2012 : WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE DEEP, ELEGANT, OR BEAUTIFUL EXPLANATION?

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Physicist, MIT; Researcher, Precision Cosmology; Scientific Director, Foundational Questions Institute

Our Universe Grew Like A Baby

What caused our Big Bang? My favorite deep explanation is that our baby universe grew like a baby human—literally. Right after your conception, each of your cells doubled roughly daily, causing your total number of cells to increase day by day as 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, etc. Repeated doubling is a powerful process, so your Mom would have been in trouble if you'd kept doubling your weight every day until you were born: after nine months (about 274 doublings), you would have weighed more than all the matter in our observable universe combined. 

Crazy as it sounds, this is exactly what our baby universe did according to the inflation theory pioneered by Alan Guth and others: starting out with a speck much smaller and lighter than an atom, it repeatedly doubled its size until it was more massive than our entire observable universe, expanding at dizzying speed. And it doubled not daily but almost instantly. In other words, inflation created our mighty Big Bang out of almost nothing, in a tiny fraction of a second. By the time you reached about 10 centimeters in size, your expansion had transitioned from accelerating to decelerating. In the simplest inflation models, our baby universe did the same when it was about 10 centimeters in size, its exponential growth spurt slowing to a more leisurely expansion where hot plasma diluted and cooled and its constituent particles gradually coalesced into nuclei, atoms, molecules, stars and galaxies.

Inflation is like a great magic show—my gut reaction is: "This can't possibly obey the laws of physics!'' 

Yet under close enough scrutiny, it does. For example, how can one gram of inflating matter turn into two grams when it expands? Surely, mass can't just be created from nothing? Interestingly, Einstein offered us a loophole through his special relativity theory, which says that energy E and mass m are related according to the famous formula E=mc², where c is the speed of light.

This means that you can increase the mass of something by adding energy to it. For example, you can make a rubber band slightly heavier by stretching it: you need to apply energy to stretch it, and this energy goes into the rubber band and increases its mass. A rubber band has negative pressure because you need to do work to expand it. Similarly, the inflating substance has to have negative pressure in order to obey the laws of physics, and this negative pressure has to be so huge that the energy required to expand it to twice its volume is exactly enough to double its mass. Remarkably, Einstein's theory of General Relativity says that this negative pressure causes a negative gravitational force. This in turn causes the repeated doubling, ultimately creating everything we can observe from almost nothing.

To me, the hallmark of a deep explanation is that it answers more than you ask. And inflation has proven to be the gift that keeps on giving, churning out answer after answer. It explained why space is so flat, which we've measured to about 1% accuracy. It explained why on average, our distant universe looks the same in all directions, with only 0.002% fluctuations from place to place. It explained the origins of these 0.002% fluctuations as quantum fluctuations stretched by inflation from microscopic to macroscopic scales, then amplified by gravity into today's galaxies and cosmic large scale structure. It even explained the cosmic acceleration that nabbed the 2011 physics Nobel Prize as inflation restarting, in slow motion, doubling the size of our universe not every split second but every 8 billion years, transforming the debate from whether inflation happened or not to whether it happened once or twice. 

It's now becoming clear that inflation is an explanation that doesn't stop—inflating or explaining. 

Just as cell division didn't make merely one baby and stop, but a huge and diverse population of humans, it looks like inflation didn't make merely one universe and stop, but a huge and diverse population of parallel universes, perhaps realizing all possible options for what we used to think of as physical constants. Which would explain yet another mystery: the fact that many constants in our own universe are so fine-tuned for life that if they changed by small amounts, life as we know it would be impossible—there would be no galaxies or no atoms, say. Even though most of the parallel universes created by inflation are stillborn, there will be some where conditions are just right for life, and it's not surprising that this is where we find ourselves.

Inflation has given us an embarrassment of riches—and embarrassing it is... Because this infinity of universes has brought about the so-called measure problem, which I view as the greatest crisis facing modern physics. Physics is all about predicting the future from the past, but inflation seems to sabotage this. Our physical world is clearly teeming with patterns and regularities, yet when we try quantifying them to predict the probability that something particular will happen, inflation always gives the same useless answer: infinity divided by infinity.

The problem is that whatever experiment you make, inflation predicts that there will be infinite copies of you obtaining each physically possible outcome in an infinite number of parallel universes, and despite years of tooth-grinding in the cosmology community, no consensus has emerged on how to extract sensible answers from these infinities. So strictly speaking, we physicists are no longer able to predict anything at all! Our baby universe has grown into an unpredictable teenager.

This is so bad that I think a radical new idea is needed. Perhaps we need to somehow get rid of the infinite. Perhaps, like a rubber band, space can't be expanded ad infinitum without undergoing a big snap? Perhaps those infinite parallel universes get destroyed by some yet undiscovered process, or perchance they're for some reason mere mirages? The very deepest explanations don't just provide answers, but also questions. I think inflation still has some explaining left to do!