Thursday, February 25, 2016

There's Nothing There - Part 17

Alrighty then. If the Higgs turned out to be what we thought it should be, then the universe should have ripped itself apart. We were off by 10**17, which is 100 quadrillion times smaller than we thought it should be. Not only is the Higgs exactly what it needs to be for us to be here, even the universe wouldn't be here if it were different.

That's a big mistake. Biiiig. Huuuuge. Like, you got your first paycheck, and instead of it being $1 (which would be deeply disappointing for a paycheck), it was $100,000,000,000,000,000. Only the other way around. Which would not be disappointing at all.

You'd need 1000 of these. 
If they were worth anything.
I googled how much money is in the whole world right now, just for comparison. The largest amount I got was $241 trillion. That's about 500 times smaller than your first paycheck. Good luck at the ATM with that.

But that's not the biggest mistake we ever made in physics.

The biggest mistake was what we thought the Cosmological Constant ought to be.

What, you just said out loud, the heck is the Cosmological Constant?

I'm sure you said "heck". This is a family science blog. That occasionally says things like "crapload".


I'm so glad you asked what the Cosmological Constant is. There's a good story.

So. Albert Einstein came up with the General Theory of Relativity. It was awesome. And it was always right.

Then this Belgian guy who was not only a brilliant physicist but a

priest (seriously!?) was working through the math one day and discovered something. His name was Georges Lemaitre. You should pronounce that in the French way. I'll help. It's pronounced "baguette". You're welcome.

He discovered that the math of the General Theory predicted, all by itself, with no evidence at all to support it, that the universe was not infinitely large or old but actually had a starting point.

And the General Theory was always right.

This was upsetting.

Everyone was busily assuming that the universe was infinite in size and age, that it had always been here.

But it hadn't.

Albert didn't like that at all. So he figured that he needed to fix it, because everybody (I mean, everybody) knew that the universe didn't have a starting point. Except religious people. And you know how they are.

So he tried to fix it. He stuck this number in his beautiful, gorgeous equation to try to force the universe to be infinite. And the number was called (drum roll) ...

The Cosmological Constant. He gave it a Greek letter, lambda (∧), and just kinda stuck it in there.

It was ugly. Here's what it should look like:

Much better.

He left it there for awhile. Hoping.

And then Edwin Hubble (who invented hubble gum)(I may have

made that up)(there's no such thing as hubble gum) discovered that the universe actually was expanding, and therefore was not infinite. That it had a starting point. He found the physical evidence that this was true.

Space-Time (you remember Space-Time?) was stretching as time went forwards, so if we look backwards in time, Space-Time is doing the opposite of stretching. Unstretching. Contracting. Getting smaller. So small that eventually all of Space-Time just ... goes away. So then, if you start right there at the beginning, the universe just ... arrives.
Space-Time stretching. OK, Plastic Man. 
But he's made of Space-Time, so it works.

Later on, Fred Hoyle called this "the Big Bang", 'cause he thought it was a dumb idea.

But it wasn't.

So Albert had to take the Cosmological Constant out of the General Theory. It was a bit embarrassing. He had to apologize to Lemaitre. In French, no less. For a German, that really hurts.

That was, like, 1929.

Time passes. Einstein dies. Hubble dies. Lemaitre dies. Not necessarily in that order. Nobody pays very much attention to the Cosmological Constant. It was a bad idea. Very bad. Totally wrong.

Hah! is what the universe says about that.

Then in 1998 (almost 70 years later), some guys discovered that the universe was expanding a lot faster than we thought.

Huh, they said. What would make that happen?, they wondered. So they said to themselves, in order for the universe to start expanding faster than it was, that would take something that looks a lot like ... energy. Like, the opposite of gravity. Gravity draws things together. This is things getting pushed apart. And that would take some sort of energy.

Huh, they said. Why can't we see it? What the heck is it? Where the heck is it?

So they won the Nobel Prize. But they still don't know what it is.

So they called it ... Dark Energy. Which means, we don't know

what it is or where it is or how it works, but it kinda seems like it's got to be energy, but we can't see it or measure it or touch or anything.

So we'll call it Dark Energy. "Invisible, Undetectable, Immeasurable Energy" would have been better, but Dark is like, a cool word. They say that Dark Energy might be the energy that empty space has.


So empty space now has invisible energy in it?

Very strange.

And guess what they decided to use? Einstein's Cosmological Constant.

And they figured out what the value would have to be. And they wrote it down.

And they were so, so, so wrong.

The number they predicted is a trillion trillion trillion trillion

trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion times bigger than the actual value. That's 10**120 bigger.

And if the Cosmological Constant was any bigger than it is, the universe would be ripped apart. Again.

That's the biggest mistake in the history of mistakes. Here's how big that is: 

There are about 10**120 elementary particles in the entire observable universe. Plus or minus. We were wrong by the number of particles in the universe. That's a crapload of wrong, is what that is. It's a thousand trillion trillion trillion times bigger than the number of atoms in the Universe.

So here's what we've got. If either the Higgs Boson or the Cosmological Constant were what we thought they should be, the universe would have blown apart before it ever got started.

They have to be just what they are. Or we wouldn't be here.

They've been called "The Two Most Dangerous Numbers in the Universe." Here's a link for you to go read.

Here's a quote:

"At the core of Cliff’s argument are what he calls the two most dangerous numbers in the Universe. These numbers are responsible for all the matter, structure, and life that we witness across the cosmos. And if these two numbers were even slightly different, says Cliff, the Universe would be an empty, lifeless place."

And it's the Higgs Interaction, of course. And the expansion rate of the universe is an interaction between Dark Energy and Space-Time. Because all there is, is interactions.

Gotta have the Higgs. Gotta have Dark Energy.

Next. Gotta have Dark Matter.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

There's Nothing There - Part 16

The Higgs Boson. It's in there somewhere. 
So I'm told.
The first thing to say about the Higgs Boson is that we also call it the Higgs Interaction. And the Higgs Field. But we're gonna go with Interaction, because it fits so nicely with the whole Interaction thing.

The second thing to say is that when I tried to give a talk which included a tiny little bit of talking about the Higgs to a group of people that included some of the scientists who found it (this was in Geneva, very close to CERN, the particle accelerator where the Higgs was found), I didn't do so good.

I don't know why. I looked up the Higgs on Wikipedia the night
Not the Higgs.
before just to make sure. This is true.

So if you go look up the Higgs on Wikipedia (which you should do right now), here's what you'll find out.

It's way more complicated than anything I'm gonna say here.

So I'm just gonna go with what I read in the papers.

It's not that I'll be wrong. Just way too simple.

Like describing a rainbow as "pretty. With colors."

So if you're a physicist who helped discover the Higgs, you could
Nope. Still not the Higgs. 
just stop reading here and skip ahead or go drop apples out of trees or something. Go reconcile Relativity with Quantum Theory. That would be nice. Or figure out Dark Energy and Dark Matter. You could win a swell prize.


Right after Big Bang, we had all these particles whizzing about and all these laws sitting there ready to go to work, but here's the thing.

That work is "interaction".

And in order for the interaction to happen, particles generally have to have "mass".

No. Really. This is jigs. Not Higgs.
Mass is what bends space-time, and that's what we call gravity. No mass, no gravity. No gravity, no stars or galaxies or elements or planets or life. Or you and me. Or Mass. If you're Catholic. So, really, no mass = no Mass. Little physics/Catholic joke. Sorry. 

Plus, gravity needs particles that interact; gravitons. We haven't found them yet. That's because they're really hard to find.

Also, the Strong Force needs particles that interact. They're called Gluons. Because they glue stuff on. Gluons. They glue quarks together to make protons and neutrons. No Strong Force, no atoms, and no life.

And the Electromagnetic Force (also called the Electromagnetic Interaction) needs particles that have mass. Electrons. Duh. No Electromagnetic Force, no atoms, and no life. It also needs particles that don't have mass, but do interact - Photons. Light particles.

And the Weak Force needs particles that have mass. We call those the W and the Z bosons. The Weak Force is also called (are you ready for this?) the Weak Interaction. The Weak Interaction, along with Gravity, makes stars, and inside stars, the Weak Interaction makes elements. No Weak Force, no elements, and no life.

So some guys (Peter Higgs was one of them. There were five others. Go look it up.) figured out that in order for particles to have mass, there had to be another particle that would create an Interaction that would give mass to all the particles that need mass. This was, like, 60+ years ago.

It took a long time to find it. And a lot of money. A crapload of money. I mean, a craaaaplooooad. Over $13 billion. To find a particle that exists for a ten-sextillionth (10-22) of a second. A thousandth of a billionth of a billionth of a second. And even then, you don't see the Higgs. You see all the particles it decays into. So you get evidence of the Higgs, not the Higgs itself.

And the universe is chock full of Higgs Bosons. Everywhere. All
Wigs. Wigs. Not Higgs. Sheesh. 
the time. Wave your hand and knock them around by the quadrillions. But we couldn't find it without spending over $13 billion and spending 60 years at it. And it took, like, 3000 scientists. Maybe more.

It's a funny place, the universe. But it's gotta have mass in it for anything to happen, and so, the Higgs.

It does a couple of other useful things.

One. It keeps the universe from decaying. Which, as it turns out, the universe could do at any moment if the Higgs decides to change its value by a tiny little amount. Then we all just ... go away. And the Higgs could actually do this. I wouldn't worry about it. You'll never know. You'd just ... go away.

Two. It solves a problem we have with anti-matter. And matter.
Short version is, the universe is always creating matter and anti-matter particles which immediately destroy each other. Seems a bit pointless.

And it would be, except that's where the particles all come from.

No particles means no anything. Gotta have particles.

The Higgs arranges it so that every now and then (once in 10
billion times), a particle arrives without its anti-particle. So, we get particles. With mass. In a universe that doesn't collapse and go away. 

(Einstein thought it was only 1 billion. Oops.)

Dang. That Higgs. It's really something.

Here's something else. The tiny little mass of the Higgs boson, whose relative smallness allows big structures such as galaxies and humans to form, falls roughly 100 quadrillion times short of expectations. (1017). Change it just a little, and the universe has nothing in it. That's from Quanta Mag.

Mr. Biggs. NOT Mr. Higgs. Still. The Higgs is always good.
This is from ScienceAlert:  

"According to Einstein’s theory of general relativity and the theory of quantum mechanics, the Higgs field should be performing one of two tasks.

"Either it should be turned off, meaning it would have a strength value of zero and wouldn’t be working to give particles mass, or it should be turned on, and, as the theory goes, this 'on value' is absolutely enormous, But neither of those two are what physicists observe.

"In reality, the Higgs field is just slightly on. It’s not zero, but it’s ten thousand trillion times weaker than its fully on value - a bit like a light switch that got stuck just before the 'off' position. And this value is crucial. If it were a tiny bit different, then there would be no physical structure in the Universe.

"Why the strength of the Higgs field is so ridiculously weak defies understanding."

Here's something just from me. I'm gonna make it up. Let me know if it's wrong.

Photons of light have no mass. So they travel (duh) the speed of
light. The speed of themselves.

So (here's my thought) if all the other particles have no mass, then they could travel the speed of light. I don't know if they would. But they could.

But for photons, the universe doesn't exist like it does for you and me and things with mass. For photons, everything happens in the same time and at the same place.

So if particles had no mass, wouldn't everything for everything happen at the same time and at the same place?

Which would mean that the universe would be just a single spot of Space-Time. Because the universe is a Higgs Interaction between particles and Space-Time.

If there was no mass. No Higgs. No mass. No universe. Just something very like the Singularity. Not exactly like it. Just ... close.

Just a thought.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

There's Nothing There - Part 15

Now, the problem with a universe, a brand new universe full of Space-Time, or made of Space-Time, is that it is a bit unstable.

Like, brand new babies. Like, here's your brand new baby. Isn't it cute? Don't you just want to cuddle it to pieces?

And then you find out that it poops and pees and cries and screams and squirms and doesn't sleep at night when YOU need to sleep, but it sleeps really well in the daytime when YOU need to go do stuff and grows up and becomes a screaming toddler and then suddenly a nasty old teen-ager who is completely and totally unstable and says that it hates you even though it really doesn't mean it. But, still. It hurts.

OK, that's not really a great analogy, but we got to use the word "unstable" in a sentence, because that's what a brand new universe might be.

Instability in a universe - very bad.

Because the universe could just ... collapse back in on itself and become, um, not a universe again. Nothing there. Not a nothing that might be mistaken for a something, but like the original nothing out of which the universe came in the first place.

Nasty teen-ager. OK, it's a metaphor. Apes don't sue.
When you put their pictures on the web without asking first.
That would be bad. No universe, no nothing, no order, no life, no you or me. No screaming babies or sullen teen-agers. Don't go there. Don't wish the universe would go away just because of a nasty old teenager. Tempting though it may be.

Or the universe could expand waaaaaay too much, and then you get an even more enormous, but entirely empty universe.

Because everything that the universe produces has to be close enough to everything else the universe produces in order for the universe to produce anything else, up to and including babies and teen-agers.

Because (and this is what started this whole "There's Nothing There - Part Infinity" [apparently it's never going to end]), it seems likely that what there is in the nothing that makes the nothing act like something is (wait for it) ... interactions. Relationships. And for things to interact, they have to be close enough together for the laws of physics to make them interact.

The laws of physics being Gravity (which is really weak and if things aren't close enough, Gravity is just useless.), and Electromagnetism (ditto), and the Strong Force (OMG, it only reaches across an atom, which is veeery small) and the Weak Force (which we still don't quite get yet, but take our word for it - things gotta be close).

Just to remind us - Gravity is an interaction between matter and space-time.

So here's another question: how hard is it to get a universe to be juuuuuust right? Like, it doesn't collapse and it doesn't get too big. Not too small. Not too big. Juuuuuust right. Goldilocks-ishly. We made that word up.

And the answer is (drum roll) really really hard.

If we were to give you the odds, it would 1 in 10**60th, which is 1 in 10 to the 60th, which is 1 in 10000000000000000000000000000 0000000000000000000000000000000th. If we counted all the zeroes right.

Gravity has to be exaccccctly right in order for that to happen. Well, it can be off by 1 part in 10**60th.

And it also has to be what we call "Flat", this universe. Which means it can't be bent one way or 'tother.

This is the Physics Girl. Way smart.
Those are the three possible shapes of the universe. On the right.
The scientists call this "The Flatness Problem". You could look it up. Good idea. Go do that.

Because it's a problem. The odds are not good. The universe should have been bent one way or 'tother. 

But it isn't.

What are the odds?

That would be 1 in 10**62nd, which is 1 in 10 to the 62nd, which is 1 in 1000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000 0000000000000nd. If we counted all the zeroes right.

So the scientists looked around for a way around this problem. Three of them found a way. If you want to know their names, you can ask us and we'll tell you.

They came up with this idea called "Cosmic Inflation". It's very cool.

It says that the universe, which was already expanding pretty darn fast, all of a sudden started expanding super-dooper fast for a really really tiny amount of time.

We told you this before, but that's OK. We'll tell you again.

It expanded in 10**-35th of a second from the size of a nanometer to 250 million light years across. And then it all of a sudden slowed down again. 

Here's how fast: .00000000000000000000000000000000001 second.

Here's how big: call it 2,500,000,000,000,000,000,000 km.

The Milky Way, by the Way, is only 100,000 light years across. Like, 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 km. Way smaller. Waaaaay. 

Cosmic Inflation. It's a lovely idea.

With a problem.

Things needed once again to be juuuuuust right for Inflation to happen.
This is Goldilocks. Kinda bad-ass.


So in order for the universe to be just right in order for it to actually be able to do anything, it had to expand super-dooper fast for a tiiiny amount of time, and in order for that to happen, everything had to be juuuuuust right.

And then there are some other things that had to be pretty darn perfect. The Higgs, the Dark, and the Dark. Boson, Energy, and Matter, that is.

We should explain. We'll do that. Later.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

There's Nothing There - Part 14

So. Here's what you need to make a universe with something in it. 

First, a universe. Any size. Not very old. In fact, brand new. Right off the lot. Very very low mileage. Made of Space-Time. Really really big, though. Huuuuge. Enormous. So when we said "any size" right back there, it was kind of a Henry Ford-ish "any size". Ford said you could have any color Model A car that you wanted, as long as it was black. You can have any size universe you want, as long as it's huuuuuuge.
Big empty universe. Looks like this. Only emptier.
And bigger.

With nothing in it. That's what we got. An enormous universe with nothing in it.

So we need to find a way for a universe with nothing in it to become a universe with something in it.

By the way, when we say "something", we mean, like, order. Structure. Organized things.

Since we only have our universe to look at, we're going to have to go with what happened in our universe. Odds are good anyway that 1) there aren't any other universes and 2) if there are, most of them will have nothing in them. That's what we're told. Unless there's an infinite number of them. Then, 3) most of them will have nothing in them. 4) In an infinite sort of way.

Anyway. Second, rules. Like, the laws of physics. So our universe produced those. Gravity was first. Then the Strong Force. (Gravity is the weakest. The Strong Force is [duh] the strongest.) 

Then electromagnetism and the weak force, which arrived simultaneously because right before that, they were called the electro-weak because they were together (That would be an awesome name for a superhero - "Electro-Weak!"). 

Right before that was called the Grand Unified Theory because the Strong Force was together with them. We'll call it the Grand Unified Theory "GUT", because, um, that's what they call it. 

Right before that was called the Theory of Everything, because all four forces were together. Except Gravity isn't a force. Don't worry about that. It's just confusing. But we'll call the Theory of Everything "TOE", because, well, that's what they call it.

It's too bad we don't call them Big, cuz then we'd have the Big GUT and the Big TOE. And that would be funny. Ha.

Here's a good question. Why or how did the universe just ... come up with ... laws? I mean, what's up with that? Weird enough that you get a universe at all, but then the laws of physics that make everything happen just ... appear? All of a sudden, we got laws? Very strange.

Anyway. Third, energy.

OK, now we have a problem. Where the heck do you come up with energy when there isn't any?

Hmmmm. We're going to have to get creative.

Here's what we'll do. We'll take no energy, which is what we have, and divide it into two.

Hmmmm. How exactly does one do that?

Well. Since we're good at math, and the universe is all about math, we'll divide no energy into a positive half and a negative half. And they'll just exactly balance each other out. Which makes zero.

So once again, we take ... nothing ... and turn it into ... something.

The positive half we'll call ... matter. And the negative half we'll call ... gravity.

And they'll just exactly balance each other out.


Wait. How are we going to turn energy into matter? I mean, you can't just ... do that ... can you?

Very bad joke. I'm so sorry.
Well. As it turns out, we can. It's called E=MCsquared, which I would write differently if the text formatting here would let me. Dang.

But you might recognize it. Albert (The Man) Einstein came up with that. And what it means is ...

Energy just becomes matter.

In fact, since the whole electro-magnetic spectrum is just different forms of light, what really happens is ...

Light becomes matter.

And so it did.

Why? How!? What's up with that!?! Light just ... BECOMES MATTER?!?!?

Well. Yes. We have a law for that. E = MCsquared. There you go.

Let's review.

1) The universe comes out of nothing.

2) The laws of physics come out of nothing.

3) Energy comes out of nothing.

4) Matter comes from energy which came out of nothing.

5) All the matter is made of light.

6) And the whole thing starts with almost zero entropy. That is, in almost the most perfect state of order that it would ever be in.

So, thus far, what we've got it is, nothing. That is rapidly becoming something. Sort of.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

There's Nothing There - Part 13

So the universe just ... pops ... into existence out of nothing for no reason in the tiniest fraction of a second, and then, inside that first second, produces the laws of physics (the 4 [so far] forces of nature), energy, particles, and inside the first 100 seconds, simple elements, and somewhere along the way, the Higgs Boson, and Dark Energy and Dark Matter. Much later, Darth Vader. And Peter Higgs. Not the same guy.

There are two interpretations of this (for us, anyway) momentous event. It was just an accident. Or it wasn't.

In the words of Douglas Adams, the universe was just one of those things that happens every now and then.

Or, it wasn't.

We'll talk about that.

First, the questions that arrived with the universe. OK, that's not exactly true. First we had to have questioners. That would be us. And then we had to discover that the universe had not always been there. Which we eventually did. And then we had to say, holy crap, now we've got some questions that need answering.

OK, then. The Questions. Some of them, anyway:

Where did the universe come from?

What caused Big Bang? Was it unique, or were there other (lots of)(an infinite number of) Big Bangs?

Where did the laws of physics come from?

What language does the universe speak? (math)

Why does the universe speak a language? (math)

Why does the universe make sense? Why can we figure things out? (math)

Why is there something instead of nothing?

Why did the universe do anything at all?

Why is there order and structure in the universe?

How does the universe go from what is presumably, right after Big Bang, a great big mess to a universe that has complex forms in it, that is, a universe that is not a great big mess?

Where do the elements come from?

Where did all the energy come from? And all the matter?

Where do stars and galaxies come from?

What makes all of this happen?

Where does life come from?
Is there any meaning or purpose to the universe? To life? To, well, not to sound all narcissistic and selfish, but, well, me? I mean, you know, it kinda matters. To me, anyway. And all the rest of you "me's" out there.

And the answer is ... (drum roll) ... we don't know where the universe came from (nowhere, it seems), we don't know what caused Big Bang (some sort of measurement or observation or interaction by somebody or something outside of space and time and the laws of physics and everything, but if you call it "God" it
makes people nervous), and the laws of physics just ... arrived ... in the universe, and math, God (oops, sorry) only knows why math is here, and then we very much later on figured out the math and the physics (not necessarily in that order) and that gave us the answers to most of the rest of the questions. Sorta. Kinda.

Like, we don't know why the universe makes sense, but it's useful that it does so that we can understand it (via math and physics), and we know HOW there is something instead of nothing, but not really WHY except that ... (drum roll) ...

The laws of physics made everything happen.

But some things had to be reeeeeally carefully dialed in first.

For example.

The early universe had to be in the highest state of order that it would ever be in. Physicists call that extremely low entropy. "Entropy" means "disorder", and the universe had to have almost no disorder in it.

Because it only goes one direction. That is, from order to disorder.

So if it had been a big mess, it would still just be a big mess and we wouldn't be here.

Like, your kitchen doesn't start out as a mess. It starts out nice and clean. And then you cook (like, a universe), and it gets messier and messier until you have two things - a lovely meal, and a big mess.

That's what the universe does. It starts out nice and clean, the same temperature (nearly) everywhere, and then as time goes on, as it gets messier, the mess produces a lovely meal.

Well, not a meal, exactly. It produces matter first, in the form of quarks, electrons and gluons. Then protons, neutrons out of the quarks and gluons. Then simple elements out of the protons, neutrons and electrons. Then gas clouds out of hydrogen and a bit of helium (very simple elements). 

Then out of the gas clouds, stars.

And out of the stars, three things: galaxies full of stars, black holes, and more complicated elements.

And then planets, and sometime later life, and sometime after that, complex life, and then (wait for it) you and me. 

A lovely meal I ate in Lima once. Note: no lima beans.
We'll call all of that a lovely meal, surrounded by a universe that is much messier than it use to be. Much more "entropic". Disordered.

But somehow, because the universe started with very little disorder (entropy) in it, it produced a lovely meal.

And you start to wonder ... how exactly did that happen?

Because (let's be honest), lovely meals don't become either lovely or meals without a cook, maybe some recipes, surely some ingredients, some heat, a bit of stirring, and time. And a kitchen. We'll call the kitchen "space-time". So?

And the answer is ... the laws of physics made it happen. Those would be the recipes, sorta.

But only, as we've been told, if the recipes are juuuuuuust right.

Goldilocks. Coming up.