THE WASHINGTON POST — Over the past century, astrophysicists have converged on the idea that our universe emerged from a Big Bang, when our prenatal universe was so small, hot, and compressed that matter and time effectively did not exist.
The evidence for this comes mainly from calculating several known quantities of universal expansion, mainly their speed and content, and from running the tape backwards to get to the first tiny fraction of a second of the universe.
In her book Before the Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe and What Lies Beyond, quantum cosmologist Laura Mersini-Houghton focuses on the prequel to this galactic episode and ponders what happened before that enabled our universe to to be blown up.
There’s no physical evidence for that era, so it’s a bit like investigating a murder before the murder happened. But this dilemma can still be explored, at least in the field of theoretical physics.
Theoretical physicists approach problem solving differently, explaining the old joke that a female physicist is happiest when identifying new questions rather than new solutions.
Emerging questions — particularly those that cannot be answered with human equations, theories, or principles — suggest there is an even greater discovery that, if you’re lucky, could lead to a dramatic reordering of our understanding of our universe and its building blocks will lead.
Fortunately for Mersini-Houghton, a professor at the University of North Carolina, you don’t need expensive equipment to reach theoretical conclusions.
You can get a breakthrough while sitting in a coffee shop staring at your notebook, where she admits she had her first inkling of the origins of the universe.
By combining quantum mechanics, which studies how light and matter behave at the subatomic level, with string theory, which posits that energy and matter behave like tiny vibrating strings, she realized that our universe is a “wave function” of many larger multiverse appears to be .
And taking an intriguing step further, their theory allows that as long as there is enough energy, new universes can be created as routinely as a queen bee spawning worker bees.
This is a remarkable finding considering the universe could have emerged from such humble origins before the bang.
It is also notable for Mersini-Houghton, who intersperses her scientific theories with compelling memories from her cramped childhood. She was born during the Cold War in Albania, a country she describes as poor, paranoid and cut off from the rest of the world – “the North Korea of Europe,” she wrote.
Her father, a university professor, fired her imagination with books and art before he was exiled to the countryside. His fate was not bad in comparison; others in his family were imprisoned or killed.
There are incredible scenes from Mersini-Houghton’s life that demonstrate her grasp of emotional whiplash, which almost certainly helped her build such a long-lived and vibrant spirit.
After another enforced absence from her father, he persuaded his wife to claim in court that he had abused her so that she could get a divorce and keep the children in the family home.
Coincidentally, the judge who heard the motion was a childhood friend of Mersini-Houghton’s father and spotted the ruse immediately. The divorce was rejected and the path of the family was sealed. But then the path changed again. Her father was allowed to return home and the family stayed together.
Or the coincidence when a British economist came to Albania in 1992 as part of a development mission. He and Mersini (in the days before she added the Houghton) became friends, but not until he surprised her at Zurich Airport, paged her over the loudspeaker and told her he’d bought the seat next to her to accompany her too her new adventure in the United States that her future was settled.
Students of physics and the wider sciences will be deeply mesmerized by this captivating journey through the cosmos from one of the brightest minds in astrophysics.
But for anyone with an A-minus or below in high school physics and pining for the Cliffs Notes version, here it is: Our universe is large, much larger than we can imagine, and possibly part of an oddly behaving one Multiverse and Everything started with a tiny little dot that erupted in an indescribably big bang.
Mersini-Houghton has the receipts to prove it, or at least show how she reached her compelling conclusions. She soberly admits that her multiverse theory isn’t for everyone.
At one point, she recalls, the two mostly agreed during a debate with another astrophysicist that only about half of their peers believe in the multiverse, and from those there are a handful of different ideas about how it’s formed and how it behaves.
But uncertainty about how energy expands is the driving force behind cosmology in general, and that’s how Mersini-Houghton seems to view her path as a scientist as well.
An energy point exploded and a young girl from an unusual place changed our sense of space and time. Sometimes borders can lead to remarkable things.