The BICEP2 telescope (foreground) with the South Pole Telescope (SPT) behind. [Credit: Steffen Richter (Harvard University)]

The BICEP2 telescope (foreground) with the South Pole Telescope (SPT) behind. [Credit: Steffen Richter (Harvard University)]

Today was an exciting and stimulating day: the BICEP2 collaboration announced the first measurement of the cosmic microwave background that might tell us whether or not inflation happened. Inflation is the hypothetical rapid expansion of the Universe during its first instants, which explains a lot about why the cosmos appears the way it does. However, data on inflation itself, as opposed to its side-effects, are hard to come by. This new observation could help resolve that…assuming we can figure out why some of its aspects don’t agree with prior observations.

While they do not constitute a direct detection of either primordial gravitational waves (the distortions causing the light polarization) or inflation, the BICEP2 results could provide the best evidence for both that could not be easily explained away by other theories. This observation cannot be the end of the story, however. The measurement of polarization is significantly larger that what is seen in the results of prior observations in a way that cannot be immediately dismissed. Whether the problems are with the interpretation and analysis of the BICEP2 data, or if something more subtle is at work, remains to be seen. [Read more….]

New data offer a peek into the Universe’s first instants

I don’t spent a lot of time thinking about the multiverse: the possible existence of regions of the cosmos that have never been connected to ours at any time, and may never be in the future. That’s because those parallel pocket universes aren’t directly detectable, and may never be even indirectly detectable, putting them into a category that’s hard for a scientist to deal with. However, inflation — the extremely rapid expansion of the Universe in its earliest instants — almost certainly would produce those pocket universes, so I’ve reluctantly come to terms with the existence of the multiverse, on the principle that the alternative ideas are largely problematic.

Some physicists have gone a bit farther with the multiverse idea. Since our Universe has the correct physical/chemical properties to harbor life (self-evidently, since we’re here to talk about it), and those properties depend on a delicate balance of physical parameters, then maybe the multiverse can help explain what makes our pocket universe habitable. If those other pocket universes have different physical parameters, maybe the set ours has came about by a random process: no need for “fine-tuning”. However, as I argue in a new piece for the Nautilus blog, the fine-tuning problem is separate from the question of the multiverse, and philosophy won’t provide the solution to either.

We know that the universe is capable of supporting life, and that any physical parameters must be consistent with that obvious fact. Beyond that, we can’t go yet: We have no more evidence for multiverses than we have evidence for life beyond Earth—though it’s reasonable to think both exist. The uncomfortable possibility is that there are other pocket universes, but we’ll only ever know about them indirectly. That doesn’t make them any less real, just discomforting. [Read more…]

On the multiverse, metaphysics, and meaning

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.