Tag: cosmology

Creating a Universe in the Lab? The Idea Is No Joke

By Zeeya Merali | June 19, 2017 1:15 pm

(Credit: Shutterstock)

Physicists aren’t often reprimanded for using risqué humor in their academic writings, but in 1991 that is exactly what happened to the cosmologist Andrei Linde at Stanford University. He had submitted a draft article entitled ‘Hard Art of the Universe Creation’ to the journal Nuclear Physics B. In it, he outlined the possibility of creating a universe in a laboratory: a whole new cosmos that might one day evolve its own stars, planets and intelligent life. Near the end, Linde made a seemingly flippant suggestion that our Universe itself might have been knocked together by an alien ‘physicist hacker’. The paper’s referees objected to this ‘dirty joke’; religious people might be offended that scientists were aiming to steal the feat of universe-making out of the hands of God, they worried. Linde changed the paper’s title and abstract but held firm over the line that our Universe could have been made by an alien scientist. ‘I am not so sure that this is just a joke,’ he told me.

Fast-forward a quarter of a century, and the notion of universe-making – or ‘cosmogenesis’ as I dub it – seems less comical than ever. I’ve travelled the world talking to physicists who take the concept seriously, and who have even sketched out rough blueprints for how humanity might one day achieve it. Linde’s referees might have been right to be concerned, but they were asking the wrong questions. The issue is not who might be offended by cosmogenesis, but what would happen if it were truly possible. How would we handle the theological implications? What moral responsibilities would come with fallible humans taking on the role of cosmic creators?

Theoretical physicists have grappled for years with related questions as part of their considerations of how our own Universe began. In the 1980s, the cosmologist Alex Vilenkin at Tufts University in Massachusetts came up with a mechanism through which the laws of quantum mechanics could have generated an inflating universe from a state in which there was no time, no space and no matter. There’s an established principle in quantum theory that pairs of particles can spontaneously, momentarily pop out of empty space. Vilenkin took this notion a step further, arguing that quantum rules could also enable a minuscule bubble of space itself to burst into being from nothing, with the impetus to then inflate to astronomical scales. Our cosmos could thus have been burped into being by the laws of physics alone. To Vilenkin, this result put an end to the question of what came before the Big Bang: nothing. Many cosmologists have made peace with the notion of a universe without a prime mover, divine or otherwise.

At the other end of the philosophical spectrum, I met with Don Page, a physicist and evangelical Christian at the University of Alberta in Canada, noted for his early collaboration with Stephen Hawking on the nature of black holes. To Page, the salient point is that God created the Universe ex nihilo – from absolutely nothing. The kind of cosmogenesis envisioned by Linde, in contrast, would require physicists to cook up their cosmos in a highly technical laboratory, using a far more powerful cousin of the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva. It would also require a seed particle called a ‘monopole’ (which is hypothesized to exist by some models of physics, but has yet to be found).

The idea goes that if we could impart enough energy to a monopole, it will start to inflate. Rather than growing in size within our Universe, the expanding monopole would bend spacetime within the accelerator to create a tiny wormhole tunnel leading to a separate region of space. From within our lab we would see only the mouth of the wormhole; it would appear to us as a mini black hole, so small as to be utterly harmless. But if we could travel into that wormhole, we would pass through a gateway into a rapidly expanding baby universe that we had created. (A video illustrating this process provides some further details.)

We have no reason to believe that even the most advanced physics hackers could conjure a cosmos from nothing at all, Page argues. Linde’s concept of cosmogenesis, audacious as it might be, is still fundamentally technological. Page, therefore, sees little threat to his faith. On this first issue, then, cosmogenesis would not necessarily upset existing theological views.

But flipping the problem around, I started to wonder: what are the implications of humans even considering the possibility of one day making a universe that could become inhabited by intelligent life? As I discuss in my book A Big Bang in a Little Room (2017), current theory suggests that, once we have created a new universe, we would have little ability to control its evolution or the potential suffering of any of its residents. Wouldn’t that make us irresponsible and reckless deities? I posed the question to Eduardo Guendelman, a physicist at Ben Gurion University in Israel, who was one of the architects of the cosmogenesis model back in the 1980s. Today, Guendelman is engaged in research that could bring baby-universe-making within practical grasp. I was surprised to find that the moral issues did not cause him any discomfort. Guendelman likens scientists pondering their responsibility over making a baby universe to parents deciding whether or not to have children, knowing they will inevitably introduce them to a life filled with pain as well as joy.

Other physicists are more wary. Nobuyuki Sakai of Yamaguchi University in Japan, one of the theorists who proposed that a monopole could serve as the seed for a baby universe, admitted that cosmogenesis is a thorny issue that we should ‘worry’ about as a society in the future. But he absolved himself of any ethical concerns today. Although he is performing the calculations that could allow cosmogenesis, he notes that it will be decades before such an experiment might feasibly be realized. Ethical concerns can wait.

Many of the physicists I approached were reluctant to wade into such potential philosophical quandaries. So I turned to a philosopher, Anders Sandberg at the University of Oxford, who contemplates the moral implications of creating artificial sentient life in computer simulations. He argues that the proliferation of intelligent life, regardless of form, can be taken as something that has inherent value. In that case, cosmogenesis might actually be a moral obligation.

Looking back on my numerous conversations with scientists and philosophers on these issues, I’ve concluded that the editors at Nuclear Physics B did a disservice both to physics and to theology. Their little act of censorship served only to stifle an important discussion. The real danger lies in fostering an air of hostility between the two sides, leaving scientists afraid to speak honestly about the religious and ethical consequences of their work out of concerns of professional reprisal or ridicule.

We will not be creating baby universes anytime soon, but scientists in all areas of research must feel able to freely articulate the implications of their work without concern for causing offense. Cosmogenesis is an extreme example that tests the principle. Parallel ethical issues are at stake in the more near-term prospects of creating artificial intelligence or developing new kinds of weapons, for instance. As Sandberg put it, although it is understandable that scientists shy away from philosophy, afraid of being thought weird for veering beyond their comfort zone, the unwanted result is that many of them keep quiet on things that really matter.

As I was leaving Linde’s office at Stanford, after we’d spent a day riffing on the nature of God, the cosmos and baby universes, he pointed at my notes and commented ruefully: ‘If you want to have my reputation destroyed, I guess you have enough material.’ This sentiment was echoed by a number of the scientists I had met, whether they identified as atheists, agnostics, religious or none of the above. The irony was that if they felt able to share their thoughts with each other as openly as they had with me, they would know that they weren’t alone among their colleagues in pondering some of the biggest questions of our being.Aeon counter – do not remove


This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: cosmology

The 4 Big Discoveries Underpinning Our Knowledge of the Universe

By Scott Bembenek | June 7, 2017 11:53 am

Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope assembled a comprehensive view of the evolving universe. (Credit: NASA/ESA)

For many, science is nothing more than that class you were required to take in school. However, whether you realize it or not, science is all around us, and it impacts every aspect of our lives. And, the stories behind key scientific discoveries, though not commonly known, are truly inspiring.

So, if you want a quick refresher on how the universe works, focus on these four fascinating discoveries and the history behind them: Read More

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MORE ABOUT: cosmology, physics

Why Astronomers Are Riveted By the Search for Nothing

By Carole Mundell, University of Bath | April 22, 2015 1:55 pm


Astronomers have found evidence of a giant void that could be the largest known structure in the universe. The “supervoid” solves a controversial cosmic puzzle: it explains the origin of a large and anomalously cold region of the sky. However, future observations are needed to confirm the discovery and determine whether the void is unique.

The so-called cold spot can be seen in maps of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), which is the radiation left over from the birth of the universe. It was first discovered by NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) in 2004 and confirmed by ESA’s Planck Satellite. For more than a decade, astronomers have failed to explain its existence. But there has been no shortage of suggestions, with unproven and controversial theories being put forward including imprints of parallel universes, called the multiverse theory, and exotic physics in the early universe.

Now an international team of astronomers led by Istvan Szapudi of the Institute for Astronomy at The University of Hawaii at Manoa have found evidence for one of the theories: a supervoid, in which the density of galaxies is much lower than usual in the known universe.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: cosmology

The Demise of a Discovery: BICEP2 and Gravitational Waves

By Sarah Scoles | February 2, 2015 11:28 am
The BICEP2 telescope at twilight. Credit Steffen Richter, Harvard University

The sun sets on the BICEP2 telescope in Antarctica. Credit Steffen Richter, Harvard University

Last week, BICEP2 scientists — who in March announced evidence of cosmic inflation, a potentially Nobel-worthy find — threw handfuls of dust on the grave of their own results. The official paper [pdf], just published on the BICEP website, tells the story of how they mistook cosmic dust for “primordial gravitational waves,” and why everybody needs to calm down and stop trying to bury inflation, too.

What’s inflation?

Just 10-35 seconds after the Big Bang, cosmologists (or at least most of them) believe the universe expanded in hyperdrive — faster than it ever has since and faster than it ever will again. This ballooning, called inflation, smoothed everything out. It turned the cosmos into the roughly homogenous place we see today, and perhaps created other universes that add up to the sci-fi-sounding “multiverse.”

But it’s difficult to find direct evidence that inflation actually happened (after all, it was a long time ago). That’s where B-modes, which the BICEP2 team saw, come in.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: Big Bang, cosmology

BICEP2 Was Wrong, But Publicly Sharing the Results Was Right

By Shannon Hall | January 30, 2015 3:58 pm
This Planck image shows that dust emission is strongest along the plane of the Galaxy, in the upper part of the image, but that it cannot be neglected even in other regions of the sky. Credit: ESA/Planck Collaboration

This Planck image shows that dust emission is strongest along the plane of the galaxy, in the upper part of the image, but that it cannot be neglected even in other regions of the sky. Credit: ESA/Planck Collaboration

The claim made headlines worldwide, hailing one of the biggest scientific discoveries in decades. After 35 years of research, astronomers said in March, they had found evidence that the universe underwent a brief but ultra-fast expansion when it was roughly a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second old. The research team could see a Nobel Prize looming in the distance. So they popped bottles of bubbly in celebration and shared their excitement with the world.

But results confirmed today indicate that the fizz has long gone out of those findings. A second team of astronomers, which includes the initial BICEP2 team itself, used the European Space Agency’s Planck satellite to show that the twisting patterns did not come from the cosmic microwave background at all. They’re nothing but swirling patterns of dust.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: Big Bang, cosmology

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.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts

Einstein’s Lost Theory Describes a Universe Without a Big Bang

By Amir Aczel | March 7, 2014 10:32 am

Einstein with Edwin Hubble, in 1931, at the Mount Wilson Observatory in California, looking through the lens of the 100-inch telescope through which Hubble discovered the expansion of the universe in 1929. Courtesy of the Archives, Calif Inst of Technology.

In 1917, a year after Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity was published—but still two years before he would become the international celebrity we know—Einstein chose to tackle the entire universe. For anyone else, this might seem an exceedingly ambitious task—but this was Einstein.

Einstein began by applying his field equations of gravitation to what he considered to be the entire universe. The field equations were the mathematical essence of his general theory of relativity, which extended Newton’s theory of gravity to realms where speeds approach that of light and masses are very large. But his math was better than he wanted to believe—his equations told him that the universe could not stay static: it had to either expand or contract. Einstein chose to ignore what his mathematics was telling him.

The story of Einstein’s solution to this problem—the maligned “cosmological constant” (also called lambda)—is well known in the history of science. But this story, it turns out, has a different ending than everyone thought: Einstein late in life returned to considering his disgraced lambda. And his conversion foretold lambda’s use in an unexpected new setting, with immense relevance to a key conundrum in modern physics and cosmology: dark energy.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts

Powerful New Radio Telescope Officially Kicks Off Observations

By Guest Blogger | March 19, 2013 10:44 am

By Govert Schilling

Just over a week ago, at three miles above sea level in the Chilean Atacama desert, Atacameño indians offered gifts to Mother Earth in a traditional ceremony to bless a decidedly modern object: the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA). Four days later, on March 13, the largest-ever ground-based astronomical observatory was officially inaugurated. “ALMA is now a reality, and not a fairy tale anymore,” said Dutch astronomer Thijs de Graauw, the project’s director.

ALMA (Spanish for “soul”) consists of 66 antennas, most of them 40 feet across. They are equipped with sensitive receivers to detect millimeter and submillimeter waves from space – radiation in between radio waves and infrared light. This relatively long-wavelength radiation is emitted by the coolest objects in the Universe, such as the dark molecular clouds that spawn new stars and planets. What’s more, interstellar molecules, including complex hydrocarbons and other molecules necessary for life, can only be identified using this type of radiation. Cosmic millimeter and submillimeter radiation has never been observed in much detail before, so astronomers all over the world have eagerly anticipated the ALMA inauguration.

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The Higgs, Boltzmann Brains, and Monkeys Typing Hamlet

By Amir Aczel | October 31, 2012 4:14 pm

Amir D. Aczel writes often about physics and cosmology. His book about the discovery of the Higgs boson, Present at the Creation: Discovering the Higgs Boson, is published in paperback by Broadway Books in November 2012. 

If somebody told you that there are angels floating in space, observing our world and forming their impressions of our everyday reality, you would think that this person is nuts—a religious fanatic with an active imagination, and certainly not a scientist. Scientists, as we all know, are rational beings who believe only in what nature reveals to us through experimentation and observation, coupled with theory that is never divorced from the physical measurements they make. The link between the two remains tightly regulated through the strict rules of the scientific method.

So how do you explain the bizarre fact that, for about five years now, some of the world’s most prominent physicists have been describing a scenario—which they seem to truly believe may be real—in which, instead of the Biblical angels, space is permeated by disembodied brains?

These compact, conscious observers, called “Boltzmann brains,” cruise the vastness of intergalactic space, and beyond it, to the infinite “multiverse” that some scientists believe exists outside the reaches of the universe we observe through our telescopes and satellites. Their consciousness makes the Boltzmann brains recreate our reality. They imagine life such as the one you and I believe we are experiencing here on Earth, to the point that these brains in space may think that they are living on a planet like ours, that they may even be us. Some recent physics papers and commentaries have even explored the possible limits on the number of Boltzmann brains in the universe as compared with “real” brains, in an effort to estimate the probability that we are real rather than Boltzmann entities.

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