Category Archives: Cosmology (general)

Back at Cambridge

This week I’m back in Cambridge University, attending  a cosmology conference at  DAMTP, the famous Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics. I’m delighted to be back – Cambridge is only a short hop from Dublin and it is such a great place to visit, with its beautiful colleges, bijou shops and lively student life. I arrived late in the afternoon, and walked to the town centre in a light rain; tourists everywhere were complaining about the English weather but I thought the rain and the falling light set the scene perfectly as I walked along past the ancient colleges.

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St John’s College in the rain this evening

This time around I’m staying in Clare College, one of the oldest colleges in the university. Its beautiful front quad is just off Kings’ parade to the front, while the back of the college straddles the River Cam all the way back to the University Library. The rooms are lovely (no tv – wouldn’t have it otherwise). In fact, working at my little desk and watching the rain across the quad makes me feel quite nostalgic, like a student again – perhaps in another universe there is a younger me starting out in this fabulous university .

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Clare College in the daytime

The conference, Infinities and Cosmology,  is not on theoretical or experimental cosmology, but on the philosophy of cosmology. It forms part of a new Oxford-Cambridge initiative  aimed at bringing physicists and philosophers together in order to improve our understanding  of the universe and its origins, from exploring the meaning of the initial singularity to the philosophical implications of theories such as cosmic inflation and the multiverse. This particular conference was organised by John Barrow , Jeremy Butterfield and David Sloan, names that carry a lot of weight in the intersection of physics and philosophy, and visiting speakers include other heavy hitters such as Anthony  Aguirre, Mihalis Dafermos, George  Ellis and Simon  Saunders. You can see the conference program here.

That said, mixing philosophy with physics is not an approach that meets with universal approval – Stephen Hawking once declared that  ‘philosophy is dead’, while Laurence Krauss has also been pretty scathing about the contribution of philosophers to physics.  Both are physicists I hugely respect, but I think this initiative is more about making physicists aware of their deepest assumptions than about  converting philosophers into cosmologists.  Also, those of us with an interest in the history of cosmology notice that scientific progress has often been hindered by unexamined philosophies – from Aristotle’s geocentric model of the solar system to Harlow Shapley’s faith in a single-galaxy model, from Einstein’s assumption of a static universe to the steady-state universe of Hoyle, Bondi and Gold. More recently, I have long suspected that some of the resistance to inflationary models arises from a simple dislike of the exceedingly large numbers involved – an objection that is understandable, but not really tenable from a philosophical point of view.

So I’m not expecting that philosophers will suddenly shine light on well-known problems in big bang physics – it’s more that we physicists can profit by examining the philosophical assumptions we operate under. In general,  scientists  are pretty good at being aware of underlying scientific assumptions, but sometimes a general philosophical viewpoint is often overlooked precisely because it is so widespread. Another  advantage is that philosophy gives us a useful language in which to articulate underlying assumptions.

To give one example, consider the following. The  ‘big bang ‘ model predicts a universe that was once in a hot, tiny, dense state,  expanding and cooling ever since. There is a great deal of evidence to support this model, but it runs into mathematical difficulties as time zero is approached (part of the problem is that we do not have a theory to describe gravity on the smallest or ‘quantum’ scales).  These are technical problems that every cosmologist battles with, but they might one day be resolved, leaving us with a consistent theory of a universe with a definite beginning. In that case, questions that few physicists ever consider become very important:

–          In a universe with a definite beginning, when did the laws of physics becomes the laws of physics?  Were they somehow ‘born’ with the universe, or did they come into being at a later stage. In other words are they emergent, rather than fundamental? If so, what entity or entities did they emerge from?

–          Could it be that space and time themselves are not fundamental but also emergent? In other words, is it possible that space and time were not born with the universe, but are made up of something more fundamental than either? (One clue here is Einstein’s discovery that space and time are not absolute but affected by motion and by gravity).  Could it be that they are non-fundamental as well as non-static?

–          If so, doesn’t this create problems of causality in the case of time?

This is just a flavour of the sort of questions one encounters in the philosophy of cosmology.  Right now, I’d better turn in so I’m wide awake for  tomorrow. In the first lecture, George Ellis, one of the world’s leading theoretical cosmologists, will give a talk ‘Infinites of age and size, including issues in global topology’ .  I suspect I’ll need my wits about me….

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Cosmic fingerprints at Trinity College Dublin

I was back in my alma mater Trinity College Dublin on Monday evening in order to catch a superb public lecture, ‘ Fingerprinting the Universe’ , by Andrew Liddle, Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Edinburgh. The talk was presented by Astronomy Ireland, Ireland’s largest astronomy club and there was a capacity audience (despite the threat of snow) in the famous Schrödinger lecture theatre in the Fitzgerald Building, Trinity’s physics department.

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Professor Liddle was introduced by David Moore, Chairman of Astronomy Ireland, who also presented an update of the club’s recent activities  (David and I participated in a discussion of the life and science of Sir Isaac Newton on NEWSTALK radio station the evening before, you can hear a podcast of the show here). Anyone with an interest in cosmology will be familiar with Andrew Liddle’s seminal textbook ‘ An Introduction to Modern Cosmology’, (not to mention several other books) and the ensuing lecture certainly didn’t disappoint.

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Starting with a tribute to the work of both Schrödinger and Fitzgerald, Andrew gave a brief outline of today’s cosmology, showing how it has moved from a rather speculative subject to a mature field of study. He attributed this progress to key advances in three main areas: precision observations by satellite, sophisticated theoretical models and high performance computing for both analysis and simulation.

He then described five specific challenges that any successful model of the cosmos must address –  the expanding universe;  the formation of structure (galaxies etc);  the age of the universe; the composition of the universe (baryonic matter, radiation, neutrinos, dark matter and dark energy);  a consistent description of the very early universe (cosmic inflation or alternatives).

As ever, many in the audience were surprised to hear that, while dark energy is estimated to make up about 73% of the mass-energy content of the universe, we have very little idea of the nature of this phenomenon!

In the second part of the lecture, Andrew focused on the cosmic microwave background (CMB), explaining how the study of this ‘fossil radiation’  gives precious information on the early universe,  and in particular describing how tiny non-uniformities (or anisotropies) imprinted on the radiation formed the seeds of today’s galaxies (‘cosmic finger-printing’). There followed a swift description of results of CMB studies by the COBE and WMAP satellite missions, with a reminder that more recent measurements by the European Space Agency’s   PLANCK Satellite Observatory  will be announced next week. He also reminded us how, amongst other triumphs, the theory of inflation gives a very satisfactory explanation for the origin of the variations in the background radiation terms of quantum fluctuations in the very early universe. This link between inflation and galaxy formation is often under-stated in the popular literature; in answer to a query from me question time, Andrew confirmed that non-inflationary explanations for the origins of the observed variations in the microwave background have not been very successful. It’s pretty impressive that inflation can give an explanation for the origin of structure, given that this was not part of the original motivation for the theory.

ESA's Planck mission

The ESA’s PLANCK Satellite will report new measurements of the cosmic microwave background on March 21st this month

All in all, a fantastic talk, well worth the trip; afterwards, we all repaired to a nearby pub for sandwiches and further discussion of the universe over hot ports and Guinness…

P.S. In his discussion of the discovery of the expanding universe, I was pleased to see Professor Liddle refer to the work of Vesto Slipher; it seems that recent historical work on the important contribution of Slipher is finding its way into the mainstream community.

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VM Slipher and the expanding universe

In an earlier post, I mentioned an upcoming  conference in Arizona to celebrate the pioneering work of the American astronomer Vesto Slipher. As mentioned previously, 2012 marks the centenary of Slipher’s observation that light from the Andromeda nebula was Doppler shifted, a finding he interpreted as evidence of a radial velocity for the nebula. By 1917, he had established that the light from many of the distant nebulae is redshifted, i.e. shifted to lower frequency than normal. This was the first  indication that the most distant objects in the sky are moving away at significant speed, and it was an important step on the way to the discovery of the expanding universe.

Vesto Melvin Slipher (1875-1969)

The conference turned out to be very informative and enjoyable, with lots of interesting presentations from astronomers, historians and science writers. It’s hard to pick out particular talks from such a great lineup, but three highlights for me were Einstein, Eddington and the 1919 Eclipse Expedition by Peter Coles, Georges Lemaitre: A Personal Profile by John Farrell and Slipher’s redshifts as support for de Sitter’s universe? by Harry Nussbaumer. The latter compared the importance of the contributions of Slipher, Hubble, Einstein, De Sitter, Friedmann and Lemaitre (to mention but a few) and was a focal point for the conference. My own talk ‘Who discovered the expanding universe? – an open bus tour’ was quite similar to Harry’s , with some philosophy of science thrown in, while Micheal Way’s talk Dismantling Hubble’s Legacy? also touched on similar ground.  However, there was little danger of overlap since viewpoints and conclusions drawn from the material varied quite widely! You can see the conference program here.

A slide from Peter Cole’s talk on the Eddington eclipse experiment

A slide from John Farrell’s talk showing a postcard from Lemaitre to Slipher, announcing the former’s visit to the Lowell observatory

Harr Nussbaumer, author of ‘The Discovery of the Expanding Universe’,  in action

Front slide of my own presentation

The best aspect of the conference was the question and answer session after each talk. There was quite a divergence of opinion amongst the delegates concerning the relative importance of the various scientists in the story, which made for great discussions (though I suspect that much of the argument arises from differing views concerning the role of the theoretician vs the role of the experimentalist). You can see a list of speakers and abstracts for the talks here and the slides for my own talk are here.

There was plenty of material here for the relativist; indeed, quite a bit of discussion concerned the relative contributions of Friedmann and Lemaitre (told you it was a good conference). In particular, the Israeli mathematician Ari Belenkiy gave a defence of Friedmann’s work in his talk Alexander Friedmann and the Origin of Modern Cosmology, pointing out that the common assertion that Friedmann took no interest in practical matters is simply untrue, given his work in meteorology, and that the relevant astronomical data was not widely available to Europeans at the time. I must admit I share Ari’s view to some extent; I’m always somewhat in awe of a theoretician who describes all possible solutions to a problem (in this case the universe), as opposed to one solution that seems to chime with experiments of the day.

Title slide of Ari’s talk on Friedmann

The conference also included a trip to the Lowell observatory, including a view of the spectrograph used by Slipher for his groundbreaking measurements and a peep through the famous 24-inch Clark telescope which remains in operation to this day. We were also treated to a few scenes from Dava Sobel’s upcoming play based on her book on Copernicus, read by Dava herself and the eminent Harvard science historian Owen Gingerich.

The famous spectograph, perfectly preserved

Slipher’s telescope remains in use today

Dava Sobel and Professor Owen Gingerich reading from her new play at the Lowell observatory

All in all, a superb conference, definitely worth the long trip (Dublin-Chicago-Phoenix-Flagstaff). Earlier in the week, I gave a longer version of my talk at the BEYOND centre at Arizona State University in Phoenix; I was afraid some of the theoreticians in Larry Krauss’s  group might find it a bit equation-free, but they seemed to enjoy it. Larry and Paul Davies have a fantastic operation going on at the BEYOND centre, but I have to say the ambience and surroundings  at Flagstaff are probably more suitable for a European – much nicer weather!

Many thanks to Ari Belenkiy for the photographs. You can find more descriptions of the conference on John Farrell’s Forbes blog, and on Peter Coles’s  In The Dark blog.

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September conference: origins of the expanding universe

A conference next month will celebrate the pioneering work of the American astronomer Vesto Slipher. On September 13-15th, the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, will host the conference The Origins of the Expanding Universe to commemmorate the hundredth anniversary of Slipher’s measurements of the motion of the distant nebulae; see here for the conference website.

As readers of this blog will know, Slipher observed that the light from many of the distant nebulae was redshifted, i.e. shifted to lower frequency than normal. This was the first  indication that the distant nebulae are moving away at significant speed and it was an important hint that some nebulae are in fact distinct galaxies far beyond our own Milky Way (see cosmology 101 section). A few years later, Edwin Hubble combined Slipher’s redshift results with his own measurements of distance to establish that there is a linear relation between the distance to a galaxy and its rate of recession; the relation became known as Hubble’s law although it probably should be called the Hubble/Slipher law.

The Hubble/Slipher discovery of the recession of the galaxies  was a key step along the road to the discovery of the expanding universe, but the two are not quite the same thing; for the latter, one needs to situate the phenomenon in the context of the general theory of relativity (according to relativity, the galaxies appear to be moving away from one another because space is expanding). The Belgian physicist Georges Lemaitre was the first to make the connection between the relativistic universe and the observed recession of the galaxies, although his contribution is often overlooked. A major thrust of the conference is to explore exactly such distinctions; looking at the lineup, it looks like an intriguing mixture of cosmologists, astronomers and historians.

All this is highly relevant to my yet-to-be-completed book so after a long, wet summer at WIT, I’m off to sunny Arizona next month!  My own talk is titled ‘Who discovered the expanding universe?’ and I intend to compare and contrast the contributions of various pioneers such as Slipher, Hubble, Humason, Friedmann and Lemaitre. You can see a list of speakers and abstracts for the talks here.

Many thanks to Peter Coles of In the Dark for drawing the conference to my attention.

Update

Going on holiday just as classes start back? Nice job – Ed.

Sigh. I haven’t had a day off all summer and this is not a holiday.

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Astronomy and cosmology at Birr Castle

Yesterday, I travelled to historic Birr Castle in the centre of Ireland in order to catch the end of the annual meeting of the Astronomical Science Group of Ireland. Birr Castle is a great setting for an astronomy meeting –  not only is it a beautiful castle with fantastic grounds, it is also an important landmark in the history of astronomy. The castle was the home of the famous Leviathan, a reflecting telescope that was the largest instrument of its kind in the world for many years. The telescope was built in the 1840s by Lord Parsons, the third Earl of Rosse, and featured  a 72-inch mirror, a marvel of engineering at the time.  He made many important discoveries with the instrument, not least the first observation of the spiral structure of some of the distant nebulae and the detection of stars within the nebulae. Indeed, the Earl was one of the first to propose that the nebulae were entire galaxies distinct from our own, a hypothesis that was not definitely established until Hubble’s measurements with the 100-inch Hooker telescope at Mt Wilson in California.

Birr Castle in Co.Offaly

The Leviathan telescope at Birr castle

There were a great many interesting talks over the two days of the meeting (see program here), but I was there to catch ‘The Search for Polarization Fluctuations in the Cosmic Microwave Background’ by Creidhe O’Sullivan of NUI Maynooth. Creidhe started with a basic overview of the cosmic microwave background (CMB), explaining its importance as evidence in support of the big bang model and describing the measurements of temperature fluctuations in the radiation by the COBE and WMAP satellites. (The CMB is the primordial radiation left over from the time that atoms first began to form. Cosmologists and astronomers spend a great deal of time studying the tiny temperature fluctuations imprinted in the CMB, as this gives information on the density and geometry of the early universe, see the Cosmology 101 section of this blog.)

Creidhe then moved on to explain the study of polarization in the background radiation. The CMB radiation is expected to be polarized because it comprises light that has been scattered by many particles; when light is scattered, it gets polarized into different planes of vibration. (Polaroid sunglasses operate on the same principle; they cut down on light by allowing only light polarised in one plane to pass through). Hence cosmologists search for fluctuations in polarization as well as temperature in the CMB, although the polarization fluctuations are much smaller. Mathematically speaking, the polarization is divided into two modes: electric (E –mode) and magnetic (B-mode) polarisation. E-modes have been detected since 2003; the analysis of these modes has become a major area of research in cosmology. Creidhe gave a superb overview of the instruments used to analyse the E- modes, including the work of her own group with the QuaD experiment at the South Pole.

The QUaD experiment at the South Pole

She finished the talk by explaining that the next big challenge in cosmology is the detection of B–mode polarization in the background radiation. B-modes present a great challenge as they are yet more difficult to detect. The great hope here is that the PlANCK satellite telescope, with its improved resolution. Just as the COBE satellite results were a watershed in our view of the early universe, the resolution of B-mode polarization in the CMB by PLANCK would give yet more support for the big bang model and cosmic inflation, and even offer evidence for the existence of gravity waves.

The Planck satellite telescope

That is not to say terrestrial experiments will not have their place. After Creidhe’s talk, another member of the Maynooth group, Stephen Scully, gave a brief overview of the team’s work on the QUBIC experiment. This is a new type of the bolometric interferometer that will be used in the next generation of terrestrial measurements at the South Pole.

All in all, a most informative afternoon. After the talks, we were shown the site in the castle grounds where a new radiotelescope is to be situated. This will form the Irish node of the international LOFAR astronomy project, bringing Birr castle up to date with modern astronomy – more on this in the next post.

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A tribute to Stephen Hawking

RTE radio recorded an interview with me today on the subject of Stephen Hawking. I’m told it’s to have on file so I trust they don’t know something I don’t! Whatever the reason, it’s nice to have the opportunity to pay tribute to a living legend. Below is a script I prepared the interview; we only used a small part.

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Q: Who is he?

Stephen Hawking is a famous English physicist at Cambridge University known for his work in cosmology, the study of the universe. In particular, he is admired for his work on black holes and on the big bang model of the origin of the universe.

Q: Why is he so famous?

Einstein used to be the only famous scientist of modern times, but Stephen Hawking has inherited that role. I like to think that one reason is his field of study; there seems to be a public fascination with scientific concepts such as the big bang and the nature of space and time (it’s hardly a coincidence that much of Einstein’s work was in this field).

Another reason may be Hawking’s disability. He was diagnosed with motor neuron disease (ALS) in his early 20s and given two years to live. The story of a brilliant mind trapped in a crippled body has universal appeal, and the wheelchair-bound figure communicating deep ideas by voice synthesizer has become an icon of science.

Then there’s the book. In the 1980s, Hawking published A Brief History of Time, a book on the big bang aimed at the general public  – it quickly became an unprecedented science bestseller and made him a household name. Since then, he has devoted a great deal of time to science outreach, unusual for a scientist at this level.

Q: Where is he from?

He was born in London in 1942, the son of two academics, and studied physics at Oxford. He wasn’t outstanding as an undergraduate but he did well enough to be accepted for postgraduate research in Cambridge. There, he became interested in cosmology, in particular in the battle being waged at Cambridge between the ‘big bang’ and ‘eternal universe’ theories. He showed early promise as a postgraduate when he demonstrated that Fred Hoyle, a famous cosmologist and prominent exponent of the eternal universe, had made a mathematical error in his work.

Q: Can you say a little about Hawking’s science?

His work is focused mainly on phenomena such as black holes and the big bang. Such phenomena are described by Einstein’s theory of relativity, which predicts that space and time are not fixed but affected by gravity. (In the case of black holes, relativity predicts that space is so distorted by gravity that energy,even light, cannot escape. In the case of the universe at large, relativity predicts that our universe started in a tiny, extremely hot state and has been expanding and cooling ever since; the so-called big bang model).

However, relativity does not work well on very small scales; this is the realm of quantum physics. Hawking’s lifelong work concerns the attempt to obtain a better picture of the universe by combining relativity (used to describe space and time) with quantum physics (used to describe the world of the very small).

He first established his reputation by defining the problem; with the mathematician Roger Penrose, he showed that relativity predicts that, under almost all conditions, an expanding universe such as our own must begin in a singularity i.e. a point of infinite density and temperature. This is not physically realistic and suggests that relativity on its own does not provide a true picture of the universe.

In later work, Hawking focused on black holes (a black hole is something like a big bang in reverse and may therefore offer clues to the puzzle of the origin of the universe). Successfully combining general relativity with quantum physics for this special case, Hawking was able to predict that black holes are not entirely black; instead they emit some energy in the form of radiation, now known as HawkingBekenstein radiation.  Most physicists are convinced by the logic and beauty of this result but Hawking radiation will be difficult to measure experimentally as it is predicted to be extremely weak.

My favourite Hawking contribution is the no-boundary universe. Working with James Hartle, he used a combination of relativity and quantum physics to predict that our universe may not have had a definite point of beginning because time itself may not be well-defined in the intense gravitational field of the infant universe!

Q: Is Hawking another Einstein?

No. Einstein made a great many contributions to diverse areas of physics. Also, relativity fundamentally changed our understanding of space and time, with profound implications for all of science and philosophy.(For example, the big bang model is merely one prediction of relativity). It’s hard for any scientist to compete with this.

Q: Why has Hawking not been awarded a Nobel prize?

He has received many prestigious awards, but not a Nobel. It’s quite difficult for a modern theoretician to win the prize because Nobel committees put great emphasis on experimental evidence. While we now have strong evidence that black holes exist, Hawking radiation will be very difficult to detect as it is predicted to be extremely weak.

Q; What is he working on these days?

At a conference in Dublin a few years ago, Hawking suggested a possible solution to the information paradox, a controversy over whether information is lost in black holes. The jury is still out on his solution. He is also involved with the theory of the cyclic universe, a theory that suggests there many have been many bangs.

Q: What lies in the future for Hawking?

Who knows. Last month, he celebrated his 70th birthday with a prestigious conference at Cambridge, 50 years after his terminal diagnosis. However, he was too ill to attend in person, reviving fears about his health. For now, he continues to work as ever, defying the predictions of modern medicine…

P.S. What’s all this about Hawking and God?

A Brief History of Time famously concludes with the phrase ‘‘..and then we would know the mind of God’’. At the time, many commentators interpreted this statement to mean that Hawking was religious. However, he was being mischievous – it is clear from other writings that he is not a believer in the normal sense. Indeed, his most recent book, The Grand Design, provoked controversy by stating that ‘‘It is not necessary to invoke God to set the universe going.” This statement was interpreted widely as a dismissal of God – in fact, it reflects standard cosmology (something can indeed arise from ‘nothing’) and says nothing about the existence of God.

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The big bang: is it true?

On Monday evening, I gave a big bang talk to the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. I really like the way there is a single graduate school for both arts and science at Harvard, what a great interdisciplinary mix. The school has its own activity center, Dudley House ; the house is non-residential but modeled on the residential houses at Harvard, with its own building (Lehman Hall) complete with coffee shop, canteen, senior common room, games room, and a beautiful and quiet library with a fantastic view of Harvard Square.  It is served by two faculty masters, an administrative staff and graduate student fellows who organize activities for the School’s 4,000 Masters and PhD candidates. In truth, I spend a good deal of time at Dudley House – perhaps it’s the wide variety of disciplines that makes for such interesting conversations.

Dudley House, home of the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

The talk was titled The Big Bang; Is It True? and it was great fun, with a drinks reception, a really nice dinner, a 40-min spiel from me and then almost an hour of questions from the audience. There were postgrads there from history, literature, psychology, philosophy, astronomy and other fields. Apparently, tickets sold out within hours of the posters going up, it shows the interest in the subject.

Of course, no scientist can give a definitive answer to the question I posed. Instead, I laid out a brief history of the discovery of the evidence supporting the big bang model (the expanding universe, the composition of the elements and the cosmic microwave background), followed by an outline of recent puzzles that have arisen from modern studies of the microwave background. I like a quasi-chronological approach to such talks, I think it makes the discoveries and concepts easier to understand, and at the same time it gives the audience a great feel for the surprises nature has in store for scientists. As for truth, the audience can decide for themselves.

You can see the full slideshow at https://coraifeartaigh.wordpress.com/my-seminars/

I really enjoyed the questions and discussion afterward; not for the first time, it struck me that you get very interesting questions and comments from a wide interdisciplinary audience (it doesn’t hurt if they are Harvard PhD candidates). There was also plenty of time to touch on one of my favourite themes; that a great many scientific discoveries come as a complete surprise to the discoverers. Far from being ‘constructed’ in order to support pet theories, scientific findings are often undesirable, unexpected data that no-one knows what to make of  at first – an aspect of science that proponents of the social construction of scientific knowledge often fail to address, in my view.

All in all, it was great to interact with postgrads from so many different disciplines, I wish I could do this more often.

Questions

One of the most challenging questions came from Prof Sam Schweber, a well-known Harvard physicist and historian of science. Sam couldn’t make the talk, but he emailed me his question: What happened before the bang?

I think the answer is twofold:
1. The standard answer is that the big bang model is situated within the context of general relativity, the modern theory of gravity. Since relativity predicts that space and time form part of the universe (and are affected by motion and by mass for example), we expect that time is born at the bang along with everything else – there is no ‘before’ just as there is no north of the north pole.

2. However, cosmologists are less cocksure of this answer nowadays. This is because fundamental problems in describing the moment of the bang (the singularity) have, far from going away, got worse. The problem is due to the inapplicability of the modern theory of gravity to phenomena on the atomic or quantum scale i.e. due to the absence of a successful theory of quantum gravity. Since we have no real way of modeling the singularity, we cannot rule out the prospect of exotic phenomena such as multiple bangs. The problem is compounded by the fact that, while recent observational evidence offers support for some type of cosmic inflation close to the birth of the universe, there is (so far) no way of selecting a particular model of inflation – which leaves the door open for models such as the cyclic universe. In other words, we cannot rule out the possibility of a ‘before’ until we have a clearer picture of what happened at the bang itself.

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