Cosmic Razzmatazz

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RAJGOPAL NIDAMBOOR

Just anyone who has been ‘initiated’ into the etymologies of science would know that the universe, at the beginning of time, was a blaze of radiation — too hot for any atoms to survive. In the first few moments, thereafter, it cooled down somewhat for the nuclei of the lightest elements to form. Yet, it wasn’t enough for whole atoms to appear. It was only millions of years later that the cosmos became cool enough: for simple molecules to form. After that, the wait was almost eternal.  Of billions of years for a complex sequence of events to take place — one that led to the condensation of material into stars and galaxies.

It was an extraordinary cosmic act — followed by the appearance of a stable planetary environment — replete with the biochemical processes so complicated that we now have difficulty in understanding them in spite of our scientific/technological advance. So much so, the big question remains — how and why did this elaborate chain of events begin in the first place? There are as many theories as there are models. Yet, a majority of the theories reveal nothing new about the structure of the world. All they do is simply efface the spectre of the unknown from our own imaginings.

Our biggest, and most profound, challenge today is not only a need to achieve much more than explaining what-is-what-as-it-is, but also bringing in coherence, a strong sense of unity to collections of disconnected facts — and, not just broad accounts, or directions. That such a method would be handy, sans hyperbole, but not as justifiably obvious as it may sound, is passé. Not that it could be ‘flawed,’ because of its appropriate assumption — that the laws governing the workings of the living planet Earth apply throughout the universe, until one is coerced to conclude with just the opposite view.

Our exploration of the universe has also been loaded with myriad assays, also directions — from telescopes, satellites, spacecraft, atom-smashers etc., to computers and human thinking. This is one reason why we have begun to appreciate the labyrinthine subtlety within the depths of inner space. As John Barrow, the renowned English professor of astronomy, puts it: “[We have] not only explored the world of outer space, the stars, galaxies, and great cosmic structures, but also the subatomic world.” In other words — the world of the nucleus and its parts — the basic building blocks of matter.

Barrow observes that the secret of how galaxies came into being may well be comprehended by the study of the most elementary particles of matter in particle detectors buried deep underground. Of classy precepts that have also given us a few speculative theories about the nature of time, yes. Of the ‘inflationary universe’ and ‘wormholes,’ not to speak of the significance of COBE [Cosmic Background Explorer] satellite observations — all of which have lead us to the realm of new dimensions, the Theory of Everything. It is also, in essence, the basic of the basics and the cardinal of the rudiments.

This also explains why a number of researchers have given importance to alternative theories. To draw one such theory: no matter how the universe began, there would have been some region small enough to be kept smooth by interactions between matter and radiation, juxtaposed by a period of accelerated expansion. To draw another: one that investigates whether there are principles that dictate the initial state of the universe — a new sort of law of nature governing the initial conditions in toto. Here’s another celebrated example: the no-boundary condition proposed by James Hartle and Stephen Hawking. There are others too: of rival specifications, including Roger Penrose’s ‘composition’ to measure the level of chaos in the gravitational field of the universe — universal ‘gravitational entropy.’

While Penrose’s ‘disorder’ principle is likely to exist, Hawking’s work has shown that the gravitational fields of black holes are not expanding in time, as our universe is. However, it goes without saying that we do not, as yet, know what determines the gravitational entropy of an expanding universe. All the same, Hawking’s axiom is an advance. A black hole is different, even simple: the surface area of the boundary of a black hole determines its gravitational entropy. Yet, it is complex. Like other theories. It more than explains why one cannot recommend any one particular principle, among the many, concerning the origins of the universe.

“The structure of the universe today,” avers Barrow, “is just the expanded image of conditions in some tiny region of the initial state. [What] we need to know is about the particular local state of affairs that existed in the tiny region of the initial state that grew into our universe.” He concurs that the task isn’t easy — thanks to the restriction of our empirical knowledge about the universe that has allowed us to only see the evolutionary consequences of a ‘Lilliputian’ part of that incipient state.

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