As the first deep-field image taken by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) convincingly confirms, the observable universe is astoundingly dense in mass and matter, much of which is superbly grouped into galaxies and clusters of galaxies that are indescribably modest.
It is hard not to look at such an image and frankly wonder how this cosmos and everything that is in it came into being. And wonder what was before the universe as we know it. To that end, this breakthrough portrayal of Webb coincidentally coincides with Laura Mersini-Houghton’s new book Before the Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe and Beyond.
In these pages, Mersini-Houghton, professor of theoretical physics and cosmology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, tackles the most difficult questions in cosmology with an intellectual rigor rarely displayed in books intended for a mass audience.
As she explains in the book, her fascination with the higher questions of space has its roots in the abandoned former communist Albania, which was almost completely cut off from the outside world for decades. Perhaps a de facto prison for its citizens, but for Mersini-Houghton, the night sky of Albania has become both a refuge and a salvation.
Today, Mersini-Houghton is championing a theory that combines quantum physics with the multiverse. That is, a hypothetical set of identical or different universes, including the one in which we live. The first half of the book is largely devoted to the history of big bang cosmology. In these chapters, she spends a lot of time explaining why the idea of determining what was before the beginning of the universe has long been viewed as a lesson in futility.
But the second part of “Before the Big Bang” is about how Mersini-Houghton and her colleagues used complex mathematics to breathe new life into her cutting-edge attempts to prove we live in a multiverse.
Mersini-Hugton even makes a compelling case for the practicality of such seemingly esoteric research.
The Internet, computing, and all the electronic gadgets on which our society depends – from medical imaging equipment to apocalyptic nuclear weapons – would never have been possible without humanity’s original curiosity about the night sky, writes Mersini-Houghton. That is, without the theory of quantum mechanics “which Einstein and his theoretic contemporaries helped create,” she notes in her book.
“Someday we may be able to reap similar benefits from discoveries related to the exploration of the multiverse,” writes Mersini-Houghton.
How would the multiverse manifest itself?
Like “anomalous scars” on the sky due to quantum entanglement processes, writes Mersini-Houghton. Such entanglement, in turn, would manifest itself differently in our own multiverse, she writes.
But where to look?
Mersini-Houghton and his colleagues decided that such artifacts of multiverse entanglement would logically show up in the topography of our universe’s cosmic microwave background (CMB), the residual radiation from the Big Bang.
“I decided the best place to start our search was with the CMB, the afterglow of the Big Bang,” writes Mersini-Houghton. “It contains a kind of exclusive recording of the first millisecond of the life of the universe.”
Her calculations led to several anomaly predictions; first in “the distant sky over the southern hemisphere” where the existence of a primordial giant void was predicted, she writes.
Then, eight years after her first paper on the subject, in March 2013, the European Space Agency’s Planck satellite released the most detailed CMB measurements ever made. Their map included the cold spot predicted by Mersini-Houghton and colleagues.
Mersini-Houghton writes that these CMB anomalies could not have been caused by anything in our universe because they disrupted the uniform distribution of structure expected from a single universe. She claims that they must have taken place outside of our own cosmos.
“The observation of the cold spot was accurate with a high enough level of confidence to be considered a discovery,” writes Mersini-Houghton.
“Before the Big Bang” is a compelling cosmological narrative. But it’s not for the intellectually faint of heart. However, Mersini-Houghton deserves credit for tackling such extremely complex material in a way that finds synergy between her own life and the history of the cosmos.
But does the multiverse actually exist?
I have long been fascinated by the topography of the CMB; cold spots, inconsistencies and what they might mean, and whether they really represent some kind of window beyond standard cosmological paradigms. But having grown up with the theory of a single universe, I personally tend to eschew the idea of a multiverse.
Most likely, this is a reflection of my hardened prejudice that our Universe is somehow unique and unique, and not just one of many.
What if Mersini-Houghton is right and we really are part of the multiverse?
This opens up the possibility that, as we speak, some sort of super-advanced civilization in our own universe may be traveling into supposed space next door. I have no idea how this is even possible. But since these other multiverses may exist, I’m guessing that someone has probably already found a way to travel between them.
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