The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality - Brian Greene (2004)

Part V. REALITY AND IMAGINATION

Chapter 14. Up in the Heavens and Down in the Earth

EXPERIMENTING WITH SPACE AND TIME

We’ve come a long way since Empedocles of Agrigento explained the universe using earth, air, fire, and water. And much of the progress we’ve made, from Newton through the revolutionary discoveries of the twentieth century, has been borne out spectacularly by experimental confirmation of detailed and precise theoretical predictions. But since the mid-1980s, we’ve been the victims of our own success. With the incessant urge to push the limits of understanding ever further, our theories have entered realms beyond the reach of our current technology.

Nevertheless, with diligence and luck, many forefront ideas will be tested during the next few decades. As we’ll discuss in this chapter, experiments either planned or under way have the potential to give much insight into the existence of extra dimensions, the composition of dark matter and dark energy, the origin of mass and the Higgs ocean, aspects of early-universe cosmology, the relevance of supersymmetry, and, possibly, the veracity of string theory itself. And so, with a fair bit more luck, some imaginative and innovative ideas regarding unification, the nature of space and time, and our cosmic origins may finally be tested.

Einstein in Drag

In his decade-long struggle to formulate the general theory of relativity, Einstein sought inspiration from a variety of sources. Most influential of all were insights into the mathematics of curved shapes developed in the nineteenth century by mathematical luminaries including Carl Friedrich Gauss, János Bolyai, Nikolai Lobachevsky, and Georg Bernhard Riemann. As we discussed in Chapter 3, Einstein was also inspired by the ideas of Ernst Mach. Remember that Mach advocated a relational conception of space: for him, space provided the language for specifying the location of one object relative to another but was not itself an independent entity. Initially, Einstein was an enthusiastic champion of Mach’s perspective, because it was the most relative that a theory espousing relativity could be. But as Einstein’s understanding of general relativity deepened, he realized that it did not incorporate Mach’s ideas fully. According to general relativity, the water in Newton’s bucket, spinning in an otherwise empty universe, would take on a concave shape, and this conflicts with Mach’s purely relational perspective, since it implies an absolute notion of acceleration. Even so, general relativity does incorporate some aspects of Mach’s viewpoint, and within the next few years a more than $500 million experiment that has been in development for close to forty years will test one of the most prominent Machian features.

The physics to be studied has been known since 1918, when the Austrian researchers Joseph Lense and Hans Thirring used general relativity to show that just as a massive object warps space and time—like a bowling ball resting on a trampoline—so a rotating object drags space (and time) around it, like a spinning stone immersed in a bucket of syrup. This is known as frame dragging and implies, for example, that an asteroid freely falling toward a rapidly rotating neutron star or black hole will get caught up in a whirlpool of spinning space and be whipped around as it journeys downward. The effect is called frame dragging because from the point of view of the asteroid—from its frame of reference—it isn’t being whipped around at all. Instead, it’s falling straight down along the spatial grid, but because space is swirling (as in Figure 14.1) the grid gets twisted, so the meaning of “straight down” differs from what you’d expect based on a distant, nonswirling perspective.

To see the connection to Mach, think about a version of frame dragging in which the massive rotating object is a huge, hollow sphere. Calculations initiated in 1912 by Einstein (even before he completed general relativity), which were significantly extended in 1965 by Dieter Brill and Jeffrey Cohen, and finally completed in 1985 by the German physicists Herbert Pfister and K. Braun, showed that space inside the hollow sphere would be dragged by the rotational motion and set into a whirlpool-like spin.1 If a stationary bucket filled with water—stationary as viewed from a distant vantage point—were placed inside such a rotating sphere, the calculations show that the spinning space would exert a force on the stationary water, causing it to rise up the bucket walls and take on a concave shape.

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Figure 14.1 A massive spinning object drags space—the freely falling frames—around with it.

This result would have pleased Mach no end. Although he might not have liked the description in terms of “spinning space”—since this phrase portrays spacetime as a something—he would have found it extremely gratifying that relative spinning motion between the sphere and the bucket causes the water’s shape to change. In fact, for a shell that contains enough mass, an amount on a par with that contained in the entire universe, the calculations show that it doesn’t matter one bit whether you think the hollow sphere is spinning around the bucket, or the bucket is spinning within the hollow sphere. Just as Mach advocated, the only thing that matters is the relative spinning motion between the two. And since the calculations I’ve referred to make use of nothing but general relativity, this is an explicit example of a distinctly Machian feature of Einstein’s theory. (Nevertheless, whereas standard Machian reasoning would claim that the water would stay flat if the bucket spun in an infinite, empty universe, general relativity disagrees. What the Pfister and Braun results show is that a sufficiently massive rotating sphere is able to completely block the usual influence of the space that lies beyond the sphere itself.)

In 1960, Leonard Schiff of Stanford University and George Pugh of the U.S. Department of Defense independently suggested that general relativity’s prediction of frame dragging might be experimentally tested using the rotational motion of the earth. Schiff and Pugh realized that according to Newtonian physics, a spinning gyroscope—a spinning wheel that’s attached to an axis—floating in orbit high above the earth’s surface would point in a fixed and unchanging direction. But, according to general relativity, its axis would rotate ever so slightly because of the earth’s dragging of space. Since the earth’s mass is puny in comparison with the hypothetical hollow sphere used in the Pfister and Braun calculation above, the degree of frame dragging caused by the earth’s rotation is tiny. The detailed calculations showed that if the gyroscope’s spin axis were initially directed toward a chosen reference star, a year later, slowly swirling space would shift the direction of its axis by about a hundred-thousandth of a degree. That’s the angle the second hand on a clock sweeps through in roughly two millionths of a second, so its detection presents a major scientific, technological, and engineering challenge.

Four decades of development and nearly a hundred doctoral dissertations later, a Stanford team led by Francis Everitt and funded by NASA is ready to give the experiment a go. During the next few years, their Gravity Probe Bsatellite, floating 400 miles out in space and outfitted with four of the most stable gyroscopes ever built, will attempt to measure frame dragging caused by the earth’s rotation. If the experiment is successful, it will be one of the most precise confirmations of general relativity ever achieved, and will provide the first direct evidence of a Machian effect.2 Equally exciting is the possibility that the experiments will detect a deviation from what general relativity predicts. Such a tiny crack in general relativity’s foundation might be just what we need to gain an experimental glimpse into hitherto hidden features of spacetime.

Catching the Wave

An essential lesson of general relativity is that mass and energy cause the fabric of spacetime to warp; we illustrated this in Figure 3.10 by showing the curved environment surrounding the sun. One limitation of a still figure, though, is that it fails to illustrate how the warps and curves in space evolve when mass and energy move or in some way change their configuration.3 General relativity predicts that, just as a trampoline assumes a fixed, warped shape if you stand perfectly still, but heaves when you jump up and down, space can assume a fixed, warped shape if matter is perfectly still, as assumed in Figure 3.10, but ripples undulate through its fabric when matter moves to and fro. Einstein came to this realization between 1916 and 1918, when he used the newly fashioned equations of general relativity to show that—much as electric charges racing up and down a broadcast antenna produce electromagnetic waves (this is how radio and television waves are produced)—matter racing this way and that (as in a supernova explosion) produces gravitational waves. And since gravity is curvature, a gravitational wave is a wave of curvature. Just as tossing a pebble into a pond generates outward-spreading water ripples, gyrating matter generates outward-spreading spatial ripples; according to general relativity, a distant supernova explosion is like a cosmic pebble that’s been tossed into a spacetime pond, as illustrated in Figure 14.2. The figure highlights an important distinguishing feature of gravitational waves: unlike electromagnetic, sound, and water waves—waves that travel through space—gravitational waves travel within space. They are traveling distortions in the geometry of space itself.

While gravitational waves are now an accepted prediction of general relativity, for many years the subject was mired in confusion and controversy, at least in part because of overadherence to Machian philosophy. If general relativity fully incorporated Mach’s ideas, then the “geometry of space” would merely be a convenient language for expressing the location and motion of one massive object with respect to another. Empty space, in this way of thinking, would be an empty concept, so how could it be sensible to speak of empty space wiggling? Many physicists tried to prove that the supposed waves in space amounted to a misinterpretation of the mathematics of general relativity. But in due course, the theoretical analyses converged on the correct conclusion: gravitational waves are real, and space can ripple.

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Figure 14.2 Gravitational waves are ripples in the fabric of spacetime.

With every passing peak and trough, a gravitational wave’s distorted geometry would stretch space—and everything in it—in one direction, and then compress space—and everything in it—in a perpendicular direction, as in the highly exaggerated depiction in Figure 14.3. In principle, you could detect a gravitational wave’s passing by repeatedly measuring distances between a variety of locations and finding that the ratios between these distances had momentarily changed.

In practice, no one has been able to do this, so no one has directly detected a gravitational wave. (However, there is compelling, indirect evidence for gravitational waves.4) The difficulty is that the distorting influence of a passing gravitational wave is typically minute. The atomic bomb tested at Trinity on July 16, 1945, packed a punch equivalent to 20,000 tons of TNT and was so bright that witnesses miles away had to wear eye protection to avoid serious damage from the electromagnetic waves it generated. Yet, even if you were standing right under the hundred-foot steel tower on which the bomb was hoisted, the gravitational waves its explosion produced would have stretched your body one way or another only by a minuscule fraction of an atomic diameter. That’s how comparatively feeble gravitational disturbances are, and it gives an inkling of the technological challenges involved in detecting them. (Since a gravitational wave can also be thought of as a huge number of gravitons traveling in a coordinated manner—just as an electromagnetic wave is composed of a huge number of coordinated photons—this also gives an inkling of how difficult it is to detect a single graviton.)

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Figure 14.3 A passing gravitational wave stretches an object one way and then the other. (In this image, the scale of distortion for a typical gravitational wave is hugely exaggerated.)

Of course, we’re not particularly interested in detecting gravitational waves produced by nuclear weapons, but the situation with astrophysical sources is not much easier. The closer and more massive the astrophysical source and the more energetic and violent the motion involved, the stronger the gravitational waves we would receive. But even if a star at a distance of 10,000 light-years were to go supernova, as the resulting gravitational wave passed by earth it would stretch a one-meter-long rod by only a millionth of a billionth of a centimeter, barely a hundredth the size of an atomic nucleus. So, unless some highly unexpected astrophysical event of truly cataclysmic proportions were to happen relatively nearby, detecting a gravitational wave will require an apparatus capable of responding to fantastically small length changes.

The scientists who designed and built the Laser Interferometer GravitationalWave Observatory (LIGO) (being run jointly by the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and funded by the National Science Foundation) have risen to the challenge. LIGO is impressive and the expected sensitivity is astounding. It consists of two hollow tubes, each four kilometers long and a bit over a meter wide, which are arranged in a giant L. Laser light simultaneously shot down vacuum tunnels inside each tube, and reflected back by highly polished mirrors, is used to measure the relative length of each to fantastic accuracy. The idea is that should a gravitational wave roll by, it will stretch one tube relative to the other, and if the stretching is big enough, scientists will be able to detect it.

The tubes are long because the stretching and compressing accomplished by a gravitational wave is cumulative. If a gravitational wave were to stretch something four meters long by, say, 10−20 meters, it would stretch something four kilometers long by a thousand times as much, 10 −17 meters. So, the longer the span being monitored, the easier it is to detect a change in its length. To capitalize on this, the LIGO experimenters actually direct the laser beams to bounce back and forth between mirrors at opposite ends of each tube more than a hundred times on each run, increasing the roundtrip distance being monitored to about 800 kilometers per beam. With such clever tricks and engineering feats, LIGO should be able to detect any change in the tube lengths that exceeds a trillionth of the thickness of a human hair—a hundred millionth the size of an atom.

Oh, and there are actually two of these L-shaped devices. One is in Livingston, Louisiana, and the other is about 2,000 miles away in Hanford, Washington. If a gravity wave from some distant astrophysical hullabaloo rolls by earth, it should affect each detector identically, so any wave caught by one experiment had better also show up in the other. This is an important consistency check, since for all the precautions that have been taken to shield the detectors, the disturbances of everyday life (the rumble of a passing truck, the grinding of a chainsaw, the impact of a falling tree, and so on) could masquerade as gravitational waves. Requiring coincidence between distant detectors serves to rule out these false positives.

Researchers have also carefully calculated the gravitational wave frequencies—the number of peaks and troughs that should pass by their detector each second—that they expect to be produced by a range of astrophysical phenomena including supernova explosions, the rotational motion of nonspherical neutron stars, and collisions between black holes. Without this information the experimenters would be looking for a needle in a haystack; with it, they can focus the detectors on a sharply defined frequency band of physical interest. Curiously, the calculations reveal that some gravitational wave frequencies should be in the range of a few thousand cycles per second; if these were sound waves, they’d be right in the range of human audibility. Coalescing neutron stars would sound like a chirp with a rapidly rising pitch, while a pair of colliding black holes would mimic the trill of a sparrow that’s received a sharp blow to the chest. There’s a junglelike cacophony of gravitational waves oscillating through the spacetime fabric, and if all goes according to plan, LIGO will be the first instrument to tune in.5

What makes this all so exciting is that gravitational waves maximize the utility of gravity’s two main features: its weakness and its ubiquity. Of all four forces, gravity interacts with matter most feebly. This implies that gravitational waves can pass through material that’s opaque to light, giving access to astrophysical realms previously hidden. What’s more, because everything is subject to gravity (whereas, for example, the electromagnetic force only affects objects carrying an electric charge), everything has the capacity to generate gravitational waves and hence produce an observable signature. LIGO thereby marks a significant turning point in the way we examine the cosmos.

There was a time when all we could do was raise our eyes and gaze skyward. In the seventeenth century, Hans Lippershey and Galileo Galilei changed that; with the aid of the telescope, the grand vista of the cosmos came within humanity’s purview. But in time, we realized that visible light represented a narrow band of electromagnetic waves. In the twentieth century, with the aid of infrared, radio, X-ray, and gamma ray telescopes, the cosmos opened up to us anew, revealing wonders invisible in the wavelengths of light that our eyes have evolved to see. Now, in the twenty-first century, we are opening up the heavens once again. With LIGO and its subsequent improvements,39 we will view the cosmos in a completely new way. Rather than using electromagnetic waves, we will use gravitational waves; rather than using the electromagnetic force, we will use the gravitational force.

To appreciate how revolutionary this new technology may be, imagine a world on which alien scientists were just now discovering how to detect electromagnetic waves—light—and think about how their view of the universe would, in short order, profoundly change. We are on the cusp of our first detection of gravitational waves and so may well be in a similar position. For millennia we have looked into the cosmos; now it’s as if, for the first time in human history, we will listen to it.

The Hunt for Extra Dimensions

Before 1996, most theoretical models that incorporated extra dimensions imagined that their spatial extent was roughly Planckian (10−33 centimeters). As this is seventeen orders of magnitude smaller than anything resolvable using currently available equipment, without the discovery of miraculous new technology Planckian physics will remain out of reach. But if the extra dimensions are “large,” meaning larger than a hundredth of a billionth of a billionth (10−20 ) of a meter, about a millionth the size of an atomic nucleus, there is hope.

As we discussed in Chapter 13, if any of the extra dimensions are “very large”—within a few orders of magnitude of a millimeter—precision measurements of gravity’s strength should reveal their existence. Such experiments have been under way for a few years and the techniques are being rapidly refined. So far, no deviations from the inverse square law characteristic of three space dimensions have been found, so researchers are pressing on to smaller distances. A positive signal would, to say the least, rock the foundations of physics. It would provide compelling evidence of extra dimensions accessible only to gravity, and that would give strong circumstantial support for the braneworld scenario of string/M-THEORY.

If the extra dimensions are large but not very large, precision gravity experiments will be unlikely to detect them, but other indirect approaches remain available. For example, we mentioned earlier that large extra dimensions would imply that gravity’s intrinsic strength is greater than previously thought. The observed weakness of gravity would be attributed to its leaking out into the extra dimensions, not to its being fundamentally feeble; on short distance scales, before such leakage occurs, gravity would be strong. Among other implications, this means that the creation of tiny black holes would require far less mass and energy than it would in a universe in which gravity is intrinsically far weaker. In Chapter 13, we discussed the possibility that such microscopic black holes might be produced by high-energy proton-proton collisions at the Large Hadron Collider, the particle accelerator now under construction in Geneva, Switzerland, and slated for completion by 2007. That is an exciting prospect. But there is another tantalizing possibility that was raised by Alfred Shapere, of the University of Kentucky, and Jonathan Feng, of the University of California at Irvine. These researchers noted that cosmic rays—elementary particles that stream through space and continually bombard our atmosphere—might also initiate production of microscopic black holes.

Cosmic ray particles were discovered in 1912 by the Austrian scientist Victor Hess; more than nine decades later, they still present many mysteries. Every second, cosmic rays slam into the atmosphere and initiate a cascade of billions of downward-raining particles that pass through your body and mine; some of them are detected by a variety of dedicated instruments worldwide. But no one is completely sure what kinds of particles constitute the impinging cosmic rays (although there is a growing consensus that they are protons), and despite the fact that some of these high-energy particles are believed to come from supernova explosions, no one has any idea of where the highest-energy cosmic ray particles originate. For example, on October 15, 1991, the Fly’s Eye cosmic ray detector, in the Utah desert, measured a particle streaking across the sky with an energy equivalent to 30 billion proton masses. That’s almost as much energy in a single subatomic particle as in a Mariano Rivera fastball, and is about 100 million times the size of the particle energies that will be produced by the Large Hadron Collider.6 The puzzling thing is that no known astrophysical process could produce particles with such high energy; experimenters are gathering more data with more sensitive detectors in hopes of solving the mystery.

For Shapere and Feng, the origin of super-energetic cosmic ray particles was of secondary concern. They realized that regardless of where such particles come from, if gravity on microscopic scales is far stronger than formerly thought, the highest-energy cosmic ray particles might have just enough oomph to create tiny black holes when they violently slam into the upper atmosphere.

As with their production in atom smashers, such tiny black holes would pose absolutely no danger to the experimenters or the world at large. After their creation, they would quickly disintegrate, sending off a characteristic cascade of other, more ordinary particles. In fact, the microscopic black holes would be so short-lived that experimenters would not search for them directly; instead, they would look for evidence of black holes through detailed studies of the resulting particle showers raining down on their detectors. The most sensitive of the world’s cosmic ray detectors, the Pierre Auger Observatory—with an observing area the size of Rhode Island—is now being built on a vast stretch of land in western Argentina. Shapere and Feng estimate that if all of the extra dimensions are as large as 10 −14 meters, then after a year’s worth of data collection, the Auger detector will see the characteristic particle debris from about a dozen tiny black holes produced in the upper atmosphere. If such black hole signatures are not found, the experiment will conclude that extra dimensions are smaller. Finding the remains of black holes produced in cosmic ray collisions is certainly a long shot, but success would open the first experimental window on extra dimensions, black holes, string theory, and quantum gravity.

Beyond black hole production, there is another, accelerator-based way that researchers will be looking for extra dimensions during the next decade. The idea is a sophisticated variant on the “space-between-the-cushions” explanation for the loose coins missing from your pocket.

A central principle of physics is conservation of energy. Energy can manifest itself in many forms—the kinetic energy of a ball’s motion as it flies off a baseball bat, gravitational potential energy as the ball flies upward, sound and heat energy when the ball hits the ground and excites all sorts of vibrational motion, the mass energy that’s locked inside the ball itself, and so on—but when all carriers of energy have been accounted for, the amount with which you end always equals the amount with which you began.7 To date, no experiment contradicts this law of perfect energy balance.

But depending on the precise size of the hypothesized extra dimensions, high-energy experiments to be carried out at the newly upgraded facility at Fermilab and at the Large Hadron Collider may reveal processes that appear to violate energy conservation: the energy at the end of a collision may be less than the energy at the beginning. The reason is that, much like your missing coins, energy (carried by gravitons) can seep into the cracks—the tiny additional space—provided by the extra dimensions and hence be inadvertently overlooked in the energy accounting calculation. The possibility of such a “missing energy signal” provides yet another means for establishing that the fabric of the cosmos has complexity well beyond what we can see directly.

No doubt, when it comes to extra dimensions, I’m biased. I’ve worked on aspects of extra dimensions for more than fifteen years, so they hold a special place in my heart. But, with that confession as a qualifier, it’s hard for me to imagine a discovery that would be more exciting than finding evidence for dimensions beyond the three with which we’re all familiar. To my mind, there is currently no other serious proposal whose confirmation would so thoroughly shake the foundation of physics and so thoroughly establish that we must be willing to question basic, seemingly self-evident, elements of reality.

The Higgs, Supersymmetry, and String Theory

Beyond the scientific challenges of searching into the unknown, and the chance of finding evidence of extra dimensions, there are a couple of specific motivations for recent upgrades on the accelerator at Fermilab and for building the mammoth Large Hadron Collider. One is to find Higgs particles. As we discussed in Chapter 9, the elusive Higgs particles would be the smallest constituents of a Higgs field—a field, physicists hypothesize, that forms the Higgs ocean and thereby gives mass to the other fundamental particle species. Current theoretical and experimental studies suggest that the Higgs should have a mass in the range of a hundred to a thousand times the mass of the proton. If the lower end of this range turns out to be right, Fermilab stands a reasonably good chance of discovering a Higgs particle in the near future. And certainly, if Fermilab fails and if the estimated mass range is nonetheless correct, the Large Hadron Collider should produce Higgs particles galore by the end of the decade. The detection of Higgs particles would be a major milestone, as it would confirm the existence of a species of field that theoretical particle physicists and cosmologists have invoked for decades, without any supporting experimental evidence.

Another major goal of both Fermilab and the Large Hadron Collider is to detect evidence of supersymmetry. Recall from Chapter 12 that supersymmetry pairs particles whose spins differ by half a unit and is an idea that originally arose from studies of string theory in the early 1970s. If supersymmetry is relevant to the real world, then for every known particle species with spin-1⁄2 there should be a partner species with spin-0; for every known particle species of spin-1, there should be a partner species with spin-1⁄2. For example, for the spin-1⁄2 electron there should be a spin-0 species called the supersymmetric electron, or selectron for short; for the spin-1⁄2 quarks there should be supersymmetric quarks, or squarks; for spin1⁄2 neutrinos there should be spin-0 sneutrinos; for spin-1 gluons, photons, and W and Z particles there should be spin-1⁄2 gluinos, photinos, and winos and zinos. (Yes, physicists get carried away.)

No one has ever detected any of these purported doppelgängers, and the explanation, physicists hope with fingers crossed, is that the supersymmetric particles are substantially heavier than their known counterparts. Theoretical considerations suggest that the supersymmetric particles could be a thousand times as massive as a proton, and in that case their failure to appear in experimental data wouldn’t be mysterious: existing atom smashers don’t have adequate power to produce them. In the coming decade this will change. Already, the newly upgraded accelerator at Fermilab has a shot at discovering some supersymmetric particles. And, as with the Higgs, should Fermilab fail to find evidence of supersymmetry and if the expected mass range of the supersymmetric particles is fairly accurate, the Large Hadron Collider should produce them with ease.

The confirmation of supersymmetry would be the most important development in elementary particle physics in more than two decades. It would establish the next step in our understanding beyond the successful standard model of particle physics and would provide circumstantial evidence that string theory is on the right track. But note that it wouldn’t prove string theory itself. Even though supersymmetry was discovered in the course of developing string theory, physicists have long since realized that supersymmetry is a more general principle that can easily be incorporated in traditional point-particle approaches. Confirmation of supersymmetry would establish a vital element of the string framework and would guide much subsequent research, but it wouldn’t be string theory’s smoking gun.

On the other hand, if the braneworld scenario is correct, upcoming accelerator experiments do have the potential of confirming string theory. As mentioned briefly in Chapter 13, should the extra dimensions in the braneworld scenario be as large as 10−16 centimeters, not only would gravity be intrinsically stronger than previously thought, but strings would be significantly longer as well. Since longer strings are less stiff, they require less energy to vibrate. Whereas in the conventional string framework, string vibrational patterns would have energies that are more than a million billion times beyond our experimental reach, in the braneworld scenario the energies of string vibrational patterns could be as low as a thousand times the proton’s mass. Should this be the case, high-energy collisions at the Large Hadron Collider will be akin to a well-hit golf ball ricocheting around the inside of a piano; the collisions will have enough energy to excite many “octaves” of string vibrational patterns. Experimenters would detect a panoply of new, never before seen particles— new, never before seen string vibrational patterns, that is—whose energies would correspond to the harmonic resonances of string theory.

The properties of these particles and the relationships between them would show unmistakably that they’re all part of the same cosmic score, that they’re all different but related notes, that they’re all distinct vibrational patterns of a single kind of object—a string. For the foreseeable future, this is the most likely scenario for a direct confirmation of string theory.

Cosmic Origins

As we saw in earlier chapters, the cosmic microwave background radiation has played a dominant role in cosmological research since its discovery in the mid-1960s. The reason is clear: in the early stages of the universe, space was filled with a bath of electrically charged particles—electrons and protons—which, through the electromagnetic force, incessantly buffeted photons this way and that. But by a mere 300,000 years after the bang (ATB), the universe cooled off just enough for electrons and protons to combine into electrically neutral atoms—and from this moment onward, the radiation has traveled throughout space, mostly undisturbed, providing a sharp snapshot of the early universe. There are roughly 400 million of these primordial cosmic microwave photons streaming through every cubic meter of space, pristine relics of the early universe.

Initial measurements of the microwave background radiation revealed its temperature to be remarkably uniform, but as we discussed in Chapter 11, closer inspection, first achieved in 1992 by the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) and since improved by a number of observational undertakings, found evidence of small temperature variations, as illustrated in Figure 14.4a. The data are gray-scale coded, with light and dark patches indicating temperature variations of about a few ten-thousandths of a degree. The figure’s splotchiness shows the minute but undeniably real unevenness of the radiation’s temperature across the sky.

While an impressive discovery in its own right, the COBE experiment also marked a fundamental change in the character of cosmological research. Before COBE, cosmological data were coarse. In turn, a cosmological theory was deemed viable if it could match the broad-brush features of astronomical observations. Theorists could propose scheme after scheme with only minimal consideration for satisfying observational constraints. There simply weren’t many observational constraints, and the ones that existed weren’t particularly precise. But COBE initiated a new era in which the standards have tightened considerably. There is now a growing body of precision data with which any theory must reckon successfully even to be considered. In 2001, the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) satellite, a joint venture of NASA and Princeton University, was launched to measure the microwave background radiation with about forty times COBE’s resolution and sensitivity. By comparing WMAP’s initial results, Figure 14.4b, with COBE’s, Figure 14.4a, you can immediately see how much finer and more detailed a picture WMAP is able to provide. Another satellite, Planck, which is being developed by the European Space Agency, is scheduled for launch in 2007, and if all goes according to plan, will better WMAP’s resolution by a factor of ten.

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Figure 14.4 (a) Cosmic microwave background radiation data gathered by the COBE satellite. The radiation has been traveling through space unimpeded since about 300,000 years after the big bang, so this picture renders the tiny temperature variations present in the universe nearly 14 billion years ago. (b) Improved data collected by the WMAP satellite.

The influx of precision data has winnowed the field of cosmological proposals, with the inflationary model being, far and away, the leading contender. But as we mentioned in Chapter 10, inflationary cosmology is not a unique theory. Theorists have proposed many different versions (old inflation, new inflation, warm inflation, hybrid inflation, hyperinflation, assisted inflation, eternal inflation, extended inflation, chaotic inflation, double inflation, weak-scale inflation, hypernatural inflation, to name just a few), each involving the hallmark brief burst of rapid expansion, but all differing in detail (in the number of fields and their potential energy shapes, in which fields get perched on plateaus, and so on). These differences give rise to slightly different predictions for the properties of the microwave background radiation (different fields with different energies have slightly different quantum fluctuations). Comparison with the WMAP and Planck data should be able to rule out many proposals, substantially refining our understanding.

In fact, the data may be able to thin the field even further. Although quantum fluctuations stretched by inflationary expansion provide a compelling explanation for the observed temperature variations, this model has a competitor. The cyclic cosmological model of Steinhardt and Turok, described in Chapter 13, offers an alternative proposal. As the two three-branes of the cyclic model slowly head toward each other, quantum fluctuations cause different parts to approach at slightly different rates. When they finally slam together roughly a trillion years later, different locations on the branes will make contact at slightly different moments, rather as if two pieces of coarse sandpaper were being slapped together. The tiny deviations from a perfectly uniform impact yield tiny deviations from a perfectly uniform evolution across each brane. Since one of these branes is supposed to be our three-dimensional space, the deviations from uniformity are deviations we should be able to detect. Steinhardt, Turok, and their collaborators have argued that the inhomogeneities generate temperature deviations of the same form as those emerging from the inflationary framework, and hence, with today’s data, the cyclic model offers an equally viable explanation of the observations.

However, the more refined data being gathered over the next decade may be able to distinguish between the two approaches. In the inflationary framework, not only are quantum fluctuations of the inflaton field stretched by the burst of exponential expansion, but tiny quantum ripples in the spatial fabric are also generated by the intense outward stretching. Since ripples in space are nothing but gravitational waves (as in our earlier discussion of LIGO), the inflationary framework predicts that gravitational waves were produced in the earliest moments of the universe.8 These are often called primordial gravitational waves, to distinguish them from those generated more recently by violent astrophysical events. In the cyclic model, by contrast, the deviation from perfect uniformity is built up gently, over the course of an almost unfathomable length of time, as the branes spend a trillion years slowly heading toward their next splat. The absence of a brisk and vigorous change in the geometry of the branes, and in the geometry of space, means that spatial ripples are not generated, so the cyclic model predicts an absence of primordial gravitational waves. Thus, if primordial cosmological gravitational waves should be detected, it will be yet another triumph for the inflationary framework and will definitively rule out the cyclic approach.

It is unlikely that LIGO will be sensitive enough to detect inflation’s predicted gravitational waves, but it is possible that they will be observed indirectly either by Planck or by another satellite experiment called the Cosmic Microwave Background Polarization experiment (CMBPol) that is now being planned. Planck, and CMBPol in particular, will not focus solely on temperature variations of the microwave background radiation, but will also measure polarization, the average spin directions of the microwave photons detected. Through a chain of reasoning too involved to cover here, it turns out that gravitational waves from the bang would leave a distinct imprint on the polarization of the microwave background radiation, perhaps an imprint large enough to be measured.

So, within a decade, we may get sharp insight into whether the bang was really a splat, and whether the universe we’re aware of is really a three-brane. In the golden age of cosmology, some of the wildest ideas may actually be testable.

Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Future of the Universe

In Chapter 10 we went through the strong theoretical and observational evidence indicating that a mere 5 percent of the universe’s heft comes from the constituents found in familiar matter—protons and neutrons (electrons account for less than .05 percent of ordinary matter’s mass)— while 25 percent comes from dark matter and 70 percent from dark energy. But there is still significant uncertainty regarding the detailed identity of all this dark stuff. A natural guess is that the dark matter is also composed of protons and neutrons, ones that somehow avoided clumping together to form light-emitting stars. But another theoretical consideration makes this possibility very unlikely.

Through detailed observations, astronomers have a clear knowledge of the average relative abundances of light elements—hydrogen, helium, deuterium, and lithium—that are scattered throughout the cosmos. To a high degree of accuracy, the abundances agree with theoretical calculations of the processes believed to have synthesized these nuclei during the first few minutes of the universe. This agreement is one of the great successes of modern theoretical cosmology. However, these calculations assume that the bulk of the dark matter is not composed of protons and neutrons; if, on cosmological scales, protons and neutrons were a dominant constituent, the cosmic recipe is thrown off and the calculations yield results that are ruled out by observations.

So, if not protons and neutrons, what constitutes the dark matter? As of today, no one knows, but there is no shortage of proposals. The candidates’ names run the gamut from axions to zinos, and whoever finds the answer will surely pay a visit to Stockholm. That no one has yet detected a dark matter particle places significant constraints on any proposal. The reason is that dark matter is not only situated out in space; it is distributed throughout the universe and so is also wafting by us here on earth. According to many of the proposals, right now billions of dark matter particles are shooting through your body every second, so viable candidates are only those particles that can pass through bulky matter without leaving a significant trace.

Neutrinos are one possibility. Calculations estimate their relic abundance since they were produced in the big bang, at about 55 million per cubic meter of space, so if any one of the three neutrino species weighed about a hundredth of a millionth (10−8) as much as a proton, they would supply the dark matter. Although recent experiments have given strong evidence that neutrinos do have mass, according to current data they are too light to supply the dark matter; they fall short of the mark by a factor of more than a hundred.

Another promising proposal involves supersymmetric particles, especially the photino, the zino, and the higgsino (the partners of the photon, the Z, and the Higgs). These are the most standoffish of the supersymmetric particles—they could nonchalantly pass through the entire earth without the slightest effect on their motion—and hence could easily have escaped detection.9 From calculations of how many of these particles would have been produced in the big bang and survived until today, physicists estimate that they would need to have mass on the order of 100 to 1,000 times that of the proton to supply the dark matter. This is an intriguing number, because various studies of supersymmetric-particle models as well as of superstring theory have arrived at the same mass range for these particles, without any concern for dark matter or cosmology. This would be a puzzling and completely unexplained confluence, unless, of course, the dark matter is indeed composed of supersymmetric particles. Thus, the search for supersymmetric particles at the world’s current and pending accelerators may also be viewed as searches for the heavily favored dark matter candidates.

More direct searches for the dark matter particles streaming through the earth have also been under way for some time, although these are extremely challenging experiments. Of the million or so dark matter particles that should be passing through an area the size of a quarter each second, at most one per day would leave any evidence in the specially designed equipment that various experimenters have built to detect them. To date, no confirmed detection of a dark matter particle has been achieved.10 With the prize still very much up in the air, researchers are pressing ahead with much intensity. It is quite possible that within the next few years, the identity of the dark matter will be settled.

Definitive confirmation that dark matter exists, and direct determination of its composition, would be a major advance. For the first time in history, we would learn something that is at once thoroughly basic and surprisingly elusive: the makeup of the vast majority of the universe’s material content.

All the same, as we saw in Chapter 10, recent data suggest strongly that even with the identification of the dark matter, there would still be a significant plot twist in need of experimental vetting: the supernova observations that give evidence of an outward-pushing cosmological constant accounting for 70 percent of the total energy in the universe. As the most exciting and unexpected discovery of the last decade, the evidence for a cosmological constant—an energy that suffuses space—needs vigorous, airtight confirmation. A number of approaches are planned or already under way.

The microwave background experiments play an important role here as well. The size of the splotches in Figure 14.4—where, again, each splotch is a region of uniform temperature—reflects the overall shape of the spatial fabric. If space were shaped like a sphere, as in Figure 8.6a, the outward bloating would cause the splotches to be a bit bigger than they are in Figure 14.4b; if space were shaped like a saddle, as in Figure 8.6c, the inward shrinking would cause the splotches to be a bit smaller; and if space were flat, as in Figure 8.6b, the splotch size would be in between. The precision measurements initiated by COBE and since bettered by WMAP strongly support the proposition that space is flat. Not only does this match the theoretical expectations coming from inflationary models, but it also jibes perfectly with the supernova results. As we’ve seen, a spatially flat universe requires the total mass/energy density to equal the critical density. With ordinary and dark matter contributing about 30 percent and dark energy contributing about 70 percent, everything hangs together impressively.

A more direct confirmation of the supernova results is the goal of the SuperNova/Acceleration Probe (SNAP). Proposed by scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, SNAP would be a satellite-borne orbiting telescope with the capacity to observe and measure more than twenty times the number of supernovae studied so far. Not only would SNAP be able to confirm the earlier result that 70 percent of the universe is dark energy, but it should also be able to determine the nature of the dark energy more precisely.

You see, although I have described the dark energy as being a version of Einstein’s cosmological constant—a constant, unchanging energy that pushes space to expand—there is a closely related but alternative possibility. Remember from our discussion of inflationary cosmology (and the jumping frog) that a field whose value is perched above its lowest energy configuration can act like a cosmological constant, driving an accelerated expansion of space, but will typically do so only for a short time. Sooner or later, the field will find its way to the bottom of its potential energy bowl, and the outward push will disappear. In inflationary cosmology, this happens in a tiny fraction of a second. But by introducing a new field and by carefully choosing its potential energy shape, physicists have found ways for the accelerated expansion to be far milder in its outward push but to last far longer—for the field to drive a comparatively slow and steady accelerated phase of spatial expansion that lasts not for a fraction of a second, but for billions of years, as the field slowly rolls to the lowest energy value. This raises the possibility that, right now, we may be experiencing an extremely gentle version of the inflationary burst believed to have happened during the universe’s earliest moments.

The difference between a true cosmological constant and the latter possibility, known as quintessence, is of minimal importance today, but has a profound effect on the long-term future of the universe. A cosmological constant is constant—it provides a never-ending accelerated expansion, so the universe will expand ever more quickly and become ever more spread out, diluted, and barren. But quintessence provides accelerated expansion that at some point draws to a close, suggesting a far future less bleak and desolate than that following from accelerated expansion that’s eternal. By measuring changes in the acceleration of space over long time spans (through observations of supernovae at various distances and hence at various times in the past), SNAP may be able to distinguish between the two possibilities. By determining whether the dark energy truly is a cosmological constant, SNAP will give insight into the long-term fate of the universe.

Space, Time, and Speculation

The journey to discover the nature of space and time has been long and filled with many surprises; no doubt it is still in its early stages. During the last few centuries, we’ve seen one breakthrough after another radically reshape our conceptions of space and time and reshape them again. The theoretical and experimental proposals we’ve covered in this book represent our generation’s sculpting of these ideas, and will likely be a major part of our scientific legacy. In Chapter 16, we will discuss some of the most recent and speculative advances in an effort to cast light on what might be the next few steps of the journey. But first, in Chapter 15, we will speculate in a different direction.

While there is no set pattern to scientific discovery, history shows that deep understanding is often the first step toward technological control. Understanding of the electromagnetic force in the 1800s ultimately led to the telegraph, radio, and television. With that knowledge, in conjunction with subsequent understanding of quantum mechanics, we were able to develop computers, lasers, and electronic gadgets too numerous to mention. Understanding of the nuclear forces led to dangerous mastery over the most powerful weapons the world has ever known, and to the development of technologies that might one day meet all the world’s energy needs with nothing but vats of salt water. Could our ever deepening understanding of space and time be the first step in a similar pattern of discovery and technological development? Will we one day be masters of space and time and do things that for now are only part of science fiction?

No one knows. But let’s see how far we’ve gotten and what it might take to succeed.