The Great Cosmic Roller-Coaster Ride

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Published on October 31st, 2007, 8:12 am
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The Great Cosmic Roller-Coaster Ride
Could cosmic inflation be a sign that our universe is embedded in a far vaster realm
By Cliff Burgess and Fernando Quevedo

You might not think that cosmologists could feel claustrophobic in a universe that is 46 billion light-years in radius and filled with sextillions of stars. But one of the emerging themes of 21st-century cosmology is that the known universe, the sum of all we can see, may just be a tiny region in the full extent of space. Various types of parallel universes that make up a grand “multiverse” often arise as side effects of cosmological theories. We have little hope of ever directly observing those other universes, though, because they are either too far away or somehow detached from our own universe.

Some parallel universes, however, could be separate from but still able to interact with ours, in which case we could detect their direct effects. The possibility of these worlds came to cosmologists’ attention by way of string theory, the leading candidate for the foundational laws of nature. Although the eponymous strings of string theory are extremely small, the principles governing their properties also predict new kinds of larger membranelike objects—“branes,” for short. In particular, our universe may be a three-dimensional brane in its own right, living inside a nine-dimensional space. The reshaping of higher-dimensional space and collisions between different universes may have led to some of the features that astronomers observe today.

String theory has received some unfavorable press of late. The criticisms are varied and beyond the scope of this article, but the most pertinent is that it has yet to be tested experimentally. That is a legitimate worry. It is less a criticism of string theory, though, than a restatement of the general difficulty of testing theories about extremely small scales. All proposed foundational laws encounter the same problem, including other proposals such as loop quantum gravity. String theorists continue to seek ways to test their theory. One approach with promise is to study how it might explain mysterious aspects of our universe, foremost among which is the way the pace of cosmic expansion has changed over time.
Going for a Ride
Next year will be the 10th anniversary of the announcement that the universe is expanding at an ever quickening pace, driven by some unidentified constituent known as dark energy. Most cosmologists think that an even faster period of accelerated expansion, known as inflation, also occurred long before atoms, let alone galaxies, came into being. The universe’s temperature shortly after this early inflationary period was billions of times higher than any yet observed on Earth. Cosmologists and elementary particle physicists find themselves making common cause to try to learn the fundamental laws of physics at such high temperatures. This cross-fertilization of ideas is stimulating a thorough rethinking of the early universe in terms of string theory.

The concept of inflation emerged to explain a number of simple yet puzzling observations. Many of these involve the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMBR), a fossil relic of the hot early universe. For instance, the CMBR reveals that our early universe was almost perfectly uniform—which is strange because none of the usual processes that homogenize matter (such as fluid flow) would have had time to operate. In the early 1980s Alan H. Guth, now at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, found that an extremely rapid period of expansion could account for this homogeneity. Such an accelerating expansion diluted any preexisting matter and smoothed out deviations in density.

Equally important, it did not make the universe exactly homogeneous. The energy density of space during the inflationary period fluctuated because of the intrinsically statistical quantum laws that govern nature over subatomic distances. Like a giant photocopy machine, inflation enlarged these small quantum fluctuations to astronomical size, giving rise to predictable fluctuations in density later in cosmic history.

This is just the first page of five. I find the thought that we may actually live in a multiverse quite fascinating as Mr. Spock would say.
Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you "choose" to respond to it.

SouthernFriedInfidel wrote: If you believe things that are contradicted by the evidence, then you are on a path built on falsehoods.
October 31st, 2007, 8:12 am
Yesterday, I listened to a podcast about the theory of inflation. Truly mind-bending stuff. My head hurt after a while...
October 31st, 2007, 8:26 am
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