Monday, March 17, 2014

Seeing God Through Physics

I don’t know if you’ve been paying attention to physics news, but physics world has been abuzz the last couple of days because scientists working at the South Pole released the results of an experiment to measure light polarization in the background radiation that pervades the universe:

The science is a little involved, but the short of it is that this result is a strong argument in favor of the theory of Cosmic Inflation, which has been steadily gaining support over the last few decades.    One of the things I love about this theory is that it gives a stunning twist to this passage from the Book of Moses:

Moses1: 4 And, behold, thou art my son; wherefore look, and I will show thee the workmanship of mine hands; but not all, for my works are without end, and also my words, for they never cease.

 5 Wherefore, no man can behold all my works, except he behold all my glory; and no man can behold all my glory, and afterwards remain in the flesh on the earth.

 9 And the presence of God withdrew from Moses, that his glory was not upon Moses; and Moses was left unto himself. And as he was left unto himself, he fell unto the earth.

 10 And it came to pass that it was for the space of many hours before Moses did again receive his natural strength like unto man; and he said unto himself: Now, for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed.

First a little background:   Inflation is a theory proposed in 1980 to explain why the universe is so homogeneous.    Imagine an ice-cold, shallow swimming pool with highly accurate temperature sensors placed every few inches.  You dump a pot of hot water into the pool, and just a few seconds later you take temperature readings and discover that everywhere you measure, the temperature is exactly 37.0001 degrees with a variation of just a few millionths of a degree.    That’s a crazy result.   How did the heat spread out over such a large area so perfectly so fast?    This is pretty much what astronomers see when they look out into space.  Everywhere they look, the sky is filled with light (radio waves) that is exactly the same temperature with very tiny variations.  It’s a mystery.  How do we explain it?

So, a physicist named Alan Guth came up with a radical proposal.   The big bang theory already suggested the universe was once incredibly tiny.  Alan suggested that the early universe was able to reach a common temperature quickly because it was so tiny, but it must have gotten very big very fast in order to spread out the temperature evenly.   People thought this was too crazy to be true at first, but several predictions were made from this theory and every one that has been tested has been experimentally verified (so far), and the latest result of the past few days is a very strong confirmation of the theory. 

Anyway, the term “inflation” is a rather innocuous word to describe something that is truly mind-boggling and astonishing.   The rate of this expansion would have been enormously exponential.  The theory says that in 10-32 seconds, the universe expanded by 50 orders of magnitude!   That is such huge rate that it is beyond any useful analogy to describe.   But just try to imagine it.  Imagine a tiny atom exploding into a ball the size of a galaxy in a billionth of a second.  Now multiply that rate by a trillion trillion trillion.  That number would still be too small.   It is a flabbergastingly large number. 

But I haven’t even gotten to the crazy part yet.

This inflating universe would have been extremely hot: 1022 degrees.  Of course, it eventually cooled down into what we can see now.  We would call this a “bubble” in the fiery hot expanding soup.   When we look out at the sky and see all those galaxies that stretch for billions of light years, we are looking at just a portion of this bubble.   What we are able to see is defined by the age of the universe and the speed of light.   Since light has a limited speed we can only see the parts of the universe that have had enough time for the light to reach us.  The universe of galaxies, planets, and stars is much, much larger than what we can possibly see, because all of those objects are so far away that their light hasn’t reached us yet.    Based on measurements of the cosmic background radiation, physicists have determined a lower bound for this number: 196 Billion light years.    The diameter of the volume that we can see is 26 billion light years.  That’s less than 1% of the minimum size of that bubble I mentioned earlier- the minimum size -  Some physicists think the bubble is millions and millions of times larger than that minimum size.

But I still haven’t gotten to the crazy part.

In recent decades, Cosmic Inflation theory has pointed in the direction of a concept called “Eternal Inflation”.    The idea of this is that the rate of inflation is much faster than the rate of cooling, so there is always a part of the universe that is inflating, far beyond the cooled boundaries of the part we live in.  And remember, the rate of this inflation is that huge unfathomable number!   Every second that passes, this inflating portion of the universe is growing by that amazing rate.   And in that inflating portion, parts of it are condensing all the time into other bubble universes like our own.    The implication is that there would be a vast number of isolated bubble universes, separated by a rapidly inflating see of hot material that can make yet more universes at an exponentially increasing rate.  

I think of poor Moses, who probably thought the universe consisted of the earth, and maybe a sphere of stars around it… if he went from that to seeing the kind of universe that is coming into view now… no wonder he fell over.   It fills me with awe to imagine that these are the works of God’s hands.