Physics: A cosmos in the lab

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Andreas Albrecht ponders a study of the physicists who grapple with the origins of the Universe.

A Big Bang in a Little Room: The Quest to Create New Universes

Zeeya Merali Basic: 2017. ISBN: 9780465065912

Buy this book: US UK Japan

James King-Holmes/SPL

The Large Hadron Collider, one of the few facilities that can recreate conditions of the early Universe.

Cosmology has been radically transformed in the past few decades. The study of the origins of the Universe once entailed plenty of speculation and few data. Now, an impressive array of ground- and space-based telescopes produce vast amounts of data, and the 'standard' cosmological theory fits it exquisitely and in detail. The subject of Zeeya Merali's A Big Bang in a Little Room — the possibility of creating a universe in a laboratory — ties in very broadly with these exciting developments.

The astronomical data show that the Universe gets hotter as we go further back in time. These conditions can be recreated only with great effort at laboratories with particle accelerators, such as CERN in Europe and Fermilab in the United States. High-energy physics has introduced interesting possibilities and insights — such as the idea that the very early Universe underwent an accelerated expansion, or cosmic inflation, and the possibility that the observed Universe was produced by a quantum-tunnelling event (perhaps tunnelling out of a lab). Among these developments, Merali shows, there are great stories and colourful characters.

Merali, an accomplished science writer, weaves a picture of modern cosmology from its results, its history and the motivations of individuals. Thoughts from Alan Guth, Andrei Linde and Alex Vilenkin about the development of cosmic inflation, and from Joe Polchinski about the evolution of string theory (to mention a few), wonderfully convey the sometimes thrilling and often circuitous nature of scientific progress, and its emotional ups and downs. Many of the scientists profiled are colleagues of whom I am fond, and it is gratifying to see their wisdom and quirks shine in Merali's excellent prose.

Each chapter focuses on one key subtopic, and features scientists who work in it. We learn about the foundations of quantum physics through the reflections of Antoine Suarez on his distinguished career creating ever more powerful laboratory tests of quantum theory. Greg Landsberg shares his expertise on the search for mini black holes at CERN, and Eduardo Guendelman describes his pioneering work on how they could be the seeds of baby universes. Other chapters take on determinism and free will, and the ethics of creating artificial life.

The question of cosmic origins, and the possibility that humans might create new universes, can connect with religious concerns. These form a substantial thread through A Big Bang in a Little Room that significantly reduced the book's appeal to me. I am an atheist. I respect that many people are deeply religious (some are very close to me) and that religion can have a positive, even beautiful, role. And I know many religious people who do superb science. But I find most attempts to connect religious questions with the fundamental questions of physics and cosmology (or vice versa) deeply unsatisfying.

Does your favourite interpretation of quantum mechanics or apparent fine-tuning of the fundamental constants provide evidence for or against a divine creator? Deeply religious people know better than to leave something so important to them to fads in physics. And when people do engage in these debates, they seem to find a reason to believe what they want to believe, regardless of how the science unfolds.

For example, Suarez shares how his religious convictions (about determinism and divine omniscience) convinced him that his experiments would disprove quantum theory. But once his experiments had upheld the theory, he found a new way to fit a deity into the picture, by identifying the “many worlds” proposed by US physicist Hugh Everett with thoughts in the “mind of God”.

The diversity of scientists' religious beliefs is an interesting topic, and there is some good writing on it throughout A Big Bang in a Little Room. Merali is not shy about airing her own religious views, and they clearly inform her enthusiasm for talking to scientists about theirs. Some of her interviewees share thoughtful contemplations; Guendelman ponders why an all-powerful god would allow horrifying evil. But weaker discussions let the book down, including a lengthy exploration (bringing in Polchinski and Christoph Schönborn, the archbishop of Vienna) of whether string theory supports or refutes the existence of god. And, given how central religion is to this book, it seems strange that neither the title nor the blurb mentions it.

Atheist readers more uncompromising than me may find this book unbearable. Even deeply religious readers may not welcome the sloppy interplay between science and religion. Still, there are those who enjoy debating perceived relationships between this or that physics concept and the existence of a god: it is probably they who will enjoy the book most fully.


  1. Report this comment #69349

    Pentcho Valev said:

    When are you going to abandon Einstein's absurd spacetime, Andreas Albrecht? You were a maverick 10 years ago:
    "Einstein introduced a new notion of time, more radical than even he at first realized. In fact, the view of time that Einstein adopted was first articulated by his onetime math teacher in a famous lecture delivered one century ago. That lecture, by the German mathematician Hermann Minkowski, established a new arena for the presentation of physics, a new vision of the nature of reality redefining the mathematics of existence. The lecture was titled Space and Time, and it introduced to the world the marriage of the two, now known as spacetime. It was a good marriage, but lately physicists passion for spacetime has begun to diminish. And some are starting to whisper about possible grounds for divorce. (...) Einstein's famous insistence that the velocity of light is a cosmic speed limit made sense, Minkowski saw, only if space and time were intertwined. (...) Physicists of the 21st century therefore face the task of finding the true reality obscured by the spacetime mirage. (...) Andreas Albrecht, a cosmologist at the University of California, Davis, has thought deeply about choosing clocks, leading him to some troubling realizations. (...) "It seems to me like it's a time in the development of physics," says Albrecht, "where it's time to look at how we think about space and time very differently."

    Nowadays theoreticians worship the ripples in spacetime faked by LIGO conspirators but reject spacetime itself as a wrong concept. Curiously, they also worship Einstein's constant-speed-of-light postulate, the premise from which spacetime has been deduced, knowing (or not knowing) that the combination "true premise, wrong consequence" is forbidden by logic:
    "Special relativity is based on the observation that the speed of light is always the same, independently of who measures it, or how fast the source of the light is moving with respect to the observer. Einstein demonstrated that as an immediate consequence, space and time can no longer be independent, but should rather be considered a new joint entity called "spacetime."
    "...says John Norton, a philosopher based at the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Norton is hesitant to express it, but his instinct - and the consensus in physics - seems to be that space and time exist on their own. The trouble with this idea, though, is that it doesn't sit well with relativity, which describes space-time as a malleable fabric whose geometry can be changed by the gravity of stars, planets and matter."
    Joao Magueijo, Faster Than the Speed of Light, p. 250: "Lee [Smolin] and I discussed these paradoxes at great length for many months, starting in January 2001. We would meet in cafés in South Kensington or Holland Park to mull over the problem. THE ROOT OF ALL THE EVIL WAS CLEARLY SPECIAL RELATIVITY. All these paradoxes resulted from well known effects such as length contraction, time dilation, or E=mc^2, all basic predictions of special relativity. And all denied the possibility of establishing a well-defined border, common to all observers, capable of containing new quantum gravitational effects."
    Nobel Laureate David Gross observed, "Everyone in string theory is convinced...that spacetime is doomed. But we don't know what it's replaced by."
    Nima Arkani-Hamed (06:09): "Almost all of us believe that space-time doesn't really exist, space-time is doomed and has to be replaced by some more primitive building blocks."
    What scientific idea is ready for retirement? Steve Giddings: "Spacetime. Physics has always been regarded as playing out on an underlying stage of space and time. Special relativity joined these into spacetime... [...] The apparent need to retire classical spacetime as a fundamental concept is profound..."
    "Rethinking Einstein: The end of space-time [...] The stumbling block lies with their conflicting views of space and time. As seen by quantum theory, space and time are a static backdrop against which particles move. In Einstein's theories, by contrast, not only are space and time inextricably linked, but the resulting space-time is moulded by the bodies within it. [...] Something has to give in this tussle between general relativity and quantum mechanics, and the smart money says that it's relativity that will be the loser."
    "[George] Ellis is up against one of the most successful theories in physics: special relativity. It revealed that there's no such thing as objective simultaneity. Although you might have seen three things happen in a particular order ? ?A, then B, then C ? someone moving ?at a different velocity could have seen ?it a different way ? C, then B, then A. ?In other words, without simultaneity there is no way of specifying what things happened "now". And if not "now", what is moving through time? Rescuing an objective "now" is a daunting task."
    New Scientist: "Saving time: Physics killed it. Do we need it back? [...] Einstein landed the fatal blow at the turn of the 20th century."
    "And by making the clock's tick relative - what happens simultaneously for one observer might seem sequential to another - Einstein's theory of special relativity not only destroyed any notion of absolute time but made time equivalent to a dimension in space: the future is already out there waiting for us; we just can't see it until we get there. This view is a logical and metaphysical dead end, says Smolin."
    "Was Einstein wrong? At least in his understanding of time, Smolin argues, the great theorist of relativity was dead wrong. What is worse, by firmly enshrining his error in scientific orthodoxy, Einstein trapped his successors in insoluble dilemmas..."
    "The effort to unify quantum mechanics and general relativity means reconciling totally different notions of time. In quantum mechanics, time is universal and absolute; its steady ticks dictate the evolving entanglements between particles. But in general relativity (Albert Einstein's theory of gravity), time is relative and dynamical, a dimension that's inextricably interwoven with directions X, Y and Z into a four-dimensional "space-time" fabric."
    Perimeter Institute: "Quantum mechanics has one thing, time, which is absolute. But general relativity tells us that space and time are both dynamical so there is a big contradiction there. So the question is, can quantum gravity be formulated in a context where quantum mechanics still has absolute time?"
    "In Einstein's general theory of relativity, time depends locally on gravity; in standard quantum theory, time is global – all clocks "tick" uniformly."
    "One one hand, time in quantum mechanics is a Newtonian time, i.e., an absolute time. In fact, the two main methods of quantization, namely, canonical quantization method due to Dirac and Feynman's path integral method are based on classical constraints which become operators annihilating the physical states, and on the sum over all possible classical trajectories, respectively. Therefore, both quantization methods rely on the Newton global and absolute time. (...) The transition to (special) relativistic quantum field theories can be realized by replacing the unique absolute Newtonian time by a set of timelike parameters associated to the naturally distinguished family of relativistic inertial frames."
    "In quantum mechanics, time is absolute. The parameter occurring in the Schrödinger equation has been directly inherited from Newtonian mechanics and is not turned into an operator. In quantum field theory, time by itself is no longer absolute, but the four-dimensional spacetime is; it constitutes the fixed background structure on which the dynamical fields act. GR is of a very different nature. According to the Einstein equations (2), spacetime is dynamical, acting in a complicated manner with energy momentum of matter and with itself. The concepts of time (spacetime) in quantum theory and GR are thus drastically different and cannot both be fundamentally true."

    Pentcho Valev

  2. Report this comment #69361

    Xinhang Shen said:

    It has been more than 11 months since the publication of my paper "Challenge to the special theory of relativity" on March 1, 2016 Physics Essays which has disproved Einstein's relativity both theoretically and experimentally. The most obvious and indisputable evidence is the absolute time shown by the universally synchronized clocks on the GPS satellites which are moving with huge velocities relative to each other (see Wikipedia on GPS: The GPS concept is based on time and the known position of specialized satellites. The satellites carry very stable atomic clocks that are synchronized with one another and to ground clocks.) while special relativity claims that time is relative (i.e. different on different reference frame) and can never be synchronized on clocks with relative velocities. That is, our physical time measured with clocks is absolute, and thus our physical space is still 3D Euclidean. Einstein simply redefined a new time and a new space through Lorentz Transformation which are irrelevant to our physical time and physical space. Time dilation and space contraction are just the properties of these artificial variables, nothing to do with our physical world. All relativistic spacetime based theories including Big Bang theory are totally wrong and must be abandoned.

    It is so straightforward that all people with basic knowledge of special relativity should immediately understand. How can these physicists continue wasting taxpayer's money to do completely wrong experiments?

  3. Report this comment #69373

    Pentcho Valev said:

    Joao Magueijo and Lee Smolin are the most famous mainstream mavericks in Einstein's schizophrenic world – they have discovered that Einstein's special relativity is "the root of all the evil":
    Joao Magueijo, Faster Than the Speed of Light, p. 250: "Lee [Smolin] and I discussed these paradoxes at great length for many months, starting in January 2001. We would meet in cafés in South Kensington or Holland Park to mull over the problem. THE ROOT OF ALL THE EVIL WAS CLEARLY SPECIAL RELATIVITY. All these paradoxes resulted from well known effects such as length contraction, time dilation, or E=mc^2, all basic predictions of special relativity. And all denied the possibility of establishing a well-defined border, common to all observers, capable of containing new quantum gravitational effects."

    Magueijo and Smolin even know WHY special relativity has become "the root of all the evil" - Einstein's 1905 constant-speed-of-light postulate is false:
    "...Dr. Magueijo said. "We need to drop a postulate, perhaps the constancy of the speed of light."

    It seems Joao Magueijo did drop the false constant-speed-of-light postulate and became a Newtonian – at 53:29 in this video he declares allegiance to the Newtonian space and time:
    FUNDAMENTAL TIME, Wednesday Jun 29, 2016, Speaker(s): Laurent Freidel, Lee Smolin, Joao Magueijo, 53:29

    So Magueijo believes in the Newtonian space and time but teaches... general relativity:

    Lee Smolin finds it judicious to worship Einstein's 1905 false constant-speed-of-light postulate and its consequences from time to time – stubbornly sticking to "special relativity is the root of all the evil" would be too dangerous:
    QUESTION: Setting aside any other debates about relativity theory for the moment, why would the speed of light be absolute? No other speeds are absolute, that is, all other speeds do indeed change in relation to the speed of the observer, so it's always seemed a rather strange notion to me.
    LEE SMOLIN: Special relativity works extremely well and the postulate of the invariance or universality of the speed of light is extremely well-tested. It might be wrong in the end but it is an extremely good approximation to reality.
    QUESTION: So let me pick a bit more on Einstein and ask you this: You write (p. 56) that Einstein showed that simultaneity is relative. But the conclusion of the relativity of simultaneity flows necessarily from Einstein's postulates (that the speed of light is absolute and that the laws of nature are relative). So he didn't really show that simultaneity was relative – he assumed it. What do I have wrong here?
    LEE SMOLIN: The relativity of simultaneity is a consequence of the two postulates that Einstein proposed and so it is deduced from the postulates. The postulates and their consequences are then checked experimentally and, so far, they hold remarkably well.
    "Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them. The Party intellectual knows in which direction his memories must be altered; he therefore knows that he is playing tricks with reality; but by the exercise of doublethink he also satisfies himself that reality is not violated. The process has to be conscious, or it would not be carried out with sufficient precision, but it also has to be unconscious, or it would bring with it a feeling of falsity and hence of guilt. Doublethink lies at the very heart of Ingsoc, since the essential act of the Party is to use conscious deception while retaining the firmness of purpose that goes with complete honesty. To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies - all this is indispensably necessary."

    Pentcho Valev

  4. Report this comment #69401

    Thomas Elifritz said:

    What's with all the religious nonsense in these recent Nature editorials and opeds? Templeton Foundation Funding? If you are interested in the origins of the universe from a non-cranky condensed matter physics perspective:

    This isn't self promotion, it's crank repulsion.

  5. Report this comment #69449

    Alessandro Brunelli said:

    "I find most attempts to connect religious questions with the fundamental questions of physics and cosmology (or vice versa) deeply unsatisfying"...well, Science explains the hows, theology (actually biblical exegesis) the why.

    "Guendelman ponders why an all-powerful god would allow horrifying evil"..this question has been pretty well answered already and a very long time ago actually. (one needs to bee interested in theology, or read it at least, though).it's not a scientific question to start with, is it?

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