STARTS WITH A BANG — DECEMBER 30, 2021
A wild, compelling idea without a direct, practical test, the Multiverse is highly controversial. But its supporting pillars sure are stable.
- One of the most successful theories of 20th century science is cosmic inflation, which preceded and set up the hot Big Bang.
- We also know how quantum fields generally work, and if inflation is a quantum field (which we strongly suspect it is), then there will always be more “still-inflating” space out there.
- Whenever and wherever inflation ends, you get a hot Big Bang. If inflation and quantum field theory are both correct, a Multiverse is a must.
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When we look out at the Universe today, it simultaneously tells us two stories about itself. One of those stories is written on the face of what the Universe looks like today, and includes the stars and galaxies we have, how they’re clustered and how they move, and what ingredients they’re made of. This is a relatively straightforward story, and one that we’ve learned simply by observing the Universe we see.
But the other story is how the Universe came to be the way it is today, and that’s a story that requires a little more work to uncover. Sure, we can look at objects at great distances, and that tells us what the Universe was like in the distant past: when the light that’s arriving today was first emitted. But we need to combine that with our theories of the Universe — the laws of physics within the framework of the Big Bang — to interpret what occurred in the past. When we do that, we see extraordinary evidence that our hot Big Bang was preceded and set up by a prior phase: cosmic inflation. But in order for inflation to give us a Universe consistent with what we observe, there’s an unsettling appendage that comes along for the ride: a multiverse. Here’s why physicists overwhelmingly claim that a multiverse must exist.The ‘raisin bread’ model of the expanding Universe, where relative distances increase as the space (dough) expands. The farther away any two raisin are from one another, the greater the observed redshift will be by time the light is received. The redshift-distance relation predicted by the expanding Universe is borne out in observations, and has been consistent with what’s been known all the way back since the 1920s. (Credit: NASA/WMAP Science Team)
Back in the 1920s, the evidence became overwhelming that not only were the copious spirals and ellipticals in the sky actually entire galaxies unto themselves, but that the farther away such a galaxy was determined to be, the greater the amount its light was shifted to systematically longer wavelengths. While a variety of interpretations were initially suggested, they all fell away with more abundant evidence until only one remained: the Universe itself was undergoing cosmological expansion, like a loaf of leavening raisin bread, where bound objects like galaxies (e.g., raisins) were embedded in an expanding Universe (e.g., the dough).
If the Universe was expanding today, and the radiation within it was being shifted towards longer wavelengths and lower energies, then in the past, the Universe must have been smaller, denser, more uniform, and hotter. As long as any amount of matter and radiation are a part of this expanding Universe, the idea of the Big Bang yields three explicit and generic predictions:null
- a large-scale cosmic web whose galaxies grow, evolve, and cluster more richly over time,
- a low-energy background of blackbody radiation, left over from when neutral atoms first formed in the hot, early Universe,
- and a specific ratios of the lightest elements — hydrogen, helium, lithium, and their various isotopes — that exist even in regions that have never formed stars.
This snippet from a structure-formation simulation, with the expansion of the Universe scaled out, represents billions of years of gravitational growth in a dark matter-rich Universe. Note that filaments and rich clusters, which form at the intersection of filaments, arise primarily due to dark matter; normal matter plays only a minor role. (Credit: Ralf Kaehler and Tom Abel (KIPAC)/Oliver Hahn)
All three of these predictions have been observationally borne out, and that’s why the Big Bang reigns supreme as our leading theory of the origin of our Universe, as well as why all its other competitors have fallen away. However, the Big Bang only describes what our Universe was like in its very early stages; it doesn’t explain why it had those properties. In physics, if you know the initial conditions of your system and what the rules that it obeys are, you can predict extremely accurately — to the limits of your computational power and the uncertainty inherent in your system — how it will evolve arbitrarily far into the future.
But what initial conditions did the Big Bang need to have at its beginning to give us the Universe we have? It’s a bit of a surprise, but what we find is that:
- there had to be a maximum temperature that’s significantly (about a factor of ~1000, at least) lower than the Planck scale, which is where the laws of physics break down,
- the Universe had to have been born with density fluctuations of approximately the same magnitude of all scales,
- the expansion rate and the total matter-and-energy density must have balanced almost perfectly: to at least ~30 significant digits,
- it must have been born with the same initial conditions — same temperature, density, and spectrum of fluctuations — at all locations, even causally disconnected ones,
- and its entropy must have been much, much lower than it is today, by a factor of trillions upon trillions.
If these three different regions of space never had time to thermalize, share information or transmit signals to one another, then why are they all the same temperature? This is one of the problems with the initial conditions of the Big Bang; how could these regions all obtain the same temperature unless they started off that way, somehow? (Credit: E. Siegel/Beyond the Galaxy)
Whenever we come up against a question of initial conditions — basically, why did our system start off this way? — we only have two options. We can appeal to the unknowable, saying that it is this way because it’s the only way it could’ve been and we can’t know anything further, or we can try to find a mechanism for setting up and creating the conditions that we know we needed to have. That second pathway is what physicists call “appealing to dynamics,” where we attempt to devise a mechanism that does three important things.
- It has to reproduce every success that the model it’s trying to supersede, the hot Big Bang in this instance, produces. Those earlier cornerstones must all come out of any mechanism we propose.
- It has to explain what the Big Bang cannot: the initial conditions the Universe started off with. These problems that remain unexplained within the Big Bang alone must be explained by whatever novel idea comes along.
- And it has to make new predictions that differ from the original theory’s predictions, and those predictions must lead to a consequence that is in some way observable, testable, and/or measurable.
The only idea we’ve had that met these three criteria was the theory of cosmic inflation, which has achieved unprecedented successes on all three fronts.Exponential expansion, which takes place during inflation, is so powerful because it is relentless. With every ~10^-35 seconds (or so) that passes, the volume of any particular region of space doubles in each direction, causing any particles or radiation to dilute and causing any curvature to quickly become indistinguishable from flat. (Credit: E. Siegel (L); Ned Wright’s Cosmology Tutorial (R))
What inflation basically says is that the Universe, before it was hot, dense, and filled with matter-and-radiation everywhere, was in a state where it was dominated by a very large amount of energy that was inherent to space itself: some sort of field or vacuum energy. Only, unlike today’s dark energy, which has a very small energy density (the equivalent of about one proton per cubic meter of space), the energy density during inflation was tremendous: some 1025 times greater than dark energy is today!
The way the Universe expands during inflation is different from what we’re familiar with. In an expanding Universe with matter and radiation, the volume increases while the number of particles stays the same, and hence the density drops. Since the energy density is related to the expansion rate, the expansion slows over time. But if the energy is intrinsic to space itself, then the energy density remains constant, and so does the expansion rate. The result is what we know as exponential expansion, where after a very small period of time, the Universe doubles in size, and after that time passes again, it doubles again, and so on. In very short order — a tiny fraction of a second — a region that was initially smaller than the smallest subatomic particle can get stretched to be larger than the entire visible Universe today.In the top panel, our modern Universe has the same properties (including temperature) everywhere because they originated from a region possessing the same properties. In the middle panel, the space that could have had any arbitrary curvature is inflated to the point where we cannot observe any curvature today, solving the flatness problem. And in the bottom panel, pre-existing high-energy relics are inflated away, providing a solution to the high-energy relic problem. This is how inflation solves the three great puzzles that the Big Bang cannot account for on its own.