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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics


Thursday, January 22, 2015

Are Our Cosmologists Just "Talking a Good Game"?

The phrase “talking a good game” refers to speaking about something in a way that sounds like you have mastered the topic, even though you may be relatively clueless about it. People often use jargon to help them in “talking a good game.” By using technical phrases and jargon buzzwords, people can make it sound as if they have mastered some topic that they are really hopelessly confused by.

Here is an example of how this may work in the business world.

What Richard Says What Richard Is Thinking
Our new project will deliver end-to-end models to enhance global users and create “win/win” partnerships for success. We will utilize resonant experiences to facilitate bleeding-edge content that revitalizes back-end communities. While we formulate revolutionary new business paradigms, we will blaze new trails in viral marketing breakthroughs, while at the same time unleashing transitional efficient experiences. Finally, we will drive migratory technologies to innovate front-end solutions and architect real-time convergence. I sure hope they don't figure out how clueless I am about this fancy whatchamacallit project I've been dragged in to work on. All I know is it's some incredibly complicated geek thing involving a bunch of different computer systems. I could ask 500 questions to try to really figure the thing out, but then everyone would know I don't know jack about this kind of stuff. Guess I'll just cross my fingers, and try to BS my way through this.


We can forgive Richard, because after all, modern computer systems are very confusing. But if this type of “talking a good game” can take place for something as simple as a computer system, how much more more  likely is it that this kind of thing can go on when the subject matter is the entire universe?

At the poorly-named Physics Arxiv blog, there is an article entitled The Paradoxes That Threaten to Tear Modern Cosmology Apart. It seems our cosmologists may not have as keen a grasp of the nature of the universe as one would think from hearing their lofty pronouncements.

I was familiar with the “vacuum catastrophe” issue discussed in this article, which is basically the biggest “scandal” of modern cosmology. It turns out when physicists calculate the amount of energy that should exist in every cubic centimeter of empty space, they get a number a gazillion times higher than the maximum value consistent with observations. It seems that ordinary empty space, according to quantum field theory, should be vastly more packed with energy than the center of the sun – although it actually has no such density. The expected energy density of the vacuum, according to this article is “ 10^94 g/cm^3.” That means 1094 grams per cubic centimeter, which is much denser than the density you would get if you packed the entire observable universe into a little space the size of a sugar cube.

This problem arises because quantum field theory tells us that empty space is teeming with energy caused by the spontaneous appearance of virtual particles. This leads to another problem – the problem of energy conservation and an expanding universe. Scientists say that energy cannot be created (except when produced from the conversion of matter to energy). Scientists say that a basic law of the universe is the law of the conservation of mass-energy. According to this law, considering matter and energy as two forms of a single thing called mass-energy, you cannot create new mass-energy. You can convert matter to energy or energy to matter, but the total amount of mass-energy cannot increase.

But since the time of the Big Bang, the universe has been expanding, which means the amount of space has been constantly increasing. But each second that the universe adds more space, it also adds a lot more energy, because according to quantum mechanics, empty space is teeming with energy. So, apparently, an expanding universe is one that is constantly adding vast amounts of energy to itself.

It's as if every second the expanding universe was pulling more than a billion trillion rabbits out of a hat – because the energy it is adding every second is much more than the mass-energy of a billion trillion rabbits. But how can that be when the law of the conservation of mass-energy says that the total mass-energy of the universe cannot increase?

Apparently we have not just the riddle of how the universe's original mass-energy appeared (the unsolved problem of the cause of the Big Bang), but also the riddle of how the universe could be continually adding mass-energy to itself, like some endlessly flowing horn-of-plenty. It seems the kind of mystery you might have if poof a giant planet suddenly appeared in our solar system, and then kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger, defying our concepts of what should be possible.

The Helix Nebula (Credit: NASA)