How the “Gooey Universe” Could Shed Light on the Big Bang

By Amir Aczel | April 9, 2014 8:40 am

Calculations of the density of stars, planets, gas clouds, and empty space indicate that the cosmos has the viscosity of chocolate syrup.

“Interdisciplinary” is a huge buzzword in academia right now. But for science, it has a long history of success. Some of the best science happens when researchers cross-pollinate, applying knowledge from other fields to inform their research.

One of the best such examples in physics was the concept of a Higgs field, which led to the 2013 Nobel Prize in physics. Few people outside the physics community know that the insight to the behavior of the proposed Higgs particle actually came from solid state physics, a branch of study that looks at the processes that take place inside condensed matter such as a superconductor.

Now cosmologists are trying to borrow some ideas of their own. The new discovery of gravitational waves — the biggest news in cosmology this century — focuses fresh attention on a field in which recent progress has otherwise been slow. Cosmologists are now attempting to explore novel ways of trying to understand what happened in the Big Bang, and what, if anything, caused the gargantuan explosion believed to have launched our universe on its way. To do so they’ve turned their attention to areas of physics far removed from outer space: hydrology and turbulence. The idea is pretty clever: to view the universe as an ocean.

The Gooey Universe

Science understands much about the flow of gases and liquids, in which turbulent behavior is common. This knowledge allows us to fly airplanes, guide submarines, forecast the weather, and plan irrigation systems. Cosmologists’ idea is to use these physical laws to explore how the universe expanded from the Big Bang to its current state.

The first bit of data required for a hydrological model is, of course, what the material is that’s flowing. By looking at the average density of the universe (averaging the highly-packed centers of stars with the density of gas clouds and that of empty interstellar space), and assuming that the universe as a whole has this average density, cosmologists have asked: What does the universe resemble? The surprising answer, obtained from calculations of the density of stars, planets, gas clouds, and empty space, is that the cosmos has the viscosity of chocolate syrup.

With this information in hand, cosmologists can then try to trace the universe’s movements backwards in time. In hydrology and related subjects, the evolution of a fluid is determined by modeling its flow using differential equations. These equations must have initial conditions, from which the process starts, with the equations then determining what happens to the system — the flow of the fluid — over time.

In the case of the entire universe, the initial conditions would be the Big Bang. So cosmologists want to estimate the governing differential equations of the entire process — the equations that govern universal expansion, as well as changes in viscosity such as the formation of galaxies — and then follow the equations back in time to find the conditions that existed 13.7 billion years ago. If the exercise works, it may reveal the nature of the Big Bang.

Early Successes

Some modest progress has already been made using this approach, with theoretical physicists able to begin to estimate some parameters of a cosmos viewed like a vat of chocolate syrup swirling through time.

The approach, called “effective field theory,” was inaugurated only two years ago, and the fact that it is already leading to some preliminary results is encouraging. Sean Carroll, one of the cosmologists involved in this work, recently explained that the idea is to understand the scale of various processes. The things that happen on a small scale in the universe may be “bundled up into one big effect,” he said. The small-scale gravitational attraction of objects in the universe is viewed as the viscosity of a fluid, simplifying the complex physics at work. In a sense, looking at the universe as a fluid is a big-picture way of modeling all the gravitational attractions of the smaller parts of the very large whole we call the cosmos.

Driven By Data

The key to the model’s success is the quality of astronomical data available to theoreticians. As time goes on, astronomers’ data improves, allowing better estimates of the overall viscosity of the universe. The better the estimates of data relevant to the entire universe, the better cosmologists and physicists will be able to follow the eddies and vortexes in the “chocolate syrup” universe as they evolve through time.

Scientists hope that the new method may yield some good results in a decade or two, and in particular shed more light on one of the most prominent theories in cosmology: cosmic inflation, a theory proposed in 1980 by Alan Guth, and substantiated with observations earlier this year. Most cosmologists and astronomers are now convinced that the theory is correct and that the universe experienced an early period of exponential growth, which ended at some point. But the parameters of this model are still not known with precision, and how inflation starts and ends is a persistent mystery in physics.

What Caused the Big Bang?

The “effective field theory” approach can possibly be taken even further — perhaps shedding light on what caused the Big Bang itself.

To understand why, you first have to examine turbulence itself. Turbulence can be either classical (as in the present approach to cosmology), or quantum. In quantum turbulence, the vorticity is quantized: it can only assume certain quantum levels of energy. Think of a tornado that can only spin around at precisely-specified angular speeds, without ever taking any angular velocity in between them: say, the winds at 100 feet from the eye of the twister can move at only 80, 100, or 120 miles per hour and all other speeds are prohibited. Quantum turbulence occurs in superfluids, such as liquid helium, at a temperature barely above absolute zero. Can we get a glimpse of the Big Bang through this kind of a milieu?

The Big Bang is believed to have been a quantum event. Because the entire universe was somehow “condensed” into a space the size of a tiny particle, quantum mechanics had to have played a powerful role in its evolution through the Big Bang. We know that the temperature of the Big Bang was in the many trillions of degrees range, and the universe has been cooling since then, to its present temperature (the cosmic microwave background radiation) of 2.73 degrees Kelvin. But, was the pre-Big Bang temperature absolute zero or thereabouts? If so, insights from a Bose-Einstein condensate, a quantum system that exists at close to absolute zero, may be valid. And could a quantum vortex materializing in this setting have caused the Big Bang?*

By studying the properties of quantum vortexes, cosmologists may gain insights about this mysterious event. And hydrological models of the universe’s evolution may someday reveal how a quantum tornado twisting in a primordial icy medium exploded into the “chocolate syrup” universe we now inhabit.


*This is my own speculation.


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts
  • Bobby Leo


  • Longmire


  • Danny

    Neat :)

  • BOOP


  • Wayne Smallman

    I remember reading of an experiment involving approximately 1,000 super-cold (of what I think were) rubidium atoms. During the experiment, as the atoms became quantum entangled, there was a sudden flash, after which most of the atoms had been annihilated.

    Some time afterwards, I listened to Roger Penrose describe a hypothesis of his, as to how the universe might be part of a wondrous and cyclical process. In his hypothesis, Penrose said that — after trillions of years — when the universe had endured heat death and the last photon had died, with the remaining ash of atoms stretching unfathomable distances, everything might become massively entangled.

    With no measure of the scale of the universe and the remaining ash in an entangled state, the vastness might be indiscernible from the infinitesimal, and the entire universe would explode from an apparent dot of nothingness into an entire universe we might recognise today.

    Eventually, Penrose proposed, the cycle would eventually repeat itself, and the vastness would become, again, the infinitesimal. Bang.

    I am not a physicist, though I enjoy imagining such things as these. And of all the hypotheses, this proposal by Penrose appeals to me more than any other, given its cyclical and perhaps infinite qualities.

  • Amirabbas Amiri

    I always enjoy reading Dr. Amir D. Aczel!

    • Xavier Paris

      Yes. What he covers is intriguing…

  • Bill

    The quanta in the BH is very similar to a Bose-Einstein Condensate. The quanta are so compressed that they cannot move individually, but rather only as if one supper dense quanta. Here entripy comes almost to a full stop. As such, there is almost no movment thus, the tempreature is also near zero Kelvin. [Heat remember is a kenetic energy, an energy of motion not of potential. Kerosine has potential heat energy, but it is cool to the touch till lit]. Each quanta, in normal space, resonates and interacts with outher quanta. It occupies a space to do this. In the BH the quanta is so compressed that it can not resonate nor interact. It is reduced from its recognizable quantum state to one of quantum potential, wherein, it is only a quantum spring! Pushing outward the quanta attempts to resonate and express its quantum potential, but it is unable to do so due to the great compression of gravitation in the BH. However, Gravity is a natural force, and it obeys the Law of Diminishing Returns. Eventually the BH finds it gets less of an increse in the gravitiaonal constraint for each unit of mass it takes in. As the expansive force of the quanta grows in proportion to the gravitational constraint, eventually Negative Returns is reached and the Big Bang begins its first stage. The BH begins to expand. This happens in Near Zero Space time so the first stage of the Big Bang takes hundreds of thousands of years to occure. But as the BH expands, the Gravitational focus diminishes. With this decrease in the gravitational focus comes a shrinking of the Event Horizon. Eventually the outer layer of the BH meets the inward moving Event Horizon and the outter layers of the BH leave Near Zero Space time and enter into Universal Standard Space Time. Now the true violence of the Big Bang can be witnessed. The BH needs to be understood as a taught spring, acting in accordance with standard natural laws of force and motion. The outtermost layer of quanta are pushing off of the second inner layer of quanta. They are pushing off of the third inner layer of quanta, who are pushing off on the foruth layer of qunata, etc. Thus, each layer of quanta traveling into the BH has slightly less kenetic energy when it crosses the event horizon than the next ourtermost layer does. Eventually going into the inner layers of quanta we reach the median layer. Here, the force of the outter layers pushing backwards, is equal to the force of the inner layers pushing outwards. This is the BH remnant. When the Big Bang is finished, these particles will still be in the BH. The innermost layer to esscape the Bh however, wont go far. It has only slightly more kenetic energy than the layer still in the BH, so it will come to a quick stop and fall back into the BH. Going outwards through the layers which excape the BH, we find each layer going a bit farther, but quickly running out of keneitc energy and falling back into the BH. Eventually we reach the Escape velocity layer. These quanta have enough kenetic energy to escape the gravitational pull of the BH, however, once they cross the gravitational boundary, they will have used up all of their kenetic energy and stop. To an outside observer, these particles are seen slowing down as they travel out from the BH. Layers farther out will have increasingly greater kenetic energy than the Escape Velocity Layer particles and so will continue traveling outward at a constant speed, but with each layer traveling slightly faster than the next inner layer. Eventually traveling out through these layers of quanta, we reach the 2x Layers. This has twice the kenetic energy needed to escape the BH. To an observer this can be seen traveling at a constant speed as it moves away from the BH. The layers of quanta outside the 2x, are the Super x particles, they have more than twice the kenetic energy needed to escape the gravitaion. As such, as they move outward from the BH, their kenetic energy, relative to the gravitational pull of the BH, is increasing! Thus, their speeed is seen to be increasing as they move away from the BH. Until, they cross the gravitational bondary, now they express their full kenetic energy and so continue on at a fixed speed relative to their kenetic energy at that time.

    Gravity in this model is created due to the difference in space density. Gravity stretches space, as Max Plank proffered at the end of the 19th century [an idea Einstein agreed with], they simiple didn’t take the idea of space being a fabric far enough, I did. I came to understand that by stretching space, nature was diminshing the space density. Thus, as Mars nears the sun, the density of the space it moves through lessens and so allows Mars to travel faster. Less dense space means less friction between the planet and the medium though which it travels, reduce friction and you increase speed. If you take into consideration decresing space density along with Newton’s gravitational formula, NOW, Newton’s formula predicts the precession of Mar’s orbit near to the sun. No warpping space needed.

    Big Bangs, the increasing rate of universal expansion, and gravity explained all in one package. Nice, neat, and in keeping with Occam’s Razor: The simplest explanation is the BEST!

  • Xavier Paris

    Hey. I’m going to cover this topic for a school project and I want to see if you can put your sources down? In a clear manner like at the bottom or something… Unless, of course, that’s what you meant by This is my own speculation.

    • Amir D Aczel

      I had a reference there, which was removed in editing, to a book and papers by Carlo F. Barenghi on turbulence. Try to google him or use scholarpedia–you should find a lot. On the cosmology part, try Sean Carroll. Good luck!


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About Amir Aczel

Amir D. Aczel studied mathematics and physics at the University of California at Berkeley, where he was fortunate to meet quantum pioneer Werner Heisenberg. He also holds a Ph.D. in mathematical statistics. Aczel is a Guggenheim Fellow, a Sloan Foundation Fellow, and was a visiting scholar at Harvard in 2005-2007. He is the author of 18 critically acclaimed books on mathematics and science, several of which have been international bestsellers, including Fermat's Last Theorem, which was nominated for a Los Angeles Times Book Award in 1996 and translated into 31 languages. In his latest book, "Why Science Does Not Disprove God," Aczel takes issue with cosmologist Lawrence M. Krauss's theory that the universe emerged out of sheer "nothingness," countering the arguments using results from physics, cosmology, and the abstract mathematics of set theory.


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