Posts Tagged cosmology


Posted by on Sunday, 16 March, 2014



People fall in love with their own ideas. This is a particular occupational hazard for science writers and I apologize in advance for doing this to you but I’m repeating one of my answers to a question on because, frankly, I am in love with my own answer. It is my blog. I get to choose. Sue me if you don’t like it. (No. Just kidding. Please don’t.)

The question (on Quora) was: Is it necessary for the universe to have a beginning?

I have two completely contradictory answers. You can take your pick.

Here’s the first one:

Life has become more complicated around here lately.

A few decades ago, the universe was a less ambiguous thing (no multiverses on the agenda) and little or no discussion of pre-big-bang physics. A currently hot topic is whether “something” (stuff) could have come from “nothing” (non-stuff). If you feel the origin of stuff is the beginning, then maybe that predates our particular “bang”.

My opinion? I suspect that there was always something and never nothing. I realize that’s hard to swallow. How could there have always been something? Didn’t it have to start? Where would it have come from? But, if the alternative is that the underlying paraphernalia of physicality – the laws of physics, space-time, and quantum principles – have to be initiated out of nowhere, maybe my version – always something – is less hard on the brain.

At some later point in time, I changed my mind:

The “universe” includes more now than it used to. We have started referring to the “known” universe for the part that we can see; the “rest of it” seems to be considerable and may even be “infinite”. The quotes are because of how infinite that infiniteness might turn out to be.

Projecting everything back to a real – if somewhat mysterious – beginning, a point of infinite density, seems to have become more difficult to accept. 30^-35 meters may be the smallest allowable size. It is called the “Planck length” and it appears to shut the door on anything being smaller than that. Even the early universe.

It now seems likely that the actual beginning may have been a small period of time after the unachievable “singularity” when a few grams of energy-matter condensed out of some still undefined process. The birth of the universe has gradually drifted away from a “who knows?” shoulder shrug to a legitimate area for scientific inquiry,

There’s been lots of back and forth about the difficulties (or not) of “something from nothing”. There are many “nothing purists” who insist we start with an utter void without even the occasional virtual particle and show how such a thing could have led to our present condition. They feel there should be no defined laws of physics in that void either. It would seem we have to choose between either a total and complete null or something that’s not much but has enough of somethingness to start things with random fluctations of virtual particles. If it’s the latter, you’re stuck defining something that’s “eternal” (eternal somethingness).

My own vote is that things really did start from nothing. Absolute, absolute nothing. It’s more logical than saying that things “always were”, don’t you think?

How did we get here then? The key is that it is hard to remain perfect if you have to be that way forever. So perfect nothings foul up eventually; they spit out just enough virtual particles or burps of energy to, occasionally, “start the clock” on a universe.

There’s certainly nothing at all illogical about a “nothing” that does lasts forever. However, we know that didn’t happen, don’t we? Look around you. Obvious, right? So the story of creation is the story of a rare and minor instability which, over eternity, yields a brief flicker in a near timeless void. That flicker was mother and father to all of us.

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The drawing which has nothing to do with anything is mine.



Posted by on Friday, 1 June, 2012
What Planet Are YOU ON?

What planet are YOU from?


What planet are you from? This is something people ask me all the time. Would they ask it if I didn’t have a propeller on my beanie?

The thing is, the list of planets  is growing.


According to Roger D. Blandford (Director of the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology at Stanford University), there could be as many as 4,000,000,000,000,000 (4 quadrillion) stars in the Milky Way. or about 10,000 planets for each sun.

Isn’t that 9,992 more than anybody’s noticed for our own sun/star? If they’re out there, where, really, could they be that they’ve gone undiscovered all this time?

Dr. Blanford’s referring to a fairly new category of planets called “rogue planets” which, unlike Mars and Venus and Earth and other civilized rocks, don’t orbit a star but, instead, roguishly follow their own independent paths. According to this theory, when galaxies collide, they disrupt the orbits of planets, sending them off hither. And thither. And yon.

No longer orbiting a star, they would have tended to escape the notice of astronomers and planet hunting satellites such as Kepler. But if life had already become established on such planets before they got bumped out of orbit, life would have a good chance of surviving its new sunless condition  (and THAT is according to  Dimitar D. Sasselov of Harvard).

Well. Let’s be careful.

There’s some evidence in this stuff. Which makes for good science. And there’s some speculation in this stuff. Which makes for fun science. Mister ScienceAintSoBad would be remiss if he didn’t dispense a pinch of salt with this study for now.

More to come.


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(The hat is from China Wholesale Town, by the way.)


How You Make A Universe!

Posted by on Friday, 18 November, 2011


From Nothing

Dr. Christopher Wilson (Chalmers Institute Of Technology) created light. 

He did some complicated things that that sucked up photons out of absolutely nothing (what physicists call the  “quantum vacuum”).

Yes. I know God did this a long time ago. But he didn’t have to do it on a budget.

The thing to keep in mind here is that light is a form of energy and energy is a form of mass (Einstein) . So what Dr Wilson did is he created something from nothing.

Can you do that?

It’s slightly more than a cute trick, actually. It suggests that that Big Bang (which started the universe) actually makes some logical sense. After all, if there wasn’t anything before the universe, how could it ever get started? What would it have been made of?

In other words, is it really possible to make something from nothing?


ScienceAintSoBadRating = 10 . A wonderful piece of science.



Credit for above image to Savillent’s photostream  Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Einstein’s Musical Career and The Clever Octopus

Posted by on Sunday, 27 December, 2009


Physics: Notes.

Albert Einstein.

I realize he didn’t exactly invent the Universe. But SUCH a scientist! They don’t make ’em like that anymore.

Just walking around in his own mind (“thought experiments”) he could see the way things MUST work. What others thought were the rules, were only a special case. He took a few inches off of the height of Isaac Newton, his only real rival for the Great-God-Of-Science prize, showing that Newton’s achievements, amazing as they were, were only a door to the true mysteries of the universe.

Einstein guided us through that door.

I have to recyle my “Newton Spinning In His Grave” drawing here (below).

Still Spinning

Still Spinning

Einstein came to realize that light has special properties. For some crazy reason, when you measure its speed, it is always the same. No matter how fast or slow you are going.

So he thought about it.

And the ramifications.

When he worked it all out, he saw that the sizes and masses of things follow unexpected rules, depending on how fast you’re going (Special Relativity). He looked at time differently too. And he found an explanation for how gravity works (General Relativity). And he described atoms. And photons (the photoelectric effect) and helped kick off Quantum Mechanics, a bastard child which he had some second thoughts about later in life.

I’ll stop. You can read the Wikipedia article. But what’s funny about this funny guy is that he liked things or he didn’t like them based on some inner aesthetic. If it was beautiful it had to be right.


So that’s interesting, isn’t it? Our greatest modern scientist was an aesthete. He played the violin. And the piano.

He loved Mozart; he loved Bach.

Indifferent to Brahms.

He began playing the violin as a little child. Real serious.

Once, he was supposed to give a physics lecture to his students (Geneva University). Instead he decided to play his violin for them. He figured they would like it better than a physics lecture.

And understand it a LOT better.

No doubt.

So would he have become a musician if he hadn’t become the greatest physicist of modern times?


He already had a job in the patent office. Maybe he LOOKED like a dreamer with his long flowing hair, but Einstein wasn’t THAT dumb!

After all. He was Einstein.

BehavioralEcology: Tool Use By Octopuses

What has eight legs and.. eight hammers?

Used to be that we had a franchise on intelligence. We were the smart guys. Apes and monkeys chattered mindlessly in trees. Elephants munched at the bottom of them. And octopuses were too dumb to grow a proper set of arms and legs.

Used to be.

We used tools. We had language. We wore clothes. We did karaoke.

The creatures we ate didn’t do any of those things.

But observation by observation, study by study, our distinctions over other species have shrunk.

We still out gun our nearest biological competitors when it comes to dumping carbon into the atmosphere, but we now know that chimpanzees can sign and understand extensive human language as can various apes, dolphins, and parrots. Even walruses.

And the use of tools is definitely out there. We’ve seen it in chimps and other primates as well as birds and even elephants (which have very large brains, as you might expect, with very large “thinking surfaces” as you might not expect).

Now a paper in Current Biology describes the use of tools by Octopuses.

Octopuses are Cephalopods which means non hat wearing ink squirters. If you follow their comings and goings, you know already that their dopey looks are deceptive. They have good memories and are good learners. They routinely solve their way out of mazes and Dr. Maury Schlaffer (University of Teheran) claims he has observed them scavenging old electronic components on the ocean floor and reassembling them into devices such as OPhones and OPods for their own uses.

We would LIKE to believe Schlaffer’s work but, unfortunately, the evidence is kinda weak and we have to give it a ScienceAintSoBadRating of less than 2. The Current Biology paper, however is good. It’s got the “pusses” dragging around shells which they use for protection (“tents”).

That’s thinking ahead.

If I ever DO become a vegetarian, it’ll be because of a scientific study – one like this.