The quest to understand our origins is an innate part of our psyche as humans. You can see evidence of this stretching as far back as we kept records as our ancestors grappled with the idea of where they originated from, whether it was a (relatively) simple question of lineage or the larger question of where we, and all that we know of, came from. Modern science has made incredible leaps in this area, expanding our understanding to show that we live in a universe that is old beyond any of our wildest guesses and is home to more wonders than any could have dreamed of. Still the ultimate question, of where everything began, still puzzles us although as of today we’ve begun to lay down the first few pieces in this puzzle and they’re magnificent.
You’re likely familiar with the concept of the Big Bang, the theorized event that gave birth to our universe and marked the beginning of time. However the specifics of what happened during that time are the subject of intense debate among the scientific community and there are many theories that model what may have happened. One of the most popular theories is that during the Big Bang the universe underwent a period of massive inflation in the tiny fractions of a second after it began, expanding faster than the speed of light. There was a lot of indirect evidence to support this (like the fact that our universe is still expanding) but direct proof of this occurring had been elusive.
That was until the telescope picture above, called BICEP-2, caught a picture of something that could only exist if that theory was correct.
Our universe still has remnants of the Big Bang hanging around in something called the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB). It’s a kind of radiation that’s pretty much uniform not matter which direction you look into, something which is pretty peculiar when you consider just how wide and varied everything else we can observe is. BICEP-2 was searching for something in particular though, a pattern in this radiation that could only have happened should the early universe undergone a period of rapid inflation. The technical term for this is primordial B-mode polarization and was widely believed to have a value of below 0.11 based on previous maps of the CMB. BICEP-2 on the other hand has come in at a 5 sigma confidence level (1 in 3.5 million chance of being random, the gold standard for confirmation in this field of physics) as 0.2, excluding many models and theories that were based on that assumption. It opens up a whole new world of physics and is the first direct proof of the inflationary model.
To understand just how huge of an impact this is going to have on the world of physics you just have to see the reaction of Andrei Linde, one of the first to propose such a model, and his wife Renata Kallosh (also a well renowned theoretical physicist) reacting to the news:
It’s one thing to find proof of something and it’s another thing entirely to show something can not be. This discovery is powerful not because it shows us that a certain model is correct more it has shown us that the widely held belief was in fact wrong and we need to start heading in another direction. Confirmation of this shouldn’t be far off (indeed the team behind the discovery held onto the results for a year to make sure) and with that we’ll enter into a new world scientific debate, one that was so much more informed than before.
Undoubtedly black holes are one of the most intriguing phenomena in our universe. The current interpretation of them, being a point mass that’s infinitely dense, is quite modern being only formalized some time back in the 1950s although the scientific roots can be traced back a bit further than that. Still they’re far from being a solved problem space as, like all things that use the word “infinite” in some capacity, their behaviour is a little strange especially when you try to explain them using different theories for how the universe works. To us laypeople we tend to be rooted in the general relativity explanation, however once you step into the world of quantum mechanics suddenly they start behaving differently creating quite the paradox.
In the world of general relativity passing across the event horizon, the point at which nothing (not even light) can escape, would be a somewhat peaceful affair. Since you would be in complete free fall at the time you wouldn’t experience a sudden jolt or anything that would indicate to you that this had happened (which makes black holes nightmare material for someone like me who has aspirations for space travel). After a while though you’d start to feel rather uncomfortable as the difference between the gravity at your head and feet became vastly different, eventually leading to a rather untimely demise at the hands of what has been dubbed spaghettification. However if you approach the same problem from the view of quantum mechanics you might not even get a chance to experience that as the world past the black hole’s event horizon is something vastly different.
The current hypothesis say that instead of the event horizon being a peaceful transition (although usually even getting to the event horizon would be quite nasty thanks to the accretion disks they usually sport) there instead exists a violent firewall of energy, ready to tear anything apart that crosses that horizon. Whilst the mechanics of this are well above my understanding it appears to be a quirk of Hawking Radiation, the process by which black holes “evaporate” over time. This evaporation occurs via entangled particles, one which leaves the black hole and another that falls back in. However this must mean that the entanglement is broken at some point which would release a lot of energy. This has led to a paradox which means that we have to either modify or abandon certain principles in physics, something which scientists don’t really like to do unless there’s a good reason to.
Hawking has recently weighed in on the topic through a paper on ArXiv which was then famously misinterpreted as him saying that there were no black holes at all. What he was actually saying was that there were no black holes in the traditional sense that there were distinct event horizons which, when passed, would not allow anything to escape. Instead Hawking has propose apparent horizons which are temporary artefacts, shifting around the black hole. This would then allow information to escape without necessitating the quantum firewall, preserving the more peaceful theory.
The new theory hasn’t been hit with resounding approval however as it raises almost as many questions as it answers. I’ll admit its quite intriguing, definitely worthy of further research, but with so many fundamental changes to the model of how black holes operate it’s hard to take it at face value. Still the mere fact that this has caused such ripples, even outside the scientific community, shows just how important this is to the wider world of physics.
Like many engineers I have trouble with throwing out things that are potentially useful. I’ve got several containers stuffed with computer parts, a few more laden with electronics bits and a shed full of other miscellanea that I have a hard time writing off as completely useless. Thankfully at least once a year I’ll do a clean out of the entire house and any of the real trash will get tossed at that point, meaning that most of the stuff I have actually has some potential to be used. My hoarder tendencies have also led me down the rather unexpected path of self discovery and brought insight into some of our societal norms.
One of the things I find hard to let go of are my socks. Like anyone I’d do a wash only to find myself one or two socks short, leaving me with at best mismatched pairs and at worst socks that were never to be used again. For the longest time I can remember just quietly cursing under my breath and tossing them into a pile, never to be looked at again. Then one day I accidentally chucked that entire pile of socks into my regular wash and interestingly enough I came out of it with many more pairs of socks than what came in. It was then I realised that for the most part my missing socks weren’t missing at all, they had either been misplaced or a complete pair had been sitting in the lost socks pile for however long. From then on I have continued the ritual of rifling through my lost sock drawer every time I find myself coming up short and around 75% of the time I find myself with a completed pair once again.
This experience got me thinking about how we as a society come to accept certain inevitabilities simply because the are accepted by everyone. It’s a well known “fact” that washing machines somehow eat a sock every so often and with that idea firmly implanted in your head you don’t think twice about it when you come up short in the wash every week. Of course most people are rational beings and if you really push the topic they’ll eventually cave and say that they’ve probably misplaced them somewhere but rarely do I hear of anyone trying to figure out a solution to it.
I hadn’t really considered the idea passed “Hey I can find most of my lost socks if I just keep them all” until I watched TED Talk by Kathryn Schulz titled On Being Wrong:
At its heart the idea that a washing machine can magically disappear socks is wrong, they’re simply not designed that way. Realistically the blame lies with us for having misplaced them but admitting that to ourselves is much harder than laying blame on some external, uncontrollable factor. We’re much more comfortable believing we’re right about the washing machines working against us than taking that leap into thinking we’re wrong and working out a solution. Taking this one step further its easy to see when people become trapped in these notions that they believe are right when objectively they’re completely wrong and there’s usually a path to follow to remedy it.
Just like my Straight Line Theory before it the Lost Sock Theory came about not through hours of philosophical study but just a realisation through going about my normal, everyday life. Perhaps its my engineering bent that causes me to seek out problems like this and work on their solutions as I often find myself seeing analogies in everyday life to philosophical ideals. Indeed it is my hope that in sharing these ideas with you that you too will embark on a similar path of self discovery, or at least find some of those socks that have gone walk about.