Tag Archives: BICEP2

A Primer On Today’s Events

The obvious questions and their brief answers, for those wanting to know what’s going on today. If you already know roughly what’s going on and want the bottom line, read the answer to the last question.

You may want to start by reading my History of the Universe articles, or at least having them available for reference.

The expectation is that today we’re going to hear from the BICEP2 experiment.

  • What is BICEP2?

BICEP2, located at the South Pole, is an experiment that looks out into the sky to study the polarization of the electromagnetic waves that are the echo of the Hot Big Bang; these waves are called the “cosmic microwave background”.

  • What are electromagnetic waves?

Electromagnetic waves are waves in the electric and magnetic fields that are present everywhere in space.  Visible light is an electromagnetic wave, as are X-rays, radio waves, and microwaves; the only difference between these types of electromagnetic waves is how fast they wiggle and how long the distance is from one wave crest to the next.   Continue reading

My New Articles on Big Bang, Inflation, Etc.

I haven’t written in detail about the history of the universe before, but with an important announcement coming up today, it was clearly time I do so.

Let’s start from the beginning. How did the universe begin?

You may have heard that “the Big Bang theory says that the universe began with a giant explosion.” THIS IS FALSE. That’s not what the original Big Bang Theory said, and it’s certainly not what the modern form of the Big Bang Theory says. The Big Bang is not like a Big Bomb. It’s not an explosion. It’s not like a seed exploding or expanding into empty space. It’s an expansion of space itself — space that was already large. And in the modern theory of the Big Bang, the hot, dense, cooling universe that people think of as the Big Bang wasn’t even the beginning.

How did the universe begin? We haven’t the faintest idea.

That’s right; we don’t know. And that’s not surprising; we can trace the history back a long way, an amazingly long way, but at some point, what we know, or even what we can make educated guesses about, drops to zero.

Unfortunately, in books, on websites, and on many TV programs, there are many, many, many, many, many descriptions of the universe that say that the Big Bang was the beginning of the universe — that the universe started with a singularity (one which they incorrectly draw as a point in space, rather than a moment in time) — and that we know everything (or can guess everything) that happened after the beginning of the universe. Many of them even explicitly say that the Big Bang was an explosion, or they illustrate it that way — as in, for instance, Stephen Hawking’s TV special on the universe. [Sigh — How are scientists supposed to explain these ideas correctly to the public when Stephen Hawking’s own TV program shows a completely misleading video?!] This is just not true, as any serious expert will tell you.

So what do we actually know? or at least suspect?

Out of the fog of our ignorance comes the strong suspicion — not yet the certainty — that at some point in the distant past (about 13.7 billion years ago) the part of the universe that we can currently observe (let’s call it “the observable patch” of the universe) was subjected to an extraordinary event, called “inflation”.

We suspect it. We have some considerable evidence. We’re looking for more evidence. We might learn more about this any day now. Maybe today’s our day.

Stay tuned for the announcement of a “Major Discovery” out of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics later today.  And then stay further tuned for the community’s interpretation of its reliability.

Getting Ready for the Cosmic News

As many of you know already, we’re expecting some very significant news Monday, presumably from the BICEP2 experiment.  The rumors seem to concern a possible observation of “B-mode polarization in the cosmic microwave background radiation”, which, to the person on the street, could mean:

It would also be cool for at least one other reason: it would be yet another indirect detection of gravitational waves, which are predicted in Einstein’s theory of gravity (but not Newton’s), just as electromagnetic waves were predicted by Maxwell’s theory of electricity and magnetism.  Note, however, it would not be the first such indirect detection; that honor belongs to this Nobel-Prize-winning measurement of the behavior of a pair of neutron stars which orbit each other, one of which is a pulsar.  (Attempts at direct detection are underway at LIGO.)

Of course, it’s possible the rumors aren’t correct, and that the implications will be completely different from what people currently expect.  But the press release announcing the Monday press conference specifically said “significant discovery”, so at least it will be interesting, one way or the other.

If you have no idea, or a limited idea, of what I just said, or if you’re not sure you have all the issues straight about the universe’s history and what “Big Bang” means, fear not: I have written the History of the Universe, designed for the non-expert.  Well, not all of the history, or all of the universe either, but the parts you’re going to want to know about for Monday’s announcement.  Those of you who are still awake are invited to read what I’ve put together and send comments about the parts that are unclear or any aspects that look incorrect.  I’ll have another post in the morning hours, and then the big announcement takes place just after noon, East Coast time.