Why physicists hate time

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Wait a second: What came before the big bang?

Not everyone thinks the universe had a beginning.

This story originally appeared in the print edition of the September issue of Popular Science. This week, it appeared online with enhanced graphics. The text is by PopSci editor Rachel Feltman and me; the art is by Matei Apostolescu.

Cosmologists used to think the universe was totally timeless: no beginning, no end. That might sound mind-melting, but it’s easier on the scientific brain than figuring out what a set starting point would mean, let alone when it would be. So some physicists have cooked up alternative cosmological theories that make time’s role seem a little less important. The concepts are as trippy as those black-light posters you had in college.

[read the rest at Popular Science]

Confused about the Big Bang? Start here

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The Big Bang is the central concept in cosmology — the study of the whole universe — but it can be confusing to a lot of people. In fact, it’s a little unfair: some of the confusion comes from us cosmologists. In my latest for Symmetry, I try to sift out some of the important concepts and hopefully clear up some of the confusion.

Five facts about the Big Bang

It’s the cornerstone of cosmology, but what is it all about?

For Symmetry Magazine:

Astronomers Edwin Hubble and Milton Humason in the early 20th century discovered that galaxies are moving away from the Milky Way. More to the point: Every galaxy is moving away from every other galaxy on average, which means the whole universe is expanding. In the past, then, the whole cosmos must have been much smaller, hotter and denser.

That description, known as the Big Bang model, has stood up against new discoveries and competing theories for the better part of a century. So what is this “Big Bang” thing all about? [Read the rest at Symmetry Magazine]

Traces of particles from the first second after the Big Bang

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Signs of neutrinos from the dawn of time, less than a second after the Big Bang

First unambiguous observation of the cosmic neutrino background

From Ars Technica:

The first 400,000 years after the Big Bang are inaccessible to us by using light; the material that filled the entire cosmos made it opaque. However, neutrinos interact very little with ordinary matter, so they could travel right through the opaque mess. Lots of these low-mass, fast-moving particles were formed in the first second after the Big Bang, so they could provide a sensitive probe of some of the very earliest moments in the Universe.

Unfortunately, these primordial neutrinos have never been detected directly, and they may have too little energy for us to ever detect them. But a new paper published in Physical Review Letters showed an unambiguous indirect detection using measurements of the cosmic microwave background light. This article marks the first clear measurement of the cosmic neutrino background, which is a significant confirmation of one of the major predictions of the Big Bang model. [Read the rest at Ars Technica…]

Was the Big Bang actually the beginning?

The big question is what's inside the box? Is it the mushroom of true knowledge that makes us grow? Or is it a coin of incremental data that buys us a little more time before the goomba of unknowability stops our exploration?

The big question is what’s inside the box? Is it the mushroom of true knowledge that makes us grow? Or is it a coin of incremental data that buys us a little more time before the Goombah of unknowability stops our exploration?

I usually avoid the kinds of sexy big questions that often make cosmology books by Paul Davies or Stephen Hawking or Roger Penrose popular. The main reason for that is because those big questions may not be answerable, because they are beyond the reach of our telescopes or experiments. One such question—what, if anything, came before the Big Bang?—is cause for a great deal of speculation, and a good amount of nonsense. If memory serves, Pope John Paul II was the first pontiff to explicitly accept Big Bang cosmology, but he also forbade Catholic cosmologists from even pondering the question of whether anything came before.

However, BBC Future provided me a great opportunity to examine the meta-question: “Will we ever know what happened before the Big Bang?” That’s a question better suited to me: it’s not speculation, but pondering how can we know? And the answer isn’t clear:

First of all, the language we use to describe what we know and don’t know can sometimes be muddy. For instance, the Universe may be defined as all that exists in a physical sense, but we can only observe part of that. Nobody sensible thinks the observable Universe is all there is, though. Galaxies in every direction seem similar to each other; there’s no evident special direction in space, meaning that the Universe doesn’t have an edge (or a centre). In other words, if we were to instantaneously relocate to a galaxy far, far away, we’d see a cosmos very similar to the one we observe from Earth, and it would have an effective radius of 46 billion light-years. We can’t see beyond that radius, wherever we’re located. [Read more…]

Thanks again to Simon Frantz, my editor at BBC Future, who asked me to write the piece and helped turn it into something coherent, instead of Grumpy Matthew grumbling into his coffee.