proposing Special Relativity in his 1905 paper, “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies“.

Basically, this theory stated that the speed of light is the same in all inertial reference frames. This broke with the previously-held consensus that light traveling through a moving medium would be dragged along by that medium, which meant that the speed of the light is the sum of its speed through a medium plus the speed of that medium. This theory led to multiple issues that proved insurmountable prior to Einstein’s theory.

Special Relativity not only reconciled Maxwell’s equations for electricity and magnetism with the laws of mechanics, but also simplified the mathematical calculations by doing away with extraneous explanations used by other scientists. It also made the existence of a medium entirely superfluous, accorded with the directly observed speed of light, and accounted for the observed aberrations.

Between 1907 and 1911, Einstein began considering how Special Relativity could be applied to gravity fields – what would come to be known as the Theory of General Relativity. This culminated in 1911 with the publications of  “On the Influence of Gravitation on the Propagation of Light“, in which he predicted that time is relative to the observer  and dependent on their position within a gravity field.

He also advanced what is known as the Equivalence Principle, which states that gravitational mass is identical to inertial mass. Einstein also predicted the phenomenon of gravitational time dilation – where two observers situated at varying distances from a gravitating mass perceive a difference in the amount of time between two events. Another major outgrowth of his theories were the existence of Black Holes and an expanding Universe.

In 1915, a few months after Einstein had published his Theory of General Relativity, German physicist and astronomer Karl Schwarzschild found a solution to the Einstein field equations that described the gravitational field of a point and spherical mass. This solution, now called the Schwarzschild radius, describes a point where the mass of a sphere is so compressed that the escape velocity from the surface would equal the speed of light.

In 1931, Indian-American astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar calculated, using Special Relativity, that a non-rotating body of electron-degenerate matter above a certain limiting mass would collapse in on itself. In 1939, Robert Oppenheimer and others concurred with Chandrasekhar’s analysis, claiming that neutron stars above a prescribed limit would collapse into black holes.

Another consequence of General Relativity was the prediction that the Universe was either in a state of expansion or contraction. In 1929, Edwin Hubble confirmed that the former was the case. At the time, this appeared to disprove Einstein’s theory of a Cosmological Constant, which was a force which “held back gravity” to ensure that the distribution of matter in the Universe remained uniform over time.

To this, Edwin Hubble demonstrated using redshift  measurements that galaxies were moving away from the Milky Way. What’s more, he showed that the galaxies that were farther from Earth appeared to be receding faster – a phenomena that would come to be known as Hubble’s Law. Hubble attempted to constrain the value of the expansion factor – which he estimated at 500 km/sec per Megaparsec of space (which has since been revised).

And then in 1931, Georges Lemaitre, a Belgian physicist and Roman Catholic priest, articulated an idea that would give rise to the Big Bang Theory. After confirming independently that the Universe was in a state of expansion, he suggested that the current expansion of the Universe meant that the father back in time one went, the smaller the Universe would be.

In other words, at some point in the past, the entire mass of the Universe would have been concentrated on a single point. These discoveries triggered a debate between physicists throughout the 1920s and 30s, with the majority advocating that the Universe was in a steady state (i.e. the Steady State Theory). In this model, new matter is continuously created as the Universe expands, thus preserving the uniformity and density of matter over time.

After World War II, the debate came to a head between proponents of the Steady State Model and proponents of the Big Bang Theory – which was growing in popularity. Eventually, the observational evidence began to favor the Big Bang over the Steady State, which included the discovery and confirmation of the CMB in 1965. Since that time, astronomers and cosmologists have sought to resolve theoretical problems arising from this model.

In the 1960s, for example, Dark Matter (originally proposed in 1932 by Jan Oort) was proposed as an explanation for the apparent “missing mass” of the Universe. In addition, papers submitted by Stephen Hawking and other physicists showed that singularities were an inevitable initial condition of general relativity and a Big Bang model of cosmology.

In 1981, physicist Alan Guth theorized a period of rapid cosmic expansion (aka. the “Inflation” Epoch) that resolved other theoretical problems. The 1990s also saw the rise of Dark Energy as an attempt to resolve outstanding issues in cosmology. In addition to providing an explanation as to the Universe’s missing mass (along with Dark Matter) it also provided an explanation as to why the Universe is still accelerating, and offered a resolution to Einstein’s Cosmological Constant.

Significant progress has been made in our study of the Universe thanks to advances in telescopes, satellites, and computer simulations. These have allowed astronomers and cosmologists to see farther into the Universe (and hence, farther back in time). This has in turn helped them to gain a better understanding of its true age, and make more precise calculations of its matter-energy density.

The introduction of space telescopes – such as the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE), the Hubble Space Telescope, Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) and the Planck Observatory – has also been of immeasurable value. These have not only allowed for deeper views of the cosmos, but allowed astronomers to test theoretical models to observations.

Illustration of the depth by which Hubble imaged galaxies in prior Deep Field initiatives, in units of the Age of the Universe. Credit: NASA and A. Feild (STScI)

For example, in June of 2016, NASA announced findings that indicate that the Universe is expanding even faster than previously thought. Based on new data provided by the Hubble Space Telescope (which was then compared to data from the WMAP and the Planck Observatory) it appeared that the Hubble Constant was 5% to 9% greater than expected.

Next-generation telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and ground-based telescopes like the Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) are also expected to allow for additional breakthroughs in our understanding of the Universe in the coming years and decades.

Without a doubt, the Universe is beyond the reckoning of our minds. Our best estimates say hat it is unfathomably vast, but for all we know, it could very well extend to infinity. What’s more, its age in almost impossible to contemplate in strictly human terms. In the end, our understanding of it is nothing less than the result of thousands of years of constant and progressive study.

And in spite of that, we’ve only really begun to scratch the surface of the grand enigma that it is the Universe. Perhaps some day we will be able to see to the edge of it (assuming it has one) and be able to resolve the most fundamental questions about how all things in the Universe interact. Until that time, all we can do is measure what we don’t know by what we do, and keep exploring!

To speed you on your way, here is a list of topics we hope you will enjoy and that will answer your questions. Good luck with your exploration!

Further Reading:

Sources:

Beyond WIMPs: Exploring Alternative Theories Of Dark Matter

The standard model of cosmology tells us that only 4.9% of the Universe is composed of ordinary matter (i.e. that which we can see), while the remainder consists of 26.8% dark matter and 68.3% dark energy. As the names would suggest, we cannot see them, so their existence has had to be inferred based on theoretical models, observations of the large-scale structure of the Universe, and its apparent gravitational effects on visible matter.

Since it was first proposed, there have been no shortages of suggestions as to what Dark Matter particles look like. Not long ago, many scientists proposed that Dark Matter consists of Weakly-Interacting Massive Particles (WIMPs), which are about 100 times the mass of a proton but interact like neutrinos. However, all attempts to find WIMPs using colliders experiments have come up empty. As such, scientists have been exploring the idea lately that dark matter may be composed of something else entirely. Continue reading “Beyond WIMPs: Exploring Alternative Theories Of Dark Matter”

Big Bang Theory: Evolution of Our Universe

Illustration of the Big Bang Theory

How was our Universe created? How did it come to be the seemingly infinite place we know of today? And what will become of it, ages from now? These are the questions that have been puzzling philosophers and scholars since the beginning the time, and led to some pretty wild and interesting theories. Today, the consensus among scientists, astronomers and cosmologists is that the Universe as we know it was created in a massive explosion that not only created the majority of matter, but the physical laws that govern our ever-expanding cosmos. This is known as The Big Bang Theory.

For almost a century, the term has been bandied about by scholars and non-scholars alike. This should come as no surprise, seeing as how it is the most accepted theory of our origins. But what exactly does it mean? How was our Universe conceived in a massive explosion, what proof is there of this, and what does the theory say about the long-term projections for our Universe?

Continue reading “Big Bang Theory: Evolution of Our Universe”

Are the BICEP2 Results Invalid? Probably Not.

Recently rumors have been flying that the BICEP2 results regarding the cosmic inflationary period may be invalid. It all started with a post by Dan Falkowski on his blog Resonaances, where he claimed that the BICEP2 had misinterpreted some data, which rendered their results invalid, or at least questionable. The story was then picked up by Nature’s Blog and elsewhere, which has sparked some heated debate.

 So what’s really going on?

For those who might not remember, BICEP2 is a project working to detect polarized light within the cosmic microwave background (CMB). Specifically they were looking for a type of polarization known as B-mode polarization. Detection of B-mode polarization is important because one mechanism for it is cosmic inflation in the early universe, which is exactly what BICEP2 claimed to have evidence of.

Part of the reason BICEP2 got so much press is because B-mode polarization is particularly difficult to detect. It is a small signal, and you have to filter through a great deal of observational data to be sure that your result is valid.  But you also have to worry about other sources that look like B-mode polarization, and if you don’t account for them properly, then you could get a “false positive.” That’s where this latest drama arises.

In general this challenge is sometimes called the foreground problem.  Basically, the cosmic microwave background is the most distant light we can observe. All the galaxies, dust, interstellar plasma and our own galaxy is between us and the CMB.  So to make sure that the data you gather is really from the CMB, you have to account for all the stuff in the way (the foreground).  We have ways of doing this, but it is difficult. The big challenge is to account for everything.

A map of foreground polarization from the Milky Way. Credit: ESA and the Planck Collaboration
A map of foreground polarization from the Milky Way. Credit: ESA and the Planck Collaboration

Soon after the BICEP2 results, another team noted a foreground effect that could effect the BICEP2 results. It involves an effect known as radio loops, where dust particles trapped in interstellar magnetic fields can emit polarized light similar to B-mode polarization. How much of an effect this might have is unclear. Another project being done with the Planck satellite is also looking at this foreground effect, and has released some initial results (seen in the figure), but hasn’t yet released the actual data yet.

Now it has come to light that BICEP2 did, in fact, take some of this foreground polarization into account, in part using results from Planck. But since the raw data hadn’t been released, the team used data taken from a PDF slide of Planck results and basically reverse-engineered the Planck data.  It is sometimes referred to as “data scraping”, and it isn’t ideal, but it works moderately well. Now there is some debate as to whether that slide presented the real foreground polarization or some averaged polarization. If it is the latter, then the BICEP2 results may have underestimated the foreground effect. Does this mean the BICEP2 results are completely invalid? Given what I’ve seen so far, I don’t think it does. Keep in mind that the Planck foreground is one of several foreground effects that BICEP2 did account for. It could be a large error, but it could also be a rather minor one.

The important thing to keep in mind is that the BICEP2 paper is still undergoing peer review.  Critical analysis of the paper is exactly what should happen, and is happening.  This type review used to be confined to the ivory towers, but with social media it now happens in the open.  This is how science is done. BICEP2 has made a bold claim, and now everyone gets to whack at them like a piñata.

The BICEP2 team stands by their work, and so we’ll have to see whether it holds up to peer review.  We’ll also have to wait for the Planck team to release their results on B-mode polarization. Eventually the dust will settle and we’ll have a much better handle on the results.

Astronomy Without A Telescope – The Universe Is Not In A Black Hole

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It has been reported that a recent scientific paper delivers the conclusion that our universe resides inside a black hole in another universe. In fact, this isn’t really what the paper concluded – although what the paper did conclude is still a little out of left field.

The Einstein-Cartan-Kibble-Sciama (ECKS) theory of gravity – claimed as an alternative to general relativity theory, although still based on Einstein field equations – seeks to take greater account of the effect of the spin of massive particles. Essentially, while general relativity has it that matter determines how spacetime curves, ECKS also tries to capture the torsion of spacetime, which is a more dynamic idea of curvature – where you have to think in terms of twisting and contortion, rather than just curvature.

Mind you, general relativity is also able to deal with dynamic curvature. ECKS proponents claim that where ECKS departs from general relativity is in situations with very high matter density – such as inside black holes. General relativity suggests that a singularity (with infinite density and zero volume) forms beyond a black hole’s event horizon. This is not a very satisfying result since the contents of black holes do seem to occupy volume – more massive ones have larger diameters than less massive ones – so general relativity may just not be up to the task of dealing with black hole physics.

ECKS theory attempts to step around the singularity problem by proposing that an extreme torsion of spacetime, resulting from the spin of massive particles compressed within a black hole, prevents a singularity from forming. Instead the intense compression increases the intrinsic angular momentum of the matter within (i.e. the spinning skater draws arms in analogy) until a point is reached where spacetime becomes as twisted, or as wound up, as it can get. From that point the tension must be released through an expansion (i.e. an unwinding) of spacetime in a whole new tangential direction – and voila you get a new baby universe.

But the new baby universe can’t be born and expand in the black hole. Remember this is general relativity. From any frame of reference outside the black hole, the events just described cannot sequentially happen. Clocks seem to slow to a standstill as they approach a black hole’s event horizon. It makes no sense for an external observer to imagine that a sequence of events is taking place over time inside a black hole.

Instead, it is proposed that the birth and expansion of new baby universe proceeds along a separate branch of spacetime with the black hole acting as an Einstein-Rosen bridge (i.e. a wormhole).

(Caption) The horizon problem in Big Bang cosmology. How is it that distant parts of the universe possess such similar physical properties? Well (putting your Occam brand razor aside), perhaps the whole contents of this universe was originally homogenized within a black hole from a parallel universe. Credit: Addison Wesley.

If correct, it’s a turtles on turtles solution and we are left to ponder the mystery of the first primeval universe which first formed the black holes from which all subsequent universes originate.

Something the ECKS hypothesis does manage to do is to provide an explanation for cosmic inflation. Matter and energy crunched within a black hole should achieve a state of isotropy and homogeneity (i.e. no wrinkles) – and when it expands into a new universe through a hypothetical wormhole, this is driven by the unwinding of the spacetime torsion that was built up within the black hole. So you have an explanation for why a universe expands – and why it is so isotropic and homogenous.

Despite there not being the slightest bit of evidence to support it, this does rank as an interesting idea.

Further reading: Poplawski, N.J. (2010) Cosmology with torsion – an alternative to cosmic inflation.