Nautilus

The Universe Began With a Big Melt, Not a Big Bang

There are two tantalizing mysteries about our universe, one dealing with its final fate and the other with its beginning, that have intrigued cosmologists for decades. The community has always believed these to be independent problems—but what if they are not?

The first problem has to do with the existence of something called “dark energy,” which is today accelerating the expansion of the universe and will determine its final fate. Theorists tell us that the effects of dark energy can be explained by introducing a term into Einstein’s equations of gravity called the cosmological constant. But, for this explanation to work, the cosmological constant must have a very specific—and tiny—value. In natural units, the cosmological constant is given by 1 divided by a number made of 1 followed by 123 zeros! Explaining this value is considered one of the greatest challenges faced by theoretical physics today.

EARLY BUMPS: Variations in the cosmic microwave background radiation point to density fluctuations in the early universe.NASA

The second problem relates to another crucial number that shapes our universe, and is related to the formation of structures like galaxies and groups of galaxies. We know that the early universe, while being very smooth, also contained tiny fluctuations in density that acted as seeds for all the cosmic structures we see today. These fluctuations must have a specific magnitude and shape to be consistent with present-day observations. Understanding how these tiny fluctuations were created during the earliest stages in the evolution of the universe, and explaining their magnitude and shape, is an equally fascinating mystery in cosmology.

In the conventional approaches to cosmology, these two numbers—the numerical value of the cosmological constant and the

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from Nautilus

Nautilus7 min readScience
When We Were the Cosmos: The director of the Griffith Observatory revisits the dawn of astronomy.
Leading off this week’s chapter of Nautilus, physics writer Michael Brooks carries on a playful, imaginary conversation with Jerome Cardano, a crazy-bold 16th-century scientist, inventor, and astrologer (it was, after all, the 16th century). Brooks w
Nautilus11 min read
The Ancient Rites That Gave Birth to Religion: Sacred beliefs likely arose out of prehistoric bonding and rituals.
The invention of religion is a big bang in human history. Gods and spirits helped explain the unexplainable, and religious belief gave meaning and purpose to people struggling to survive. But what if everything we thought we knew about religion was w
Nautilus6 min read
The Math Trick Behind MP3s, JPEGs, and Homer Simpson’s Face
Over a decade ago, I was sitting in a college math physics course and my professor spelt out an idea that kind of blew my mind. I think it isn’t a stretch to say that this is one of the most widely applicable mathematical discoveries, with applicatio