(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Cosmology

“To see a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wildflower”*…

Where, exactly is Heaven? Stephen Reid Case explains how a very concrete, physical answer to that question became much less concrete…

The Christian concept of heaven, so familiar today from popular depictions of clouds and haloed angels, was an invention – one that came about as early Christians interpreted their religious writings in the context of the Greek culture in which their movement grew up. Christian writers combined Plato’s ideas about the soul’s ascent to the sky at death with Aristotle’s understanding of the structure of the universe, a combination that allowed them to apply a cosmological framework to terms like ‘heaven of heavens’, as well as the ascents, described in the New Testament, of both Jesus and Paul. By the Middle Ages, anyone who uttered the words ‘Our Father, who art in heaven …’ had a clear spatial understanding of where heaven was: God dwelt in the third heaven, above the heaven of the air and the heaven of the stars. This third heaven, the empyrean, became an article of Christian faith – until the new cosmology of Copernicus and Galileo placed the Sun rather than Earth in the centre of the universe. This transformation from an Earth-centred to a Sun-centred universe did not simply displace Earth; it destroyed heaven as a place within the cosmos.

If I asked my astronomy students where heaven was located, I would no doubt receive a classroom full of bewildered stares, despite the fact that I teach at a Christian university – where the majority of students believe in both heaven and the afterlife. When pressed, they might offer thoughts about heaven being a different plane of reality or perhaps another dimension. They believe, but they don’t conceptualise heaven as a location; it is not a part of their spatial understanding of the universe. For most of the history of Christianity, though, the opposite was true…

For hundreds of years, Christians knew exactly where heaven was: above us and above the stars. Then came the new cosmologists: “Where God dwelt.”

* William Blake, “Auguries of Innocence” l. 1 (ca. 1803)


As we muse on metaphor and morphology, we might recall that it was on this date in 1972 that the Apollo 17 mission launched; on their way to the moon, about 18,000 miles from the Earth, astronauts Harrison Schmitt and Ron Evans took the photo now known as “The Blue Marble”– one of the most reproduced images in history.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

December 7, 2022 at 1:00 am

“It is difficult to fully appreciate how much our picture of the universe has changed in the span of a single human lifetime”*…

… and it continues to change…

Our universe could be the mirror image of an antimatter universe extending backwards in time before the Big Bang. So claim physicists in Canada, who have devised a new cosmological model positing the existence of an “antiuniverse” which, paired to our own, preserves a fundamental rule of physics called CPT symmetry. The researchers still need to work out many details of their theory, but they say it naturally explains the existence of dark matter.

Standard cosmological models tell us that the universe – space, time and mass/energy – exploded into existence some 14 billion years ago and has since expanded and cooled, leading to the progressive formation of subatomic particles, atoms, stars and planets.

However, Neil Turok of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Ontario reckons that these models’ reliance on ad-hoc parameters means they increasingly resemble Ptolemy’s description of the solar system. One such parameter, he says, is the brief period of rapid expansion known as inflation that can account for the universe’s large-scale uniformity. “There is this frame of mind that you explain a new phenomenon by inventing a new particle or field,” he says. “I think that may turn out to be misguided.”

nstead, Turok and his Perimeter Institute colleague Latham Boyle set out to develop a model of the universe that can explain all observable phenomena based only on the known particles and fields. They asked themselves whether there is a natural way to extend the universe beyond the Big Bang – a singularity where general relativity breaks down – and then out the other side. “We found that there was,” he says.

The answer was to assume that the universe as a whole obeys CPT symmetry. This fundamental principle requires that any physical process remains the same if time is reversed, space inverted and particles replaced by antiparticles. Turok says that this is not the case for the universe that we see around us, where time runs forward as space expands, and there’s more matter than antimatter.

Instead, says Turok, the entity that respects the symmetry is a universe–antiuniverse pair. The antiuniverse would stretch back in time from the Big Bang, getting bigger as it does so, and would be dominated by antimatter as well as having its spatial properties inverted compared to those in our universe [as per the illustration above]…

More at “Our universe has antimatter partner on the other side of the Big Bang, say physicists,” in @PhysicsWorld.

Apposite: “The Big Bang no longer means what it used to.”

* Lawrence M. Krauss, A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing


As we debate doppelgangers, we might send chronologically-accurate birthday greetings to Louis Essen; he was born on this date in 1908. A physicist, he is best remembered for his measurements of time– he invented the quartz crystal ring clock and the first practical atomic clock. His cesium-beam atomic clock ultimately changed the way time is measured: the cesium atom’s natural frequency was formally recognized as the new international unit of time in 1967; the second was defined as exactly 9,192,631,770 oscillations or cycles of the cesium atom’s resonant frequency, replacing the old “second” which had been defined in terms of the Earth’s motion.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Essen’s punctilious dedication to accuracy, he was a critic of Einstein’s theory of relativity, particularly as it related to time dilation. Moreover, we note (with an eye to the item above) that Essen’s clocks measured time in only one direction…


Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 6, 2022 at 1:00 am

“Horror vacui”*…

A 1672 book about the vacuum by the German scientist Otto von Guericke depicts a demonstration he gave for Emperor Ferdinand III, in which teams of horses tried unsuccessfully to pull apart the halves of a vacuum-filled copper sphere.

Recently, (Roughly) Daily took a look at nothing– and the perplexing philosophical questions that it raises. Today, Charlie Wood examines nothing’s physical manifestation, the vacuum, and the similarly perplexing questions it raises for physicists…

Millennia ago, Aristotle asserted that nature abhors a vacuum, reasoning that objects would fly through truly empty space at impossible speeds. In 1277, the French bishop Etienne Tempier shot back, declaring that God could do anything, even create a vacuum.

Then a mere scientist pulled it off. Otto von Guericke invented a pump to suck the air from within a hollow copper sphere, establishing perhaps the first high-quality vacuum on Earth. In a theatrical demonstration in 1654, he showed that not even two teams of horses straining to rip apart the watermelon-size ball could overcome the suction of nothing. [See illustration above.]

Since then, the vacuum has become a bedrock concept in physics, the foundation of any theory of something. Von Guericke’s vacuum was an absence of air. The electromagnetic vacuum is the absence of a medium that can slow down light. And a gravitational vacuum lacks any matter or energy capable of bending space. In each case the specific variety of nothing depends on what sort of something physicists intend to describe. “Sometimes, it’s the way we define a theory,” said Patrick Draper, a theoretical physicist at the University of Illinois.

As modern physicists have grappled with more sophisticated candidates for the ultimate theory of nature, they have encountered a growing multitude of types of nothing. Each has its own behavior, as if it’s a different phase of a substance. Increasingly, it seems that the key to understanding the origin and fate of the universe may be a careful accounting of these proliferating varieties of absence.

“We’re learning there’s a lot more to learn about nothing than we thought,” said Isabel Garcia Garcia, a particle physicist at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics in California. “How much more are we missing?”

So far, such studies have led to a dramatic conclusion: Our universe may sit on a platform of shoddy construction, a “metastable” vacuum that is doomed — in the distant future — to transform into another sort of nothing, destroying everything in the process.

Nothing started to seem like something in the 20th century, as physicists came to view reality as a collection of fields: objects that fill space with a value at each point (the electric field, for instance, tells you how much force an electron will feel in different places). In classical physics, a field’s value can be zero everywhere so that it has no influence and contains no energy. “Classically, the vacuum is boring,” said Daniel Harlow, a theoretical physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Nothing is happening.”

But physicists learned that the universe’s fields are quantum, not classical, which means they are inherently uncertain. You’ll never catch a quantum field with exactly zero energy…

For an explanation of how key to understanding the origin and fate of the universe may be a more complete understanding of the vacuum: “How the Physics of Nothing Underlies Everything,” from @walkingthedot in @QuantaMagazine.

* attributed to Aristitole, and usually “translated,” as above, “Nature abhors a vacuum”


As we noodle on nought, we might spare a thought for Hugo Gernsback, a Luxemborgian-American inventor, broadcast pioneer, writer, and publisher; he died on this date in 1967 at the age of 83.

Gernsback held 80 patents at the time of his death; he founded radio station WRNY, was involved in the first television broadcasts and is considered a pioneer in amateur radio.  But it was a writer and publisher that he probably left his most lasting mark:  In 1926, as owner/publisher of the magazine Modern Electrics, he filled a blank spot in his publication by dashing off the first chapter of a series called “Ralph 124C 41+.” The twelve installments of “Ralph” were filled with inventions unknown in 1926, including “television” (Gernsback is credited with introducing the word), fluorescent lighting, juke boxes, solar energy, television, microfilm, vending machines, and the device we now call radar.

The “Ralph” series was an astounding success with readers; and later that year Gernsback founded the first magazine devoted to science fiction, Amazing Stories.  Believing that the perfect sci-fi story is “75 percent literature interwoven with 25 percent science,” he coined the term “science fiction.”

Gernsback was a “careful” businessman, who was tight with the fees that he paid his writers– so tight that H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith referred to him as “Hugo the Rat.”

Still, his contributions to the genre as publisher were so significant that, along with H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, he is sometimes called “The Father of Science Fiction”; in his honor, the annual Science Fiction Achievement awards are called the “Hugos.”

(Coincidentally, today is also the birthday– in 1906– of Philo T. Farnsworth, the man who actually did invent television…)

Gernsback, wearing his invention, TV Glasses


“‘Space-time’ – that hideous hybrid whose very hyphen looks phoney”*…

Space-time curvature [source: ESA]

Space and time seem about as basic as anything could be, even after Einstein’s theory of General Relativity threw (in) a curve. But as Steven Strogatz discusses with Sean Carroll, the reconciliation of Einstein’s work with quantum theory is seeming to suggest that space and time might actually be emergent properties of quantum reality, not fundamental parts of it…

… we’re going to be discussing the mysteries of space and time, and gravity, too. What’s so mysterious about them?

Well, it turns out they get really weird when we look at them at their deepest levels, at a super subatomic scale, where the quantum nature of gravity starts to kick in and become crucial. Of course, none of us have any direct experience with space and time and gravity at this unbelievably small scale. Up here, at the scale of everyday life, space and time seem perfectly smooth and continuous. And gravity is very well described by Isaac Newton’s classic theory, a theory that’s been around for over 300 years now.

But then, about 100 years ago, things started to get strange. Albert Einstein taught us that space and time could warp and bend like a piece of fabric. This warping of the space-time continuum is what we experience as gravity. But Einstein’s theory is mainly concerned with the largest scales of nature, the scale of stars, galaxies and the whole universe. It doesn’t really have much to say about space and time at the very smallest scales.

And that’s where the trouble really starts. Down there, nature is governed by quantum mechanics. This amazingly powerful theory has been shown to account for all the forces of nature, except gravity. When physicists try to apply quantum theory to gravity, they find that space and time become almost unrecognizable. They seem to start fluctuating wildly. It’s almost like space and time fall apart. Their smoothness breaks down completely, and that’s totally incompatible with the picture in Einstein’s theory.

s physicists try to make sense of all of this, some of them are coming to the conclusion that space and time may not be as fundamental as we always imagined. They’re starting to seem more like byproducts of something even deeper, something unfamiliar and quantum mechanical. But what could that something be?….

Find out at: “Where Do Space, Time and Gravity Come From?, ” from @stevenstrogatz and @seanmcarroll in @QuantaMagazine.

* Vladimir Nabokov


As we fumble with the fundamental, we might send far-sighted birthday greetings to Jocelyn Bell Burnell; she was born on this date in 1943. An astrophysicist, she discovered the first pulsar, while working as a post-doc, in 1957. She then discovered the next three detected pulsars.

The discovery eventually earned the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1974; however, she was not one of the prize’s recipients. The paper announcing the discovery of pulsars had five authors. Bell’s thesis supervisor Antony Hewish was listed first, Bell second. Hewish was awarded the Nobel Prize, along with the astronomer Martin Ryle.

A pulsar— or pulsating radio star– a highly magnetized, rotating neutron star that emits a beam of electromagnetic radiation. The precise periods of pulsars make them very useful tools. Observations of a pulsar in a binary neutron star system were used to  confirm (indirectly) the existence of gravitational radiation. The first extrasolar planets were discovered around a pulsar, PSR B1257+12.  And certain types of pulsars rival atomic clocks in their accuracy in keeping time.

Schematic rendering of a pulsar


Jocelyn Bell Burnell


Written by (Roughly) Daily

July 15, 2022 at 1:00 am

“For the moment we might very well can them DUNNOS (for Dark Unknown Nonreflective Nondetectable Objects Somewhere)”*…

When does one give up on a hypothesis?…

In 1969, the American astronomer Vera Rubin puzzled over her observations of the sprawling Andromeda Galaxy, the Milky Way’s biggest neighbour. As she mapped out the rotating spiral arms of stars through spectra carefully measured at the Kitt Peak National Observatory and the Lowell Observatory, both in Arizona, she noticed something strange: the stars in the galaxy’s outskirts seemed to be orbiting far too fast. So fast that she’d expect them to escape Andromeda and fling out into the heavens beyond. Yet the whirling stars stayed in place.

Rubin’s research, which she expanded to dozens of other spiral galaxies, led to a dramatic dilemma: either there was much more matter out there, dark and hidden from sight but holding the galaxies together with its gravitational pull, or gravity somehow works very differently on the vast scale of a galaxy than scientists previously thought.

Her influential discovery never earned Rubin a Nobel Prize, but scientists began looking for signs of dark matter everywhere, around stars and gas clouds and among the largest structures in the galaxies in the Universe…

But… over the past half century, no one has ever directly detected a single particle of dark matter. Over and over again, dark matter has resisted being pinned down, like a fleeting shadow in the woods. Every time physicists have searched for dark matter particles with powerful and sensitive experiments in abandoned mines and in Antarctica, and whenever they’ve tried to produce them in particle accelerators, they’ve come back empty-handed. For a while, physicists hoped to find a theoretical type of matter called weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPs), but searches for them have repeatedly turned up nothing.

With the WIMP candidacy all but dead, dark matter is apparently the most ubiquitous thing physicists have never found. And as long as it’s not found, it’s still possible that there is no dark matter at all. An alternative remains: instead of huge amounts of hidden matter, some mysterious aspect of gravity could be warping the cosmos instead…

Dark matter is the most ubiquitous thing physicists have never found; Ramin Skibba (@raminskibba) wonders if it isn’t time to consider alternative explanations: “Does dark matter exist?” in @aeonmag.

* Bill Bryson on dark matter, in A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003)


As we interrogate the invisible, we might send observant birthday greetings to Val Logsdon Fitch; he was born on this date in 1923. A particle physicist, he shared the 1964 Nobel Prize in Physics with his collaborator James Cronin for their experiments proving that some subatomic reactions do not adhere to fundamental symmetry principles (and are therefore indifferent to the direction of time).

By examining the decay of K-mesons, they proved that a reaction run in reverse does not retrace the path of the original reaction, which showed that the reactions of subatomic particles are not indifferent to time. Thus the phenomenon of CP violation was discovered… and thus was demolished the faith that physicists had previously had that natural laws were universally governed by symmetry.


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