Friday, March 21, 2014

Gravity Waves: Finding Ripples From the Big Bang

If a Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics team of scientists is right, we've finally found gravity waves. This is one of the missing pieces of evidence supporting Einstein's theories and the more recent inflation model for the first few ticks of our time.
  1. Uncertainty and a Multiverse
  2. Ripples in the Fabric of Space-Time
A tip of the hat to New Advent, on Twitter, for the heads-up on this news.

Gravity Waves: Finally Found?

(From Gnixon, Papa November, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Illustration of an expanding universe.)

Astronomers using a telescope at the South Pole detected gravity waves. At least, that's what they figure they've detected in the Cosmic Microwave Background: CMB for short.

This particular telescope is called BICEP2, for Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization. Who says scientists lack a sense of humor? — and that's another topic.

If scientists at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics are right, this is a very big deal. Gravity waves were predicted several decades back.

If anyone could confirm that they don't exist, cosmologists would have to rethink well-established theories, but until now gravity waves hadn't been observed. They haven't been observed, actually: not directly. What scientists found in the BICEP2 data were effects of gravity waves, and I'm getting ahead of myself.

For folks trying to understand how this universe works, and how it's grown, confirming that gravity waves exist is a very big deal.

More Than You Want to Know About the BICEP and Keck Array

(From Ketiltrout, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
"The BICEP2 telescope (right) next to the larger South Pole Telescope in the Dark Sector Laboratory."

BICEP2 was part of the BICEP and Keck Array.

BICEP1 ran from January 2006 to the end of 2008, BICEP2 was a 2nd-generation instrument that ran from 2010 to 2012. BICEP3 hasn't been set up yet. It's due for deployment during the 2014-2015 Antarctic summer.

The Keck Array started observations in the Antarctic summer of 2010-11. It's been modified since then.


The Big Bang, Science, and Faith

"Then God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light.

"God saw how good the light was. God then separated the light from the darkness."
(Genesis 1:3-4)
The Big Bang theory for how this universe started has been around for several decades, and is still a pretty good model for its early development.

I also like it, since the moment when a point of infinite temperature and density exploded is a pretty good match for what my mind's eye sees when reading "let there be LIGHT."

However, my faith won't be shaken if scientists develop a better model than the Big Bang. In a way, I'd be disappointed if we had all the answers today. Watching scientists unravel the workings of this universe may be almost as much fun as doing the research.

Individual scientists are prone to arrogance and other human failings: but I think most realize that as we learn more, existing theories may no longer work.

Phlogiston, for example, was a pretty good explanation for how fire works: from 1667 to 1753. Interestingly, Joseph Priestley discovered oxygen: but supported the phlogiston theory.

The Bible and Truth: Catholic Style

I take the Bible, Sacred Scripture, very seriously. As a Catholic, that's not an option, it's a requirement:
"The Church forcefully and specifically exhorts all the Christian faithful... to learn the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ, by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures. Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.112"
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, 133)
As an American, I'm aware of my native culture's attitudes towards the Bible. Some folks apparently still believe that every word is literally true: from the viewpoint of a contemporary American.

I don't consult the Bible when my computer misbehaves, or when I want to know the atomic number of magnesium: it's 12, by the way. Here's why:
"...Know what the Bible is – and what it isn't. The Bible is the story of God's relationship with the people he has called to himself. It is not intended to be read as history text, a science book, or a political manifesto. In the Bible, God teaches us the truths that we need for the sake of our salvation...."
("Understanding the Bible")

Large and In Charge

"Our God is in heaven; whatever God wills is done."
(Psalms 115:3)

"Many are the plans in a man's heart, but it is the decision of the LORD that endures."
(Proverbs 19:21)

"...The holy one, the true, who holds the key of David, who opens and no one shall close, who closes and no one shall open, says this:"
(Revelation 3:7)

Revelation 2:7 starts with "To the angel of the church in Philadelphia...," so I could start worrying about which church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania should get a message: but that would be silly.

The "Biblical" Philadelphia was near Sardis, capital city of Lydia, a kingdom that hasn't been there for about six centuries now. These days, folks are calling Φιλαδέλφεια Alaşehir, and that's another topic.

As I've said before, I don't have a problem with the idea that God is large and in charge. What's a bit scarier is knowing that the Almighty put us in charge of this immense and ancient creation. The good news is that we've been given brains and time to learn how to use them. (March 17, 2013)

Finally, if there's a theological implication in this week's science news: it's that God thinks big.

1. Uncertainty and a Multiverse

(From BICEP2 Collaboration, via, used w/o permission.)
Diagram showing the size of our universe versus time. Before neutral hydrogen formed, 380,000 years after the big bang, the universe was opaque. The CMB, Cosmic Microwave Background, comes from photons streaming in from that first transparency.
"Our Universe May Exist in a Multiverse, Cosmic Inflation Discovery Suggests"
Miriam Kramer, (March 18, 2014)

"The first direct evidence of cosmic inflation — a period of rapid expansion that occurred a fraction of a second after the Big Bang — also supports the idea that our universe is just one of many out there, some researchers say.

"On Monday (March 17), scientists announced new findings that mark the first-ever direct evidence of primordial gravitational waves — ripples in space-time created just after the universe began. If the results are confirmed, they would provide smoking-gun evidence that space-time expanded at many times the speed of light just after the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago....

"...'In most of the models of inflation, if inflation is there, then the multiverse is there,' Stanford University theoretical physicist Andrei Linde, who wasn't involved in the new study, said at the same news conference. 'It's possible to invent models of inflation that do not allow [a] multiverse, but it's difficult. Every experiment that brings better credence to inflationary theory brings us much closer to hints that the multiverse is real.'..."
Depending on your reading and television viewing habits, "multiverse" might remind you of Yakov Borisovich Zel'dovich and Alan Guth, or Star Trek and Sailor Moon. (April 2, 2013)

The sort of multiverse discussed in Miriam Kramer's LiveScience article is the variety described in Max Tegmark and Brian Greene's lists.

If they exist, these other universes may not be observable: not by anyone in this space-time continuum, anyway. On the other hand, maybe we'll eventually have enough data to make educated guesses about what they're like: again, assuming that they exist.

The last I heard, physicists still don't know how Occam's razor slices the odds that we live in a multiverse. Not for sure, anyway.

2. Ripples in the Fabric of Space-Time

(From Keith Vanderlinde/National Science Foundation/Handout, via Reuters, used w/o permission.)
"The 10-meter South Pole Telescope and the BICEP (Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization) Telescope at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station is seen against the night sky with the Milky Way in this National Science Foundation picture taken in August, 2008."
"Astronomers discover echoes from expansion after Big Bang"
Irene Klotz, Sharon Begley, Reuters (March 17, 2014)

"Astronomers announced on Monday that they had discovered what many consider the holy grail of their field: ripples in the fabric of space-time that are echoes of the massive expansion of the universe that took place just after the Big Bang.

"Predicted by Albert Einstein nearly a century ago, the discovery of gravitational waves would be the final piece in one of the greatest achievements of the human intellect: an understanding of how the universe began and evolved into the cornucopia of galaxies and stars, nebulae and vast stretches of nearly empty space that constitute the known universe.

" 'Detecting this signal is one of the most important goals in cosmology today,' John Kovac of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, who led the research, said in a statement...."
We've known that gravity waves might exist since Einstein published his general theory of relativity, back in 1915. The theory explains gravity as dents in space caused by massive objects.

Maybe if everything stayed still, we wouldn't have gravity waves. Since atoms, dust grains, asteroids, planets, stars, star clusters, galaxies, and everything else in this universe is moving: space is probably permeated by gravity waves.

We don't notice gravity waves, because they have almost no effect on the stuff we're made of. This makes them hard to detect: although I suspect that astronomers didn't realize how elusive they'd be.

Einstein, Inflation, and More Evidence

Another theory that says gravity waves should exist is the Inflation model: which has roots in Einstein's work, but didn't take off until the 1980s.

Like Einstein's theories, there's considerable evidence that the inflation model is accurate. But also like support for relativity, gravity waves weren't part of that evidence: until last Monday.

Seeking a TOE

Besides adding more evidence that supports two major explanations about how physical reality works, confirmation of gravity waves may help scientists develop a TOE, or Theory of Everything. Everything in this case being the four basic forces of nature, which we're pretty sure aren't earth, wind, fire, and water.

Einstein and others gave us math that ties electromagnetism, weak nuclear force, and strong nuclear force. As far as we can tell, those three are facets of the same basic force. Gravity, on the other hand, seemed to be a property of space: not something that's an effect of subatomic/quantum particles.

Eventually, we may learn that all of the above are like phlogiston: a pretty good way to describe observed phenomena, but not an accurate description of physical reality.

I don't think so, though. Unlike phlogiston, as we've learned more about the universe, relativity and inflation have been tweaked: but are still pretty good models for describing facets of our universe.

Much More to Learn

(From Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, via Reuters, used w/o permission.)
"Tiny temperature fluctuations of the cosmic microwave background (shown as color) trace primordial density fluctuations in the early universe."
"...The gravitational waves were detected by a radio telescope called BICEP2 (Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization). The instrument, which scans the sky from the South Pole, examines what is called the cosmic microwave background, the extremely weak radiation that pervades the universe. Its discovery in 1964 by astronomers at Bell Labs in New Jersey was hailed as the best evidence to date that the universe began in an immensely hot explosion.

"The microwave background radiation, which has been bathing the universe since 380,000 years after the Big Bang, is a mere 3 degrees above absolute zero, having cooled to near non-existence from the immeasurably hot plasma that was the universe in the first fractions of a second of its existence.

"The background radiation is not precisely uniform. And like light, the relic radiation is polarized as the result of interacting with electrons and atoms in space.

"Computer models predicted a particular curl pattern in the background radiation that would match what would be expected with the universe's inflation after the Big Bang...."
(Irene Klotz, Sharon Begley, Reuters)
The Reuters article says one of the next steps in studying this "curl pattern" will involve telescopes lifted by balloon above much of Earth's atmosphere.

As Irene Koltz and Sharon Begley put it, "the background radiation is not precisely uniform." When they made a high-resolution map of the CMB, they expected irregularities: the sort of 'snow' we used to see on analog television sets when there wasn't a broadcast signal.

What they didn't expect were large irregularities: including a 'cold spot' that might be where/when our space-time continuum collided with another. (March 22, 2013)

(from ESA and the Planck Collaboration, via, used w/o permission.)

My guess is that we have a great deal more to learn about our universe: and maybe others.

Related posts:


Brigid said...

Missing something: "and is still a pretty good model its early development."

Wrong letter: "don't know how Occan's razor slices"

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Brian H. Gill said...


Oops. Found, fixed, thanks!

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