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June 1, 2014

Best ever explanation of the Big Bang theory: How we came to exist

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Dennis Overbye covers physics for the New York Times and consistently produces understandable explanations of esoteric and complex findings and phenomena.

He may have achieved an apotheosis in a March 17, 2014 article about the origin of our universe, excerpts from which appear below.

Up top is a Times graphic illustrating the essence of a recent major discovery which appears to confirm the existence of inflation, a theory initially propounded in 1979 by physicist Alan Guth to explain how our universe expanded so uniformly and quickly in a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the occurrence of the Big Bang out of — literally — nothing 13.8 billion years ago.

Of course, if you accept that our existence is a result of those events, it would seem that you must also accept that similar occurences and resulting universes are coming into existence right now and that there are — for all practical purposes — infinitely many other universes coexisting with ours at this very second, forever unknowable by us.


One night late in 1979, an itinerant young physicist named Alan Guth, with a new son and a year’s appointment at Stanford, stayed up late with his notebook and equations, venturing far beyond the world of known physics.

He was trying to understand why there was no trace of some exotic particles that should have been created in the Big Bang. Instead he discovered what might have made the universe bang to begin with. A potential hitch in the presumed course of cosmic evolution could have infused space itself with a special energy that exerted a repulsive force, causing the universe to swell faster than the speed of light for a prodigiously violent instant.

If true, the rapid engorgement would solve paradoxes like why the heavens look uniform from pole to pole and not like a jagged, warped mess. The enormous ballooning would iron out all the wrinkles and irregularities. Those particles were not missing, but would be diluted beyond detection, like spit in the ocean.

"SPECTACULAR REALIZATION," Dr. Guth wrote across the top of the page and drew a double box around it.

On Monday, Dr. Guth's starship came in. Radio astronomers reported that they had seen the beginning of the Big Bang, and that his hypothesis, known undramatically as inflation, looked right.

Reaching back across 13.8 billion years to the first sliver of cosmic time

with telescopes at the South Pole, a team of astronomers led by John M. Kovac of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics detected ripples in the fabric of space-time — so-called gravitational waves — the signature of a universe being wrenched violently apart when it was roughly a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second old. They are the long-sought smoking-gun evidence of inflation, proof, Dr. Kovac and his colleagues say, that Dr. Guth was correct.

Inflation has been the workhorse of cosmology for 35 years, though many, including Dr. Guth, wondered whether it could ever be proved.

If corroborated, Dr. Kovac's work will stand as a landmark in science comparable to the recent discovery of dark energy pushing the universe apart, or of the Big Bang itself. It would open vast realms of time and space and energy to science and speculation.

Confirming inflation would mean that the universe we see, extending 14 billion light-years in space with its hundreds of billions of galaxies, is only an infinitesimal patch in a larger cosmos whose extent, architecture and fate are unknowable. Moreover, beyond our own universe there might be an endless number of other universes bubbling into frothy eternity, like a pot of pasta water boiling over.

In our own universe, it would serve as a window into the forces operating at energies forever beyond the reach of particle accelerators on Earth and yield new insights into gravity itself. Dr. Kovac's ripples would be the first direct observation of gravitational waves, which, according to Einstein’s theory of general relativity, should ruffle space-time.

Mark Kamionkowski of Johns Hopkins University, an early-universe expert who was not part of the team, said, "This is huge, as big as it gets."

He continued, "This is a signal from the very earliest universe, sending a telegram encoded in gravitational waves."

The ripples manifested themselves as faint spiral patterns in a bath of microwave radiation that permeates space and preserves a picture of the universe when it was 380,000 years old and as hot as the surface of the sun.

Dr. Kovac and his collaborators, working in an experiment known as Bicep, for Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization, reported their results in a scientific briefing at the Center for Astrophysics here on Monday and in a set of papers submitted to The Astrophysical Journal.

The results are the closely guarded distillation of three years' worth of observations and analysis. Eschewing email for fear of a leak, Dr. Kovac personally delivered drafts of his work to a select few, meeting with Dr. Guth, who is now a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (as is his son, Larry, who was sleeping that night in 1979), in his office last week.

By last weekend, as social media was buzzing with rumors that inflation had been seen and news spread, astrophysicists responded with a mixture of jubilation and caution.

... the universe could "supercool" and stay in a unified state too long. In that case, space itself would become imbued with a mysterious latent energy.

Inserted into Einstein's equations, the latent energy would act as a kind of antigravity, and the universe would blow itself up. Since it was space itself supplying the repulsive force, the more space was created, the harder it pushed apart.

What would become our observable universe mushroomed in size at least a trillion trillionfold — from a submicroscopic speck of primordial energy to the size of a grapefruit — in less than a cosmic eye-blink.

Almost as quickly, this pulse would subside, relaxing into ordinary particles and radiation. All of normal cosmic history was still ahead, resulting in today's observable universe, a patch of sky and stars billions of light-years across.

Most of the hundred or so models resulting from Dr. Guth's original vision suggest that inflation, once started, is eternal. Even as our own universe settled down to a comfortable homey expansion, the rest of the cosmos will continue blowing up, spinning off other bubbles endlessly, a concept known as the multiverse.

We might never know what happened before inflation, at the very beginning, because inflation erases everything that came before it. All the chaos and randomness of the primordial moment are swept away, forever out of our view.


Times graphic by Larry Buchanan and Jonathan Corum.

June 1, 2014 at 12:01 PM | Permalink


The overall temperature of the Universe and Gravity are probably closely
Related. Time/space (universes) are likely created by collisions of
Super massive black holes where C (light speed) is exceeded at the
Moment of impact (or even before impact).
Gravity is a function of quantum level exchanges of energy. All matter
Is energy and all energy is matter. All energy and all matter exist in
A waveform in some variation of that.
It's an obvious conclusion of applied fractal theory logic applied
To quantum theories.
I've theorized and expounded on this stuff for decades now, I'm
Happy people are finally getting it.

Posted by: Dennis Obryant | Jun 2, 2014 6:04:41 PM

Great article, however, it fails to mention the many problems with big bang cosmology.

Conservation of angular momentum, magnetic decay, shrinking of the sun, and my favorite the Axis of Evil.

Rsr dot org slash big bang
Big Bang goes kerplanck...

Posted by: Daniel Hedrick | Jun 2, 2014 9:06:25 AM

This is indeed a well-crafted explanation. Though my understanding of the origin of our universe is very limited, this article definitely advanced it by more than a few microns. I appreciated both the graphic and the video. The analogies they used were particularly helpful and gave me some insight into the reasoning behind the theory, as well as the evidence in its support.

(Wait a minute...who put that coffee cup decal on my telescope lens?)

Posted by: Marianne | Jun 2, 2014 1:36:59 AM

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