As the first deep-field image from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) spectacularly confirms, the observable Universe is strikingly rich in mass and matter – much of it magnificently grouped into galaxies and galaxy clusters that are indescribably humbling.
It is difficult not to look at such a picture and openly wonder how this cosmos and everything in it came into being. And to question what was before the universe as we know it. To that end, this groundbreaking Webb image happens to fit into Laura Mersini-Houghton’s new book, Before the Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe and What Lies 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 the kind of intellectual rigor rarely displayed in a book that caters to the mainstream – Audience judges.
As she explains in the book, her fascination with the ultimate questions of the cosmos had its roots in the abandoned former communist country of Albania, almost completely cut off from the outside world for decades. Arguably a de facto prison for Mersini-Houghton, the night sky of Albania became both a place of refuge and an escape route.
Today, Mersini-Houghton proposes a theory that links quantum physics to a multiverse. That is, a hypothetical collection of identical or different universes, including the one we inhabit. The first half of the book is largely devoted to telling the story of the Big Bang cosmology. In these chapters, she spends much of her time explaining why the idea of determining what happened before the universe began has long been considered a lesson in futility.
But the second part of “Before the Big Bang” is devoted to how Mersini-Houghton and her colleagues used complex mathematics to breathe new life into their pioneering effort to prove that we live in a multiverse.
Mersini-Hougton even makes a compelling argument for the practicality behind such seemingly esoteric research.
The Internet, computers, and all the electronic devices on which our society depends – from medical imaging devices to apocalyptic nuclear weapons – would never have been possible without humanity’s initial curiosity about the night sky, writes Mersini-Houghton. That is, without the theory of quantum mechanics, “which Einstein and his contemporaries in the theory of science helped shape,” she writes in her book.
“One day we may reap similar benefits from discoveries related to multiverse exploration,” writes Mersini-Houghton.
How would a multiverse reveal itself?
As “anomalous scars” in the sky from quantum entanglement processes, writes Mersini-Houghton. Such an entanglement would in turn manifest itself in various ways in our own multiverse, she writes.
But where to look?
Mersini-Houghton and colleagues decided that such multiverse entanglement artifacts would logically show up in the topography of our Universe’s cosmic microwave background (CMB), a remnant of Big Bang radiation.
“I decided the best place to start our search was in the CMB, the afterglow of the Big Bang,” writes Mersini-Houghton. “It contains a kind of exclusive record of the first millisecond of the life of the universe.”
Their calculations resulted in several anomaly predictions; first in “distant skies over the southern hemisphere,” where it was predicted that there would be a primeval vast void, she writes.
Then, in March 2013, eight years after their first work on the subject, the European Space Agency’s Planck satellite released the most detailed measurements of the CMB ever made. Their map contained the cold spot predicted by Mersini-Houghton and his colleagues.
These CMB anomalies could not have been caused by anything in our own universe because they violated the uniform distribution of structure expected of a single universe, writes Mersini-Houghton. She argues that they must have originated outside of our own cosmos.
“The cold spot observation was accurate to a sufficiently high level of confidence to be considered a discovery,” writes Mersini-Houghton.
Before the Big Bang presents an intriguing cosmological narrative. But it’s not for the intellectually faint of heart. Nonetheless, Mersini-Houghton deserves credit for tackling such extremely complicated material in a way that finds synergy between her own life and that of the story of the cosmos.
But is there really a multiverse?
The topography of the CMB has fascinated me for a long time; the cold spots, the incongruities and what they might mean and whether they actually represent some sort of window beyond standard cosmological paradigms. But having grown up with the single universe theory, I’ve personally tended to avoid the idea of a multiverse.
This is most likely a reflection of my own prejudice that our universe is somehow unique and one of a kind and not just one of many.
And if Mersini-Houghton is right and we are indeed part of a multiverse?
This opens up the possibility that, as we speak, some kind of hyper-advanced civilization in our own universe is traveling to a supposed cosmos next door. I have no idea how that could even be possible. But since these other multiverse realms could exist, my guess is that someone has probably already figured out a way to move between them.