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The Universe Before Creation

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Author Topic: The Universe Before Creation  (Read 597 times)
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« on: September 16, 2012, 11:52:06 pm »

The problem with this (besides the fact that there is too little stuff in our universe to make it collapse again) is one of disorder. As we've discussed previously, the universe loves disorder. If you've ever stacked soda cans, there's only one way to stack them, and that's straight up. But if you knock them over, they go everywhere. There are more ways to destroy a soda can tower then there are to build one, and as time goes on, the universe finds ways of destroying all other forms of order, too.

If our universe was the result of a series of expansions and collapses, then our Big Bang occurred billions or trillions of years after some beginning (and what caused that?), so it would have had a very long time to get disordered. But it isn't. Looking back, our universe was very smooth, and in a very high state of order. This wouldn't solve the problem at all.

But in recent years, there have been a number of new cyclic models that allow an eternal universe to exist. In 2002, Paul Steinhardt, of Princeton University, and Neil Turok, of Cambridge, devised a model that exploits the extra dimensions found in string theory. String theory supposes that our universe might not be three-dimensional at all, but might have as many as ten spatial dimensions. Our own universe might simply live on a three-dimensional membrane (or "brane" for short) that is floating through the universe, barely interacting with the other universes.

However, the different branes (universes) could interact gravitationally. In this model, the dark energy that accelerates the universe isn't a real thing at all, but just a remnant of the gravitational attraction between branes, and the dark matter is just ordinary matter on the other, nearby brane. Occasionally the branes collide with one another, which would set off "Big Bangs" within the different branes and then everything would proceed as we've already seen.

These models are extremely elegant and deal with the whole "increase of disorder" problem in a really novel way. In cycle after cycle, the branes get more and more stretchy, which means that the disorder gets spread out over a larger and larger volume. The local patch that we call our universe, however, is just a small patch of the brane, so we seem to start nearly from scratch at each go-round. It sounds great, but a big problem is that these models require string theory to be correct, and on that the jury is definitely still out.

And there are even more models, some including extra dimensions, some include concepts like "loop quantum gravity," some infinite in time, and some with a definite duration. At the end of the day, the Big Bang theory has the same basic problem as evolutionary theory. Both do a nearly perfect job in explaining how the universe (or life) changed when it first came about, but neither can explain how things really got started in the first place.

This column was adapted from parts of Chapter 7 of A User's Guide to the Universe.

Dave Goldberg is the author, with Jeff Blomquist, of "A User's Guide to the Universe." (follow us on twitter, facebook, twitter or our blog.) He is an Associate Professor of Physics at Drexel University and is currently working on "The Universe in the Rearview Mirror," a new book all about symmetry that will be published by Dutton in 2013. Please send email to with any questions about the universe.
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