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A Cosmological Puzzle

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  • A Cosmological Puzzle

    Table of Contents
    .......The Elegant Universe
    THE ELEGANT UNIVERSE, Brian Greene, 1999, 2003
    ```(annotated and with added bold highlights by Epsilon=One)
    Chapter 14 - Reflections on Cosmology
    A Cosmological Puzzle
    This post—Planck era cosmology provides an elegant, consistent, and calculationally tractable framework for understanding the universe as far back as the briefest moments after the bang. But, as with most successful theories, our new insights raise yet more detailed questions. And it turns out that some of these questions, while not invalidating the standard cosmological scenario as presented, do highlight awkward aspects that point toward the need for a deeper theory. Let's focus on one. It is called the horizon problem, and it is one of the most important issues in modern cosmology.

    Detailed studies of the cosmic background radiation have shown that regardless of which direction in the sky one points the measuring antenna, the temperature of the radiation is the same, to about one part in 100,000. If you think about it for a moment, you will realize that this is quite strange. Why should different locations in the universe, separated by enormous distances, have temperatures that are so finely matched? A seemingly natural resolution to this puzzle is to note that, yes, two diametrically opposite places in the heavens are far apart today, but like twins separated at birth, during the earliest moments of the universe they (and everything else) were very close together. Since they emerged from a common starting point, you might suggest that it's not at all surprising that they share common physical traits such as their temperature.

    In the standard big bang cosmology this suggestion fails. Here's why. A bowl of hot soup gradually cools to room temperature because it is in contact with the colder surrounding air. If you wait long enough, the temperature of the soup and the air will, through their mutual contact, become the same. But if the soup is in a thermos, of course, it retains its heat for much longer, since there is far less communication with the outside environment. This reflects that the homogenization of temperature between two bodies relies on their having prolonged and unimpaired communication. To test the suggestion that positions in space that are currently separated by vast distances share the same temperature because of their initial contact, we must therefore examine the efficacy of information exchange between them in the early universe. At first you might think that since the positions were closer together at earlier times, communication was ever easier. But spatial proximity is only one part of the story. The other part is temporal duration.

    To examine this more fully, let's imagine studying a "film" of the cosmic expansion, but let's review it in reverse, running the film backward in time from today toward the moment of the big bang. Since the speed of light sets a limit to how fast any signal or information of any kind can travel, matter in two regions of space can exchange heat energy and thereby have a chance of coming to a common temperature only if the distance between them at a given moment is less than the distance light can have traveled since the time of the big bang. And so, as we roll the film backward in time we see that there, is a competition between how close together our spatial regions become versus how far back we have to turn the clock for them to get there. For instance, if in order for the separation of our two spatial locations to be 186,000 miles, we have to run the film back to less than a second ATB, then even though they are much closer, there is still no way for them to have any influence on each other since light would require a whole second to travel the distance between them. 2 If in order for their separation to be much less, say 186 miles, we have to run the film back to less than a thousandth of a second ATB, then, again, the same conclusion follows: They can't influence each other since in less than a thousandth of a second light can't travel the 186 miles separating them. Carrying on in the same vein, if we have to run the film back to less than a billionth of a second ATB in order for these regions to be within one foot of each other, they still cannot influence each other since there is just not enough time since the bang for light to have traveled the 12 inches between them. This shows that just because two points in the universe get closer and closer as we head back to the bang, it is not necessarily the case that they can have had the thermal contact—like that between soup and air—necessary to bring them to the same temperature.

    Physicists have shown that precisely this problem arises in the standard big bang model. Detailed calculations show that there is no way for regions of space that are currently widely separated to have had the exchange of heat energy that would explain their having the same temperature. As the word horizon refers to how far we can see—how far light can travel, so to speak—physicists call the unexplained uniformity of temperature throughout the vast expanse of the cosmos the "horizon problem." The puzzle does not mean the standard cosmological theory is wrong. But the uniformity of temperature does strongly suggest that we are missing an important part of the cosmological story. In 1979, the physicist Alan Guth, now of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote the missing chapter.
    Table of Contents
    .......The Elegant Universe
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