A1)I'm not embarrassed at all because it's not hype. Scientists now know how the universe will end. Of course, as with all things scientific, there's a big honking asterisk on the word "know," but before I get to that, let me explain why I feel justified in making such an arrogant statement.
We're in the middle of a scientific revolution, in the honest-to-god paradigm-shift sense. This revolution started in 1997 when two groups of astronomers, the High-Z Supernova Search Team and the Supernova Cosmology Project used the bright flashes of a particular type of dying star (a type-Ia supernova) to measure the expansion of the universe at different times in the past. Since then, a whole raft of astronomical observations -- of faint patterns in the afterglow of the big bang, of distributions of galaxies, of the composition of intergalactic clouds of gas, of distortions of light going around massive bodies -- have all forced cosmologists into a remarkable consensus about the composition of the universe and, yes, its fate.
Just to give you a little taste of what the difference in the state of knowledge was like: in 1997, if you asked an astronomer how old the universe is, you'd get an answer somewhere between 12 and 15 billion years. Now, you'll get an answer of 13.7 billion years, plus or minus about 100 million. That's a big jump in precision. Similarly, before 1997, nobody had a clue how the universe would end; now, cosmologists agree on its fate. Some of the details haven't been worked out (what an understatement!), but the gross picture of the ultimate fate of the cosmos seems to be pretty well established for the first time in history. And by the end of the decade, a lot of the details will be fleshed out.
The ongoing revolution isn't just astronomical; it's physical. A decade ago, nobody knew whether neutrinos have mass. (For those who aren't particle physicists, neutrinos are particles that so rarely interact with matter that they can easily pass through the Earth without noticing the big chunk of mass they've passed through. This property makes them exceedingly hard to study.) Now, neutrino physicists are in accord -- and they've concluded that neutrinos, collectively, weigh about as much as all the visible stars and galaxies in the universe combined. High-energy physicists are using an accelerator in Long Island to recreate the condition of the universe a few microseconds after the big bang. By next year, they will formally announce the creation of a new state of matter that existed only in the very, very early universe. (There are alreadystrong hints that they've succeeded.) And another particle accelerator under construction in Geneva is very likely going to discover the particle responsible for exotic dark matter. (More on this shortly.)
All these experiments, all these observations, are pointing in exactly the same direction; they reveal the composition of the universe and its fate. But as with any good scientific revolution, such as relativity or quantum mechanics, it generates more questions than it answers. Scientists now know how the universe will end, but that understanding comes at the cost of a new mystery in physics.
As to the asterisk on the word "know," scientists are acutely aware that their theories are subject to revision. But at the same time, they have good reasons for being confident about their theories -- and they are more confident about some theories than about others. The new cosmological picture that's emerged has a darn high confidence rating; extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, and the scientific world wouldn't accept the ideas of dark matter, much less dark energy, if there weren't a number of independent lines of evidence that forced scientists to make that conclusion. And while they're not confident about many of the details of the cosmos and the mechanisms that shape it, they are pretty sure that the overall picture is correct. (More on this coming, too.)
Q2) [Almost] Serious question! by Noryungi (#6606694)
Q3) Why does the rate of expansion change? by Anonymous Coward (#6606745)
A2,3) The universe will end in... umm... you really want me to give away the ending to my book?
Actually, I reveal the answer in chapter four, because the understanding of the fate of the universe is just the beginning of the current cosmological revolution. So it's not a spoiler to say...
-- drum roll -- the universe will die a heat death, or "Dark & Cold" by your terminology.
In a big bang universe governed by the laws of general relativity, there are two possibilities. (Actually, there are more than two, but all the cases boil down to two real outcomes.) Big crunch or heat death, fire or ice.
The fate of the universe depends on how the universe expands. In general, things that expand cool down and things that are compressed heat up. (This is what causes a propane container to feel so cold after a barbecue -- all the gas that expanded.) After the big bang the universe was extremely hot and was seething with energy. As it expanded, it cooled; free-roaming quarks condensed into protons and neutrons, and wound up as hydrogen, helium, and a handful of other light elements and isotopes. About 400,000 years after the big bang, the universe cooled enough so that the electrons could combine with the nuclei and form neutral atoms. Now, about 14 billion years later, the universe is a pretty cool place.
The expansion of the universe is like a cannonball shot into the air. As the cannonball flies ever higher, the force of gravity tries to drag it back to earth, reducing its upward velocity and slowing it down as it zooms upward. If gravity is very strong, then the cannonball rapidly loses its speed and quickly comes crashing back to the ground. On the other hand, if gravity is very weak, then the cannonball might escape the pull of the earth entirely and zoom away into outer space.
Similarly, the big bang gave the universe an initial cannonshot of expansion. If the mutual gravitational attraction of the objects in the universe is very strong (if there's a lot of matter in the universe) the expansion will slow down, halt, and eventually reverse itself. After the cooling phase of expansion, the universe will begin to swallow itself, getting smaller and smaller each day. This will make it heat up. The skies will get brighter and brighter as galaxies and stars get closer and closer together, and eventually, the universe will become a bath of radiation once more. Electrons will separate from atoms, atoms and then protons and neutrons will shiver into their components, and the universe will collapse in a "big crunch," a reverse big bang. The cosmos will die a death by fire.
On the other hand, if there's not much matter in the universe, then the expansion of the universe will continue forever. The expansion will slow down, but it will never halt and never reverse itself. The universe continues to cool down, and for a long time, space will look pretty much as it does now. Stars will be born and die, and galaxies will age. The night sky would get darker and darker as distant objects get too dim to view, and eventually, as the hydrogen in the universe is consumed, stars and galaxies will begin to wink out. Many billions of years hence, the universe will be a lifeless soup of dim light and dead matter. It will be a death by ice.
In 1997 and 1998, the two supernova teams used the brightness of distant supernovae to measure the rate of expansion at different times in the past. (Because the speed of light is finite, looking into the distance is the same as looking into the past. This causes no end of tense problems when writing a book about cosmology.) What they found was absolutely gobsmacking. Not only was the universe's expansion not slowing down very much -- it was speeding up! The cannonball was zooming into the air faster and faster as if it were propelled by some sort of weird antigravity force. Not only was the cannonball going to escape, it is so OUTTA HERE! This means a death by ice.
Yegads -- an antigravity force. This was a really hard thing for scientists (and probably you) to accept. But there's a number of different lines of evidence that support the idea, and in the book I go through those lines of evidence in great detail. I'll have to settle for a brief summary here. In 2000, a balloon experiment known as Boomerang took very detailed pictures of the ubiquitous afterglow of the big bang, the cosmic microwave background (CMB). This afterglow has hot and cold spots in it, and for years, scientists have been making very, very detailed predictions about the size and distribution of those spots. The results of the Boomerang experiment and the DASI and WMAP experiments matched those predictions incredibly well, giving scientists great confidence in the underlying theory. It also allowed them to figure out the amount of matter and energy in the universe, and 73% of the "stuff" in the cosmos was dark energy, this antigravity force.
There are a number of other lines of evidence, too; the current distribution of galaxies, for example, implies the presence of an antigravity force, and just last month, scientists made a very nice measurement of something known as the late integrated Sachs-Wolfe effect. This effect can't occur unless you have something like dark energy counteracting gravity's pull.
Unfortunately, a fuller exposition requires a lot more writing -- it takes up several chapters in my book. (Shameless plug). But in summary, there's a number of independent observations that all point to the existence of a dark energy. Furthermore, the theories underlying the idea have made very specific predictions that have been verified with incredible precision. It's extraordinary stuff, but no matter how scientists look at it, they're forced by extraordinary evidence to make the same conclusion.
Yes, it's true that scientists don't know the mechanism of dark energy (though they're not entirely at sea) but there's little doubt that the cannonball is zooming into space faster and faster. They don't know precisely why, but the universe is being pushed toward its icy death by an antigravity force. Scientists are watching it happen.
And you don't need to wait billions of years to know the outcome -- you don't need to observe something directly to conclude that it's going to happen. The planet Pluto was discovered in 1930. So why don't people object to the statement that it takes about 250 years to complete an orbit? Just as you don't have to wait until 2180 to confirm the conclusions of Newtonian dynamics, you don't need to witness the end of the universe to be able to figure out its fate or validate the theory that leads you to that prediction.
Q4) Dark Matter by notcreative (#6606772)
A4) You are correct; the nature and location of dark matter are crucial puzzles in modern cosmology, but I think that the answers will be pretty much in hand by the end of the decade.
I've already mentioned results (most notably WMAP) that reveal the amount of "stuff" in the universe, and 73% of it is dark energy. The rest is matter. But the grand total of the matter locked up in visible stars is a mere 0.5% of the stuff in the universe. What is the other 26.5%? That's dark matter, and, in fact, there are two different types.
Scientists have known for decades that most of the matter in the universe is invisible to telescopes. In the 1960s, Vera Rubin measured the motion of stars wheeling around the center of the Andromeda galaxy and concluded that there had to be a lot more matter pulling on those stars than could be seen.
Despite what some contrarians say, dark matter isn't dogma; viable alternatives, like Moti Milgrom's MOND are taken seriously, if not accepted. Unfortunately, all of the alternatives, including MOND, fail in crucial ways. Besides, you can see dark matter, both directly and indirectly. The MACHO and OGLE projects see the twinkle of stars caused by a passing chunk of dark matter, and they can see the distortion of light caused by a huge amount of unseen mass sitting on the fabric of spacetime. (Distant galaxies are stretched into arcs around this gravitational lens.) This is allowing scientists to figure out just where dark matter resides. But at the same time, a number of observations lead scientists to conclude that the minority of the matter (dark or light) in the universe is ordinary, atomic matter -- the stuff of stars, planets, and people. Again, it will take too long to describe all the lines of evidence, but one powerful way of measuring the number of atoms in the universe is to look at the proportion of hydrogen to deuterium, helium, and lithium in primordial gas clouds. In the first three minutes of the universe, atoms were fusing, just as they do in a hydrogen bomb. The universe was a giant pressure cooker, turning protons and neutrons into heavier elements. If there are a lot of atoms, then there is a lot of fusion and a lot of heavy elements made; if there are not very many atoms, then the universe winds up being almost entirely hydrogen. By looking at the ratios of heavy elements to light elements, scientists concluded that atomic matter makes up about 4% of the "stuff" in the universe -- which is precisely what other measurements, like the CMB ones -- imply, too.
So, 27% of the stuff in the universe is matter: 4% "atomic" matter, leaving 23% to be made of "exotic" matter, stuff that's not made of atoms. I've already described some of that exotic matter; neutrinos make up about 0.5% of the stuff in the universe, about the same as the visible matter in the universe. What's the remainder?
That's the big open question, but one that I'd wager will be solved by the end of the decade. There are very good reasons -- particle physics ones, rather than cosmological ones -- for believing that the main constituent of dark matter is a proposed particle known as the LSP. If it is, then the LHC accelerator in Geneva will find it. If not, then the LSP almost certainly doesn't exist and the puzzle will be compounded -- but I think that scientists are extremely optimistic. Again, there's lots more detail in the book about the justification for this.
Q5) variable constants by Cally (#6607000)
A5) The point's well taken, and I'll get to it after a few remarks.
First, you're right in that the supernovae serve much the same purpose as Cepheid variable stars do -- they're both objects of known brightness, or "standard candles," that allow astronomers to make a precise measurement of the distance to a faraway galaxy. However, they are not the same thing. Cepheids are stars that pulsate and the rate of that pulsation reveals its intrinsic brightness. They're what Hubble used to spot the expansion of the universe in the 1920s, but they're relatively dim and impossible to find in very distant galaxies. Type-Ia supernovae are standard candles that are much, much brighter than Cepheids, and so can be seen halfway across the universe. (And as you note, since distant supernovae mean ancient supernovae, they reveal the expansion rate of the universe billions of years ago.)
Second, the time-varying speed of light (or more precisely, the time-varying fine structure constant) is a controversial idea. The scientists that made the observation in question are pretty solid and they're taken seriously. However, my impression is that mainstream thinking is that the results are due to a systematic error. That aside, the effect, even if real, is very small, and it has nothing to do with interpreting the data from standard candles. The interpretation there is quite well established; there's little question that scientists are seeing an expansion of the universe;. Alternative theories, like tired light, fail in countless ways and scientists have even seen the relativistic time dilation caused by the motion of the distant object.
But, yes, it's natural for a layperson to conclude that the concordance cosmological model is looking increasingly kludge-y, and you're naturally led to wonder whether scientists are trying to prop up a failing model with the equivalent of epicycles or aether. I don't think this is the case for a few reasons.
For one thing, the theory isn't really getting added to and made more complex; it's getting subtracted from and being made more simple. This seems counterintuitive, but it comes from the fact that modern big bang theory is really a class of theories, rather than one set-in-stone dictum about the way the universe is. All these theories agree on the basic physics about the manner of the universe's birth, the forces that drive the universe, and the physics behind them; the difference between the theories are the values of a handful of parameters that are not predicted by the theory. These parameters are inputs rather than outputs, and by pinning down the values of these inputs, the acceptable class of theories gets narrower and narrower.
Dark energy is one of these inputs. Although nobody took it seriously before 1998 -- everyone thought that the value of the parameter in question was zero -- it was lurking there nonetheless. It turns out that this parameter is not only non-zero, it's really big, much to everyone's surprise. But this doesn't add complexity to the model, especially since other parameters, such as the "curvature" of the universe as a whole, which many physicists thought would be non-trivial, turn out not to be important after all. (In other words, the universe seems to be slate flat, rather than saddle-shaped or sphere-like.)
So, from a mathematical viewpoint, the model is no more complex than it was in 1997, and is, in fact, significantly leaner. But what about from a physical viewpoint? Dark matter and dark energy seem to fly in the face of Occam. But here, too, the increase in complexity is much less than it appears. Long before this cosmological revolution, astronomers knew that dark matter had to exist; more recently, they've begun to see it. Even without worrying about cosmological questions, astrophysicists had accepted the existence of dark matter. Cosmological measurements like WMAP showed that these astrophysicists were right -- it was an independent confirmation that dark energy exists and that it comes in two forms, something that other astronomers had concluded a while ago.
Dark energy, on the other hand, has more claim to being a "hack" to the theory. It really is something new and unexpected (even though it was always a mathematical possibility, nobody in the physics world suspected it actually existed.) Nevertheless, the groundwork was already there, and modern big bang theory implicitly requires the existence of a form of dark energy in the very early universe. And since the 1930s, scientists knew that even the deepest vacuum is full of energy and can exert pressure (something known as the Casimir effect, which I describe in this book and in my previous book, Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea). Thus, the idea of dark energy wasn't completely alien to physics before 1997, and in some sense, it was a necessary component.
Yes, it's possible that scientists are looking at the cosmos in the wrong way, and somebody will establish a simpler, more elegant theory that takes all these threads and weaves them together. (More on this shortly.) But at the moment, far from having a kludged-up theory, cosmologists have a leaner (if weirder) theory than ever before -- one that makes very precise predictions that are getting verified with stunning accuracy. I think this argues for increased confidence in the theory rather than for increased fear that it's falling apart.
Q6) Universe's container by bios10h (#6606748)
A6) It freaks a lot of people out. There's a lot of philosophical problems with having an infinite universe -- for example, if the universe is truly infinite, and if, as scientists believe, the number of quantum states of a finite volume is finite, then it's hard to escape the conclusion that, some great distance away, there's a bizarro-you on bizarro-earth reading bizarro-Slashdot. On the other hand, there's no positive evidence that I can think of that the universe is truly infinite; it's just the sparest conclusion in a mathematical sense, if not a philosophical sense.
But an infinite universe is not a foregone conclusion. Earlier this year, Max Tegmark at the University of Pennsylvania published an intriguing paper that looked at slight anomalies in the WMAP data that seem to imply that the universe is not only finite, but shaped like a donut. Nobody takes the idea terribly seriously, not even the author, because there are other statistical tests that seem to rule the donut-shaped universe out. But it's the sort of thing that people are looking at very closely.
Whether it's finite or infinite, in a mathematical sense, there's really no need for the universe to be "in" anything -- there are models where our universe is embedded in a higher-dimensional space, but there are models where it isn't. Philosophically, though, I don't see any advantage to embedding the universe in something bigger -- as you say, it just punts the problem forward. (Who, then, will contain the containers?)
It's one of those things that is hard to get comfortable with -- and even when you accept it, it sometimes can cause pangs of uncertainty. Quantum mechanics does this, too... it's just something that's hard to wrap your head around. Take solace in the fact that it's hard for everyone else, too.
Q7) How ultimate is the end of the universe? by Lane.exe (#6606766)
A7) If there were a collapse-type universe, yes, there could be a reboot and a new big bang. (And if Microsoft built the universe, a reboot would be coming sooner rather than later. *duck*)
In fact, the theory behind the cosmic microwave background stemmed from calculations to see whether this was possible. Remember the expansion-cooling/contraction-heating bit I mentioned a while ago? A physicist at Princeton was trying to figure out whether matter would break apart into its constituents in a collapsing universe, so he looked at how the universe heated up as it compressed. He then realized that his calculations worked equally well in reverse -- the young expanding universe was very hot but cooling -- and it had to have an afterglow: the CMB.
There are restrictions on this rebirth argument, though. For one thing, the fact that the universe will expand forever prevents a big crunch in our future, so we're at the end of the line if such a line existed. And in 2001, Alan Guth proved a mathematical theorem that shows that bang/crunch/bang universes can't have an infinite history; they must have started some finite time in the past. (Though there are a few ways around the theorem if you reject a few assumptions.) So yes, it's possible, but there is no reason to believe it actually happened, and there are very good reasons for thinking it won't happen in the future.
Q8) comparable ramifications? by sstory (#6606658)
A8) I'm not going to give the usual B.S. answers about spinoffs (though there are some). And I'm not going to evade the question by saying that genomics hasn't yielded any transformation, because the potential is certainly there. But I will answer this question obliquely.
If I asked you, "Quick! What's the most important scientific achievement of the 20th century?" how would you respond?
You would probably answer relativity or quantum mechanics, or perhaps the Apollo landings. Probably some would say the atom bomb. I suspect that only a handful of people would mention the computer, and even fewer people would say penicillin. (Am I right?)
Science has two faces -- it can transform society (for better or worse), and it can advance human knowledge. The two are not inextricably bound, though they often come together.
Relativity was a profound shift in our understanding of the way the universe works, but you have to look pretty hard to see a direct effect on our lives. Conversely, penicillin wasn't a central advance in understanding biological systems, but it affected all of us -- I suspect many people here on Slashdot wouldn't be alive today without penicillin and its descendants.
For me, though, relativity is a greater scientific triumph than penicillin -- even though penicillin is probably much more important to us. It altered our view of the universe and gave us a greater understanding of the fundamental laws of the universe -- it was a philosophical advance as much as it was a technical one. That's why we seem to admire Einstein more than Fleming and Newton more than Jenner.
The present cosmological revolution won't change our lives dramatically; heck, a good spam filter would probably have more direct effect on our quality of life. But at the same time, it will finally answer some of the most ancient questions of humanity -- where did the universe come from and how will it end -- and when it ends, we will have a firm grasp of the answer of the latter if not the former. It will be a towering intellectual achievement, and I think that is what will set it apart from even the human genome project.
Q9) What is the next paradigm shift? by geeber (#6606890)
A9) I disagree with the idea that there's no paradigm shifts left -- indeed, I think we're in the middle of one now. I think that it will be associated with one in the Standard Model of particle physics that will begin before the end of the decade.
It's hard to say where future paradigm shifts lie, but there are lots and lots of outstanding questions in science, some of which are incredibly basic, yet totally out of scientists' reach. For example, neurologists have a very good idea about how individual neurons work -- how they connect and communicate. But when it comes to explaining how a large sloppy hunk of neurons becomes a conscious entity, they're completely at sea. I don't think there's even a good definition of consciousness, which is crucial if you're going to study it seriously. Even more basic -- scientists are struggling to define what life is. There's a heck of a lot more work to do, and plenty of room for paradigm shifts.
Speaking of paradigm shifts, I'd like to take a bit of issue with the term (which I've used myself a number of times in the responses to these questions.)
For those who don't know, the idea of a "paradigm shift" comes from Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions, a seminal work in history of science. While I think that Kuhn's idea of a paradigm shift has a lot of merit -- models and philosophies do change suddenly and dramatically in the face of mounting conflicting evidence and despite resistance -- I think the term itself is misleading. It implies the complete abandonment of one idea and acceptance of a replacement.
In my view, this is not the way modern science works -- I think that science is cumulative. Each model extends and corrects the previous one, and while there might be a dramatic shift philosophically, there is almost never a dramatic shift physically. Relativity, for example, made a profound change in the way we think about time and space and gravity, yet the functional difference between Newton and Einstein is pretty small. All these complicated tensor equations are approximately equal to Newton's laws in the vast, vast majority of cases -- it's only under conditions of extreme gravity, extreme speed, extreme energy, or extreme time that relativistic predictions diverge from Newton's. Similarly with quantum mechanics.
While I think that relativity and quantum mechanics are paradigm shifts, they're not rejections of the Newtonian picture as much as they are extensions. The paradigm shift can be huge philosophically, but its effects tend to be small in magnitude. And with these small corrections, scientists extend the applicability of their model of the universe -- they can explain the orbit of Mercury or the photoelectric effect -- and in the cases where Newton's laws were strong, these models boil down to Newton's laws.
If I remember my Kuhn correctly, he explicitly rejected the idea of cumulative science; he really saw each model getting completely replaced by its successor, rather than as an extension -- and this leads, at least in my view, to the excesses of postmodernism.
I think that this issue goes to the heart of the questions about how scientists can be sure about the end of the universe if their models can be replaced at any time. To that I'd argue that, yes, all models are provisional, but even with "paradigm shifts" models are usually extended rather than replaced. The central findings of the previous model still hold with good accuracy in most cases, even if the philosophical underpinnings are badly shaken. Maybe scientists are missing some crucial understanding that will simplify the way we look at the universe -- and scientists are seriously pondering alternate models to things as widely accepted as the inflationary big bang -- but even if such a shift occurs, it probably won't invalidate today's discoveries.
Q10) What will it mean? by boatboy (#6607285)
A10) One thing's certain. If I knew the answers, I'd be even more insufferable than I am now.
Seriously, I'm not sure that knowing the answers would have a profound moral and sociological effect. While I think that asking and answering big questions is a hallmark of a prospering society, a society doesn't necessarily draw strength or stability from its intellectual curiosity. (For example, Athenian democracy lasted only about 80 years if I remember right.) Even the most profound philosophical ideas can wind up having little real effect on the everyday functioning of a civilization -- for example, I think that Godel's incompleteness theorem hasn't changed society in the slightest.
As for the next big question, I think there are some in biology: what is life? What is consciousness? How did life arise? Are we alone in the universe? In physics, I think there are profound questions yet to be answered in a realm that I'd describe as "information theory" in the broadest sense -- what's really going on in a black hole? What makes quantum mechanics so weird? And I think that answering the question about the true nature of dark energy will probably have to await a future cosmological revolution. But one of the wonderful things about science is that you don't really know what big questions are within your grasp until you begin to grasp them. We'll know the next revolution when it appears.
Editor's note: Due to long answer lengths, we linked to the questions instead of running them directly here in order to keep this page from getting too large. This was an experiment. If you have comments or questions about Slashdot interview formatting, please email Roblimo.