A Really Big Free Lunch
I''m writing this column on March 11, the 6-month anniversary of
9/11. This past weekend our friends from Venice, Florida visited
us here on Marco Island. I''ve probably mentioned them before
in connection with the events leading to 9/11. Last year around
this time, we were visiting these friends and had dinner at an
interesting restaurant at the small airport in Venice. It was at this
airport that Atta and one of his fellow terrorists got their flight
training. For all we know, they could have been dining in the
same restaurant that evening. Yesterday, we all watched the CBS
special marking this anniversary of 9/11. If you missed it, it was
based on the filming of a documentary that was following a
particular NY Fire Department engine company and one of its
rookie fireman for several months prior to and, quite by chance,
during the 9/11 disaster. The French brothers filming the story
became directly involved with the firemen that day and captured
not only the first plane striking the Tower but also the action
inside one of the towers.
It was a painful, but riveting program to watch. Happily, this
engine company came out whole, all of its members surviving
the attack. Earlier yesterday, we also watched my favorite
program, Sunday Morning with Charles Osgood. The whole
program was also devoted to 9/11. However, Osgood did
mention among the week''s headlines something less serious. In
an earlier column on the difficulty of being green, I noted that
astronomers at Johns Hopkins had calculated the color of the
universe, i.e., what an observer would see if he or she could
somehow view the universe from somewhere outside it. The
researchers calculated that the universe was green, which fit right
into the theme of my column. Well, Osgood reported that these
researchers have now found a mistake in the software used in
their calculations. It turns out the universe is actually beige.
What a letdown!
I had not planned to write about the universe while down here on
Marco but the programs on 9/11 and the dramatic demonstrations
of the fragility of life put me in a somber mood. I was also
thinking of my wife''s sister, Agnes, who died two weeks ago.
Agnes was a sunny individual who always looked at the world in
a positive light even though she had many troubles of her own.
In the past year or so, she frequently made the remark that she
was ready to die. Yet, at 86, she was still active and often drove
a friend in her 90s on errands or to various functions. Agnes was
fortunate to have died in her sleep, spared the indignities suffered
by many her age.
Agnes'' death and the 9/11 programs moved me to consider
whether, at age 74, I could say that I am ready to die. The
answer is not really but at the same time, if I should die now,
nobody should feel sorry for me. I''ve lived a full life in the most
exciting time in history for a scientist, or for anyone, to have
lived. During my lifetime, answers have been found to most of
the great mysteries concerning life and its origins. If the answers
aren''t complete, at least it seems that the guideposts are in place
to lead to eventual full understanding. Perhaps it was the TV
series "Roots" that spurred my interest in what for me is the
biggest mystery of all, where did we all come from and why?
With the Big Bang now firmly established, it''s clear that we all
ultimately have our origins in the Big Bang, which started our
universe on its long journey. It''s astounding that out of that
Bang evolved the human brain that has come to the point that it
has determined its own origin. However, there remains one "last
great mystery". Why and how did the Big Bang happen at all?
That is, where did the stuff of the Big bang come from? The
reason for putting "last great mystery" in quotes is that the
editor(s) of Discover magazine used that phrase to introduce an
article by Brad Lemley in the April 2002 issue of Discover. The
article is titled "Guth''s Grand Guess". The magazine''s cover
shows a marble of the size I played with as a kid.
This "marble" is our universe just one ten billionth of a trillionth
of trillionth of a second after the Bang. (Obviously, one ten
billionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second is too small for
my feeble mind to comprehend, so let''s call it a gazillionth of a
second from here on.) How does anyone have the chutzpah to
think he could know what the universe looked like that soon after
the most tremendous explosion imaginable? Enter Alan Guth of
MIT and his "inflation" theory, the "grand guess" he formulated
way back in 1979. What is Guth''s "inflation"? Guth says that,
in about a gazillionth of a second, our universe expanded
(inflated) from an infinitesimal speck vastly smaller than a
proton to the size of a marble. This may not sound like much but
the article likens it a pea expanding to the size of our Milky Way
Without going into detail, the basic aspects of Guth''s inflation
theory have been strengthened and confirmed by various types of
data obtained over the last couple of decades. The theory
explained a number of fundamental properties of the universe
that were previously unexplainable. Although I knew of the
inflation theory, until I read the Discover article I hadn''t realized
that Guth''s theory not only inflates the universe but also even
explains how and why the Big Bang happened in the first place.
If this is true, I can die in peace, this explains everything! At
least everything that really bugs me.
So, where did the stuff in the Big Bang come from? Nothing!
Ok, now things get rough. How can you make something out of
nothing? The answer is, from a quantum fluctuation - makes it
all clear doesn''t it? If you''re still unclear about it, perhaps
describing it as the decay of a tiny patch of "false vacuum" will
help. If that makes it clear for you, it sure doesn''t do anything for
me! However, I console myself by remembering that quantum
theory deals with probabilities and that there''s a finite probability
of most anything happening, say a chocolate ripple ice cream
cone materializing out of thin air. (We talked earlier about
virtual particles popping in and out of existence from nothing.)
The chances are slim, essentially nonexistent, but it''s possible.
Nobody has ever seen a false vacuum but, apparently, if such a
thing exists in a tiny, tiny region of "nothing", there is enough
gravitational field in there to start an expansion, and a universe!
What always has bugged me about the Big Bang is the absolutely
huge amount of energy that would have to be in that point to
make all the stuff in our universe. If I understand correctly,
Guth''s inflation means that as the point expands into a marble,
more of "nothing" is converted into energy or the stuff of the
universe. Of course, if I haven''t lost you, or myself, the question
is how can we possibly make something out of nothing - really?
The key seems to be this - gravitational energy is negative, while
ordinary energy, like matter, the stuff you and I are made of, is
positive. If you make precisely as much gravity as ordinary
energy, you have equal amounts of negative and positive energy
and they add up to zero - nothing! Guth says it''s a free lunch!
What it all adds up to seems to be that our universe came into
existence through a chance fluctuation. And if the inflation
theory is correct, it''s origin and it''s subsequent evolution into the
universe we know and love, all are consistent with the laws of
physics. The "last great mystery" now becomes, not where did
we all come from, but where do the laws of physics come from?
Guth is quoted as saying, "We are a long way from being able to
answer that one."
If our universe came out of a fluctuation or false vacuum,
shouldn''t other universes pop up on occasion? Guth and others
feel that is a logical conclusion. As for me, even though I
haven''t the foggiest understanding of a false vacuum, I feel that
someone vastly smarter than I am does and I can die happily,
believing that someone understands where I came from. I won''t
be greedy and insist on knowing the answer to the remaining
"last great mystery" - did God formulate the laws of physics?
Note added on posting: Did you see or hear that Mohammed
Atta and his companion just received their approved visas at the
Venice training school? Unbelievable!
Allen F. Bortrum