Tuesday afternoon I read something that's bound to keep me up nights. It compared the knowable universe--your child's cowlick, yesterday's rainbow, the stars of Orion, the Scriptures, every thought ever thunk, Hanes underwear, that quaver in Patsy Cline's voice, all of history--to one great pulse of matter/energy released as if by a giant on-off switch. Moreover, it suggested our universe is like just one of many such pulsating energy waves, or universes, that fluctuate in to and out of existence from time to time, possibly "all the time," whatever that may mean.
"Universes are coming into being out of nothing all the time and will be for all time," in the words of Richard Panek, a science writer for "Esquire." Or, as one physicist put it, just before ordering out for Chinese, "Our universe is simply one of those things which happen from time to time...."
Panek's article, which carries the freighted title, "Copernicus, Galileo, Hubble, and Now... Guth," appears in the November "Esquire." It's all about Alan Guth, a name destined to echo down the ages along with, well..., Coperniucus, Galileo, Hubble, and a select group of others, such as William Herschel, Sir Isaac Newton and Einstein.
Pretty select company. Copernicus and Galileo proved the earth wasn't at the center of the universe. Herschel proved the sun was like other stars in our galaxy--drifting and circling one another like dust motes in a light beam. And Edwin Hubble demonstrated that our beloved Milky Way Galaxy is just one of billions of such galaxies....
I was with them so far, strictly in a layman's sort of way, to be sure. The math was beyond anything I could comprehend, but I could sort of wrap my mind around the idea of a universe that doubles in size every time we build a new telescope. I could grok a universe that exists in a pattern roughly like that of soapsuds. I could enjoy reading up on the latest arguments about whether the universe is "open"--destined to expand until entropy arrests it--or "closed"--destined to fall back on itself and start all over again in a new Big Bang, one that will result in 25 to 50 billion years in a reincarnated universe. I could revel in the notion of a cosmos replete with strings and black holes and worm-holes and black matter and anomalies such as stars that appear to go faster than the speed of light, and particles of matter whose very nature is changed by our efforts to observe them.
It all seemed consistent with a universe so awesome that it becomes irreducible to a single theory or -ism. So multi-faceted it dwarfs all dogma. A universe in keeping with that lyric from "Flower Drum Song," you know, "a hundred million miracles are happening every day."
But Guth, well, Guth has made it difficult to even apprehend the universe, much less comprehend it (or should I say them?).
I knew the universe was big, to use a dumb little word. I even knew it was great big. I keep up. I noticed when the Hubble Telescope implied the existence of 50 billion galaxies--each containing on average more than 200 billion stars more or less like our sun--rather than the paltry 10 billion galaxies previously proposed. And I gasped when, a year or so later, astronomers trained the Hubble on a spot at random in the Big Dipper and discovered so many new galaxies they had to increase their estimate to 120 billion. Later studies placed the number at closer to 200 billion!
But if Guth is right, and the best minds apparently agree that he is, those 200 billion galaxies, taken together, represent a mere "momentary pulse" of existence, implying that our universe is not unlike an infinite number of such universes that have winked into and out of existence in the past, and will continue to do so, time without end, amen.
Here's an infinitely reduced nutshell version of how, in 1979, Guth came up with his theory. Scientists had been grappling with a basic problem of cosmology, known as the Flatness Problem. If Einstein's theories are correct, space, on the whole, should be curved, yet "the most sophisticated observations and calculations had yet to reveal such curvature," writes Panek. By applying his considerable mathematical genius to conditions thought to pertain during the first one-billionth of a second of the Big Bang--that great pulsing of something out of nothing--Guth demonstrated that a period of "hyper-inflation" occurred, in which the fabric of space and time grew exponentially faster than it ever grew before or after that nano-second. The visible universe--stars and planets and such--came later. The result? The part of the universe that we can see is such a tiny fraction of the whole that it appears "flat." Kind of like the two city blocks visible outside your window might appear flat, even though they exist on a round earth. In 1992, a radio-satellite detected the "background noise" left over from Guth's proposed "hyper-inflation." The data matched perfectly what Guth had predicted we would detect if his theory is right.
How cosmologists get from there to universes that wink in and out of existence, I choose, for now, to think of as a wondrous mystery--kind of like a child's cowlick, yesterday's rainbow, the stars of Orion, or that heart-breaking quaver in Patsy Cline's voice.