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How to Destroy the Entire Universe

April 23, 2008 on 8:49 am | In big bang, inflation | 31 Comments

Since the dawn of time man has yearned to destroy the sun. - C. M. Burns

There’s no need to stop at the Sun, though. Since yesterday was Earth day, I thought it was only appropriate to spend today telling you how not only to destroy the Earth, but to effectively destroy the entire Universe. To tell you this story, we have to go all the way back to the beginning, to just before the big bang.

The big bang was when the Universe was hot, dense, full of energy, and expanding very quickly. The Universe was also spatially flat and the same temperature everywhere, and full of both matter and antimatter. It may have looked something like this:

(Image credit: Stephen Van Vuuren, created from a simulation of 80,000 star images.) The thing is, we need something to make the Universe this way; we need something to set up the big bang. What makes the Universe flat? What forces the Universe to be the same temperature everywhere? What creates the fluctuations that allow stars, galaxies, and clusters to form from gravitational collapse? What pushes all the weird stuff that might have existed before the big bang away?

The best theory is cosmic inflation, or a theory that says that the Universe went through a period where space expanded exponentially fast. That expansion pushes everything that existed before away, removing it from what we know as our Universe. It takes whatever shape space is and stretches it flat. It takes a small, uniform area and stretches it, giving every point in our Universe the same temperature. And it takes tiny, quantum-scale fluctuations and stretches them across the Universe, creating those fluctuations that allow the formation of stars, galaxies, and clusters. It even gave the correct predictions for the amplitude and spectrum of those fluctuations, more than a decade before we were able to measure them!

So to destroy the Universe, all we have to do is make one tiny point near us expand exponentially fast again, even just for a tiny fraction of a second (~ 10-30 seconds), and that will remove everything we know of entirely, creating a new Universe in its wake. Kind of like a Phoenix (left).

Some of you may object. You may say that it’s wrong to do this; that this would be playing God. Look, people, if you want to destroy the Universe, there are some things you’re just going to have to suck up.

So how do we do this? In some sense, it’s as simple as pushing a ball up a hill; you just need enough energy. All we have to do is make the particle that causes inflation, called an inflaton, with enough energy to make the Universe inflate again. For instance, if we made an inflaton at the low energies we’re used to in big accelerators (you know, like 1012 Electron-Volts), we couldn’t get it out of the bottom of the valley that it’s stuck in, like this:

In fact, supermassive black holes produce cosmic rays that are about 1020 Electron-Volts, so we know we need more energy than that. But if we can get up to about 1026 Electron-Volts, we’re sure to do it. “Do it” means push that inflaton up the hill; push it up high enough, and you get inflation! And that’s how you destroy the Universe!

All you need is a bigger particle accelerator or stronger magnetic fields. We can get up to 1012 eV with a ring with 4 Tesla magnets and about a 1 km radius. So we’d really need a ring with a 1014 km radius (and the same magnetic field) to do this, or an accelerator ring about the radius of our distance to the nearest star. So support your particle physics research and the development of stronger magnetic fields, otherwise we’ll be doomed to celebrate many more Earth days!

Interesting note: Some of you were upset by my post that said string theory is untestable in principle. All you have to do is build a powerful enough accelerator. Guess what, the energy it takes to destroy the Universe like this is less than the energy it takes to test string theory (which is 1028 Electron-Volts). Have a nice day!

Happy Earth Day in Pictures!

April 22, 2008 on 7:43 am | In Solar System | 17 Comments

As you may have noticed from yesterday’s unusual post, today is Earth Day! I thought I’d share with you some of my favorite pictures from space of it, including the famous photograph from Apollo 8 known as Earthrise:

This combination shot made from NASA’s Terra satellite and NOAA’s Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite:

The known satellites at least 0.1 meters in size in orbit around Earth (there are ~11,000 of them as of April 2005, and another 100,000 between 1 cm and 10 cm in size):

Looking at the Earth and the docked Space Shuttle from the International Space Station:

And the emergence of night over Europe and Africa (yes, the night lights are enhanced):

This is our home. I’ll be back with more of the standard stuff you love about the Universe tomorrow, but for today, remember that in the vastness of space, in the depths of our galaxy, this little wet rock is where we came to be. And it’s our responsibility to take care of it, just as it takes care of us. Happy Earth Day.

Sometimes we need to look Down!

April 21, 2008 on 10:38 am | In Solar System | 7 Comments

What makes earthquakes? Although there are many causes, including volcanoes, the most common thing that causes them are tectonic motions, which also cause tsunamis. But as valuable as it is to understand other planets in our solar system and in other star systems, sometimes it’s important to understand what’s going on inside our own planet.

The crust of the Earth actually is made up of a number of plates, which rub against one another and move over time. Who’s to blame? I fault the liquid hot magma.

So what happens is that these plates slip against each other in one of three ways, as shown below,

and these cause earthquakes. But what’s going on deep down in these faults? Well, that’s what a team of scientists in Japan intend to figure out, and here’s the BBC news article about it!

Turns out that the biggest quakes (the magnitude 8 or 9 ones) mostly happen at sea. So they’re actually going to the sea floor, digging out cores that go over a kilometer deep (1.4 km, seriously!), and then bring them back to the lab to analyze them and try to understand what’s going on beneath the Earth’s skin. Here’s a picture:

This is basically like taking the Earth to the doctor and having it X-rayed to see what’s wrong with its insides. Now nothing’s wrong, of course, except from our perspective! (We tend to not like these natural disasters.) But by doing this, they’re able to make 3D maps of the Earth’s density, and figure out what’s likely to happen where. I don’t know that this will lead to one of the holy grails of geology, earthquake forecasting, but that’s the hope!

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Weekend Diversion: A Fun Online Game!

April 19, 2008 on 9:11 am | In Random Stuff | 3 Comments

Sometimes, gravity and motion has the power to mesmerize me. I found this online game called “compulse” which was so much fun, that I spent about 90 minutes this week just playing this game until I had beaten every level on the “pro” setting. Yikes. (My score is 104 under par, 8 under pro.)

And so, in the interest of bringing it to you, I’ve tried to embed it into my website. Have fun playing if it works in your browser (I told you to use firefox or safari), and if you enjoy playing with the mechanics of motion as much as I do, maybe you, too, have the interest it takes to be a physicist!

Thanks to Armor Games for allowing me to use this on my site!

DAMA is at it Again!

April 18, 2008 on 12:22 pm | In Dark Matter | 3 Comments

Remember how I told you earlier this week that DAMA was going to announce that they found dark matter, even though the signal that they found is not consistent with other experiments?

Looks like my powers of predicting the future are pretty damned good. They have a new plot with more data showing the continued modulation at a certain energy range:

and also one showing the fact that they see a bunch of extra events happening in that energy range:

So here’s the stuff that DAMA has seen: a nuclear recoil that has many events in a certain energy range, and has a 2% annual modulation in that energy range. Do we know what causes it? No. Do we know that it isn’t WIMPs of a certain type (from CDMS/Edelweiss)? Yes. But does this necessarily mean that it’s dark matter? No, although it’s possible. What we need is a way to identify what’s actually causing the signal that they see, and they don’t actually have that yet.

So in conclusion, they see more of the same signal they saw before, we still know that it isn’t the dark matter that CDMS and Edelweiss are looking for, and we’re still not sure what’s causing their signal. It could be a lot of things, and although certain types of dark matter can be ruled out, not all of them can. Dark matter? Maybe. But if I had a farm, I wouldn’t bet it on this.

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