Category Archives: Physics

Do Other Dimensions REALLY Exist?

Those of you who have been following physics for the last few decades have no doubt heard about string theory and how it requires that spacetime have 11-dimensions and not the four we are most familiar with (3 for space and 1 for time) . This has been a popular topic of discussion since the 1970s, and has spawned thousands of popularizations and lectures. I have actually written a few of these!

The difficulty is that we never experience even ordinary space directly, and as Einstein noted, space itself is more of a human mental construct than it is a physical feature of our world. When physicists need some additional dimensions to space to model our world, we find ourselves confused as our brains try to fabricate an inner model of what that might mean. The idea of ‘dimension’ is not what you might think. It is just another way of saying that some system you are modeling mathematically needs N numbers to define it uniquely in space and time. For example, economists work in ‘spaces’ where their models use N=4 unique numbers, so their universes are 4-dimensional too!

Space, as a physical idea is just our experience that we only need three numbers to locate a geometric point on Earth. We need its latitude, its longitude and its elevation above the surface of Earth. Two of these numbers are angles, but we can easily convert these angles into meters because the surface of Earth has a fixed radius and forms a sphere. The angles just represents the lengths of arcs on the surface.

Extending this into the solar system and beyond, we only need three numbers to define the location of a planet or a star. If we try to provide four numbers to locate any point in space, that fourth measurement can be replaced in terms of the previous three numbers. Because this minimum number is three, we say that our space is 3-dimensional. Similarly, all of Euclid’s geometry takes place on a flat surface where points are defined by two numbers, so it is a 2-dimensional surface. The figure above shows an example of ordinary 3-d space and its coordinate axis in the Cartesian ‘X, Y, Z’ system. But there are other possible coordinate systems we can use such as spherical (R, theta, phi) or cylindrical (R, theta, h), but they all define points in 3-d space by a unique three-number address. But wait…there’s more!

Three is not enough. Our physical world actually requires a time coordinate to define where objects are because, of course, all objects are in motion or are internally changing. Time is a fourth coordinate that helps us keep track of the complete history of an object as it moves through 3-d space. This path is called a worldline. This is why Einstein’s relativity refers to ‘spacetime’ as the fundamental arena in which all events take place. Spacetime is a 4-dimensional object with three coordinates expressed in terms of meters, and a time coordinate expressed in units of time such as nanoseconds, seconds, years etc. Spacetime is also called a manifold because every point in it can be uniquely defined by four numbers. There are mathematically an infinite number of these points. Because we have yet to find any evidence to the contrary, the manifold of all points in our physical universe, call it M, is just the same as the 4-d spacetime manifold proposed by Einstein’s relativity, call it M4, so in short-hand we can write a symbolic sentence: M = M4.

M4 is not big enough: What you need to keep in mind is that in our 4-dimensional world, we can obviously see that ‘space’ is very different than ‘time’. When physicists talk about our world or our universe having more than 4-dimensions, they also mean that additional coordinates are needed beyond (3-d) space and (1-d) time to keep track of the properties of matter and energy in their new theories. There is nothing about any of these additional coordinates that needs to have the same character as either space or time. All they need to be is numbers defining a 10-dimensional coordinate system. Some physicists, however, do think of these added dimensions as having some kind of space-like attributes.

Structure of extra dimensions in String theory in physics. 3D rendered illustration.

The way that these extra dimensions are added to our world to create the M of our physical universe is that they represent coordinates in a separate kind of space, call it M6, that adjoins our M4. In string theory, this M6 space is vanishingly small. You will not find traces of it in M4, so don’t worry about somehow taking a wrong turn in M4 and suddenly ending up in M6. String theory requires that M6 be a closed, finite manifold present at every point in M4. The size of each of these new dimensions is only 10-33 centimeters, which is why these M6s are called ‘compact’ manifolds. Only quantum particles and fields have access to M6, and this access causes particles to have different characteristics.

So what is M? The complete specification of our manifold can be written as M = M4 x M6. The address of each point in M is now given by, for example, the 4 coordinates (x,y,z,t) to define their location in M4, but to define the location of this point inside one of these compact M6 manifolds you need six additional numbers, which we can write as (a,b,c,d,e,f). The complete specification for points in the M manifold is then (x,y,z,t,a,b,c,d,e,f) or more neatly (x,y,z,t)(a,b,c,d,e,f) where we keep the two manifolds symbolically separate by placing parenthesis to group their respective coordinates.

So the question is, are the coordinates (a,b,c,d,e,f) dimensions of space like (x,y,z), are they more like the dimension of time in M4, or are they something else? As I said earlier, we already know that the time coordinate, t, is not at all like the other three space coordinates in M4, so there is no reason to believe that (a,b,c,d,e,f) should resemble either (x,y,z) or t. In fact, in string theory we already know something about the character of the coordinates in M6.

Very small: String theory proposes that they have a size of about the Planck Length, which is 10-33 centimeters. You can’t get lost in M6 because you always wind up back at your starting point after you have walked 10-33 centimeters!

Periodic: Some or all of these extra dimensions allow for the properties of physical quantities such as fields to have some periodic feature to them. An important quantity is the spin of a particle, which can be either multiples of 1 (called bosons) or 1/2 (called fermions). All elementary particles (electrons, quarks) are fermions, and all force-carrying particles (photons, gluons) are bosons.

Provides a complex topology: The number of times a quantity ‘wraps’ around a periodic extra-dimension, the more mass it has. When M6 is defined by these coordinates, the shapes of the M6 manifolds, called their topology, can have holes in them. String theory requires that these shapes be in a class called Calabi-Yau manifolds in order that the particles and fields resemble our world.

Metric signature: In special relativity, the distance between points in 4-dimensions, dS, is defined by dS2 = dx2 + dy2 + dz2 – c2dt2 where, for instance the symbol dx is the difference in the x coordinates between two points dx = x2 – x1. Notice that the space coordinates enter with a positive sign and the sole time coordinate enters with a negative sign. Physicists write this as the metric signature (+,+,+,-). In string theory, the extra dimensions are added with positive signs to make the string theory models work correctly to get something like dS2 = dx2 + dy2 + dz2 +da2 + db2 + dc2 +dd2 + de2 +df2 – c2dt2. So, the extra dimensions are taken to be space-like even though the maximum distance along any one of these 6 dimensions is only about 10-33 centimeters!

That is the mathematics of it, but do the extra dimensions really, really, reaally exist?

The truth of the matter is that we don’t know! If string theory is found to be incorrect, then there is no obvious reason to have a M6 at all, and so we are left with the M4 universe that we know and love. We cannot investigate the universe at the Planck scale, so the only way to test this idea of extra dimensions is to find that a theory like string theory is correct and accurate. We can then say that, because experiments confirm the predictions of string theory very accurately, there must be something like these M6 manifolds with their additional dimensions beyond the four we can directly measure in M4. On the other hand, it may also be that M6 is just mental ‘scratch paper’ that humans need in order to mathematically describe the particles and fields in our M4 universe, but our universe is actually doing something else entirely!

One important prediction from string theory is that gravity is a force modeled by closed strings in this 10-dimensional manifold. It also has the ability to range far and wide across these additional dimensions while the other three forces are confined to M4. This means that any gravitational interaction takes place in the 10-d arena and we only experience the part of this gravitational field that is in our ‘small’ 4-d universe. In fact, the theory says that this is why gravity is such as weak force because we are only seeing a small part of its full 10-d effects. This allows us to test at least this prediction by string theory.

Supernova 1987A: This supernova produced a pulse of neutrinos measured back on earth through the detection of about 12 neutrinos in the Super Kamiokande Neutrino Detector. These pulses arrived within seconds of the optical burst. Neutrinos are like the Miner’s Canaries and their numbers depend very sentitively on the energy of the collapsing supernova core into a neutron star. These 12 neutrinos matched the energy calculations, but only if the core of the star achieved its temperature by gravitational collapse, and with the energy determined by the action of gravity with little or no leakage into other dimensions. The tests were only able to say that the supernova data are consistent with these extra dimensions being smaller than about 1 angstrom (10-8 cm). So this result is a bit inconclusive.

Gravity waves: In 2017, the LIGO gravity wave detector rang out with the passing gravity wave called GW170817 from the collision between two neutron stars. The added twist was that the collision was also observed by its intense optical outburst. When detailed calculations of the energy in gravity waves and visible light were performed, the energy matched the theory exactly. The theory, based on standard general relativity, does not inlude the diminution of the gravity pulse by leakage of energy outside our M4 spacetime. The conclusion was that on this basis, gravity does not act as though there are extra dimensions! In fact, the gravity wave measurements give an observational estimate for the dimensionality of M4 of D = 4.02 +/-0.07. There is not much uncertainty to hide 6 more dimensions.

So there you have it. Those extra dimensions are probably space-like but their compact character makes them very different than either the huge space-like character of our familiar 3-dimensions to space.

Stay tuned for my next Blog in two weeks where I will be discussing the laatest Webb Space Telescope data!!!

This is Not Your Father’s Universe!

When I was learning astronomy in the 60s and 70s, we were still debating whether Big Bang or Stady State were the most accurate models for our universe. We also wondered about how galaxies like our Milky Way formed, and whether black holes existed. The idea that planets beyond our solar system existed was pure science fiction and no astronomers spent any time trying to predict what they might look like. As someone who has reached the ripe old age of 70, I am amazed how much progress we have made, from the discovery of supermassive black holes and exoplanets, to dark matter and gravitational radiation. The pace of discovery continues to increase, and our theoretical ideas are now getting confirmed or thrown out at record pace. There are still some issues that remain deliciously mysterious. Here are my favorite Seven Mysteries of the Universe!

1-How to Build a Galaxy: In astronomy, we used to think that it would take the universe a long time to build galaxies like our Milky Way, Thanks to the new discoveries by the Webb Space Telescope, we now have a ring-side seat to how this happens, and boy is it a fast process!

The oldest galaxies discovered with the Hubble Space Telescope date back to between 400 and 500 million years after the Big Bang. A few weeks ago, Webb spotted a galaxy that seems to have formed only 300 million years after the Big Bang. Rather than the massive galaxies like the Milky Way, these young galaxies resemble the dwarf galaxies like the Large Magellanic Cloud, perhaps only 1/10 the mass of our galaxy and filled with enormus numbers of massive, luminous stars. The above image from Hubble is a nearby galaxy called M-33 that has a mass of about 50 billion suns. There were lots of these smaller galaxies being formed during the first 300 million years after the Big Bang.

It looks like the universe emerged from the Dark Ages and immediately started building galaxies. In time, these fragments collided and merged to become the more massive galaxies we see around us, so we are only just starting to see how galaxy-building happens. Our Milky Way was formed some 1 billion years after the Big Bang, so the galaxy fragments being spotted by Webb have another 700 million years to go to make bigger things. Back in 2012, Hubble had already discovered the earliest spiral galaxy seen by then; a galaxy called Q2343-BX442, camping out at 3 billion years after the Big Bang. In 2021, an even younger spiral galaxy was spotted, called BRI 1335-0417, seen as it was about 1.4 billon years after the Big Bang.

So we are now watching how galaxies are being formed almost right before our eyes! Previous ideas that I learned about as an undergraduate, in which galaxies are formed ‘top-down’ from large collections of matter that fragment into stars, now seem wrong or incomplete. The better idea is that smaller collections of matter form stars and then merge together to build larger systems – called the ‘bottom-up’ model. This process is very, very fast! Among the smallest of these ‘galaxies’ are things destined to become the globular clusters we see today.

2-Supermassive Black Holes: The most distant and youngest supermassive black hole was discovered in 2021. Called J0313-1806, its light left it to reach us when the universe was only 670 million years old. Its mass, however, is a gargantuan 1.6 BILLION times the mass of our sun. Even if the formation of this black hole started at the end of the Dark Ages ca 100 million years after the Big Bang, it would have to absorb matter at the rate of three suns every year on average. That explains its quasar energy, but still…it is unimaginable how these things can grow so fast! The only working idea is that they started from seed masses about 10,000 the mass of our sun and grew from there. But how were the seed masses formed? This remains a mystery today.

3-The Theory of everything: The next Big Thing that I have been following since the 1960s is the search for what some call the Theory of Everything. Exciting theoretical advancements were made in the 1940s and 1960s to create accurate mathematical models for the three nongravity forces, called the electromagnetic, weak and strong forces. Physicists call this the Standard Model, and every physicist learns its details as students in graduate school. By the early 1980s, string theory was able to add gravity to the mix and go beyond the Standard Model. It appeared that the pursuit of a unified theory had reached its apex. Fifty years later, this expectation has all but collapsed.

Experiments at the Large Hadron Collider continue to show how the universe does not like something called supersymmetry in our low-energy universe. Supersymmetry is a key ingredient to string theory because it lets you change one kind of particle (field) into another, which is a key ingredient to any unified theory. So the simplest versions of string theory rise or fall based on whether supersymmetry exists or not. For over a decade, physicists have tried to find places in the so-called Standard Model where supersymmetry should make its appearance, but it has been a complete no-show. Its not just that this failure is a problem for creating a more elegant theory of how forces works, but it also affects astronomy as well.

Personally, when string theory hit the stage in the 1980’s I, like many other astronomers and physicists, thought that we were on the verge of solving this challenge of unifying gravity with the other forces, but this has not been the reality. Even today, I see no promissing solutions to this vexing problem since apparently the data shows that simple string theory is apparently on a wrong theoretical track.

One cheerful note: For neutrinos, the path from theoretical prediction to experimental observation took 25 years. For the Higgs boson, it took 50 years. And for gravitational waves, it took a full 100 years. We may just have to be patient…for another 100 years!

4-Dark Matter: The biggest missing ingredient to the cosmos today is called dark matter. When astronomers ‘weigh’ the universe, they discover that 4.6% of its gravitating ‘stuff’ is in ordinary matter (atoms,. stars, gas, neutron stars etc), but a whopping 24% is in some other ‘stuff’ that only appears by its gravity. It is otherwise completely invisible. Putting this another way, it’s as though four out of every five stars that make up our Milky Way were completely invisible.

Dark matter in Abell 1679.

Because we deeply believe that dark matter must be tracable to a new kind of particle, and because the Standard Model gives us an accounting of all the kinds of elementary particles from which our universe is built, the dark matter particle has to be a part of the Standard Model…but it isn’t!!!! Only by extending the Standard Model to a bigger theory (like string theory) can we logically and mathematically add new kinds of particles to a New Standard Model- one of which would be the dark matter particle. String theory even gives us a perfect candidate called the neutralino! But the LHC experiments have told us for over a decade that there is nothing wrong with the Standard Model and no missing particles. Astronomers say that dark matter is real, but physicists can’t find it….anywhere. Well…maybe not ALL astronomers think it’s real. So the debate continues.

Personally, I had heard about ‘missing mass’ in the 1960s but we were all convinced we would find it in hot gas, dim red dwarf stars or even black holes. I NEVER thought that it would turn out to be something other than ordinary matter in an unusual form. Dark matter is so deeply confounding to me that I worry we will not discover its nature before I, myself, leave this world! Then again, there isnt a single generation of scientists that has had all its known puzzles neatly solved ‘just in time’. I’m just greedy!!!

5- Matter and Antimatter: During the Big Bang, there were equal amounts of matter and anti matter, but then for some reason all the antimatter dissappeared leaving us with only matter to form atoms, stars and galaxies. We don’t know why this happened, and the Standard Model is completely unhelpful in giving us any clues to explain this. But next to dark matter, this is one of the most outstanding mysteries of modern, 21st century cosmology. We have no clue how to account for this fact within the Standard Model, so again like Dark Matter, we see that at cosmological scales, the Standard Model is incomplete.

6- Origin of Time and Space: Understanding the nature of time and space, and trying to make peace with why they exist at all, is the bane of any physicists existence. I have written many blogs on this subject, and have tried to tackle it from many different angles, but in the end they are like jigsaw puzzels with too many missing pieces. Still, it is very exciting to explore where modern physics has taken us, and the many questions such thinking has opened up in surprising corners. My previous blog about ‘What is ‘Now’ is one such line of thinking. Many of the new ideas were not even imagined as little as 30 years ago, so that is a positive thing. We are still learning more about these two subjects and getting better at asking the right questions!

7-Consciousness: OK…You know I would get to this eventually, and here it is! Neuroscientists know of lots of medical conditions that can rob us of consciousness including medical anesthesia, but why we have this sense about ourselves that we are a ‘person’ and have volition is a massively hard problem. In fact, consciousness is called the ‘Hard Problem’ in neuroscience..heck…in any science!

The ‘Soft Problem’ is how our senses give us a coherant internal model of the world that we can use to navigate the outside world. We know how to solve the Soft Problem, just follow the neurons. We are well on our way to understanding it thanks to high-tech brain imaging scanners and cleverly-designed experiments. The Hard Problem is ‘hard’ because our point-of-view is within the thing we are trying to undertand. Some think that our own ‘wet ware’ is not up to the task of even giving us the intelligence to answer this qustion. It will not be the first time someone has told us about limitations, but usually these are technological ones, and not ones related to limits to what our own brains can provide as a tool.

So there you have it.

My impression is that only Mysteries #1 and #2 will make huge progress. The Theory of Everything is in experimental disarray. For antimatter, there has been no progress, but many ideas. They all involve going outside the Standard Model. Dark matter might be replaced by a modification of gravity at galactic and cosmological scales.

Beyond these ‘superficial’ mysteries, we are left with three deep mysteries. The origin of space, time and consciousness remain our 21st century gift to children of the 22nd century!

Check back here in a few weeks for the next blog!

What is ‘Now’?

What is the duration of the present moment? How is it that this present moment is replaced by ‘the next moment’?

Within every organism, sentient or not, there are thousands of chemical processes that occur with their own characteristic time periods, but these time periods start and stop at different times so that there is no synchronized ‘moment’. Elementary atomic collisions that build up molecules take nanoseconds while cell division takes minutes to hours, and tissue cell lifespans vary from 2 days in the stomach lining to 8 years for fat cells (see Cell Biology). None of these jangled timescales collectively or in isolation create the uniform experience we have of now and its future moments. To find the timescale that corresponds to the Now experience we have to look elsewhere.

It’s all in the mind!

A variety of articles over the  years have identified 2 to 3 seconds as the maximum duration of what most people experience as ‘now’, and what researchers call the ‘specious present’. This is the time required by our brain’s neurological mechanisms to combine the information arriving at our senses with our internal, current model of the ‘outside world’. During this time an enormous amount of neural activity has to happen. Not only does the sensory information have to be integrated together for every object in your visual field and cross connected to the other senses, but dozens of specialized brain regions have to be activated or de-activated to update your world model in a consistent way.

In a previous blog I discussed how important this world model is in creating within you a sense of living in a consistent world with a coherent story. But this process is not fixed in stone. Recent studies by Sebastian Sauer and his colleagues at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich show that mindfulness meditators can significantly increase their sense of ‘now’ so that it is prolonged for up to 20 seconds.

In detail, a neuron discharge lasts about 1 millisecond, but it has to be separated from the next one by about 30 milliseconds before a sequence is perceived, and this seems to be true for all senses. When you see a ‘movie’ it is a succession of still images flashed into your visual cortex at intervals less than 30 milliseconds, giving the illusion of a continuous unbroken scene.  (Dainton: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2017).

The knitting together of these ‘nows’ into a smooth flow-of-time is done by our internal model-building system. It works lightning-fast to connect one static collection of sensory inputs to another set and hold these both in our conscious ‘view’ of the world. This gives us a feeling of the passing of one set of conditions smoothly into another set of conditions that now make up the next ‘Now’. To get from one moment to the next, our brain can play fast-and-loose with the data and interpolate what it needs. For example, it our visual world, the fovea in our retina produces a Blind Spot but you never notice it because there are circuits that interpolate across this spot to fill-in the scenery. The same thing happens in the time dimension with the help of our internal model to make our jagged perceptions in time into a smooth movie experience.

Neurological conditions such as strokes, or psychotropic chemicals can disrupt this process and cause dramatic problems. Many schizophrenic patients stop perceiving time as a flow of  linked events.  These defects in time perception may play a part in the hallucinations and delusions experienced by schizophrenic patients according to some studies. There are other milder aberrations that can affect our sense of the flow-of-time.

Research has also suggested the feeling of awe has the ability to expand one’s perceptions of time availability. Fear also produces time-sense distortion. Time seems to slow down when a person skydives or bungee jumps, or when a person suddenly and unexpectedly senses the presence of a potential predator or mate. Research also indicates that the internal clock, used to time durations in the seconds-to-minutes range, is linked to dopamine function in the basal ganglia. Studies in which children with ADHD are given time estimation tasks shows that time passes very slowly for them.

Because the volume of data is enormous, we cannot hold many of these consecutive Now moments in our consciousness with the same clarity, and so earlier Nows either pass into short-term memory if they have been tagged with some emotional or survival attributes, or fade quickly into complete forgetfulness. You will not remember the complete sensory experience of diving into a swimming pool, but if you were pushed, or were injured, you will remember that specific sequence of moments with remarkable clarity years later!

The model-building aspect of our brain is just another tool it has that is equivalent to its pattern-recognition ability in space. It looks for patterns in time to find correlations which it then uses to build up expectations for ‘what comes next’. Amazingly, when this feature yields more certainty than the evidence of our senses, psychologists like Albert Powers at Yale University say that we experience hallucinations (Fan, 2017). In fact, 5-15% of the population experience auditory hallucinations (songs, voices, sounds) at some time in their lives when the brain literally hears a sound that is not there because it was strongly expected on the basis of other clues. One frequent example is that  people claim to hear the Northern Lights as a crackling fire or a swishing sound, because their visual system creates this expectation and the brain obliges.

This, then, presents us with the neurological experience of Now. It is between 30 milliseconds and several minutes in duration. It includes a recollection of the past which fades away for longer intervals in the past, and includes a sense of the immediate future as our model-making facility extrapolates from our immediate past and fabricates an expectation of what comes next.

Living in a perpetual Now is no fun. The famed psychologist Oliver Sacks describes  a patient, Clive Wearing, with a severe form of amnesia, who was unable to form any new memories that lasted longer than 30 seconds, and became convinced every few minutes that he was fully conscious for the first time. “In some ways, he is not anywhere at all; he has dropped out of space and time altogether. He no longer has any inner narrative; he is not leading a life in the sense that the rest of us do….It is not the remembrance of things past, the “once” that Clive yearns for, or can ever achieve. It is the claiming, the filling, of the present, the now, and this is only possible when he is totally immersed in the successive moments of an act. It is the “now” that bridges the abyss.”

Physical ‘Now’.

This monkeying around with brain states, internal model-making and sensory data creates Now as a phenomenon we experience, but the physical world outside our collective brain population does not operate through its own neural systems to create a Cosmic Now. That would only be the case if, for example, we were literally living inside The Matrix….which I believe we are not. So in terms of physics, the idea of Now does not exist. We even know from relativity that there can be no uniform and simultaneous Now spanning large portions of space or the cosmos. This is a problem that has bedeviled many people across the millennia.

Augustine (in the fourth century) wrote, “What is time? If no one asks me, I know; if I wish to explain, I do not know. … My soul yearns to know this most entangled enigma.” Even Einstein himself noted ‘…that there is something essential about the Now which is just outside the realm of science.’

Both of these statements were made before quantum theory became fully developed. Einstein developed relativity, but this was a theory in which spacetime took the place of space and time individually. If you wanted to define ‘now’ by a set of simultaneous conditions, relativity put the kibosh on that idea because due to the relative motions and accelerations of all Observers, there can be no simultaneous ‘now’ that all Observers can experience. Also, there was no ‘flow of time’ because relativity was a theory of worldlines and complete histories of particles from start to finish (called the boundary conditions of worldlines). Quantum theory, however, showed some new possibilities.

In physics, time is a variable, often represented by the letter t, that is a convenient parameter with which to describe how a system of matter and energy change. The first very puzzling feature of time as a physical variable is that all mathematical representations of physical laws or theories show that time is continuous, smooth and infinitely divisible into smaller intervals. These equations are also ‘timeless’ in that they can be written down on a piece of paper and accurately describe how a system changes from start to finish (based on boundary conditions defined at ‘t=0’) , but the equations show this process as ‘all at once’.

In fact, this perspective is so built into physics that it forms the core of Einstein’s relativity theory in the form of the 4-d spacetime ‘block’. It also appears in quantum mechanics because fundamental equations like Schroedinger’s Equation also offer a timeless view of quantum states.

In all these situations, one endearing feature of our world is actually suppressed and mathematically hidden from view, and that is precisely the feature we call ‘now’.

To describe what things look like Now, you have to dial in to the equations the number t =  t(now). How does nature do that? As discussed by physicist Lee Smolin in his book ‘Time Reborn’, this is the most fundamental experience we have about the physical world as sentient beings, yet it is not represented by any feature in the physical theories we have developed thus far. There is no theory that selects t = t(now) over all the infinite other moments in time.

Perhaps we are looking in the wrong place!

Just as we have seen that what we call ‘space’ is built up like a tapestry from a vast number of quantum events described (we hope!) by quantum gravity, time also seems to be created from a synthesis of elementary events occurring at the quantum scale.   For example, what we call temperature is the result of innumerable collisions among elementary objects such as atoms. Temperature is a measure of the average collision energy of a large collection of particles, but cannot be identified as such at the scale of individual particles. Temperature is a phenomenon that has emerged from the collective properties of thousands or trillions of individual particles.

A system can be described completely by its quantum state – which is a much easier thing to do when you have a dozen atoms than when you have trillions, but the principle is the same. This quantum state describes how the elements of the system are arrayed in 3-d space, but because of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, the location of a particle at a given speed is spread out rather than localized to a definite position.  But quantum states can also become entangled. For these systems, if you measure one of the particles and detect property P1 then the second particle must have property P2. The crazy thing is that until you measured that property in the first particle, it could have had either property P1 or P2, but after the measurement the distant particle ‘knew’ that it had to have the corresponding property even though this information had to travel faster than light to insure consistency.

An intriguing set of papers by physicist Seth Lloyd at Harvard University in 1984 showed that over time, the quantum states of the member particles become correlated and shared by the larger ensemble. This direction of increasing correlation goes only one way and establishes the ‘Arrow of Time’ on the quantum scale.

One interesting feature of this entanglement idea is that ‘a few minutes ago’, our brain’s quantum state was less correlated with its surroundings and our sensory information than at a later time. This means that the further you go into the past moments, the less correlated they are with the current moment because, for one, the sensory information has to arrive and be processed before it can change our brain’s state. Our sense of Now is the product of how past brain states are correlated with the current state. A big part of this correlating is accomplished, not by sterile quantum entanglement, but by information transmitted through our neural networks and most importantly our internal model of our world – which is a dynamic thing.

If we did not have such an internal model that correlates our sensory information and fabricates an internal story of perception, our sense of Now would be very different because so much of the business of correlating quantum information would not occur very quickly. Instead of a Now measured in seconds, our Now’s would be measured in hours, days or even lifetimes, and be a far more chaotic experience because it would lack a coherent, internal description of our experiences.

This seems to suggest that no two people live in exactly the same Now, but these separate Now experiences can become correlated together as the population of individuals interact with each other and share experiences through the process of correlation. As for the rest of the universe, it exists in an undefined Now state that varies from location to location and is controlled by the speed of light, which is the fastest mode of exchanging information.

Read more:

In my previous blogs, I briefly described how the human brain perceives and models space (Blog 14: Oops one more thing), how Einstein and other physicists dismiss space as an illusion (Blog 10: Relativity and space ), how relativity deals with the concept of space (Blog 12: So what IS space?), what a theory of quantum gravity would have to look like (Blog 13: Quantum Gravity Oh my! ), and along the way why the idea of infinity is not physically real (Blog 11: Is infinity real?) and why space is not nothing (Blog 33: Thinking about Nothing). I even discussed how it is important to ‘think visually’ when trying to model the universe such as the ‘strings’ and ‘loops’ used by physicists as an analog to space ( Blog 34: Thinking Visually)

I also summarized the nature of space in a wrap-up of why something like a quantum theory for gravity is badly needed because the current theories of quantum mechanics and general relativity are incomplete, but also point the way towards a theory that is truly background-independent and relativistic (Blog 36: Quantum Gravity-Again! ). These considerations describe the emergence of the phenomenon we call ‘space’ but also down play its importance because it is an irrelevant and misleading concept.

Black Holes for Fun and Profit!

Well, astronomers finally did it. Nearly 100 years ago, Albert Einstein’s theory of General Relativity predicted that black holes should exist. Although it took until the 1960’s for someone like physicist John Wheeler to coin the name ‘black hole’ the study of these enigmatic objects became a cottage industry in theoretical physics and astrophysics. In fact, for certain kinds of astronomical phenomena such as quasars and x-ray sources, there was simply no other explanation for how such phenomena could generate so much energy in such an impossibly small volume of space. The existence of black holes was elevated to a certainty during the 1990s as studies of distant galaxies by the Hubble Space Telescope turned in tons of data that clinched the idea that the cores of most if not all galaxies had them. In fact, these black holes contained millions or even billions of times the mass of our sun and were awarded a moniker all their own: supermassive black holes. But there was still one outstanding problem for these versatile engines of gravitational destruction: Not a single one had ever been seen. To understand why, we have to delve rather deeply into what these beasties really are. Hang on to your seats!

               General relativity is the preeminent theory of gravity, but it is completely couched in the language of geometry – in this case the geometry of what is called our 4-dimensional spacetime continuum. You see, in general relativity, what we call space is just a particular feature of the gravitational field of the cosmos within which we are embedded rather seamlessly. This is all well and good, and this perspective has led to the amazing development of the cosmological model called Big Bang theory. Despite this amazing success, it is a theory not without its problems. The problems stem from what happens when you collect enough mass together in a small volume of space so that the geometry of spacetime (e.g. the strength of gravity) becomes enormously curved.

               The very first thing that happens according to the theory is that a condition in spacetime called a Singularity forms. Here, general relativity itself falls apart because density and gravity tend towards infinite conditions. Amazingly according to general relativity, and proved by the late Stephen Hawkins, spacetime immediately develops a zone surrounding the Singularity called an event horizon. For black holes more massive than our sun, the distance in kilometers of this spherical horizon from the Singularity is just 2.9 times the mass of the black hole in multiples of the sun’s mass. For example, if the mass of a supermassive black hole is 6.5 billion times the mass of our sun, its event horizon is at 6.5 billionx2.9 or 19 billion kilometers. Our solar system has a radius of only 8 billion km to Pluto, so this supermassive black hole is over twice the size of our solar system!

               Now the problem with event horizons is that they are one-way. Objects and even light can travel through them from outside the black hole, but once inside they can never return to the outside universe to give a description of what happened. However, it is a misunderstanding to say that black holes ‘suck’ as the modern colloquialism goes. They are simply points of intense gravitational force, and if our sun were replaced by one very gently, our Earth would not even register the event and continue its merry way in its orbit. The astrophysicist’s frustration is that it has never been possible to take a look at what is going on around the event horizon…until April 10, 2019.

               Researchers using the radio telescope interferometer system called the Event Horizon Telescope were able to synthesize an image of the surroundings of the supermassive black hole in the quasar-like galaxy Messier-87 – also known as Virgo A by early radio astronomers after World War II, and located about 55 million light years from Earth. They combined the data from eight radio telescopes scattered from Antarctica to the UK to create one telescope with the effective diameter of the entire Earth. With this, they were able to detect and resolve details at the center of M-87 near the location of a presumed supermassive black hole. This black hole is surrounded by a swirling disk of magnetized matter, which ejects a powerful beam of plasma into intergalactic space. It has been intensively studied for decades and the details of this process always point to a supermassive black hole as the cause.

Beginning in 2016, several petabytes of data were gathered from the Event Horizon Telescope and a massive press conference was convened to announce the first images of the vicinity of the event horizon. Surrounding the black shadow zone containing the event horizon was a clockwise-rotating ring of billion-degree plasma traveling at nearly the speed of light. When the details of this image were compared with supercomputer simulations, the mass of the supermassive black hole could be accurately determined as well as the dynamics of the ring plasma. The round shape of the event horizon was not perfect, which means that it is a rotating Kerr-type black hole. The darkness of the zone indicated that the event horizon did not have a photosphere of hot matter like the surface of our sun, so many competing ideas about this mass could be eliminated. Only the blackness of a black hole and its compact size now remain as the most consistent explanation for what we are ‘seeing’. Over time, astronomers will watch as this ring plasma moves from week to week. The next target for the Event Horizon Telescope is the four million solar mass black hole at the center of the Milky Way called Sgr-A*. Watch this space for more details to come!!

We have truly entered a new world in exploring our universe. Now if someone could only do something about dark matter!!!

Quantum Gravity – Again!

In my previous blogs, I briefly described how the human brain perceives and models space (Oops one more thing), how Einstein and other physicists dismiss space as an illusion (Relativity and space ), how relativity deals with the concept of space (So what IS space?), what a theory of quantum gravity would have to look like (Quantum Gravity Oh my! ), and along the way why the idea of infinity is not physically real (Is infinity real?) and why space is not nothing (Thinking about Nothing).  I even discussed how it is important to ‘think visually’ when trying to model the universe such as the ‘strings’ and ‘loops’ used by physicists as an analog to space (Thinking Visually)

And still these blogs do not exhaust the scope of either the idea of space itself or the research in progress to get to the bottom of our experience of it.

This essay, based on a talk I gave at the Belmont Astronomical Society on October 5, 2017 will try to cover some of these other ideas and approaches that are loosely believed to be a part of a future theory of quantum gravity.

What is quantum gravity?

It is the basic idea that the two great theories of physics, Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity are incompatible with each other and do not actually deal with the same ingredients to the world: space(time) and matter. Quantum gravity is a hypothetical theory that unifies these two great ideas into a single language, revealing answers to some of the deepest questions we know how to ask about the physical world. It truly is the Holy Grail of physics.

Why do we need quantum gravity at all?

Quantum mechanics is a theory that describes matter and fields embedded in a pre-existing spacetime that has no physical effect on these fields other than to provide coordinates for describing where they are in time and space. It is said to be a background-dependent theory. General relativity is only a theory of space(time) and does not describe matter’s essence at all. It describes how matter affects the geometry of spacetime and how spacetime affects the motion of matter, but does so in purely ‘classical’ terms. Most importantly, general relativity says there is no pre-existing spacetime at all. It is called a background-independent theory. Quantum gravity is an overarching background-independent theory that accounts for the quantum nature of matter and also the quantum nature of spacetime at scales where these effects are important, called the Planck scale where the smallest unit of space is 10^-33 cm and the smallest unit of time is 10^-43 seconds.

We need quantum gravity because calculations in quantum mechanics are plagued by ‘infinities’ that come about because QM assumes space(time) is infinitely divisible into smaller units of length. When physical processes and field intensities are summed over smaller and smaller lengths to build up a prediction, the infinitesimally small units lead to infinitely large contributions which ‘blow up’ the calculations unless some mathematical method called ‘renormalization’ is used. But the gravitational field escribed by general relativity cannot be renormalized to eliminate its infinities. Only by placing a lower limit ‘cutoff’ to space(time) as quantum gravity does is this problem eliminated and all calculations become finite.

We need quantum gravity because black holes do not possess infinite entropy. The surface area of a black hole, called its event horizon, is related to its entropy, which is a measure of the amount of information that is contained inside the horizon. A single bit of information is encoded on the horizon as an area 2-Planck lengths squared. According to the holographic principle, the surface of a black hole, its 2-d surface area, encodes all the information found in the encompassed 3-d volume, so that means that the spacetime interior of a black hole has to be quantized and cannot be infinitely divisible otherwise the holographic principle would be invalid and the horizon of the black hole would have to encode an infinite amount of information and have an infinite entropy.

We also need quantum gravity because it is believed that any fundamental theory of our physical world has to be background-independent as general relativity shows that spacetime is. That means that quantum mechanics is currently an incomplete theory because it still requires the scaffolding of a pre-existing spacetime and does not ‘create’ this scaffolding from within itself the way that general relativity does.

So what is the big picture?

Historically, Newton gave us space and time as eternally absolute and fixed prerequisites to our world that were defined once and for all before we even started to describe forces and motion. The second great school of thought at that time was developed by Gottfrid Leibnitz. He said that time and space have no meaning in themselves but only as properties defined by the relationships between bodies. Einstein’s relativity and its experimental vindication has proven that Newton’s Absolute Space and Time are completely false, and replaced them by Leibnitz’s relativity principle. Einstein even said on numerous occasions that space is an imaginary construct that we take for granted in an almost mythical way. Space has no independent existence apart from its emergence out of the relationships between physical bodies. This relationship is so intimate that in general relativity, material bodies define the spacetime geometry itself as a dynamical solution to his famous relativistic equation for gravity.

How does the experience of space emerge?

In general relativity, the only thing that matters are the events along a particle’s worldline, also called its history. These events encode the relationships between bodies, and are created by the intersections of other worldlines from other particles. This network of fundamental worldlines contains all the information you need to describe the global geometry of this network of events and worldlines. It is only the geometry of these worldlines that matters to physical phenomena in the universe.

The wireframe head in this illustration is an analog to worldliness linking together to create a geometry. The black ‘void’ contains no geometric or dimensional information and any points in it do not interact with any worldline that makes up the network. That is why ‘space’ is a myth and the only thing that determine the structure of our 4-d spacetime are the worldliness.

General relativity describes how the geometry of these worldlines creates a 4-dimensional spacetime. These worldlines represent matter particles and general relativity describes how these matter particles create the curvature in the worldlines among the entire system of particles, and thereby creates space and time. The ‘empty’ mathematical points between the worldlines have no physical meaning because they are not connected to events among any of the physical worldlines, which is why Einstein said that the background space in which the worldlines seem to be embedded does not actually exist! When we look out into ‘space’ we are looking along the worldlines of light rays. We are not looking through a pre-existing space. This means we are not seeing ‘things in space’ we are seeing processes in time along a particle’s history!

There are two major quantum gravity theories being worked on today.

String theory says that particles are 1-dimensional loops of ‘something’ that are defined in a 10-dimensional spacetime of which 4 dimensions are the Big Ones we see around us. The others are compact and through their geometric symmetries define the properties of the particles themselves. It is an approach to quantum gravity that has several problems.


This figure is an imaginative rendering of a ‘string’.

First it assumes that spacetime already exists for the strings to move within. It is a background-dependent theory in the same spirit as Newton’s Absolute Space and Time. Secondly, string theory is only a theory of matter and its quantum properties at the Planck scales, but in fact the scale of a string depends on a single parameter called the string tension. If the tension is small, then these string ‘loops’ are thousands of times bigger than the Planck scale, and there is no constraint on what the actual value of the tension should be. It is an adjustable parameter.

This figure is an imaginative rendering of a ‘loop’

Loop Quantum Gravity is purely a theory of spacetime and does not treat the matter covered by quantum mechanics. It is a background-independent theory that is able to exactly calculate the answers to many problems in gravitation theory, unlike string theory which has to sneak up on the answers by summing an infinite number of alternate possibilities. LQG arrives at the answer ‘2.0’ in one step as an exact answer while for example string theory has to sum the sequence 1+1/2+1/4+1/8+1/16 +…. To get to 2.000.

LQG works with elementary spacetime ingredients called nodes and edges to create spin networks and spin foam. Like a magnetic field line that carries magnetic flux, these edges act like the field lines to space and carry quantized areas 1 Planck length squared. By summing over the number of nodes in a spin network region, each node carries a quantum unit of space volume. These nodes are related to each other in a network of intersecting lines called a spin network, which for very large networks begins to look like a snapshot of space seen at a specific instant. The change of one network into another is called a spin foam and it is the antecedent to 4-d spacetime. There is no physical meaning to the nodes and edges themselves just as there is no physical meaning to the 1-d loops than make up strings in string theory. . They are pure mathematical constructs.

So far, the best idea is that LQG forms the bedrock for string theory. String theory looks at spacetime and matter far above the Planck scale, and this is where the properties of matter particles make their appearance. LQG creates the background of spacetime that strings move through. However there is a major problem. LQG predicts that the cosmological constant must be negative and small, which is what is astronomically observed, while string theory says that the cosmological constant is large and positive. Also, although LQG can reconstruct the large 4-d spacetime that we live in, it does not seem to have have any room for the additional 6 dimensions required by string theory to create the properties of the particles we observe. One possibility is that these extra dimensions are not space-like at all but merely ‘bookkeeping’ tools that physicists have to use which will eventually be replaced in the future by a fully 4-d theory of strings.

Another approach still in its infancy is Causal Set Theory. Like LQG it is a background-independent theory of spacetime. It starts with a collection of points that are linked together by only one guiding principle, that pairs of points are ordered by cause-and-effect. This defines how these points are ordered in time, but this is the only organizing principle for points in the set. What investigators have found is that such sets create from within themselves the physical concepts of distance and time and lead to relativistic spacetimes. Causal Sets and the nodes in LQG spin networks may be related to each other.

Another exciting discovery that relates to how the elements of quantum spacetime create spacetime involves the Holographic Principle connected with quantum entanglement.

The Holographic Principle states that all the information and relationships found in a 3-d volume are ‘encoded’ on a 2-d surface screen that surrounds this volume. This means that relationships among the surface elements are reflected in the behavior of the interior physics. Recently it was discovered that if you use quantum entanglement to connect two points on the surface, the corresponding points in the interior become linked together as a physical unit. If you turn off the entanglement on the surface the interior points become unconnected and the interior space dissolves into unrelated points. The amount of entanglement can be directly related to how physically close the points are, and so this is how a unified geometry for spacetime inside the 3-d ‘bulk’ can arise from unconnected points linked together by quantum entanglement.


Additional Reading:

Exploring Quantum Space  [My book at]

Quantum Entanglement and quantum spacetime [Mark Raamsdonk]

Background-independence  [Lee Smolin]

Holographic Principle [ Jack Ng]

Causal Sets: The self-organizing universe [Scientific American]


Thinking Visually

Look at the two images  for a few minutes and let your mind wander.

What impressions do you get from the patterns of light and dark? If I were to tell you that the one at the top is a dark nebula in the constellation Orion, and the one on the bottom is a nebula in the Pleiades star cluster, would that completely define for you what you are experiencing…or is there something more going on?

Chances are that, in the top image you are seeing what looks like the silhouette of the head and shoulders of some human-like figure being lit from behind by a light. You can’t quite put your finger on it, but the image seems vaguely mysterious and perhaps even a bit frightening the more you stare at it.

The image on the bottom evokes something completely different. Perhaps you are connecting the translucence and delicacy with some image of a shroud or silken cloak floating in a breeze. The image seems almost ghost-like in some respects…spiritual

But of course this is rather silly” you might say. “These are interstellar clouds, light-years across and all we are doing is letting our imaginations wander which is not a very scientific thing to do if you want to understand the universe.” This rational response then tempts you to reach for your mouse and click to some other page on the web.

What has happened in that split second is that a battle has been fought between one part of your brain and another. The right side of your brain enjoys looking at things and musing over the patterns that it finds there. Alas, it cannot speak because the language centers of the brain live in the left cerebral hemisphere, and it is here that rules of logic and other ‘scientific’ reasoning tools exist. The left side of your brain is vocal, and talking to you right now. It gets rather upset when it is presented with vague patterns because it can’t understand them and stamp them with a definite emotion the way the right hemisphere can. So it argues you into walking away from this challenge of understanding patterns.

If you can suspend this indignation for a moment or two, you will actually find yourself thinking about space in a way that more nearly resembles how a scientist does, though even some scientists don’t spend much time thinking about space. This indifference has begun to change during the last 20 years, and we are now in the midst of a quiet revolution.

There are three child-like qualities that make for a successful scientist:

Curiosity. This is something that many people seem to outgrow as they get older, or if they maintain it as adults, it is not at the same undiluted strength that it was when they were a child.

Imagination. This is something that also wanes with age but becomes an asset to those that can hang on to even a small vestige of it. It is what ‘Thinking out of the box’ is all about.

Novelty. As a child, everything is new. As an adult we become hopelessly jaded about irrelevant experiences like yet another sunset, yet another meteor shower, yet another eclipse. In some ways we develop an aversion for new experiences preferring the familiarity of the things we have already experienced.

If you wish to understand what space is all about, and explore the patterns hidden in the darker regions of nature, you will have to re-acquaint yourself with that child within you. You will need to pull all the stops out and allow yourself to ‘play’ with nature and the many clues that scientists have uncovered about it. You will need to do more than read books by physicists and astronomers. They speak the language of the left-brain . They can help you to see the logical development of our understanding of space and the Void, but they can not help you internalize this knowledge so that it actually means something to you. For that, you have to engage your right-brain faculties, and this requires that you see the patterns behind the words that physicists and astronomers use. To do that, you will need to think in terms of pictures and other types of images. You will need to bring something to the table to help you make sense of space in a way that you have not been able to before. You will need to expand your internal library of visual imagery to help you find analogues to what physicists and astronomers are trying to describe in words and equations. These visual analogues can be found in many common shapes and patterns, some seen under unusual and evocative circumstances. Here are some evocative images that seem to suggest how space might be put together compliments of  a diatom, the painters Miro and Mondrian, dew on a spider web, and atoms in a tungsten needle tip!

Spider web covered with dew drops

Remember, the right brain uses ALL sensory inputs to search for patterns and to understand them. It even uses imaginary information, dreams, and other free-forms to decode what it is experiencing.  

My book ‘Exploring Quantum Space’ is a guidebook that will give you some of the mental tools you will need to make sense of one of the greatest, and most subtle, discoveries in human history. Space, itself, is far from being ‘nothing’ or merely a container for matter to rattle around within. It is a landscape of hidden patterns and activity that shapes our universe and our destiny. You cannot understand it, or sense the awe and mystery of its existence, by simply reading words and following a logical exposition of ‘ifs and thens’. You also have to experience it through evocative imagery and imagination. Space is such a different medium from anything we have ever had to confront, intellectually, that we need to employ a different strategy if we wish to understand it in a personal way. Once we do this, we will be reconnected with that sense of awe we feel each time we look at the night sky.

My next blog about Nothing introduces some of the other ideas and techniques that scientists use to think about the impossible!


Thinking about Nothing

Looking back at the millennia of model building and deduction that has occurred, not a century has gone by when the prevailing opinion hasn’t been that a perfectly empty vacuum is impossible.

Aristotle’s Aether blends seamlessly into the 19th century Ether. In this century, overlapping quantum waves and virtual particles have finally taken root as the New Ether, though it is now infinitely more ephemeral than anything Aristotle or Maxwell could have imagined. We have also seen how the Atomist School of ancient Greece reached its final vindication in the hands of 19th century scientists such as Boltzman. By the 20th century, the Atomist’s paradigm has even been extended to include not just the graininess of matter, but the possible quantum graininess of the vacuum and space itself. In the virtual particles that animate matter, we finally glimpse the world which Heinrich Hertz warned us about nearly a century ago when he said that we would eventually have to reach some accommodation with “invisible confederates” existing alongside what we can see, to make our whole model of reality more logically self-consistent.

Even by the start of the 21st Century, we have reached this accommodation only by shrugging our shoulders and honestly admitting that there are things going on in the world that seem to defy human intuition. What impresses me most about the evolution of our vision of the vacuum is that the imagery we find so potent today is actually in some sense thousands of years old.

It is difficult to imagine that humans would be drawn to the same understanding of physics and astronomy that we now enjoy if our brains had been wired only slightly differently. Without sight and mobility we could not form the slightest notion of 3-D space and geometry. This is what Kant spoke about, what Henri Poincare described at great length without the benefit of 20th century neuroscience, and what Jacob Bronowski described in his book The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination with the benefit of such knowledge. But the object of science is more than just making sense of our senses. It must also guide us towards a deeper understanding of the physical world. This understanding must be self-consistent, and independent of whether we are sensorially or neurologically handicapped. Mathematics as the premier language of physical model building, seems uniquely suited to providing us with an understanding of the physical world. Mathematics lets us see the world in a way that all of the other human languages do not.

If our mathematical understanding of nature is a product of mental activity, and this activity can be physically affected by the hard-wiring of our brain, how do we arrive at a coherent model of the physical world? Can we see in this process any explanation for why certain ideas in physics appear to be so historically tenacious?

It is commonly believed that in order for mathematics and the underlying logic to exist, at the very least a conscious language must be pre-existent to support it. This is the point of view expressed by Benjamin Whorf. But the thoughtful reflections by individuals such as Einstein, Feynman and Penrose point in a very different direction. Einstein once wrote a note to Jaques Hadamard prompted by Hadamard’s investigation of creative thinking,

“…The words of language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. The psychical entities which seem to serve as elements of thought are certain signs ( symbols ) and more or less clear images which can be voluntarily reproduced and combined…The above mentioned elements are, in my case, of visual and some muscular type…”

Roger Penrose echoes some of this same description in his book, The Emperor’s New Mind,

“…Almost all my mathematical thinking is done visually and in terms of non-verbal concepts, although the thoughts are quite often accompanied by inane and almost useless verbal commentary such as ‘that thing goes with that thing and that thing goes with that thing’..”

Freeman Dyson, one of the architects of modern QED had this to say about how Feynman did his calculations,

“…Dick was using his own private quantum mechanics that nobody else could understand. They were getting the same answers whenever they calculated the same problem…The reason Dick’s physics was so hard for ordinary people to grasp was that he did not use equations…Dick just wrote down the solutions out of his head without ever writing down the equations. He had a physical picture of the way things happen, and the pictures gave him the solutions directly with a minimum of calculation…It was no wonder that people who had spent their lives solving equations were baffled by him. Their minds were analytical; his was pictorial…”

In many instances, the conversion of abstract thinking into conventional language is seen as a laborious, almost painful process. Often words are inadequate to encompass the subtleties of the non-verbal, abstract ideas and their interrelationships. According to Penrose,

“I had noticed, on occasion, that if I have been concentrating hard for a while on mathematics and someone would engage me suddenly in conversation, then I would find myself almost unable to speak for several seconds”

In fact, abstract thinking is often argued to be a right-hemisphere function. Visual or pattern-related thinking and artistic talents are frequently coupled to this hemisphere, and since the language centers are in the left-hemisphere, with such a disconnect between language and abstract thinking, there is little wonder that theoreticians and artists find themselves tongue-tied in explaining their ideas, or are inclined to report that their work is non-verbal.

So the creation of sophisticated physical theories may involve a primarily non-verbal and visual-symbolic thinking processes, often manipulating patterns and only later, with some effort of will, translating this into spoken language or fleshing out the required mathematical details. Could this be why scientists, and artists for that matter have such difficulty in explaining what they are thinking to the rest of the population? Could this be why ancient philosophers managed to land upon archetypes for their Creation legends that seem familiar to us in the 20th century? The symbols that are used appear disembodied, and no amount of word play can capture all of the nuances and motivations that went into a particular interpretive archetypes, and make them seem compelling to the non-mathematician or non-artist. Feynman once wrote about the frustrating process of explaining to the public what goes on in nature,

“…Different people get different reputations for their skill at explaining to the layman in layman’s language these difficult and abstruse subjects. The layman then searches for book after book in the hope that he will avoid the complexities which ultimately set in, even with the best expositor of this type. He finds as he reads a generally increasing confusion, one complicated statement after another,… all apparently disconnected from one another. It becomes obscure, and he hopes that maybe in some other book there is some explanation…but I do not think it is possible, because mathematics is NOT just another language. Mathematics is a language plus reasoning…if you do not appreciate the mathematics, you cannot see, among the great variety of facts, that logic permits you to go from one to the other…”

If this is the mental frame used by some physicists to comprehend physics, it is little wonder that a great chasm exists between the lay person and the physicist in explaining what is going on. The task that even a physicist such as Freeman Dyson had in translating Feynman’s diagrammatic techniques into mathematical symbology, seems even more challenging knowing that Feynman may have had a whole other perspective on visualization via his apparent color-symbol synthesia. The equations below are the current best mathematical expression for the Standard Model in physics, which describes all known particles and fields excepting gravity.

Another feature of thinking that separates scientists and artists from everyone else seems to be the plasticity of the thinking process itself. Scientists flit from one idea to another until they arrive at a model that best explains the available data, although scientists can also get rooted to particular perspectives that are difficult to forget after decades of inculcation. The general adult population prefers a more stable collection of ideas and ‘laws’ which it can refer to over a lifetime.

Where does this all leave us?

The vacuum has been promoted to perhaps the most important clue to our own existence. The difficulty is that we lack a proper Rosetta Stone to translate the various symbolisms we use to describe it. The clues that we do have are scattered among a variety of enigmatic subjects which strain at our best intellectual resources to understand how they are linked together. Could it be that we are lacking an even more potent symbolic metaphor, and an internal non-verbal language, to give it life? Where would such a thing come from?

Spider web covered with dew drops

If we take our clue from how ideas in physics have emerged in the past, the elements of the new way of thinking may be hidden in some unexpected corner of nature. We may find an analogy or a metaphor in our mundane world which, when mixed with mathematical insight, may take us even closer to understanding gravity, spacetime and vacuum. It is no accident that string theory owes much of its success because it asks us to think about quantum fields as ordinary strings operating in an exotic mathematical setting. It is exciting to think that the essential form of the Theory of Everything could be this close to us, perhaps even lurking in a pattern we see, and overlook, in our everyday lives.

Much of this symbolic process may be performed sub-consciously, and only the form of dreams, insights or hunches seem to bring them into consciousness when the circumstances are appropriate. It is, evidently, the non-verbal and unconscious right hemisphere which experiences these ideas. Is there a limit to this process of symbolic thinking? At least a dozen times this century, physicists have had to throw up their hands over what to make of certain features of the world: the collapse of the wave function; quantum indeterminacy; particle/wave dualism; cosmogenesis. Some of these may eventually find their explanation at the next level of model building. Others such as the meaning of quantum indeterminacy and particle/wave dualism, seem to be here to stay.

In working with these contradictions, the human mind prefers the avenue of denial, you can almost hear your inner voice saying “Aw come on, quantum mechanics just can’t be that weird!” or a state of anxiety as the two hemispheres try to fabricate conflicting world models. Little wonder that we have particle/wave duality, the seeming schism between matter and energy, and a whole host of other ‘polar’ ideas in physics, as two separate minds try to resolve the universe into one model or another with the left one preferring time ordered patterns, and the right one, spatial patterns.

It is hard to believe that our brains can control what we experience of the objective world, but we need only realize that the brain actually blindsides us in a variety of subtle ways, from seeing a wider sensory world. The object of science, however, is to discern the shapes of objective laws in a way that gets to the universal elements of nature that are not coupled to a particular kind of brain circuitry. It doesn’t matter if all scientists have anasognosia and see the world differently in some consistent way, what counts is that they must still live by the laws of motion dictated by gravity and quantum mechanics.

Nils Bohr believed atoms are not real in the same sense as trees. The quantum world really does represent a different kind of reality than our apparently naive understanding of macroscopic reality implies. This being the case, we must first ask to what extent fields and the denizens of the quantum vacuum can be represented by any analogy drawn from the macroworld? We already know that the single most important distinguishing characteristic of atomic particles is their spin; far more so than mass or charge. Yet unlike mass and charge, quantum mechanical spin has ABSOLUTELY no analog in the macroscopic world. Moreover, fundamental particles cannot be thought of as tiny spheres of charged matter located at specific points in space. They have no surface, and participate in an infernal wave-like dance of probability, at least when they are not being observed. Yet despite this warning, we feel comfortable that we understand something about what reality is at this scale, in the face of these irreconcilable differences between one set of mental images and what experiments tell us over and over again. What is the true nature of the vacuum? How did the universe begin? I suspect we will not know the answer to these questions in your lifetime or mine, perhaps for the same reason that it took 3000 years for geometers to ‘discover’ non-Euclidean geometry.

At the present time we are faced with what may amount to only a single proof of the parallel-line postulate, unable to see our way through to another way of looking at the proof. There is also the very real worry that some areas of nature may require modalities of symbolic thinking beyond the archetypes that our brains are capable of providing as a consequence of their neural hard-wiring. Today, we have quantum field theory and its tantalizing paradoxes, much as the ancient geometers had their parallel-line postulate. We, like they, scratch the same figures in the sand over and over again, hoping to see the glimmerings of a new world view appearing in the shifting sands. At a precision of one part in a trillion, our quantum theories work too well, and seem to provide few clues to the new direction we must turn to see beyond them.

The primary arbiters we have at our disposal to decide between various interpretive schemes, experimental data, are not themselves in unending supply as the abrupt cancellation of the U.S. Superconducting Super Collider program in 1989 showed. It was replaced by the CERN Large Hadron Collider shown above, but even the LHC may not be large enough to access the new physics we need to explore to further our theories and understanding.

Whatever answers we need seem to be hidden, not in the low- energy world accessible to our technology, but at vastly higher energies well beyond any technology we are likely to afford in the next few centuries. It is easy to provide a jet plane with an energy of 100 billion billion billion volts — its energy of motion at a speed of a few hundred miles per hour, but it is beyond understanding how to supply a single proton or electron with the same energy. On the other hand, our internal symbolic thinking seems to lead us to similar interpretative schemes, and unconscious dualities which may only be a reflection of our own neural architecture, which we all share, and which has remained essentially unchanged for millennia. We visualize the vacuum in the same way as the Ancients did because we are still starting from the same limited collection of internal imagery. At least for some general problems, we seem to have hit a glass ceiling for which our current style of theory building seems to lead us to a bipolar and contradictory world populated by various dualities: matter/energy, space/time, wave/particle. When we finally do break through to a new kind of reality in our experiments, would we be able to recognize this event? Will our brains filter out this new world and show us only the ghostly shadows of contradictory archetypes cast upon the cave wall?

We have seen that many schemes have been offered for describing the essential difference between matter and empty space; many have failed. Theoreticians since Einstein have speculated about the geometric features of spacetime, and the structure of electrons and matter for decades. The growing opinion now seems to be that, ultimately, only the properties of space such as its geometry or dimensionality can play a fundamental role in defining what matter really is. In a word, matter may be just another form of space. If the essence of matter is to be found in the geometric properties of ’empty’ space, our current understanding of space will not be sufficient to describe all of matter’s possible aspects.

Misconceiving the Big Bang

The Big Bang was NOT a Fireworks Display!

Written by Sten Odenwald
Copyright (C) 1997. Published in the Washington Post Horizon education supplement on May 14, 1997.

The Big Bang wasn’t really big. Nor was it really a bang. In fact, the event that created the universe and everything in it was a very different kind of phenomenon than most people–or, at least, most nonphysicists–imagine.
Even the name “Big Bang” originally was a put-down cooked up by a scientist who didn’t like the concept when it was first put forth. He favored the idea that the universe had always existed in a much more dignified and fundamentally unchanging, steady state.

But the name stuck, and with it has come the completely wrong impression that the event was like an explosion and that the universe is expanding today because the objects in it are being flung apart like fragments of a detonated bomb.

Virtually every basic aspect of this intuitive image for the Big Bang (we ARE stuck with the name) is incorrect. To understand why, you need to understand Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Or, at least, you need to have a sense of it. That may sound daunting, but general relativity is the most revolutionary scientific advance of the 20th century, and we all ought to acquire some feeling for it before the century ends.

After all, it’s been 82 years since Einstein put forth his theory. It’s been tested in scores of experiments and has always passed with flying colors and is now firmly established as our premier guide to understanding how gravity operates. Moreover, it is part of the foundation of Big Bang cosmology. And it is because of general relativity that we know the Big Bang was (and is, for the event is still going on) nothing like an explosion.

Albert Einstein developed general relativity in order to make his famous theory of special relativity include the effects of gravity. It is a better way than Sir Isaac Newton’s of understanding how gravity works. Like a hungry amoeba, general relativity ( or just GR for short) had absorbed both Einstein’s newly-minted special relativity and Newton’s physics, giving us the means to replicate ALL of the predictions from these two great theories, while extending them into unfamiliar realms of experience. One of these realms was the Black Hole. The other was the shape and evolution of the universe itself.

Big Bang cosmology says that the universe came into existence between 10 to 20 billion years ago, and that from a hot dense state has been expanding and cooling ever since, remains unassailable. Yet, Big Bang cosmology is vulnerable. It is based on GR being accurate over an enormous range of scales in time and space. Just how good is general relativity? So far, GR has made the following specific predictions:

1…The entire orbit of Mercury rotates because of the curved geometry of space near the sun. The amount of ‘perihelion shift’ each century was well known at the time Einstein provided a complete explanation for it in 1915.

2…Light at every frequency can be bent in exactly the same way by gravity. This was confirmed in the 1919 Solar Eclipse for optical light using stars near the Sun’s limb, and in 1969-1975 using radio emissions from star-like quasars also seen near the limb of the Sun. The deflection of the light was exactly as predicted by GR.

3…Clocks run slower in strong gravitational fields. This was confirmed by Robert Pound and George Rebka at Harvard University in 1959, and by Robert Vessot in the 1960’s and 70’s using high-precession hydrogen maser clocks flown on jet planes and on satellites.

4…Gravitational mass and inertial mass are identical. Most recently in 1971, Vladimir Braginsky at Moskow University confirmed GRs prediction of this to within 1 part in a trillion of the exact equality required by GR.

5…Black holes exist. Although these objects have been suspected to exist since they were first introduced to astronomers in the early 1970’s, it is only in 1992 that a critical acceptance threshold was crossed in the astronomical community. It was then that Hubble Space Telescope observations revealed monstrous, billion-sun black holes in the cores of nearby galaxies such as Messier 87, Messier 33 and NGC 4261.

6…Gravity has its own form of radiation which can carry energy. Russel Hulse and Joseph Taylor in 1975 discovered two pulsars orbiting each other, and through careful monitoring of their precise pulses during the next 20 years, confirmed that the system is loosing energy at a rate within 1 percent of the prediction by GR based on the emission of gravitational radiation.

7…A new force exists called ‘gravito-magnetism’. Just as electric and magnetic fields are linked together, according to GR, a spinning body produces a magnetism-like force called gravitomagnetism. GR predicts that rotating bodies not only bend space and time, but also make empty space spin. A NASA satellite called Gravity Probe B will be launched in the next few years to see whether this effect exists. This is a killer. If it is not found, GR is mortally wounded despite its long string of other successes.

8…Space can stretch during the expansion of the universe. This was confirmed by Edwin Hubble’s detection of the recession of the galaxies ca 1929. More recently in 1993, Astronomer Kenneth Kellerman confirmed that the angular sizes of distant radio sources shrink to a minimum then increase at greater distances exactly as expected for a dilating space. This is not predicted by any other cosmological model that does not also include the dilation of space as a real, physical phenomenon.

We have now boxed ourselves into a corner. If we accept the successes of GR, we are forced to see the world and the cosmos through its eyes, and its eyes alone, since it is the theory which satisfies all known tests to date.

So, how should we think about the Big Bang? Our mental ‘fireworks’ image of the Big Bang contains these basic elements: 1) A pre-existing sky or space into which the fragments from the explosion are injected; 2) A pre-existing time we can use to mark when the explosion happened; 3) Individual projectiles moving through space from a common center; 4) A definite moment when the explosion occurred; and 5) Something that started the Big Bang.

All of these elements to our visualization of the Big Bang are completely false according to GR!

Preexisting Space?

There wasn’t any!

The mathematics of GR state specifically and unambiguously that 3-dimensional space was created at the Big Bang itself, at ‘Time Zero’, along with everything else. It was a ‘singular’ event in which the separations between all particles everywhere, vanished. This is just another way of saying that our familiar 3-dimensional space vanished. Theorists studying various prototypes for the Theory of Everything have only modified this statement somewhat. During its earliest moments, the universe may have existed in a nearly incomprehensible state which may have had more than 4 dimensions, or perhaps none at all. Many of these theories of the earliest moments hypothesize a ‘mother space-time’ that begat our own universe, but you cannot at the same time place your minds eye both inside this Mother Spacetime to watch the Big Bang happen, and inside our universe to see the matter flying around. This is exactly what the fireworks display model demands that you do.

Preexisting Time?

There wasn’t any of this either!

Again, GR’s mathematics treats both space and time together as one object called ‘space-time’ which is indivisible. At Time Zero plus a moment, you had a well defined quantity called time. At Time Zero minus a moment, this same quantity changed its character in the mathematics and became ‘imaginary’. This is a mathematical warning flag that something dreadfully unexpected has happened to time as we know it. In a famous quote by Einstein, “…time and space are modes by which we think and not conditions in which we live”. Steven Hawking has looked at the mathematics of this state using the fledgling physics of Quantum Gravity Theory, and confirms that at the Big Bang, time was murdered in the most thorough way imaginable. It may have been converted into just another ‘timeless’ dimension of space…or so the mathematics seems to suggest.

Individual objects moving out from a common center?


GR says specifically that space is not a passive stage upon which matter plays out its dance, but is a member of the cast. When you treat both galaxies and space-time together, you get a very different answer for what happens than if you treat them separately, which is what we instinctively always do. Curved space distorts the paths of particles, sometimes in very dramatic ways. If you stepped into a space ship and tried to travel to the edge of the universe and look beyond, it would be impossible. Not only could you not reach a supposed “edge” of the universe no matter how long or how fast you traveled, in a closed universe, you would eventually find yourself arriving where you departed. The curvature of space would bring you right back, in something like the way the curvature of Earth would bring you home if you flew west and never changed course. In other words, the universe has no edge in space. There is nothing beyond the farthest star.

As a mental anchor, many have used the expanding balloon as an analogy to the expanding universe. As seen from any one spot on the balloon’s surface, all other spots rush away from it as the balloon is inflated. There is no one center to the expansion ON THE SURFACE of the balloon that is singled out as the center of the Big Bang. This is very different than the fireworks display which does have a dramatic, common center to the expanding cloud of cinders. The balloon analogy, however, is not perfect, because as we watch the balloon, our vantage point is still within a preexisting larger arena which GR says never existed for the real universe.

The center of the Big Bang was not a point in space, but a point in time! It is a center, not in the fabric of the balloon, but outside it along the 4th dimension…time. We cannot see this point anywhere we look inside the space of our universe out towards the distant galaxies. You can’t see time afterall! We can only see it as we look back in time at the ancient images we get from the most distant objects we can observe. We see a greatly changed, early history of the universe in these images but no unique center to them in space.

It is at this point that common sense must give up its seat on the bus, and yield to the insights provided by GR. And it is at precisely this point that so many non-physicists refuse to be so courteous. And who can blame them? But there’s more to come.

Projectiles moving through space?


GR again has something very troubling to say about this. For millions of years we have learned from experience on the savanas of the African continent and elsewhere, that we can move through space. As we drive down the highway, we have absolutely no doubts what is happening as we traverse the distance between landmarks along the roadside. This knowledge is so primal that we are incapable of mustering much doubt about it. But science is not about confirming our prejudices. It’s about revealing how things actually are.

What if I told you that you could decrease the distance from your house and the Washington Monument by ‘standing still’ and just letting space contract the distance away? GR predicts exactly this new phenomenon, and the universe seems to be the only arena we know today in which it naturally occurs. Like spots glued to the surface of the balloon at eternally fixed latitude and longitude points, the galaxies remain where they are while space dilates between them with the passage of time. There is no reason at all we should find this kind of motion intuitive.

If space is stretching like this, where do the brand new millions of cubic light years come from, from one moment to the next? The answer in GR is that they have always been there. To see how this could happen, I like to think of the shape of our universe as a “Cosmic Watermellon”. The fact that this is only the shape for a ‘closed’ finite universe is only a technicality. Finite watermellons are also cheaper to buy than infinite ones.

GR predicts the entire past, present and future of the universe all at once, and predicts its entire 4-dimensional shape. As we slice the 4-dimensional, Cosmic Watermellon at one end of the cosmic time line, we see 3-dimensional space and its contents soon after the Big Bang. At the other end of the Cosmic Watermellon in the far future, we see the collapse of space and matter just before the Big Crunch. But in between, our slices show the shape of space (closed, spherical volumes) and the locations of galaxies ( at fixed locations) as space dilates from one extreme to the other.

As a particular slice through an ordinary watermellon, we see that its meat has always been present in the complete watermellon. The meat is present as a continuous medium, and we never ask where the meat in a particular slice came from. Cosmologically, GR ask us to please think of 3-dimensional space in the same way. Space, like the meat of the watermellon, has always existed in the complete shape of the universe in 4-dimensions. But it is only in 4-dimensions that the full shape of the universe is revealed. It is a mystery why our consciousness insists on experiencing the universe one moment at a time, and that is why we end up with the paradox of where space comes from. There really is no paradox at all.

Space is not ‘nothing’ according to Einstein, it is merely another name for the gravitational field of the universe. Einstein once said, “Space-time does not claim existence on its own but only as a structural quality of the [gravitational] field”. If you could experimentally turn-off gravity with a switch, space-time would vanish. This is the ultimate demolition experiment known to physics for which an environmental impact statement would most certainly have to be filed.

The gravitational field at one instant is wedded to itself in the next instant by the incessant quantum churnings of the myriad of individual particles that like bees in a swarm, make up the gravitational field itself. In this frothing tumult, the gravitational field is knit together, quantum by quantum, from perhaps even more elemental building blocks, and it is perhaps here that we will find the ultimate origin for the expansion of the universe and the magical stretching of space. We hope the much anticipated Theory of Everything will have more to say about this, but to actually test this theory may require technologies and human resources that we can only dimly dream of.

Was there a definite moment to the Big Bang?

GR is perfectly happy to forecast that our universe emerged from an infinite density, zero-space ‘Singularity’ at Time Zero, but physicists now feel very strongly that this instant was smeared out by any number of quantum mechanical effects, so that we can never speak of a time before about 10^-43 seconds after the Big Bang. Just as Gertrude Stein once remarked about my hometown, Oakland, California that “There is no ‘There’ there”, at 10^-43 seconds, nature may tell us that before the Big Bang, “There was no ‘When’ there” either. The moment dissolves away into some weird quantum fog, and as Steven Hawking speculates, time may actually become bent into a new dimension of space and no longer even definable in this state. Ordinary GR is unable to describe this condition and only some future theory combing GR and quantum mechanics will be able to tell us more. We hope.

Something started the Big Bang!

At last we come to the most difficult issue in modern cosmology. In the fireworks display, we can trace the events leading up to the explosion all the way back to the chemists that created the gunpowder and wrapped the explosives. GR, however, can tell us nothing about the equivalent stages leading up to the Big Bang, and in fact, among its strongest statements is the one that says that time itself may not have existed. How, then, do we speak or think about a condition, or process, that started the whole shebang if we are not even allowed to frame the event as “This happened first…then this…then kerpowie!”? This remains the essential mystery of the Big Bang which seems to doggedly transcend every mathematical description we can create to describe it.

All of the logical frameworks we know about are based on chains of events or states. All of our experiences of such chains in the physical world have been ordered in time. Even when the mathematics and the theory tell us ‘What happened before the Big Bang to start it?’ is not a logical or legitimate question, we insist on viewing this as a proper question to ask of nature, and we expect a firm answer. But like so many other things we have learned this century about the physical world, our gut instincts about which questions ought to have definite answers is often flawed when we explore the extreme limits to our physical world.

I wrote this essay before seeing the new IMAX file at the Air and Space Museum ‘Cosmic Journey”, by far one of the nicest and most heroic movies of its kind I had ever seen. But of course it showed the Big Bang as a fireworks display. No matter. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to accept the fact that the Big Bang was a spectacular moment in history. What is amazing is that the daring audacity of humans may have demystified some of it, and revealed a universe far stranger than any could have imagined.

Still, we are haunted by our hunches and intuitions gathered over millenia, and under circumstances far removed from the greater physical world we are now exploring. No wonder it all seems so alien and maddeningly complex.

Before the Big Bang

Beyond the Big Bang

Written by Sten Odenwald Copyright (C) 1987, Kalmbach Publishing. Reprinted by permission

Sometime between 15 and 20 billion years ago the universe came into existence. Since the dawn of human awareness, we have grappled with the hows and whys of this event and out of this effort have sprung many ideas. An ancient Egyptian legend describes how the universe was created by Osiris Khepera out of a dark, boundless ocean called Nu and that Osiris Khepera created himself out of this ocean by uttering his own name. Human inventiveness has not stood still in the 5000 years since these ideas were popular. The modern theory of the Big Bang states that our universe evolved from an earlier phase billions of times hotter than the core of our sun and trillions of times denser than the nucleus of an atom. To describe in detail such extreme physical conditions, we must first have a firm understanding of the nature of matter and of the fundamental forces. At the high temperatures likely to have attended the Big Bang, all familiar forms of matter were reduced to their fundamental constituents. The forces of gravity and electromagnetism together with the strong and weak nuclear forces, were the essential means through which the fundamental particles of matter interacted.
The feedback between cosmology and particle physics is nowhere more clearly seen than in the study of the early history of the universe. In October, 1985 the giant accelerator at Fermilab acheived for the first time, the collision of protons and anti-protons at energies of 1.6 trillion electron volts, about 1600 times the rest mass of the proton. This was a unique event because for one split second, on a tiny planet in an undistinguished galaxy, a small window onto the Creation Event was opened for the first time in at least 15 billion years.


The persuit by physicists of a single, all encompassing theory capable of describing the four natural forces has, as a by-product, resulted in some surprising glimpses of the Creation Event. Although such a theory remains perhaps several decades from completion, it is generally recognized that such a theory will describe physical conditions so extreme it is quite possible that we may never be able to explore them first- hand, even with the particle accelerators that are being designed today. For example, the Superconducting Supercollider to be built by the early 1990’s will cost 6 billion dollars and it will allow physicists to collide particles at energies of 40 trillion electron volts ( 40,000 GeV) matching the conditions prevailing 10 seconds after the Big Bang. The expected windfall from such an accelerator is enormous and will help to answer many nagging questions now plaguing the theoretical community, but can we afford to invest perhaps vastly larger sums of money to build machines capable of probing the quantum gravity world at 10 GeV? At these energies, the full unification of the natural forces is expected to become directly observable. How curious it is that definite answers to questions such as, ‘What was Creation like?’ and ‘Do electrons and quarks have internal structure?’ are so inextricably intertwined. Our ability to find answers to these two questions, among others, does not seem to be hampered by some metaphysical prohibition, but by the resources our civilization can afford to devote to finding the answers. Fortunatly, the situation is not quite so bleak, for you see, the ‘machine’ has already been ‘built’ and every possible experiment we can ever imagine has already been performed!


We are living inside the biggest particle accelerator ever created – the universe. Ten billion years before the sun was born, Nature’s experiment in high-energy physics was conducted and the experimental data can now be examined by studying the properties and contents of the universe itself. The collection of fundamental facts that characterize our universe is peculiar in that it derives from a variety of sources. A partial list of these ‘meta-facts’ looks like this:

1) We are here, therefore, some regions of the universe are hospitible to the creation of complex molecules and living, rational organisms.

2) Our Universe has 4 big dimensions and all are increasing in size as the universe expands in time and space.

3) There are 4 dissimilar forces acting in Nature.

4) Only matter dominates; no anti-matter galaxies exist and this matter is built out of 6 quarks and 6 types of leptons.

The task confronting the physicist and the astronomer is to create, hopefully, a single theory consistent with these metafacts that can then be used to derive the secondary characteristics of our universe such as the 2.7 K background radiation, the primordial element abundances, and galaxy formation. The interplay between the study of the macrocosm and the microcosm has now become so intense that astronomers have helped physicists set limits to the number of lepton families — No more than 4 are allowed otherwise the predicted cosmological abundance of helium would seriously disagree with what is observed. Physicists, on the other hand, use the astronomical upper limits to the current value of the cosmological constant to constrain their unification theories.

An extention to the standard Big Bang model called the Inflationary Universe (see The Decay of the False Vacuum) was created by MIT physicist Alan Guth in 1981. This theory combined Grand Unification Theory with cosmology and, if correct, allows astronomers to trace the history of the universe all the way back to 10 seconds after the Big Bang when the strong, weak and electromagnetic forces were unified into a single ‘electro-nuclear’ force. During the 4 years since the Inflationary Universe model was proposed, other theoretical developments have emerged that may help us probe events occurring at an even earlier stage, perhaps even beyond the Creation Event itself. Ten years ago, theoreticians discovered a new class of theories called Supersymmetric Grand Unified Theories ( SUSY GUTs). These theories, of which there are several competing types, have shown great promise in providing physicists with a unified framework for describing not just the electro-nuclear force but also gravity, in addition to the particles they act on (see The Planck Era: March 1984). Unfortunately, as SUSY GUTs were studied more carefully, it was soon discovered that even the most promising candidates for THE Unified Field Theory suffered from certain fundamantal deficiencies. For instance:

1) There were not enough basic fields predicted to accomodate the known particles.

2) Left and right-hand symmetry was mandated so that the weak force, which breaks this symmetry, had to be put in ‘by hand’.

3) Anomalies exist which include the violation of energy conservation and charge.

4) The Cosmological Constant is 10 times larger than present upper limits suggest.

In recent years, considerable effort has gone into extending and modifying the postulates of SUSY GUTs in order to avoid these problems. One avenue has been to question the legitimacy of a very basic premise of the field theories developed heretofore. The most active line of theoretical research in the last 25 years has involved the study of what are called ‘point symmetry groups’. For example, a hexagon rotated by 60 degrees about a point at its center is indistinguishable from one rotated by 120, 180, 240, 300 and 360 degrees. These 6 rotation operations form a mathematical group so that adding or subtracting any two operations always result in a rotation operation that is already a member of the group ( 180 = 120 + 60 etc). The Grand Unification Theories of the electro-nuclear interaction are based on point symmetry groups named SU(3), SU(2) and U(1) which represent analogous ‘rotations’ in a more complex mathematical space. In the context of ponderable matter, point symmetry groups are also the mathematical statement of what we believe to be the structure of the fundamental particles of matter, namely, that particles are point-like having no physical size at all. But what if this isn’t so? The best that experimental physics has to offer is that the electron which is one of a family of 6 known Leptons, behaves like a point particle at scales down to 10 cm, but that’s still an enormous distance compared to the gravitational Planck scale of 10 cm where complete unification with gravity is expected to occur.

By assuming that fundamental particles have internal structure, Michael Green at Queen Mary College and John Schwartz at Caltech made a remarkable series of discoveries which were anounced in the journal NATURE in April 1985. They proposed that, if a point particle were replaced by a vibrating ‘string’ moving through a 10-dimensional spacetime, many of the problems plaguing SUSY GUTs seemed to vanish miraculously. What’s more, of all the possible kinds of ‘Superstring’ theories, there were only two ( called SO(32) and E8 x E8′) that were: 1) Consistent with both the principles of relativity and quantum mechanics,2) Allowed for the asymmetry between left and right-handed processes and, 3) Were free of anomalies. Both versions were also found to have enough room in them for 496 different types of fields; enough to accomodate all of the known fundamental particles and then some! Superstring theories also have very few adjustable parameters and from them, certain quantum gravity calculations can be performed that give finite answers instead of infinite ones. In spite of their theoretical successes, Superstring theories suffer from the difficulty that the lightest Superstring particles will be completely massless while the next more massive generation will have masses of 10 GeV. It is not even clear how these supermassive string particles are related to the known particles which are virtually massless by comparison (a proton has a mass of 1 GeV!). It is also not known if the 496 different particles will cover the entire mass range between 0 and 10 GeV. It is possible that they may group themselves into two families with masses clustered around these two extreems. In the later instance, experimental physicists may literally run out of new particles to discover until accelerators powerful enough to create supermassive particles can be built.

An attractive feature of the SO(32) model, which represents particles as open-ended strings, is that gravity has to be included from the start in order to make the theory internally consistent and capable of yielding finite predictions. It is also a theory that reduces to ordinary point field theories at energies below 10 GeV. The complimentary theory, E8 x E8′, is the only other superstring theory that seems to work as well as SO(32) and treats particles as though they were closed strings without bare endpoints. This model is believed to show the greatest promise for describing real physical particles. It also includes gravity, but unlike SO(32), E8 x E8′ does seem to reduce at low energy, to the symmetry groups associated with the strong, weak and electromagnetic interactions, namely, SU(3), SU(2) and U(1).

If E8 x E8′ is destined to be the ‘ultimate, unified field theory’, there are some additional surprises in store for us. Each group, E8 and E8′, can be reduced mathematically to the products of the groups that represent the strong, weak and electromagnetic forces; SU(3) x SU(2) x U(1). If the E8 group corresponds to the known particles what does E8′ represent? In terms of its mathematical properties, symmetry considerations alone seem to require that the E8′ group should be a mirror image of E8. If E8 contains the groups SU(3), SU(2) and U(1) then E8′ contains SU(3)’, SU(2)’ and U(1)’. The primed fields in E8′ would have the same properties as those we ascribe to the strong, weak and electromagnetic forces. The E8′ particle fields may correspond to a completly different kind of matter, whose properties are as different from matter and anti-matter as ordinary matter is from anti-matter! ‘Shadow Matter’ as it has been called by Edward Kolb, David Seckel and Michael Turner at Fermilab, may actually co-exist with our own – possibly accounting for the missing mass necessary to close the universe. Shadow matter is only detectable by its gravitational influence and is totally invisible because the shadow world electromagnetic force (shadow light) does not interact with any of the particles in the normal world.


The quest for a mathematical description of the physical world uniting the apparent differences between the known particles and forces, has led physicists to the remarkable conclusion that the universe inhabits not just the 4 dimensions of space and time, but a much larger arena whose dimensionality may be enormous (see Does Space Have More Than 3 Dimensions?). Both the Superstring theories and SUSY GUTs agree that our physical world has to have more than the 4 dimensions we are accustomed to thinking about. A remarkable feature of Superstring theory is that of all the possible dimensionalities for spacetime, only in 10-dimensions ( 9 space dimensions and 1 time dimension) will the theory lead to a computationally finite and internally consistent model for the physical world that includes the weak interaction from the outset, and where all of the troublesome anomalies cancil exactly. In such a 10-dimensional world, it is envisioned that 6 dimensions are now wrapped-up or ‘compactified’ into miniscule spheres that accompany the 4 coordinates of every point in spacetime. What would a description of the early universe look like from this new viewpoint? The 6 internal dimensions are believed to have a size of order 10 cm.

As we follow the history of the universe back in time, the 3 large dimensions of space rapidly shrink until eventually they become only 10 cm in extent. This happened during the Planck Era at a time, 10 seconds after the Creation Event. The appearance of the universe under these conditions is almost unimaginable. Today as we look out at the most distant quasar, we see them at distances of billions of lightyears. During the Planck Era, the matter comprising these distant systems was only 10 cm away from the material that makes-up your own body!

What was so special about this era that only 4 of the 10 dimensions were singled-out to grow to their enormous present size?. Why not 3 ( 2 space + 1 time) or 5 ( 4 space + 1 time)? Physicists have not as yet been able to develope an explanation for this fundamental mystery of our plenum, on the other hand, it may just be that had the dimensional breakdown of spacetime been other than ‘4 + 6’, the physical laws we are the products of, would have been totally inhospitable to life as we know it.

As we relentlessly follow the history of the universe to even earlier times, the universe seems to enter a progressively more and more symmetric state. The universe at 10 seconds after the Big Bang may have been populated by supermassive particles with masses of 10^15 GeV or about 10^-13 grams each. These particles ultimatly decayed into the familiar quarks and leptons once the universe had grown colder as it expanded. In addition, there may only have been a single kind of ‘superforce’ acting on these particles; a force whose character contained all of the individual attributes we now associate with gravity, electromagnetism and the strong and weak nuclear forces. Since the particles carrying the ‘superforce’ had masses similar to those of the supermassive particles co-existing then, the distinction between the force-carriers and the particles they act on probably broke-down completely and the world became fully supersymmetric.

To go beyond the Planck Era may require a radical alteration in our conventional way of thinking about time and space. Only glimpses of the appropriate way to think about this multidimensional landscape can be found in the equations and theories of modern-day physics. Beyond the Planck Era, all 10 dimensions (and perhaps others) become co-equal at least in terms of their physical size. The supermassive Superstring particles begin to take-on more of the characteristics of fluctuations in the geometry of spacetime than as distinguishable, ingredients in the primordial, cosmological ‘soup’. There was no single, unique geometry for spacetime but, instead, an ever-changing quantum interplay between spacetimes with an unlimited range in geometry. Like sound waves that combine with one another to produce interference and reinforcement, the spacetime that emerged from the Planck Era is thought to be the result of the superposition of an infin ite number of alternate spacetime geometries which, when added together, produced the spacetime that we are now a part of.

Was there light? Since the majority of the photons were probably not created in large numbers until at least the beginning of the Inflationary Epoc, 10^-36 seconds after the Big Bang, it is not unthinkable that during its earliest moments, the universe was born out of darkness rather than in a blinding flash of light. All that existed in this darkness before the advent of light, was an empty space out of which our 10-dimensional spacetime would later emerge. Of course, under these conditions it is unclear just how we should continue to think about time itself.

In terms of the theories available today, it may well be that the particular dimension we call Time had a definite zero point so that we can not even speak logically about what happened before time existed. The concept of ‘before’ is based on the presumption of time ordering. A traveler standing on the north pole can never move to a position on the earth that is 1 mile north of north! Nevertheless, out of ingrained habit, we speak of the time before the genesis of the universe when time didn’t exist and ask, “What happened before the Big Bang?”. The list of physicists investigating this ‘state’ has grown enormously over the last 15 years. The number of physicists, worldwide, that publish research on this topic is only slightly more than 200 out of a world population of 5 billion!


In the early 1970’s Y. Zel’dovitch and A. Starobinski of the USSR along with Edward Tryon at Hunter College proposed that the universe emerged from a fluctuation in the vacuum. This vacuum fluctuation ‘ran away’ with itself, creating all the known particles out of empty space at the ‘instant’ of no-time. To understand what this means requires the application of a fundamental fact of relativistic quantum physics discovered during the latter half of the 1920’s. Vacuum fluctuations are a direct consequence of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle which limits how well we can simultaneously know a particle’s momentum and location (or its total energy and lifetime). What we call empty space or the physical vacuum is a Newtonian fiction like absolute space and time. Rather than a barren stage on which matter plays-out its role, empty space is known to be filled with ‘virtual particles’ that spontaneously appear and disappear beyond the ability of any physical measurement to detect directly. From these ghost particles, a variety of very subtle phenomena can be predicted with amazing accuracy. Depending on the total rest mass energy of the virtual particles created in the vacuum fluctuation, they may live for a specific lifetime before Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle demands that they vanish back into the nothingness of the vacuum state. In such a quantum world, less massive virtual particles can live longer than more massive ones. Edward Tyron proposed that the universe is just a particularly long-lived vacuum fluctuation differing only in magnitude from those which occur imperceptably all around us. The reason the universe is so long lived in spite of its enormous mass is that the positive energy latent in all the matter in the universe is offset by the negative potential energy of the gravitational field of the universe. The total energy of the universe is, therefore, exactly zero and its maximum lifetime as a ‘quantum fluctuation’ could be enormous and even infinite! According to Tryon, “The Universe is simply one of those things which happens from time to time.”

This proposal by Tryon was regarded with some scepticism and even amusement by astronomers, and was not persued much further. This was a fate that had also befallen the work on 5-dimensional general relativity by Theodore Kaluza and Oskar Klein during the 1920’s which was only resurrected in the late 1970’s as a potent remedy for the ills plaguing supersymmetry theory.

In 1978, R. Brout, P. Englert, E. Gunzig and P. Spindel at the University of Brussels, proposed that the fluctuation that led to the creation of our universe started out in an empty, flat, 4-dimensional spacetime. The fluctuation in space began weakly, creating perhaps a single matter- antimatter pair of supermassive particles with masses of 10^19 GeV. The existence of this ‘first pair’ stimulated the creation from the vacuum of more particle-antiparticle pairs which stimulated the production of still others and so on. Space became highly curved and exploded, disgorging all of the superparticles which later decayed into the familiar leptons, quarks and photons.

Heinz Pagels and David Atkatz at Rockefeller University in 1981 proposed that the triggering agent behind the Creation Event was a tunneling phenomenon of the vacuum from a higher-energy state to a lower energy state. Unlike the Brout-Englert-Gunzig-Spindel model which started from a flat spacetime, Pagels and Atkatz took the complimentary approach that the original nothingness from which the universe emerged was a spatially closed, compact empty space, in other words, it had a geometry like the 2-D surface of a sphere. but the dimensionality of its surface was much higher than 2. Again this space contained no matter what-so-ever. The characteristics (as yet unknown) of the tunneling process determined, perhaps in a random way, how the dimensionality of spacetime would ‘crystallize’ into the 6+4 combination that represents the plenum of our universe.

Alex Vilenkin at Tufts University proposed in 1983 that our spacetime was created out of a ‘nothingness’ so complete that even its dimensionality was undefined. In 1984, Steven Hawkings at Cambridge and James Hartle at UCSB came to a similar conclusion through a series of quantum mechanical calculations. They described the geometric state of the universe in terms of a wavefunction which specified the probability for spacetime to have one of an infinite number of possible geometries. A major problem with the ordinary Big Bang theory was that the universe emerged from a state where space and time vanished and the density of the universe became infinite; a state called the Singularity. Hawkings and Hartle were able to show that this Big Bang singularity represented a specific kind of geometry which would become smeared-out in spacetime due to quantum indeterminacy. The universe seemed to emerge from a non-singular state of ‘nothingness’ similar to the undefined state proposed by Vilenkin. The physicist Frank Wilczyk expresses this remarkable situation the best by saying that, ” The reason that there is Something rather than Nothing is that Nothing is unstable.”


Theories like those of SUSY GUTS and Superstrings seem to suggest that just a few moments after Creation, the laws of physics and the content of the world were in a highly symmetric state; one superforce and perhaps one kind of superparticle. The only thing breaking the perfect symmetry of this era was the definite direction and character of the dimension called Time. Before Creation, the primordial symmetry may have been so perfect that, as Vilenkin proposed, the dimensionality of space was itself undefined. To describe this state is a daunting challenge in semantics and mathematics because the mathematical act of specifying its dimensionality would have implied the selection of one possibility from all others and thereby breaking the perfect symmetry of this state. There were, presumably, no particles of matter or even photons of light then, because these particles were born from the vacuum fluctuations in the fabric of spacetime that attended the creation of the universe. In such a world, nothing happens because all ‘happenings’ take place within the reference frame of time and space. The presence of a single particle in this nothingness would have instantaneously broken the perfect symmetry of this era because there would then have been a favored point in space different from all others; the point occupied by the particle. This nothingness didn’t evolve either, because evolution is a time-ordered process. The introduction of time as a favored coordinate would have broken the symmetry too. It would seem that the ‘Trans-Creation’ state is beyond conventional description because any words we may choose to describe it are inherently laced with the conceptual baggage of time and space. Heinz Pagels reflects on this ‘earliest’ stage by saying, “The nothingness ‘before’ the creation of the universe is the most complete void we can imagine. No space, time or matter existed. It is a world without place, without duration or eternity…”

A perusal of the scientific literature during the last 20 years suggests that we may be rapidly approaching a major crossroad in physics. One road seems to be leading to a single unification theory that is so unique among all others that it is the only one consistent with all the major laws we know about. It is internally consistent; satisfies the principles of relativity and quantum mechanics and requires no outside information to describe the particles and forces it contains . A prototype of this may be superstring theory with its single adjustable parameter, namely, the string tension. The other road is much more bleak. It may also turn out that we will create several theoretical systems that seem to explain everything but have within them hard to detect flaws. These flaws may stand as barracades to further logical inquiry; to be uncovered only through experiments that may be beyond our technological reach. It is possible that we are seeing the beginning of this latter process even now, with the multiplicity of theories whose significant deviations only occur at energies near 10^19 GeV.

I find it very hard to resist the analogy between our current situation and that of the Grecian geometers. For 2000 years the basic postulates of Eulidean geometry and the consequences of this logical system, remained fixed. It became a closed book with only a few people in the world struggling to find exceptions to it such as refutations of the parallel line postulate. Finally during the 19th century, non-euclidean geometry was discovered and a renaissance in geometry occurred. Are physicists on the verge of a similar great age, finding themselves hamstrung by not being able to devise new ways of thinking about old problems? Egyptian cosmology was based on motifs that the people of that age could see in the world around them; water, sky, land, biological reproduction. Today we still use motifs that we find in Nature in order to explain the origin of the universe; the geometry of space, virtual particles and vacuum fluctuations. We can probably expect that in the centuries to follow, our descendents will find still other motifs and from them, fashion cosmologies that will satisfy the demands of that future age with, possibly, much greater accuracy and efficiency than ours do today. Perhaps, too, in those future ages, scientists will marvel at the ingenuity of modern physicists and astronomers, and how in the space of only 300 years, we had managed to create our own quaint theory as the Egyptians had before us.

In the meantime, physicists and astronomers do the best they can to fashion a cosmology that will satisfy the intellectual needs of our age. Today, as we contemplate the origin of the universe we find ourselves looking out over a dark, empty void not unlike the one that our Egyptian predecessors might have imagined. This void is a state of exquisite perfection and symmetry that seems to defy description in any linguistic terms we can imagine. Through our theories we launch mathematical voyages of exploration, and watch the void as it trembles with the quantum possibilities of universes unimaginable.

Decay of the False Vacuum

The Decay of the False Vacuum

Written by Sten Odenwald. Copyright (C) 1983 Kalmbach Publishing. Reprinted by permission

In the recently developed theory by Steven Weinberg and Abdus Salam, that unifies the electromagnetic and weak forces, the vacuum is not empty. This peculiar situation comes about because of the existence of a new type of field, called the Higgs field. The Higgs field has an important physical consequence since its interaction with the W, W and Z particles (the carriers of the weak force) causes them to gain mass at energies below 100 billion electron volts (100 Gev). Above this energy they are quite massless just like the photon and it is this characteristic that makes the weak and electromagnetic forces so similar at high energy.

On a somewhat more abstract level, consider Figures 1 and 2 representing the average energy of the vacuum state. If the universe were based on the vacuum state in Figure 1, it is predicted that the symmetry between the electromagnetic and weak interactions would be quite obvious. The particles mediating the forces would all be massless and behave in the same way. The corresponding forces would be indistinguishable. This would be the situation if the universe had an average temperature of 1 trillion degrees so that the existing particles collided at energies of 100 Gev. In Figure 2, representing the vacuum state energy for collision energies below 100 Gev, the vacuum state now contains the Higgs field and the symmetry between the forces is suddenly lost or ‘broken’. Although at low energy the way in which the forces behave is asymmetric, the fundamental laws governing the electromagnetic and weak interactions remain inherently symmetric. This is a very remarkable and profound prediction since it implies that certain symmetries in Nature can be hidden from us but are there nonetheless.

During the last 10 years physicists have developed even more powerful theories that attempt to unify not only the electromagnetic and weak forces but the strong nuclear force as well. These are called the Grand Unification Theories (GUTs) and the simplist one known was developed by Howard Georgi, Helen Quinn,and Steven Weinberg and is called SU(5), (pronounced ‘ess you five’). This theory predicts that the nuclear and ‘electroweak’ forces will eventually have the same strength but only when particles collide at energies above 1 thousand trillion GeV corresponding to the unimaginable temperature of 10 thousand trillion trillion degrees! SU(5) requires exactly 24 particles to mediate forces of which the 8 massless gluons of the nuclear force, the 3 massless intermediate vector bosons of the weak force and the single massless photon of the electromagnetic force are 12. The remaining 12 represent a totally new class of particles called Leptoquark bosons that have the remarkable property that they can transform quarks into electrons. SU(5) therefore predicts the existence of a ‘hyperweak’ interaction; a new fifth force in the universe! Currently, this force is 10 thousand trillion trillion times weaker than the weak force but is nevertheless 100 million times stronger than gravity. What would this new force do? Since protons are constructed from 3 quarks and since quarks can now decay into electrons, through the Hyperweak interaction, SU(5) predicts that protons are no longer the stable particles we have always imagined them to be. Crude calculations suggest that they may have half-lives between 10^29 to 10^33 years. An immediate consequence of this is that even if the universe were destined to expand for all eternity, after ‘only’ 10^32 years or so, all of the matter present would catastrophically decay into electrons, neutrinos and photons. The Era of Matter, with its living organisms, stars and galaxies, would be swept away forever, having represented but a fleeting episode in the history of the universe. In addition to proton decay, SU(5) predicts that at the energy characteristic of the GUT transition, we will see the affects of a new family of particles called supermassive Higgs bosons whose masses are expected to be approximately 1 thousand trillion GeV! These particles interact with the 12 Leptoquarks and make them massive just as the Higgs bosons at 100 GeV made the W, W and Z particles heavy. Armed with this knowledge, let’s explore some of the remarkable cosmological consequences of these exciting theories.

The GUT Era

To see how these theories relate to the history of the universe, imagine if you can a time when the average temperature of the universe was not the frigid 3 K that it is today but an incredable 10 thousand trillion trillion degrees (10^15 GeV). The ‘Standard Model’ of the Big Bang, tells us this happened about 10^-37 seconds after Creation. The protons and neutrons that we are familiar with today hadn’t yet formed since their constituent quarks interacted much too weakly to permit them to bind together into ‘packages’ like neutrons and protons. The remaining constituents of matter, electrons, muons and tau leptons, were also massless and traveled about at essentially light-speed; They were literally a new form of radiation, much like light is today! The 12 supermassive Leptoquarks as well as the supermassivs Higgs bosons existed side-by-side with their anti-particles. Every particle-anti particle pair that was annihilated was balanced by the resurrection of a new pair somewhere else in the universe. During this period, the particles that mediated the strong, weak and electromagnetic forces were completely massless so that these forces were no longer distinguishable. An inhabitant of that age would not have had to theorize about the existence of a symmetry between the strong, weak and electromagnetic interactions, this symmetry would have been directly observable and furthermore, fewer types of particles would exist for the inhabitants to keep track of. The universe would actually have beed much simpler then!

As the universe continued to expand, the temperature continued to plummet. It has been suggested by Demetres Nanopoulis and Steven Weinberg in 1979 that one of the supermassive Higgs particles may have decayed in such a way that slightly more matter was produced than anti-matter. The remaining evenly matched pairs of particles and anti-particles then annihilated to produce the radiation that we now see as the ‘cosmic fireball’.

Exactly what happened to the universe as it underwent the transitions at 10^15 and 100 GeV when the forces of Nature suddenly became distinguishable is still under investigation, but certain tantalizing descriptions have recently been offered by various groups of theoriticians working on this problem. According to studies by Alan Guth, Steven Weinberg and Frank Wilczyk between 1979 and 1981, when the GUT transition occured, it occured in a way not unlike the formation of vapor bubbles in a pot of boiling water. In this analogy, the interior of the bubbles represent the vacuum state in the new phase, where the forces are distinguishable, embedded in the old symmetric phase where the nuclear, weak and electromagnetic forces are indistinguishable. Inside these bubbles, the vacuum energy is of the type illustrated by Figure 2 while outside it is represented by Figure 1. Since we are living within the new phase with its four distinguishable forces, this has been called the ‘true’ vacuum state. In the false vacuum state, the forces remain indistinguishable which is certainly not the situation that we find ourselves in today!

Cosmic Inflation

An exciting prediction of Guth’s model is that the universe may have gone through at least one period in its history when the expansion was far more rapid than predicted by the ‘standard’ Big Bang model. The reason for this is that the vacuum itself also contributes to the energy content of the universe just as matter and radiation do however, the contribution is in the opposite sense. Although gravity is an attractive force, the vacuum of space produces a force that is repulsive. As Figures 1 and 2 show, the minimum energy state of the false vacuum at ‘A’ before the GUT transition is at a higher energy than in the true vacuum state in ‘B’ after the transition. This energy difference is what contributes to the vacuum energy. During the GUT transition period, the positive pressure due to the vacuum energy would have been enormously greater than the restraining pressure produced by the gravitational influence of matter and radiation. The universe would have inflated at a tremendous rate, the inflation driven by the pressure of the vacuum! In this picture of the universe, Einstein’s cosmological constant takes on a whole new meaning since it now represents a definite physical concept ; It is simply a measure of the energy difference between the true and false vacuum states (‘B’ and ‘A’ in Figures 1 and 2.) at a particular time in the history of the universe. It also tells us that, just as in de Sitter’s model, a universe where the vacuum contributes in this way must expand exponentially in time and not linearly as predicted by the Big Bang model. Guth’s scenario for the expansion of the universe is generally called the ‘inflationary universe’ due to the rapidity of the expansion and represents a phase that will end only after the true vacuum has supplanted the false vacuum of the old, symmetric phase.

A major problem with Guth’s original model was that the inflationary phase would have lasted for a very long time because the false vacuum state is such a stable one. The universe becomes trapped in the cul-de-sac of the false vacuum state and the exponential expansion never ceases. This would be somewhat analogous to water refusing to freeze even though its temperature has dropped well below 0 Centigrade. Recent modifications to the original ‘inflationary universe’ model have resulted in what is now called the ‘new’ inflationary universe model. In this model, the universe does manage to escape from the false vacuum state and evolves in a short time to the familiar true vacuum state.

We don’t really know how exactly long the inflationary phase may have lasted but the time required for the universe to double its size may have been only 10^-34 seconds. Conceivably, this inflationary period could have continued for as ‘long’ as 10^-24 seconds during which time the universe would have undergone 10 billion doublings of its size! This is a number that is truely beyond comprehension. As a comparison, only 120 doublings are required to inflate a hydrogen atom to the size of the entire visible universe! According to the inflationary model, the bubbles of the true vacuum phase expanded at the speed of light. Many of these had to collide when the universe was very young in order that the visible universe appear so uniform today. A single bubble would not have grown large enough to encompass our entire visible universe at this time; A radius of some 15-20 billion light years. On the other hand, the new inflationary model states that even the bubbles expanded in size exponentially just as their separations did. The bubbles themselves grew to enormous sizes much greater than the size of our observable universe. According to Albrecht and Steinhardt of the University of Pennsylvania, each bubble may now be 10^3000 cm in size. We should not be too concerned about these bubbles expanding at many times the speed of light since their boundaries do not represent a physical entity. There are no electrons or quarks riding some expandind shock wave. Instead, it is the non-material vacuum of space that is expanding. The expansion velocity of the bubbles is not limited by any physical speed limit like the velocity of light.

GUMs in GUTs

A potential problem for cosmologies that have phase transitions during the GUT Era is that a curious zoo of objects could be spawned if frequent bubble mergers occured as required by Guth’s inflationary model. First of all, each bubble of the true vacuum phase contains its own Higgs field having a unique orientation in space. It seems likely that no two bubbles will have their Higgs fields oriented in quite the same way so that when bubbles merge, knots will form. According to Gerhard t’Hooft and Alexander Polyakov, these knots in the Higgs field are the magnetic monopoles originally proposed 40 years ago by Paul Dirac and there ought to be about as many of these as there were bubble mergers during the transition period. Upper limits to their abundance can be set by requiring that they do not contribute to ‘closing’ the universe which means that for particles of their predicted mass (about 10^16 GeV), they must be 1 trillion trillion times less abundant than the photons in the 3 K cosmic background. Calculations based on the old inflationary model suggest that the these GUMs (Grand Unification Monopoles) may easily have been as much as 100 trillion times more abundant than the upper limit! Such a universe would definitly be ‘closed’ and moreover would have run through its entire history between expansion and recollapse within a few thousand years. The new inflationary universe model solves this ‘GUM’ overproduction problem since we are living within only one of these bubbles, now almost infinitly larger than our visible universe. Since bubble collisions are no longer required to homogenize the matter and radiation in the universe, very few, if any, monopoles would exist within our visible universe.


A prolonged period of inflation would have had an important influence on the cosmic fireball radiation. One long-standing problem in modern cosmology has been that all directions in the sky have the same temperature to an astonishing 1 part in 10,000. When we consider that regions separated by only a few degrees in the sky have only recently been in communication with one another, it is hard to understand how regions farther apart than this could be so similar in temperature. The radiation from one of these regions, traveling at the velocity of light, has not yet made it across the intervening distance to the other, even though the radiation may have started on its way since the universe first came into existence. This ‘communication gap’ would prevent these regions from ironing-out their temperature differences.

With the standard, Big Bang model, as we look back to earlier epochs from the present time, the separations between particles decrease more slowly than their horizons are shrinking. Neighboring regions of space at the present time, become disconnected so temperature differences are free to develope. Eventually, as we look back to very ancient times, the horizons are so small that every particle existing then literally fills the entire volume of its own, observable universe. Imagine a universe where you occupy all of the available space! Prior to the development of the inflationary models, cosmologists were forced to imagine an incredably well-ordered initial state where each of these disconnected domains (some 10^86 in number) had nearly identical properties such as temperature. Any departure from this situation at that time would have grown to sizable temperature differences in widely separated parts of the sky at the present time. Unfortunately, some agency would have to set-up these finely-tuned initial conditions by violating causality. The contradiction is that no force may operate by transmitting its influence faster than the speed of light. In the inflationary models, this contradiction is eliminated because the separation between widely scattered points in space becomes almost infinitly small compared to the size of the horizons as we look back to the epoc of inflation. Since these points are now within each others light horizons, any temperature difference would have been eliminated immediatly since hotter regions would now be in radiative contact with colder ones. With this exponentially-growing, de Sitter phase in the universe’s early history we now have a means for resolving the horizon problem.

Instant Flat Space

Because of the exponential growth of the universe during the GUT Era, its size may well be essentially infinite for all ‘practical’ purposes . Estimates by Albrecht and Steinhardt suggest that each bubble region may have grown to a size of 10^3000 cm by the end of the inflationary period. Consequently, the new inflationary model predicts that the content of the universe must be almost exactly the ‘critical mass’ since the sizes of each of these bubble regions are almost infinite in extent. The universe is, for all conceivable observations, exactly Euclidean (infinite and flat in geometry) and destined to expand for all eternity to come. Since we have only detected at most 10 percent of the critical mass in the form of luminous matter, this suggests that 10 times as much matter exists in our universe than is currently detectable. Of course, if the universe is essentially infinite this raises the ghastly spectre of the eventual annihilation of all organic and inorganic matter some 10^32 years from now because of proton decay.

In spite of its many apparent successes, even the new inflationary universe model is not without its problems. Although it does seem to provide explainations for several cosmological enigmas, it does not provide a convincing way to create galaxies. Those fluctuations in the density of matter that do survive the inflationary period are so dense that they eventually collapse into galaxy-sized blackholes! Neither the precise way in which the transition to ordinary Hubbel expansion occurs nor the duration of the inflationary period are well determined.

If the inflationary cosmologies can be made to answer each of these issues satisfactorily we may have, as J. Richard Gott III has suggested, a most remarkable model of the universe where an almost infinite number of ‘bubble universes’ each having nearly infinite size, coexist in the same 4-dimensional spacetime; all of these bubble universes having been brought into existence at the same instant of creation. This is less troublesome than one might suspect since, if our universe is actually infinite as the available data suggests, so too was it infinite even at its moment of birth! It is even conceivable that the universe is ‘percolating’ with new bubble universes continually coming into existence. Our entire visible universe, out to the most distant quasar, would be but one infinitessimal patch within one of these bubble regions. Do these other universes have galaxies, stars, planets and living creatures statistically similar to those in our universe? We may never know. These other universes, born of the same paroxicism of Creation as our own, are forever beyond our scrutiny but obviously not our imaginations!

Beyond The Beginning…

Finally, what of the period before Grand Unification? We may surmise that at higher temperatures than the GUT Era, even the supermassive Higgs and Leptoquark bosons become massless and at long last we arrive at a time when the gravitational interaction is united with the weak, electromagnetic and strong forces. Yet, our quest for an understanding of the origins of the universe remains incomplete since gravity has yet to be brought into unity with the remaining forces on a theoretical basis. This last step promises to be not only the most difficult one to take on the long road to unification but also appears to hold the greatest promise for shedding light on some of the most profound mysteries of the physical world. Even now, a handful of theorists around the world are hard at work on a theory called Supergravity which unites the force carriers (photons, gluons, gravitons and the weak interaction bosons) with the particles that they act on (quarks, electrons etc). Supergravity theory also predicts the existence of new particles called photinos and gravitinos. There is even some speculation that the photinos may fill the entire universe and account for the unseen ‘missing’ matter that is necessary to give the universe the critical mass required to make it exactly Euclidean. The gravitinos, on the other hand, prevent calculations involving the exchange of gravitons from giving infinite answers for problems where the answers are known to be perfectly finite. Hitherto, these calculations did not include the affects of the gravitinos.

Perhaps during the next decade, more of the details of the last stage of Unification will be hammered out at which time the entire story of the birth of our universe can be told. This is, indeed, an exciting time to be living through in human history. Will future generations forever envy us our good fortune, to have witnessed in our lifetimes the unfolding of the first comprehensive theory of Existence?