You have undoubtedly heard about the Big Bang, which is the most accepted belief about the origin of the universe. The idea that the primordial universe was smaller than the size of an atom and made of such dense and energy-rich particles that at some point, this speck could no longer contain itself. It exploded with such ferocity that it cast energy out faster than the speed of light and rapidly expanded. Its rate of expansion slowed down so that the energy converted into matter that coalesced into the stars, planets, and galaxies that populate the universe today.
String theory turns everything you thought you knew about physics on its head.
In middle school science, you probably learned about the different particles that compose atoms: electrons, protons, and neutrons. Then there’s the tinier particles inside, quarks. You also learned about other forces, such as electromagnetism (what causes magnets to stick and electrical current to flow). Don’t forget about gravity, the strong nuclear force (what causes protons to stick together despite their positive-positive repulsion). What about the weak nuclear force (which causes nuclear decay)? If you went on to high school physics, you might know something about how gravity is contained in a particle known as the graviton, similar to how light is contained in the photon. You also have neutrinos, tiny particles that are akin to electrons but lack any electrical charge.
All of these particles and forces make up the Standard Model of physics. We expect that matter is composed of particles that predictably interact with each other through mathematical formulas. The problem is that the math doesn’t explain the universe, and in particular, gravity. However, what does fit the math is replacing those particles with very, very tiny strings. These strings vibrate in different ways, and the vibrations determine what particle or force they appear to be. Imagine that they are the strings on a violin, and the way that the violinist strums them determines what note is played. The particles and forces that the Standard Model explains are musical notes played by vibrating strings.
The theory about the universe sounds simple enough, but it isn’t.
String theory emerged from attempts to move from the Standard Model to the so-called theory of everything. The idea of everything would explain, well, everything in the universe. It would, preferably, with an elegant simplicity that would enable scientists to understand every single phenomenon with precision. They could make accurate predictions about things that they don’t understand, such as black holes and the very nature of the universe itself. Nature may be elegant, but it is rarely simple. Turning those subatomic particles and forces into strings solved some of the mathematical problems caused by those pesky gravitons in the Standard Model. However, the mathematics that followed was unbelievably complicated. If you thought college-level trigonometry was hard, you haven’t seen anything. To give you an idea of how weird and complicated the math got, there needed to be at least ten different dimensions for string theory to work.
You remember dimensions from third grade, or maybe the whole concept is so basic that you take it for granted. Dimensions are how you measure something – length, width, and height. A line has one dimension because all that it has is length. A square has two surfaces because the width is added to the length. Moreover, a cube has three dimensions. We usually also measure things in terms of time — a fourth realm. We experience reality in four dimensions. So how can there be ten? Some string theory versions posit dozens of dimensions, though most of them are curled up so small that we could never hope to see them. The math gets weirder. It ultimately posits that the universe is a floating membrane and only one in a series of universes that make up the multiverse. The membrane itself has dimensions that are impossible to comprehend.
Our universe may have begun when two membranes clashed with each other.
Hopefully you are not too confused to carry on with more strange theories about the universe. Do you love that show The Big Bang Theory? So getting back to the Big Bang, one idea proposed by string theorists is that the primordial soup was not a collection of particles but rather an array of tightly wound strings. Their pent-up energy was released much like a spring is released after enough pressure is applied. This idea replaces particles with strings, so you still have the basic idea of the Big Bang. Some ideas are much stranger.
One idea produced by string theory is that multiple membrane-universes are floating around, and they are continually colliding with each other. These collisions create massive amounts of energy and radiation, enough to produce entirely new membrane-universes. This idea is known as the ekpyrotic universe, and it makes the very nature of matter so mind-boggling that we really cannot trust our senses at all. Keep reading to learn more about this universal theory and others that will blow your mind.
The problem with string theory is that it isn’t a theory.
Did you ever participate in the Science Fair? If so, you may remember that you had to conduct background research. Then, ask a question that you think you can answer through an investigation. Next, create a hypothesis about how you think the experiment will turn out. Finally, you do the experiment. Furthermore, if your experiment is cool enough and your show board attractive enough, you just may win a prize and go on to compete at increasingly higher levels of Science Fair. String theory has never produced a testable hypothesis, and there have been no experiments that can prove or disprove it.
Why? Because the strings themselves are so impossibly small that scientists cannot hope ever to measure them. If the entire solar system were one atom, just one of the strings would be a light bulb filament size. Even if lines are real, scientists may not even detect them in any meaningful way. A theory is an explanation of reality that has been proven through testable hypotheses and experimentation. String theory is not a theory. It is nothing more than a collection of mathematical formulas that attempt to explain aspects of the universe. Many scientists have moved away from string theory to produce something that can be tested and proven. The models of the universe that these scientists are making are even stranger than string theory.
The real conundrum of theoretical physics is black holes.
When Albert Einstein constructed his theories of relativity in the early twentieth century, he posited the existence of immense gravitational wells that are so dense that nothing, not even light, can escape them. These gravitational wells are now known as black holes, and they have moved from a hypothesis to fact because scientists have seen them. They occur when dying stars collapse in on themselves, and all of the star’s mass becomes contained in a tiny point. These points are so dense, containing so much matter in such a small space, that they have an infinite amount of gravity that turns them into cosmic vacuum cleaners. When something comes too close, the black hole sucks it in, and it is never seen again.
While black holes follow the laws of physics – so well that Einstein predicted their existence – they also break physics laws. Black holes have so much gravity that they cause time itself to stop. Moreover, they have absolutely no interaction with the universe that exists outside of their event horizon (the boundary within which the black hole can suck in matter and light). Black holes are kind of the ultimate guardians of the galaxy. One idea that many theoretical physicists generally accept is that as the universe decays and stars burn out – many of them collapsing into black holes – much of the information that had once been contained in our universe will be inside of black holes. In this sense, they are sort of like libraries. However, all of the pages have been torn out of the books, and the information is completely scrambled.
Black holes are part of a class of objects known as singularities. A singularity is a ball of mass that is so dense that it causes space and time to curve around it, thereby bringing time to a halt and, in a sense, becoming its own universe. One question is, what happens to the particles that get sucked into a black hole. Do they disappear altogether? Furthermore, how does matter simply disappear? This idea violates physics’ basic laws; that matter and energy can be converted but not destroyed. Perhaps black holes have twins, so-called white holes, through which the information they consume is eventually released. Stephen Hawking discovered that black holes emit small amounts of radiation, thereby gradually releasing some of the information they had previously sucked in.
Imagine a black hole is a type of library with all of the pages torn out of the books; this radiation is one page at a time getting put back into the universe. The information released by black holes is what can generally be considered a white hole. Some scientists project that white holes could also exist as singularities, but not with the gravitational monstrosities of black holes. However, they possibly contain all of the information that had once been inside the black hole. However, it is within a speck about as wide as a human hair.
The Big Bounce suggests that the universe is not a singular entity that randomly came into existence, but rather is the descendant of a parent universe. Our universe will continue expanding and existing until one day it begins to contract and then bounces into another universe. So the idea of the beginning of our universe is less that it started from nothing and more the idea of it being a child that was born, grows, and will one day have its own children.
What else do we know about the universe that will blow your mind? The Big Bang tells us that our universe came into existence through an intense release of particles and energy. The model is unable to tell us how that release happened or where the energy came from. What scientists of many different persuasions are coming to realize is that that energy very likely came from a different universe. So our universe is only one in a multiverse of possibly infinite universes that are continually generating the energy to create new universes.
Our universe may even be spawning new universes as we speak. We can’t understand these other universes, though; we may never be able to observe them. However, the presence of other universes very likely explains our own. If you are into superhero flicks like Superman and Spiderman then you probably already knew about multiverses. However, can you believe the actual science behind them? Tell your friends and shock them with your amazing universe knowledge. Keep reading, and you can thank us later.
The presence of other universes may explain dark matter.
What is dark matter? If you think back to Isaac Newton and the fundamental laws of gravity, the amount of gravity present is proportional to the mass of an object. Objects with a large mass – say, the earth – have more gravity than things with a smaller mass – say, an apple. The earth’s gravity is powerful enough to keep the moon in orbit. Likewise, you may never recognize the gravity surrounding a grapefruit. Based on this understanding, parts of galaxies that have less mass should have less gravity. Galaxies have much more mass in the center than they do towards their edges. Therefore, based on gravity laws, the expectation is that the center of a galaxy rotates much more rapidly than the edges. The problem is that the observation here does not match the prediction. Galaxies rotate uniformly, with the outer edges moving just as rapidly as the center.
Scientists are unable to detect with visible light is causing the outer edges of galaxies to have just as much gravity as the denser centers. This mysterious something is what scientists refer to as dark matter; dark matter because we cannot see it and do not understand it. Some scientists think that we will one day detect dark matter; it is present but just not visible. Other scientists suggest that dark matter may be the gravity from other universes tugging at our own. Different versions of this idea, known collectively as the MOND, or Modified Newtonian Dynamics, model. Perhaps gravity is not a weak force at all, as it appears in our universe, but it is so strong that it reaches us from an entirely separate universe.
So the universe may not be governed by its own laws.
If you think about laws that govern a country, the general assumption of those laws is that the nation is sovereign. In other words, it creates its own rules and is not subject to the laws of other countries. Nevertheless, the concept of sovereignty has limitations because countries exist concerning other countries, and lawmakers have to account for relationships with these other countries. For example, there are laws about entering and exiting a country and what you are allowed to bring in. Some laws govern treaties made with other countries, and that helps ensure those treaties are honored.
In other words, while countries have their own rules, they also have to account for the influence of other countries’ laws. Because our universe is very likely surrounded by other countries, it is not only governed by its own laws. It is also governed by the influence of other universes with different laws because they probably have their own principles of physics under which they operate. We feel the effect of those other universes, similarly to how a country feels the impact of other countries.
Dark flow suggests that our universe is moving towards an unseen point.
Our universe is continuously expanding; it has been growing ever since the Big Bang. It may continue extending until it either dies or begins to contract (creating another Big Bounce). Right now, our universe is expanding at an ever-increasing rate, meaning that galaxies are continually moving apart from each other at accelerating speeds. The easiest way to think about expansion is to imagine a beach ball that is a little bit flat. You blow more air into it, and it expands in a nice, clean sphere.
In this paradigm, the universe is a beach ball that is limitless and can keep growing in the same perfectly spheroidal shape. The problem is that observations do not fit that model. Some scientists have observed that many clusters of galaxies seem to be moving in the same direction, towards something that is not part of the beach-ball universe. Scientists refer to this movement as “dark flow” because similar to dark matter, they do not understand what is causing it. Keep reading to learn more about dark flow and other theories of the universe that will blow your mind.
Dark flow is attracting galaxies towards something beyond the observable universe.
To start with, dark flow is a controversial concept, and the scientific community is split on whether it is real. Scientists studying the same data have come to different conclusions, so significantly more research needs to be done. For “dark flow” to become part of any theory, it will need to generate hypotheses that can be tested through experimentation. If dark flow is real, then it is causing clusters of galaxies towards something that is outside of the observable universe. The observable universe is that which we can detect, but we know that the universe is far bigger than what even our best satellites can apprehend.
There is much to the universe that we may never understand, simply because the universe is so vast and continuing to grow. Some scientists think that a gravitational relic of the Big Bang, outside of the observable universe, is what is causing dark flow. This relic may be a large amount of mass that is creating a lot of gravity; that mass may no longer exist, but it is still exerting a gravitational pull that is just now being felt by these galaxies that are drifting towards it.
However, the source may be outside of the universe.
Some scientists believe that gravity is generated outside of our universe by another part of the multiverse. Also, that this force is so strong that it acts upon our universe in critical ways. We experience gravity as a weak force – the gravity of the earth is so weak that you overcome it every time you take a step – but this may simply be because its source is so far away. However, is there more to it than that? As in a tug into another realm that exists outside over our own universe.
Perhaps the gravitational pull that is causing dark flow is outside of the universe, possibly the same place generating all of the gravity that we experience. Instead of a beach-ball universe, imagine a giant magnet outside of the universe. Furthermore, you should think that it is pulling everything in it in a specific direction. What is that magnet? We don’t know. Keep reading to learn more about the mysterious secrets of the universe. For example, is a multiverse possible outside the realm of comic book characters and cartoon?
The idea of a multiverse has some strange implications.
If there are numerous universes spread across a multiverse, and these universes keep producing baby universes, theoretically, there is an infinite number of universes. Different laws of physics may govern these other universes, so for example, instead of falling downward, objects may fall upwards. Time may flow backward, meaning that everything in that universe ages in reverse, like The Strange Case of Benjamin Button. An infinite number of universes means an endless number of possibilities from an infinite way of arranging particles, atoms, and the forces that govern them. As such, some universes contain exact copies of you and me.
We have doppelgangers, not on this planet, but in other universes. Also, these doppelgangers may be making the choices that we desire. Do you wish that you had studied something else in college? In another universe, you did. In another universe, you fell in love with a different person, pursued another career, made all kinds of other life choices. Somewhere, in some distant universe, a copy of you made the choices that you wish you had made and is reaping the consequences, for better or for worse. Is that idea at all unsettling? Don’t worry. There is no way to travel between universes. Your otherworldly doppelganger will never find you here and won’t invade your life.
Nevertheless, the idea of a simulation universe is even more unsettling.
Video game creators do something every day that has become so common that we take it for granted. They create programs that are simulation universes. These simulation universes, contained inside video games, follow the rules that were programmed into them. Anyone with the necessary hardware can enter into the universe and play the game. That’s a scientific way of saying that the people who make games for the Super Mario Brothers franchise create different lands full of Koopas and magic mushrooms and pipes that Mario and Luigi can travel through. And then the person playing the video game tries to navigate the hero through all of the obstacles to defeat Bowser, or whatever enemy is at hand, and win.
Some scientists claim that our universe may be a simulation that was programmed by some hyper-intelligent alien beings. In other words, the entire universe is the programmed version of earth depicted in The Matrix or a type of video game that some bored middle-school alien is playing. If this hypothesis is correct, then the nature of reality is not found in the matter and energy that we experience within this universe. Things like particles are all part of the universe’s program. Studying particles and energy is just learning the rules that were programmed into the universe; the nature of reality is found in the alien beings who created it.
The idea sounds like we are at the mercy of our creator.
Religious texts, such as the Bible’s book of Genesis, posit that a supernatural God created the heavens and the earth, presumably – in light of modern science that recognizes space to be much larger than our ancient ancestors could have possibly conceived – the universe. In a sense, the idea of a simulation universe recasts this idea in science and mathematics rather than faith. There are ways of testing out the hypothesis of a simulation universe, though none of these methods are currently feasible through modern science. One is the same way that the heroes in The Matrix realized that they were being tracked down: there was a glitch in the computer program. What would a glitch look like in a simulation universe?
That question is impossible to answer because there are so many anomalies that scientists are attempting to explain. However, the idea that we are experiencing is a simulation of a greater reality has immense implications. What if our intelligence is just a simulation? Is it real? Are we real, any more real than the characters in the video games that we play? Moreover, if this idea is real, then is the universe itself and our very existence just one cruel joke? Not necessarily. People of faith have long believed that a creator is behind the universe’s existence. Furthermore, a creator probably made a multiverse. This faith has amplified their ability to apply meaning to life. While some scientists are very hesitant about drawing a connection between a simulation universe and religious beliefs, there is comfort to be found in a metaphysical understanding of reality that includes a creator.
The universe as a giant hologram is just as bizarre.
A hologram (at least as we can experience one) is a two-dimensional depiction of a three-dimensional world. Whenever you watch a movie at a theater, you are experiencing a hologram. The film’s information is contained in the device that is projecting it; you are just watching a two-dimensional representation of that information. One of the bizarre ways that black holes break the laws of physics is that, according to some scientists, they function as holograms. The basic idea is that the event horizon – the area surrounding the black hole – contains an imprint of the information that the black hole devours. The event horizon functions as a two-dimensional replica of what is inside the three-dimensional black hole.
Black holes appear to break all of the physics laws. Perhaps they are demonstrating the laws of physics on a much more basic, fundamental level. The mathematics here starts to get weird. However, theoretical physicists have shown how the information inside an object – such as the particles and energy that make up the universe – can be encoded on its surface. As such, a two-dimensional surface becomes the means of interpreting the information contained in a three-dimensional world. String theory provides a lot of the math here, and many models of the holographic universe are based on string theory. Remember that string theory’s biggest weakness is that it is not a theory; however, it may be accurately predicting observable phenomena, such as the holographic universe.
Perhaps. The world that we experience in three dimensions, plus the fourth dimension of time, might be the imprint of a greater reality taking place on the edge of the universe. However, living your life as if everything is an illusion is a challenging prospect; if you feel hungry or feel tired, you should probably treat those feelings as real experiences and eat something or get some rest. Is there any meaning to life if reality is just an illusion? Again, people of faith have long asserted that there is a greater reality than the one that we presently experience. Also, that the greater reality is the one that we will ultimately return to.
While scientists are not trying to affirm (or disprove) these beliefs, we can take comfort in how people of faith have found meaning in this greater reality. Perhaps the bizarre nature of reality and what theoretical physics is showing may be true is a reason to begin attending church instead of rejecting it! However, nihilism is a philosophy that has also long asserted that life is an illusion of sorts, and nihilists believe that life is ultimately meaningless. Whether a holographic universe makes life meaningless or meaningful is up to the interpreter.
If there are so many universes in the multiverse, then why is ours how it is, with its laws of physics that can create worlds, like our Earth, capable of supporting life? Here scientists can draw on something that is much more comforting and easier to understand than the holographic universe: the anthropic principle. The anthropic principle says that we live in a universe that is the way it is because this particular universe is the one that was ideal for human life to develop on a planet called earth.
Other universes follow physics laws that are not conducive to the development of life, so for obvious reasons, we do not live in those universes. Some scientists dismiss the anthropic principle as unscientific because it produces no hypotheses that can be tested through experimentation. However, the principle functions on a philosophical level: We are here to experience and study and understand this particular universe because this specific universe is just right for us to exist within it. Keep reading to learn more about the concept of free will.
Here is an interesting concept that you probably never thought about before. The idea of free will. The very foundation of how Western people understand themselves is that they have the freedom to act in a certain way, choose between various options, and, perhaps most importantly, the freedom to create their own destiny. After all, the choices that we make matter; where you went to college and what you chose to study were probably the most decisive factors in the job that you took.
If you are married, presumably, you agreed to marry your partner. Otherwise, you would have been forced into a marriage against your will, an antiquated and abusive practice associated with religious fundamentalism. So, of course, you have free will. Even if you cannot always change your surroundings, you can always choose to act to create the best possible outcome. Keep reading to learn more about the concepts of free will and how it plays a role in our universe. Hopefully you have some extra time today to process what you are about to discover.
Determinism compared to free will is a thought-provoking concept.
Some physicists say that free will itself is an illusion. Determinism is a philosophical concept that states that all future events have already been pre-determined based on past events. There are so many different factors associated with how and why things happen a certain way that the small choices that you and I make ultimately make very little difference if any at all. For example, take the choice that you may think you are making between a blue sweater and a red sweater. Nevertheless, what are the circumstances that caused you to have those two sweaters in the first place? You had to have somehow come into enough material wealth to be able to buy enough clothes that you can choose between two equally good options.
Furthermore, where did those two sweaters come from in the first place? Possibly from cotton that someone other than you harvested or from sheep that someone other than you raised. Moreover, you probably did not create the dye that was used in the sweaters. Your choice between sweaters is based on the preferences that other people made. Also, the fact that cotton and sheep even exist. Now imagine that you feel particularly nostalgic, and you have enjoyable memories associated with the color blue. Without even realizing what you are doing or why you select the blue sweater. How much of that choice was your own conscious free will? According to many philosophers, as well as physicists, none at all.
The illusion of free will may be part of the universe’s physics.
Our bodies are composed of the same particles that make up the fabric of the universe: atoms. These are the product of electrons, protons, and neutrons, which themselves are made up of quarks and, possibly, strings. For some scientists, the idea of free will being an illusion is not just philosophy; it is physics. Let’s change scales and imagine that the universe we know and love is an infinitely large loaf of bread. The loaf’s three-dimensional shape represents the three dimensions of space, and each slice of bread represents a moment in time. The entire loaf is present at all moments, and the past, present, and future are just separate events that co-exist within the same loaf.
Is your mind blown yet? Some physicists suggest that this analogy demonstrates that time itself does not pass how we think it does and that the future has already occurred; we just have not experienced it yet. So do our choices matter? Perhaps. Nevertheless, our options are much more heavily constrained than we may like to believe that they are. However, the illusory nature of free will does not take away personal responsibility for how the particles that compose our bodies and minds behave. We can still go to court and face a prison sentence if we steal. Likewise, we will face eviction if we do not pay the rent or the mortgage. Saying that free will is not real will likely do nothing to help your case.
The real question that many people ask: Is there a God?
The question of God’s existence is not a scientific one. Why? Because scientists cannot develop a hypothesis about God and then test out that hypothesis through experimentation. However, scientists – including those who are not particularly religious – are saying with increasing frequency that the way that they understand the universe does allow for the possibility of God. Ultimately, the question is a spiritual one that people will have to answer without scientific precision. When breakthroughs in theoretical physics have caused their worldviews to collapse, people searching for meaning may take comfort in the belief in God.
However, their perception of God will have to be much greater than the understanding produced by religious fundamentalists. A God that can co-exist in the bizarre world of the true nature of reality and the bombshells of theoretical physics will have to be large indeed. This God will have to not depend on whether or not we have free will. The universe is indeed a hologram. Also, the Big Bang was one event of many in the creation of universes within a multiverse. However, a search for God may be our greatest search for meaning in an otherwise meaningless and random universe.