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.
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!