As the first deep field image from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) spectacularly confirms, the observable universe is strikingly loaded with mass and matter —- much of which is magnificently grouped in galaxies and clusters of galaxies that are indescribably humbling.
It’s hard not to look at such an image and openly wonder how this cosmos and everything in it all came about. And to question what came before the universe as we know it. To that end, this breakthrough Webb image serendipitously meshes with Laura Mersini-Houghton’s new book “Before the Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe and What Lies Beyond.”
Within these pages, Mersini-Houghton, a professor of theoretical physics and cosmology at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, tackles cosmology’s toughest questions with the type of intellectual rigor rarely on display in a book aimed at a mainstream audience.
As she explains in the book, her fascination with the cosmos’ ultimate questions had their roots in the forlorn former communist country of Albania —- which for decades was almost totally shut off from the outside world. Arguably a de facto prison for its citizens, for Mersini-Houghton, Albania’s night sky became both a refuge and an escape.
Today, Mersini-Houghton advocates a theory that marries quantum physics with a multiverse. That is, a hypothetical collection of identical or diverse universes, including the one which we inhabit. The first half of the book is largely devoted to recounting the history of big bang cosmology. During these chapters, she spends a lot of time explaining why the notion of determining what came before the universe’s beginning was long seen as a lesson in futility.
But the second part of “Before the Big Bang” is devoted to how Mersini-Houghton and colleagues used complex mathematics to bring new life to her cutting-edge efforts to prove that we live in a multiverse.
Mersini-Houghton even makes a compelling argument for the practicality behind such seemingly esoteric research.
The internet, computing and all the electronic gadgets on which our society depends —- from medical imaging equipment on through to apocalyptic nuclear weaponry —- would have never been possible without humanity’s initial curiosity about the night sky, Mersini-Houghton writes. That is, without the theory of quantum mechanics “that Einstein and his theoretical-science contemporaries helped create,” she notes in her book.
“Someday, we might derive similar benefits from discoveries related to the investigation of the multiverse,” writes Mersini-Houghton.
How would a multiverse reveal itself?
As “anomalous scars” on the sky via processes of quantum entanglement, writes Mersini-Houghton. Such entanglement would in turn manifest itself in several different ways in our own multiverse, she writes.
But where to look?
Mersini-Houghton and colleagues decided that such artefacts of multiverse entanglement would logically reveal themselves in the topography of our universe’s Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), leftover radiation from the big bang.
“I decided that the best place to begin our search was in the CMB, the afterglow from the big bang,” writes Mersini-Houghton. “It contains a sort of exclusive record of the first millisecond in the life of the universe.”
Her calculations led to several anomaly predictions; first in “the distant sky above the southern hemisphere” where it was predicted that there would be a primordial giant void, she writes.
Then eight years after her first paper on the subject, in March 2013, the European Space Agency’s Planck satellite released the most detailed measurements of the CMB ever made. Their map included the cold spot that Mersini-Houghton and colleagues had predicted.
These CMB anomalies could not have been caused by anything in our own universe because they violated the uniform distribution of structure expected from a single universe, Mersini-Houghton writes. She argues that they had to have their origins from outside our own cosmos.
“The cold-spot observation was accurate at a sufficiently high confidence level to be considered a discovery,” Mersini-Houghton writes.
“Before the Big Bang” presents a fascinating cosmological narrative. But it’s not for the intellectually faint of heart. Even so, Mersini-Houghton deserves kudos for tackling such extremely complicated material in a way that finds synergy between her own life and that of the history of the cosmos.
But is there really a multiverse?
I’ve long been fascinated by the topography of the CMB; the cold spots, the incongruities and what they could mean and whether they do in fact represent some sort of window beyond standard cosmological paradigms. But having grown up under the single universe theory, I tended to personally eschew the idea of a multiverse.
That’s most likely a reflection of my own hidebound prejudice that our universe is somehow unique and singular and not simply one of many.
And if Mersini-Houghton is correct and we indeed are part of a multiverse?
This opens the possibility that as we speak, some sort of hyper-advanced civilization in our own universe may be traveling to a putative cosmos next door. I haven’t a clue as to how that could even be possible. But because these other multiverse realms may exist, my guess is that someone has probably already figured out a way to move between them.