Testing the Multiverse… Observationally!

Seven Year Microwave Sky (Credit: NASA/WMAP Science Team)

[/caption]The multiverse theory is famous for its striking imagery. Just imagine our own Universe, drifting among a veritable sea of spontaneously inflating “bubble universes”, each a self-contained and causally separate pocket of higher-dimensional spacetime. It’s quite an arresting picture. However, the theory is also famous for being one of the most criticized in all of cosmology. Why? For one, the idea is remarkably difficult, if not downright impossible, to test experimentally. But now, a team of British and Canadian scientists believe they may have found a way.

Attempts to prove the multiverse theory have historically relied upon examination of the CMB radiation, relic light from the Big Bang that satellites like NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, or WMAP, have probed with incredible accuracy. The CMB has already allowed astronomers to map the network of large-scale structure in today’s Universe from tiny fluctuations detected by WMAP. In a similar manner, some cosmologists have hoped to comb the CMB for disk-shaped patterns that would serve as evidence of collisions with other bubble universes.

Seven Year Microwave Sky (Credit: NASA/WMAP Science Team)

Now, physicists at University College London, Imperial College London and the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics have designed a computer algorithm that actually examines the WMAP data for these telltale signatures. After determining what the WMAP results would look like both with and without cosmic collisions, the team uses the algorithm to determine which scenario fits best with the actual WMAP data. Once the results are in, the team’s algorithm performs a statistical analysis to ensure that any signatures that are detected are in fact due to collisions with other universes, and are unlikely to be due to chance. As an added bonus, the algorithm also puts an upper limit on the number of collision signatures astronomers are likely to find.

While their method may sound fairly straightforward, the researchers are quick to acknowledge the difficulty of the task at hand. As UCL researcher and co-author of the paper Dr. Hiranya Peiris put it, “It’s a very hard statistical and computational problem to search for all possible radii of the collision imprints at any possible place in the sky. But,” she adds, “that’s what pricked my curiosity.”

The results of this ground-breaking project are not yet conclusive enough to determine whether we live in a multiverse or not; however, the scientists remain optimistic about the rigor of their method. The team hopes to continue its research as the CMB is probed more deeply by the Planck satellite, which began its fifth all-sky survey on July 29. The research is published in Physical Review Letters and Physical Review D.

Source: UCL

Podcast: Multiverses

Deep field image by Hubble

What if our universe was just one in an infinite number of parallel universes; a possible outcome from the specific predictions of quantum mechanics. The idea of multiple universes is common in science fiction, but is there any actual science to back this theory up?

Click here to download the episode.

Or subscribe to: astronomycast.com/podcast.xml with your podcatching software.

Multiverses show notes and transcript.

Parallel Universe

The number of multiverses the human brain could distinguish. Credit: Linde and Vanchurin

To some extent, ‘parallel universe’ is self-referential … there are parallel meanings of the very term! The two most often found in science-based websites (like Universe Today) are multi-verse, or multiverse (the universe we can see is but one of many universes), and the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics (most often associated with Hugh Everett).

Cosmologist Max Tegmark (currently at MIT) has a neat classification scheme for pigeon-holing most parallel universe ideas that have at least some relationship to physics (as we know it today).

The most straight-forward kind of parallel universe(s) is one(s) just like the one we can see, but beyond the (cosmic) horizon … space is flat, and infinite, and the laws of physics (as we know them today) are the same, everywhere.

Similar, but different in some key ways, are parallel universes which developed out of inflation bubbles; these have the same (or very similar) physics to what applies in the universe we can see, except that the initial values (e.g. fine-structure constant) and perhaps number of dimensions may differ. The Inflationary Multiverse ideas of Standford University’s Andrei Linde are perhaps the best known example of this type. Parallel universes at this level tie in naturally to the (strong) anthropic principle.

Tegmark’s third class (he calls them Levels; this is Level 3) is the many-worlds of quantum physics. I’m sure you, dear reader, are familiar with poor old Schrödinger’s cat, whose half-alive and half-dead status is … troubling. In the many-worlds interpretation, the universe splits into two equal – and parallel – parts; in one, the radioactive material decays, and the cat dies; in the other, it does not, and the cat lives.

Level 4 contains truly weird parallel universes, ones which differ from the others by having fundamentally different laws of physics.

Operating somewhat in parallel are two other parallel universe concepts, cyclic universes (the parallelism is in time), and brane cosmology (a fallout from M-theory, in which the universe we can see is confined to just one brane, but interacts with other universes via gravity, which is not restricted to ‘our’ brane).

As you might expect, much, if not most, of this has been attacked for not being science (for example, how could you ever falsify any of these ideas?), but at least for some parallel universe ideas, observational tests may be possible. Perhaps the best known such test is the WMAP cold spot … one claim is that this is the imprint on ‘our’ universe of a parallel universe, via quantum entanglement (the most recent analyses, however, suggest that the cold spot is not qualitatively different from others, which have more prosaic explanations What! No Parallel Universe? Cosmic Cold Spot Just Data Artifact is a Universe Today story on just this).

Other Universe Today stories on parallel universes include If We Live in a Multiverse, How Many Are There?, Warp Drives Probably Impossible After All, and Book Review: Parallel Worlds.

Astronomy Cast has several episodes which include mention of parallel universes, but the best two are Multiple Big Bangs, and Entanglement.

Sources: MIT, Stanford University

If We Live in a Multiverse, How Many Are There?

Artist concept of the cyclic universe.

Theoretical physics has brought us the notion that our single universe is not necessarily the only game in town. Satellite data from WMAP, along with string theory and its 11- dimensional hyperspace idea has produced the concept of the multiverse, where the Big Bang could have produced many different universes instead of a single uniform universe. The idea has gained popularity recently, so it was only a matter of time until someone asked the question of how many multiverses could possibly exist. The number, according to two physicists, could be “humongous.”

Andrei Linde and Vitaly Vanchurin at Stanford University in California, did a few back-of- the- envelope calculations, starting with the idea that the Big Bang was essentially a quantum process which generated quantum fluctuations in the state of the early universe. The universe then underwent a period of rapid growth called inflation during which these perturbations were “frozen,” creating different initial classical conditions in different parts of the cosmos. Since each of these regions would have a different set of laws of low energy physics, they can be thought of as different universes.

Linde and Vanchurin then estimated how many different universes could have appeared as a result of this effect. Their answer is that this number must be proportional to the effect that caused the perturbations in the first place, a process called slow roll inflation, — the solution Linde came up with previously to answer the problem of the bubbles of universes colliding in the early inflation period. In this model, inflation occurred from a scalar field rolling down a potential energy hill. When the field rolls very slowly compared to the expansion of the universe, inflation occurs and collisions end up being rare.

Using all of this (and more – see their paper here) Linde and Vanchurin calculate that the number of universes in the multiverse and could be at least 10^10^10^7, a number which is definitely “humungous,” as they described it.

The next question, then, is how many universes could we actually see? Linde and Vanchurin say they had to invoke the Bekenstein limit, where the properties of the observer become an important factor because of a limit to the amount of information that can be contained within any given volume of space, and by the limits of the human brain.

The total amount of information that can be absorbed by one individual during a lifetime is about 10^16 bits. So a typical human brain can have 10^10^16 configurations and so could never distinguish more than that number of different universes.

The number of multiverses the human brain could distinguish. Credit: Linde and Vanchurin
The number of multiverses the human brain could distinguish. Credit: Linde and Vanchurin

“So, the total number of possibilities accessible to any given observer is limited not only by the entropy of perturbations of metric produced by inflation and by the size of the cosmological horizon, but also by the number of degrees of freedom of an observer,” the physicists write.

“We have found that the strongest limit on the number of different locally distinguishable geometries is determined mostly by our abilities to distinguish between different universes and to remember our results,” wrote Linde and Vanchurin. “Potentially it may become very important that when we analyze the probability of existencse of a universe of a given type, we should be talking about a consistent pair: the universe and an observer who makes the rest of the universe “alive” and the wave function of the rest of the universe time-dependant.”

So their conclusion is that the limit does not depend on the properties of the multiverse itself, but on the properties of the observer.

They hope to further study this concept to see if this probability if proportional to the observable entropy of inflation.

Sources: ArXiv, Technology Review Blog