God is a Scientist

That’s the intriguing possibility raised by the idea of “cosmogenesis” – it’s entirely possible that within a few decades, humans will develop the technological capability to create their own universes. It hinges on the existence of a theoretical particle called a monopole – if discovered, pumping enough energy into a monopole should create a tiny black hole. It would be harmless to us, but if you were to go through its tiny mouth you’d find a rapidly inflating universe on its other side – one much like our own, as described by the “big bang” and inflationary theories of creation. If we have the capability of creating our own universes, could we be living inside one created by someone else?

The rabbit-hole of this idea is very similar to the argument that we live inside a simulation – if advanced intelligent civilizations can produce their own universes, and many of them, it’s much more likely that we live inside such a universe than a naturally occurring one. Perhaps our “God” that created our universe is looking toward a tiny particle in his or her alien lab, unable to directly influence what happens within it once it’s been created.

It’s an intriguing possibility that raises all sorts of ethical discussions. If we can create our own universes, should we? Some would argue that intelligent life has inherent value, and if we have the ability to create more of it by creating new universes that may give rise to intelligence, we have an moral obligation to do so.

It’s also a deeply offensive idea to many of the religious faithful, and this has resulted in papers describing it being censored for fear of backlash. But there is a technicality: the Judeo-Christian Bible explicitly describes a universe created from nothing, while cosmogenesis describes a universe created through technical means from something. So it’s at least possible from a philosophical standpoint for both worldviews to co-exist.

But, like the simulation hypothesis, proving or disproving whether we live inside an artificially created universe may be impossible, and ultimately is a question science – or anything else –
cannot answer. If you’d like to read more, check out “The Idea of Creating a Universe in the Lab is No Joke” which goes into much more depth on the idea, and how it’s been suppressed. It’s picking up steam after being republished by Discover Magazine.

Image credit: iStock.com/pixelparticle

Precursors of Life Found Around Young, Sun-Like Stars

One of the great mysteries of science is how life arose on Earth. We just don’t know. Did it evolve from scratch, from chemical reactions inside Earth’s early primordial ooze? Did it come to us in bacterial form from Mars, where it evolved further here? Did our solar system pass through some cloud of organic material as it spun around the galaxy? Are we all just in The Matrix? We simply don’t know.

A hint comes from studies of a distant cluster of sun-like stars called IRAS 16293-2422, which discovered the presence of a complex organic molecule called methyl isocyanate. This “prebiotic” molecule is very similar to peptide, which is what holds the amino acids inside proteins together. Proteins are an essential part of life as we know it.

These stars are very young, suggesting that complex organic molecules can form even before planets do, under the right conditions. Methyl isocyanate was also discovered in the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko two years ago in our own solar system, which shows this compound also existed while our own planet was being formed. Methyl isocyanate has also been found inside large star-forming gas clouds, such as Orion KL and Sagittarius B2(N).

Together these findings suggest that the building blocks of organic life are easily found in the environments stars form within – it’s not something unique to our solar system. What we don’t know is how unique our solar system is in providing the conditions needed to build these components into actual living, breathing creatures such as ourselves! But we’re one step closer to understanding that process.

This discovery was made using the ALMA array, a group of 66 dishes high in the Andes mountains, using both new and archived data. The results are published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society and summarized nicely at the AAAS Science website.

Image credit: iStock.com/zhudifeng

LIGO Detects New Gravitational Waves

In another win for Albert Einstein, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) has observed its third merger of a pair of black holes. But this one’s a little bit special.

This time around, data on the spins of each black hole was gathered – and they were tilting away from each other in a way that defies explanation. Their behavior doesn’t really match up with models of how two wandering black holes that find each other would interact, suggesting they were possibly formed as a pair.

These black holes are 3 billion light years away, and so the gravity waves we are observing are from 3 billion years ago – when the universe was relatively young. Scientific American speculates that these primordial black holes may originate from the Big Bang itself, and may even have something to do with the origin of the universe’s mysterious dark matter.

The folks at Veritasium had a scoop on this release, and have a fun video explaining it that covers it nicely:

By the way, Frank’s Geekery is a patron of Veritasium – please consider supporting them as well.

Image credit: LIGO/Caltech/MIT/Sonoma State (Aurore Simonnet)

The World’s Most Sensitive Dark Matter Detector is On-Line

The XENON1T detector is now on-line in Italy, looking for particles that may be the mysterious “dark matter” that seems to make up most of the universe’s matter. 3.5 metric tons of liquid Xenon cooled to -95°C detect interactions between particles passing through the tank of ultra-pure water surrounding the Xenon detector, making this the largest, most sensitive dark matter experiment to date.

Although its first 30 days of operation have not yielded any big discoveries, this isn’t unexpected. The particles it’s looking for are called WIMP’s – Weakly Interacting Massive Particles. By definition they are difficult to detect – they are “weakly interacting” and detectable only through gravity and the weak force.

WIMP’s are the most widely accepted hypothesis as to the nature of dark matter, but it’s just that – a hypothesis. We know that our standard model of cosmology, based on our observations of the universe, would require that only 4.9% of it is made of the ordinary matter that humans and the detectors we’ve built can easily see. 26.8% is “dark matter” that has a measurable gravitational influence on ordinary matter but can’t be seen, while 68.3% of the universe is the even stranger “dark energy.”

“Dark matter” is a bit of a misnomer – we don’t know for sure it’s matter at all. “Dark gravity” is a better term, since we only postulate its existence through its gravitational effects.

XENON1T is an example of what humanity can do when nations come together in the pursuit of scientific knowledge. Big experiments are expensive, but their results benefit the world’s knowledge. XENON1T is produced by a consortium of scientists from the US, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Portugal, France, the Netherlands, Israel, Sweden and the United Arab Emirates.

Solving the mystery of the nature of dark matter would be a huge step forward in our understanding of the universe we live in. Should XENON1T find the WIMP’s it’s looking for, the universe will make a lot more sense. And if it doesn’t, it may be a sign that we need to explore even more imaginative hypotheses. The human brain and its senses have only evolved to facilitate our survival on Earth, and there is some audacity in attempting to understand the nature of the universe on scales that are much larger or much smaller than the environment we’re made to operate within. The fact we can do this at all, and build things like XENON1T in response, is part of the wonder of science to me.

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