A Scientific Breakthrough Lets Us See to the Beginning of Time : The New Yorker

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At rare moments in scientific history, a new window on the universe opens up that changes everything. Today was quite possibly such a day. At a press conference on Monday morning at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, a team of scientists operating a sensitive microwave telescope at the South Pole announced the discovery of polarization distortions in the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation, which is the observable afterglow of the Big Bang. The distortions appear to be due to the presence of gravitational waves, which would date back to almost the beginning of time.

This observation, made possible by the fact that gravitational waves can travel unimpeded through the universe, takes us to 10-35 seconds after the Big Bang. By comparison, the Cosmic Microwave Background—which, until today, was the earliest direct signal we had of the Big Bang—was created when the universe was already three hundred thousand years old.

If the discovery announced this morning holds up, it will allow us to peer back to the very beginning of time—a million billion billion billion billion billion times closer to the Big Bang than any previous direct observation—and will allow us to explore the fundamental forces of nature on a scale ten thousand billion times smaller than can be probed at the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest particle accelerator. Moreover, it will allow us to test some of the most ambitious theoretical speculations about the origin of our observed universe that have ever been made by humans—speculations that may first appear to verge on metaphysics. It might seem like an esoteric finding, so far removed from everyday life as to be of almost no interest. But, if confirmed, it will have increased our empirical window on the origins of the universe by a margin comparable to the amount it has grown in all of the rest of human history. Where this may lead, no one knows, but it should be cause for great excitement.

Even for someone who has been thinking about these possibilities for the past thirty-five years, the truth can sometimes seem stranger than fiction. In 1979, a young particle physicist named Alan Guth proposed what seemed like an outrageous possibility, which he called Inflation: that new physics, involving a large extrapolation from what could then be observed, might imply that the universe expanded in size by over thirty orders of magnitude in a tiny fraction of a second after the Big Bang, increasing in size by a greater amount in that instance than it has in the fourteen billion years since.

Guth’s work was designed to address what were then seemingly irreconcilable problems with the standard Big Bang model, which did not offer any explanation for why the observable universe is so incredibly uniform on large scales, and how it has continued to expand for so long without collapsing once again. Inflation, crudely put, explains how the universe is likely to have grown shortly after the Big Bang, to bridge the gap between our hypothesis about the origins of the universe and the universe we observe today.

But the hallmark of great theory is its ability to predict future discoveries, not merely explain previous ones. Within a few years, Guth and a host of others demonstrated that quantum-mechanical effects during this very early period immediately after the Big Bang could have generated primordial variations in matter and radiation that resulted, owing to gravity, in the formation of all observed cosmic structures, including our earth, our galaxy, and all observable galaxies. Moreover, the special characteristics of these “primordial lumps”—produced when the size of the universe was smaller than a single atom—might be tested if we were able to probe out to the farthest reaches of the known universe.

In 1992, the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) satellite reported observations of the so-called Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation—the afterglow of the Big Bang generated when the universe was only three hundred thousand years old—that allowed just such measurements to be performed. Evidence of primordial lumps was discovered—leading to a Nobel Prize—and the stage was set for subsequent experiments, which verified that Guth’s Inflation theory was at least consistent with observation.
 

Written By: Lawrence Krauss
continue to source article at newyorker.com

31 COMMENTS

  1. Fabulous news! Much more to come from this, it seems. Anyone up to finding that we find ourselves in a holographic universe, but actually live somewhere else? Come to think of it: what would ‘actual’ mean, at that point…?

  2. I really wish journalists would be more careful what they say about this stories. This data peers closer to the Big Bang than anything before it, but by a factor of a million (5-billion)s? On the short scale that’s 10 to the 51, which implies the previous proximity was 10 to the 16 seconds, i.e. 300 million years. We’ve been able to see much further back than that for a very long time. Maybe 10 to the 51 was intended as a ratio of universal radii (or volumes) at the times being compared? It’d be nice if they got this one right.

    • In reply to #4 by Jos Gibbons:

      I really wish journalists would be more careful what they say about this stories. This data peers closer to the Big Bang than anything before it, but by a factor of a million (5-billion)s? On the short scale that’s 10 to the 51, which implies the previous proximity was 10 to the 16 seconds, i.e. 300…

      It looks like this post was written by Lawrence Krauss, who, as far as I am aware, is a physicist not a journalist.

  3. There seems to be a formatting error in the second paragraph. On this page it is rendered “(…) takes us to 10-35 seconds after the Big Bang”, but in the original it is “10⁻³⁵seconds” (I don’t know if I am formatting it correctly, it is supposed to be 10^-35). This may cause some confusion.

  4. Well, this is an embarrassing thread for me. Not only had I not noticed that a poor choice of words was nonetheless attributable to a physicist, in a sea of journalists’ invariably bad attempts to describe this discovery; but I also didn’t know you can now write x^y on this website (it never used to work). But I stand by my position that it should be made clear in what sense we’re peering 10^51 times closer to the Big Bang than previously.

    Jon Gustav Flø, how did you get the exponent in the corner, as it should be?

    • In reply to #7 by Jos Gibbons:

      Jon Gustav Flø, how did you get the exponent in the corner, as it should be?

      I cheated. I couldn’t get the formatting to work the way I wanted, so I just used unicode for it: “SUPERSCRIPT MINUS” (Unicode: U+207B, UTF-8: E2 81 BB), “SUPERSCRIPT THREE” (Unicode: U+00B3, UTF-8: C2 B3), and “SUPERSCRIPT FIVE” (Unicode: U+2075, UTF-8: E2 81 B5). I found them searching the Special Characters function on my mac. I’m not sure how to find it on Windows, but I think you could find it on the Character Map or something like that. It’s a little tedious to search and find each letter you want, but it seems to work.

  5. I wish someone would come up with a proper equation to represent time. Every time I hear it used, it sounds like god. Beginning of time=beginning of god. I believe in time/god. time space, god space. Shame I’m so ignorant, I might understand all of the explanations of time. As I am; however, it sounds as much like any religion I’ve ever heard of. Krauss is one of time’s biggest Priests, time and nothing. He’s big on nothing. I expect his definition of nothing and my definition of nothing have nothing in common. Mine means nothing, I get the feeling, when reading his stuff, his nothing means something.

    • In reply to #8 by aquilacane:

      I wish someone would come up with a proper equation to represent time.

      Time is the quantity that we measure with clocks, just as length is the quantity we measure with rulers. You won’t find an ‘equation for time’ in physics. You will find many equations that use it as a parameter. You can solve many of these equations for time and thus in a sense get ‘equations for time’, which will be dependent on other measurable quantities and valid for the situations those equations represent.

      • In reply to #10 by Stuart Coyle:

        In reply to #8 by aquilacane:

        I wish someone would come up with a proper equation to represent time.

        Time is the quantity that we measure with clocks, just as length is the quantity we measure with rulers. You won’t find an ‘equation for time’ in physics. You will find many equations that use it a…

        Get me a standard one, and do away with time.

    • In reply to #8 by aquilacane:

      I wish someone would come up with a proper equation to represent time.
      Time is space. The more space(expanding universe) we have, the more time we have. Thus, faster moving object represents more energy than slower(at the same mass). Time is not “flowing”…time is growing.

  6. Question: Since “the universe expanded in size by over thirty orders of magnitude in a tiny fraction of a second after the Big Bang, increasing in size by a greater amount in that instance than it has in the fourteen billion years since”, hasn’t the entire universe broken Einstein’s law which says nothing can travel faster than light?

    • In reply to #11 by Adam Schoonover:

      Question: Since “the universe expanded in size by over thirty orders of magnitude in a tiny fraction of a second after the Big Bang, increasing in size by a greater amount in that instance than it has in the fourteen billion years since”, hasn’t the entire universe broken Einstein’s law which says nothing can travel faster than light?

      I’m just an amateur but I think I know the answer to that one. It depends on understanding that “big bang” is really a metaphor, it’s not a “bang” in the normal sense of matter propelled through space by some force, if it were that then it couldn’t go faster than the speed of light. But it’s an expansion of the very stuff that light (and everything else) travels through, an expansion of space-time itself and that can go faster than light. That’s my understanding anyway, if I’m wrong probably someone with more knowledge will chime in.

    • In reply to #11 by Adam Schoonover:

      Question: Since “the universe expanded in size by over thirty orders of magnitude in a tiny fraction of a second after the Big Bang, increasing in size by a greater amount in that instance than it has in the fourteen billion years since”, hasn’t the entire universe broken Einstein’s law which says n…

      No. Nothing can travel faster than light through timespace. Timespace itself expands faster, initially much faster.

    • In reply to #11 by Adam Schoonover:

      Question: Since “the universe expanded in size by over thirty orders of magnitude in a tiny fraction of a second after the Big Bang, increasing in size by a greater amount in that instance than it has in the fourteen billion years since”, hasn’t the entire universe broken Einstein’s law which says n…

      Here is my stab at your answer:

      Everything Einstein has proposed is based on the current universe as is. Theoretically, it would have been possible for the universe to expand at a rate that was faster than the rate light travels at in the current universe.

      Also, speed is relative. So my gut tells me that the speed of light was entirely different when the universe was smaller.

      Disclaimer: I do not have a PhD in any area of physics.

      • In reply to #16 by RyanD:

        Everything Einstein has proposed is based on the current universe as is. Theoretically, it would have been possible for the universe to expand at a rate that was faster than the rate light travels at in the current universe.

        Also, speed is relative. So my gut tells me that the speed of light was entirely different when the universe was smaller.

        The speed of light is a constant. It doesn’t depend on the age or size of the universe.

    • In reply to #11 by Adam Schoonover:

      Question: Since “the universe expanded in size by over thirty orders of magnitude in a tiny fraction of a second after the Big Bang, increasing in size by a greater amount in that instance than it has in the fourteen billion years since”, hasn’t the entire universe broken Einstein’s law which says n…

      It’s actually allowed by relativity because empty space is mass-less. The universal speed limit imposed by the speed of light only applies to things with mass. Photons have no mass, so they go top speed. Any object, such as a spaceship, gets heavier as it goes faster, thus any object with mass will become infinitely heavy if it hits the speed of light (not good! lol).

      The space in-between galaxies expands, and it’s empty, so there is no mass and thus relativity allows it. I’m just a hobbyist at the moment, so someone feel free to chime in if I got something wrong :)

      • In reply to #18 by tommygdawg:

        It’s actually allowed by relativity because empty space is mass-less.

        I don’t think that can be correct. Photons are mass-less but they, more or less by definition, can’t travel faster than the speed of light.

    • In reply to #11 by Adam Schoonover:

      Question: Since “the universe expanded in size by over thirty orders of magnitude in a tiny fraction of a second after the Big Bang, increasing in size by a greater amount in that instance than it has in the fourteen billion years since”, hasn’t the entire universe broken Einstein’s law which says n…

      Hello,

      We should specify that the speed of light as measured from any inertial reference frame is a constant, particles with mass may not go the speed of light, massless particles must go the speed of light and no information may be transmitted faster than the speed of light. So long as those hold Relativity seems to be happy. So that does not quite say that nothing can go faster than the speed of light. For example the phase velocity of electromagnetic waves can exceed the speed of light but they carry no information. (search wikipedia for phase velocity, they have an animation which sums it up nicely)

      Now to expansion: We have to be a little careful about saying things like “space expanded faster than…”. There is an expansion rate but no particular expansion velocity. The velocity depends on what coordinate distance you look at. The further away an object is the more space is between you and it. Therefore that object will be moving away from you faster than an object that is closer (with less intervening space) if you live in an expanding space. At some sufficient coordinate distance then there will be an object moving away from you at a speed greater than that of light. All that Relativity demands is that you may not have any causal interaction with that object: it is outside your horizon.

      That space-time expansion is free from the confines of the speed of light limit may be a deeper question than my pay grade but I don’t think it has to do with masslessness of space (although note that empty space does have mass via the vacuum energy [likely]). Rather I think it is simply the case that there is nothing in the theory that limits the expansion rate of space-time. The theory has something to say about the speed of waves propagating through the space-time but not the speed of expansion of the space-time itself (there is no boundary).

      I don’t know if that helps or hurts. I hope the former. Maybe both.

      • In reply to #21 by Northampton:

        That space-time expansion is free from the confines of the speed of light limit may be a deeper question than my pay grade but I don’t think it has to do with masslessness of space

        That is what I thought as well, my (also amateur) understanding is it has nothing to do with space-time not having mass but that the speed of light limit applies to things moving through space-time not the expansion of space-time itself. I think it’s an example of how our primate brains are so limiting when we consider stuff like this, it’s hard to imagine space-time expanding, we have to use metaphors like expanding balloons which are really not appropriate and can lead us in the wrong direction if we take them too literally.

      • In reply to #21 by Northampton:

        In reply to #11 by Adam Schoonover:

        Question: Since “the universe expanded in size by over thirty orders of magnitude in a tiny fraction of a second after the Big Bang, increasing in size by a greater amount in that instance than it has in the fourteen billion years since”, hasn’t the entire univer…

        Thank you. I was thinking about Adam’s question earlier and had similar thoughts but wouldn’t have put it as eloquently as you.

  7. I’m sorry for my bad english. But, by the Inflation, what would have occurred to the amount of energy that must had come out of that reaction? I say… is that outside of our notion of time? Like a balloon… is that any possibility that the energy of this inflation is on the negative surface? Or outside of our known universe?

    • In reply to #17 by ppablobr:

      I’m sorry for my bad english. But, by the Inflation, what would have occurred to the amount of energy that must had come out of that reaction? I say… is that outside of our notion of time? Like a balloon… is that any possibility that the energy of this inflation is on the negative surface? Or ou…

      Hello,

      There was a large vacuum energy state during inflation. Vacuum energies have an equation of state when plugged into the results of Einstein’s Field Equations give gravitational repulsion. This expansion created more space and therefore more vacuum. More vacuum means more vacuum energy. The vacuum energy density remained constant but the total vacuum energy increased. Energy of any sort produces gravity in General Relativity. The gravity also has energy. It turns out that gravitational energy is manifestly negative. And this gravitational energy was equal to the vacuum energy such that the total was zero.

      So inflation could in principle keep creating more positive energy space-time vacuum balanced by negative gravitational energy forever (and in all likelihood does, somewhere-time else). But in our neck of space-time (the observable universe) for some reason inflation stopped and the lost vacuum energy was converted into hot particles (what some refer to as the big bang).

    • In reply to #20 by robb.karlin:

      God of the gaps…science has just ripped another large hole in the crotch of your pants. The ass of religion will soon be even more exposed.

      Can’t we have one topic where people just stick to talking about science and lay off the pointless dumb jokes and jabs at religion?

      • In reply to #23 by Red Dog:

        In reply to #20 by robb.karlin:

        God of the gaps…science has just ripped another large hole in the crotch of your pants. The ass of religion will soon be even more exposed.

        Can’t we have one topic where people just stick to talking about science and lay off the pointless dumb jokes and jabs at…

        Us being us, I’m afraid to say probably not. Perhaps we can compromise and do both.

        For me this is step 2 towards my boyhood dream of living in a science fiction novel, the first being Pac Man. That said, religion sucks.

  8. In reply to #8 by aquilacane:

    I wish someone would come up with a proper equation to represent time. Every time I hear it used, it sounds like god. Beginning of time=beginning of god. I believe in time/god. time space, god space. Shame I’m so ignorant, I might understand all of the explanations of time. As I am; however, it soun…

    Time is the measurement of change (change of spatial relationships among entities) by means of, and in relation to, some arbitrarily chosen standard of change, which we call a unit (for example, the motion of the earth in completing one orbit of the sun, which we call a year). All change entails motion; all motion entails change. All change presupposes entities that change; all entities exist. Thus, time, being the measurement of change, presupposes existence. If nothing existed, there would be no entities and no change, and therefore no time. Thus, time is in the universe (the totality of that which exists); the universe is not in time. The universe is outside of time and is in this respect eternal.

    ‘Nothing’ (non-existence) is the absence of something (existence); it is not a special kind of something. Definitions apply only to existents. A definition identifies the essential distinguishing characteristics of a particular class of existents, thereby enabling that class to be distinguished from all others. All definitions therefore presuppose existence. Since ‘nothing’ (non-existence) does not exist, it cannot have a definition. Any attempt to define ‘nothing’ reduces to synonyms, such as ‘non-existence, ‘zero’ or ‘blank’, or a statement of what it is not. All one can say about ‘nothing’ (non-existence) is that, epistemologically, it is the only alternative to something (existence). Metaphysically, however, there is no alternative to something (existence).

    • In reply to #28 by jabberwock:

      In reply to #8 by aquilacane:

      Time is the measurement of change (change of spatial relationships among entities) by means of, and in relation to, some arbitrarily chosen standard of change, which we call a unit (for example, the motion of the earth in completing one orbit of the sun, which we call a year). All change entails motion; all motion entails change. All change presupposes entities that change; all entities exist. Thus, time, being the measurement of change, presupposes existence. If nothing existed, there would be no entities and no change, and therefore no time. Thus, time is in the universe (the totality of that which exists); the universe is not in time. The universe is outside of time and is in this respect eternal.

      ‘Nothing’ (non-existence) is the absence of something (existence); it is not a special kind of something. Definitions apply only to existents. A definition identifies the essential distinguishing characteristics of a particular class of existents, thereby enabling that class to be distinguished from all others. All definitions therefore presuppose existence. Since ‘nothing’ (non-existence) does not exist, it cannot have a definition. Any attempt to define ‘nothing’ reduces to synonyms, such as ‘non-existence, ‘zero’ or ‘blank’, or a statement of what it is not. All one can say about ‘nothing’ (non-existence) is that, epistemologically, it is the only alternative to something (existence). Metaphysically, however, there is no alternative to something (existence).

      Not sure we’re on the same page.

  9. Piled Higher and Deeper has a nice summary.

    (Yes, sup and sub tags would be nice. I guess attributes would need to be stripped.)

    As for the error/poor word choice, it’s possible it was introduced in editing. I don’t know how old the oldest directly observable object is, so I can’t do the calculation.

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