Intelligent Future

The Past, Present and Future of the Universe


Last month, a team of researchers based in Antarctica announced they’d detected gravitational waves, faint echoes from the first moments of the Big Bang. This discovery has enormous implications for cosmology, the world of physics and even our understanding of the future of our universe. My recent post about the BICEP2 project (A Window on the Universe’s Distant Past and Future) explored some of these, as does my upcoming article about cosmic inflation for The Futurist. (July-August 2014)

These writings gave me a lot to think about regarding the origins of our universe. Invariably, when explaining the early evolution of the cosmos, one particular question always comes up: where did the singularity that started the Big Bang come from? For some time, many physicists and cosmologists have said it could be possible for our universe to have actually started from nothing – as wild and counterintuitive as that sounds. But without proof this seems like a statement of faith, impossible to prove or disprove and therefore outside the purview of true scientific discussion. Ever since Popper, we’ve said that falsifiability is the demarcation between what is scientific and what is not. It felt like this might be the point where the scientific method would have to give way to the origin stories of myth.

Or perhaps not.

Last week saw the publication of a paper that may be as important to our understanding of the Big Bang as was the detection of gravitational waves. A team from the Wuhan Institute of Physics and Mathematics in China has made the first rigorous mathematical proof that the Big Bang could have spontaneously generated from nothing. The Wuhan team, led by Qing-yu Cai, developed new solutions to the Wheeler-DeWitt equation, which sought to combine quantum mechanics and general relativity in the mid-20th century.

According to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, quantum fluctuations in the metastable false vacuum – a state absent of space, time or matter – can spontaneously give rise to virtual particle pairs. Ordinarily these pairs self-annihilate almost instantly, but if these virtual particles separate immediately, they can avoid annihilation, creating what physicists call a true vacuum bubble. The Wuhan team’s equations show that such a bubble has the potential to expand exponentially, causing a new universe to appear. All of this begins from quantum behavior and leads to the creation of a tremendous amount of matter and energy during the inflation stage. (Note that as stated in this paper, the metastable false vacuum has “neither matter nor space or time”, but is a form of wavefunction, referred to as “quantum potential.” While most of us wouldn’t be inclined to call this “nothing”, physicists do refer to it as such.)

This description of exponential growth of a true vacuum bubble corresponds directly to the period of cosmic inflation resulting from the Big Bang. (The inflation epoch is thought to have occurred 10-36 – or a trillion trillion trillionth – of a second after the Big Bang.) According to this proof, the bubble even stops expanding – or else it may continue to expand at a constant velocity – once it reaches a certain size. Nevertheless, this is a very different version of inflation than those proposed by Guth, Linde and others, in that it doesn’t rely on scalar fields, only quantum effects. Still, this work dovetails well with that of the BICEP2 team, both discoveries having significant implications for our understanding of the universe and our future should they be stand up to further inquiry.

Given the quantum behavior of virtual particles in a vacuum as put forth in this paper, it’s reasonable to assume this hasn’t happened only this once, but many, potentially even an infinite number of times. The idea of a multitude of multiverses being generated by processes similar to those that gave rise to our own universe is not new. But this is the first time we’ve actually identified the mechanisms that may have been involved. In discussing this with one of the proof’s authors, Qing-yu Cai said he thinks their work “supports the multiverse concept.” Whether this process would result in the exact same physical laws that we see in our own universe remains to be determined, since according to these equations only limited conditions could result in an exponentially expanding true vacuum bubble.

Another idea that’s been discussed in the past is whether or not we could ever create new universes ourselves, perhaps using something like the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). However, as Qing-yu Cai observed, “space-time of our universe is a whole, it cannot be divided into small parts arbitrarily, even at LHC.” Therefore, “it seems impossible to create new universes ourselves.”

Ultimately, this mathematical proof needs to be checked out by others and ideally put to some yet-to-be-determined tests. In the end, the work may or may not be accepted. That is, after all, how the scientific method operates. But if this proof should stand up to scrutiny, it will most certainly give us considerable new insights into the mechanisms that gave birth to our cosmos. The news of this past month demonstrates that the field of cosmology remains vibrant, with new ideas and discoveries regularly being made. Our universe and the physics at its foundation are incredibly complex and will continue to yield new knowledge about our past, present and future for a long time to come. Perhaps until the end of time.
 

Intelligent Future

A Window on the Universe’s Distant Past and Future


Today’s announcement of the detection of primordial gravitational waves is huge. The Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics gave a news conference in which it described the first ever detection of these waves which provides a window onto the very earliest stages of our universe. Gravitational waves were the last untested prediction of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. Using a specialized telescope, the research group on the BICEP2 (Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization) Project at the south pole gathered data which should only be observable from an event as massively violent as the Big Bang.

These primordial gravitational waves would’ve been generated a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, during a period known as cosmological inflation. The inflation period would’ve expanded the nascent universe many, many times faster than the speed of light and led to an extremely, yet not perfectly, smooth and uniform cosmos.

This evidence isn’t only a direct window onto the very earliest stages of the formation of our universe, it gives us new tools for studying it. Additionally, it provides major support for what’s known in physics as the Standard Model. This indicates our understanding of the cosmos is very much on track, even though there is still much for us to learn.

So why is this important to futurists? After all, this all occurred an unfathomably distant time in the past. But because this evidence allows us to more accurately model our universe’s past, it will also let us better understand it’s most distant future. As a result of today’s discovery, the evolution and ultimately the fate of our universe can be far better anticipated than ever before. It’s a discovery that many consider worthy of a Nobel prize.

Intelligent Future

Future Stories

'If the past is just a story we tell ourselves, is the future a story still waiting to be told?'
'If the past is just a story we tell ourselves, is the future a story still waiting to be told?'

'The future is a story still waiting to be told.'
'The future is a story still waiting to be told.'

Intelligent Future

The Emotional Machine and You


Continuing on the topic of affective computing, I’ve cross-posted a piece at Psychology Today and on my World Future blog. “The Emotional Machine and You” examines the issues we may face when dealing with a technology that can read, act upon and manipulate our most basic human emotions. Such devices could become capable of eliciting responses that lead to emotional bonding without any hope of reciprocation. Such a “relationship” would leave us open to easy manipulation — whether for commercial, political or other types of gain. How do we deal with such a threat without excising our most human traits?

Intelligent Future

Affective Computing and the Future of Marketing


My new article “How Your Computer Will Read You Like A Book – And Then Sell You Stuff” is up at Fast Company’s Futurist Forum. In it, I talk about ‘affective computing‘ – systems that read, interpret and even simulate human emotion. This is going to change our relationship with technology in ways you’ve probably never imagined. To my mind, one of its more interesting applications will be in the field of marketing. As human beings, we communicate volumes of information to each other via nonverbal cues – facial expressions, posture, gestures, gait. Yet for the most part, these have been inaccessible to computers. Until now. Imagine what will happen to marketing when your response can be instantly, accurately interpreted, allowing ads to be altered on-the-fly, targeting you as never before? Get ready for a Brave New Shopping Experience.