Tagged: cosmology

A, B, C time!

time-flows-awayThis might get technical, despite the vaguely Sesame Street quality to the title. You see, philosophers have long worried over time and causality, and rightly so, going back to the Greeks like Heraclitus and Parmenides, as well as their documenters many years later. Is time a series of events one after another or is that a perceptual mistake? For if everything comes from some cascade of events that precede it, it is illogical to presume that something might emerge from nothing (Parmenides). And, contra, perhaps all things are in a state of permanent change and all such perceptions are confused (Heraclitus). The latter has some opaque formulations in the appreciation of the Einsteinian relativistic form of combining space and time together while still preserving the symmetry of time in the basic equations, allowing for the rolling forward and backward of the space-time picture without much in the way of consequences.

So Lee Smolin’s re-injection of time as a real phenomena in Time Reborn takes us from A and B theories of time to something slightly new, which might be called a C theory. This theory builds on Smolin’s previous work where he proposed an evolutionary model of cosmology to explain how the precarious constants of our observed universe might have come into being. In Smolin’s super-cosmology, many universes come to be and not be at an alarming rate. Indeed, perhaps in every little black hole is another one. But many of these universes are not very viable because they lack the physical constants needed to last a long time and for entities like us to evolve to try to comprehend them. This does away with any mysteries about the Anthropic Principle: we are just survivors.

Smolin’s new work has some other rather interesting temporal consequences that are buried behind a wall of revisited thermodynamic reasoning: there are actually only a few basic particles that become other instances as they evolve over time. Because they are still connected together at a fundamental level, these particles are entangled in a collection of what we call forces, but as time unwinds, they become increasingly differentiated. Time piles on history, and the disparate trajectories are distinct enough that they become the arrow of time that thermodynamic evolution dictates.

Interestingly, in Smolin’s universe, time piles up into consistencies that we interpret as physical law. Physical law does not pre-exist per se, but is a consequence of the mighty machinations that emerge from a universe in a state of change, perhaps like that of Heraclitus, but also like that of Leibniz and Husserl. The pervasiveness of the notion of randomization and selection as an alternative to static views of the universe is interesting because it also begs the question of what else can possibly explain what we observe? Is there a post-Darwin “crane” that can lift the universe or are we at the end of big science?

Apache Point Memories

When I was eight or nine, I traveled with my father up into the rarefied air of the Sacramento Mountains of Southern New Mexico. Getting there was long, hot and complicated. Our VW van pushed up over the mountain passes as thunderheads rolled in from the west, plum and steel-gray, and the sky flashed and shuddered under the monsoonal effects of the late-summer deserts. I avoided touching the metal surfaces of the VW van as my father, a professor of electrical engineering, explained how the lighting, were it to hit the car, would likely melt the tires and travel through the shell of the van and into the ground below.

We were in search of another kind of lightning, however, as we passed through the Border Patrol check-point near White Sands and ascended into the Ponderosa Pines of the high, western mountains. The van chugged along but kept ascending and any limitations it may have had were lost on my youthful mind as the smell of pine needles and the cooler air rolled in through the open windows until we finally slowed to a crunching stop in a gravel lot near a couple of unimpressive shacks. We were above the clouds, with just the tops of the cumulonimbus visible to the south and west.

I knew that I was at a place called Sunspot and that there were telescopes there that were used to look at the sun. It was an act of technological disregard of the countless warnings I had received about looking at the sun as a child, including when my father brought home dense smoked filters from the Naval Observatory in Washington DC when I was four to let us watch a full solar eclipse. Yet, here at Sunspot, hidden among the shacks was a telescope that monitored the sun’s surface by day, defying the limitations of the human eye through reflections, filters, and care.

We wandered a bit among the buildings and then entered one with a simple cement floor. A few cobwebs hung in the corners of the unfinished and uninsulated shed-like structure. And there was the object of his interest: a plain cube of plywood around two feet on a side with wires emerging from it. There was no open sky or blazing trail of sunlight poking down through a tube into a hot, boiling reactor. It was inside a closed building.

I was given an explanation that day, but didn’t really understand what the device was until around my junior year in college during a particle physics course. Simply put, it was a cosmic ray observatory that consisted of a sandwich of charged metal plates with plastic between them. When cosmic rays hit the plates they would, with regularity, impact atoms and transfer their energy by dislodging electrons. Because the plates had a potential difference between them, little lightning bolts would erupt between the plates and the emitted light would trigger a camera to take a picture. I suspect the camera was a film camera, but it might have been video or something more exotic.

I remembered that visit to Apache Point while reading a paper on my iPad in Boulder Colorado two days ago. I was in Denver for a conference on defense intelligence issues and wandered up to Boulder for dinner. The paper I was reading was about the ongoing efforts to understand “Dark Energy,” a hypothesized energy that pervades the universe and can be used to account for the observed accelerating expansion of the universe. And, frankly, no one really understands this. It could be that physics is really wrong. It could be that physics is partly wrong but only at very large scales. It could be that the vacuum of empty space is energetic and productive at the quantum level. I had gone to Boulder because my father had done a postdoc there briefly prior to moving on the Naval Observatory and I had vague, snowy memories of the place and wanted to revisit.

Moreover, connecting the threads together is that the current efforts to understand this expanding universe are centered on a sky survey in infrared being conducted at Apache Point. The telescopes and cameras are extremely sophisticated compared with the stack of steel plates that were so unremarkable in my childhood memories, but the goal remains to understand the universe in all its magical details.

After finishing the article over an IPA paired with an elk burger and sweet potato fries, I read Neil deGrasse Tyson’s article in Foreign Affairs on The Case for Space.

Cosmologies and Theories of Everything

Zach, fictional though he is, is not the only one interested in cosmological theories. But what form do these theories take? A Theory of Everything or TOE is a theory that intends to explain the entire observable universe using a compact specification of equations and the conceptual arguments that support them. In the modern sense, a TOE is a physical explanation of the large-scale structure of the universe. Later, we can start to expand the TOE to look for “bridging laws” that help justify other phenomena that approach the human scale.

What are our alternatives? The previous post mentioned the Catholic Church’s embrace of Big Bang cosmology as justifying Genesis. Apologist and philosopher of religion William Lane Craig also elaborately evaluates Big Bang theories as substantiating theism by supporting creation at the singularity event.

But do these notions change the underlying TOEs? No, in general. The best that they can do is accept the TOE as an input and make a deductive argument based on assumptions that are not excluded by the TOE. For apologists, that means that the singularity event provides a divide between a non-temporal pre-universe and the current universe–effectively between non-existence and existence. But that is not the only TOE available to us. There are a range of TOEs that have been devised. ┬áThe following is derived from Marcus Hutter’s A Complete Theory of Everything (Will Be Subjective):

  1. (G) Geocentric model: Ancient notion that the Earth is at the center of the known universe.
  2. (H) Heliocentric model: Evolution of the model to centralize on the Sun.
  3. (E) Effective theories: General relativity, quantum electrodynamics, and Newtonian mechanics, but without a unifying architecture.
  4. (P) Standard model of particle physics: Beginning of unification that contains numerous arbitrary parameters and has yet to unify gravity.
  5. (S) String theory: new theoretical framework that unifies gravitation and P.
  6. (C) Cosmological models: Standard inflationary Big bang stuff.
  7. (M) Multiverse theories: The notion that there are many possible universes and that they might overlay one another through black holes or just evolve in parallel with one another.
  8. (U) Universal ToE: We’ll get back to this in a future post, but this is just an extension of M where we live in one of the multiverses and that the multiverse is “computable” in that it can be characterized in a specific way that lets us argue about its properties.
  9. (R) Random universe: This is essentially the same argument that irrational numbers like Pi or e, in that they contain infinite, random digits, also contain all the known works of Shakespeare. Likewise, an infinite and random universe would contain low-entropy areas that might look like our universe and, perhaps, contain local information sufficient to deceive us about the properties of the universe.
  10. (A) Al-a-Carte models: This is like buffet-style religion, but we can simply claim that the universe is a subset of a random string of specifications and achieve similar results to R.

Do any of these theories have anything to do with religious notions, whether Western, abstractly New Age, or Eastern? I find no similarities. The defining difference is between an epistemological approach that reifies mystical abstractions derived from pure speculation versus one that attempts to harmonize empirical results with theorization.

Zach is justified in his enthusiasm for the latter.