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Astronomy

29.6 The Inflationary Universe

Astronomy29.6 The Inflationary Universe
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  1. Preface
  2. 1 Science and the Universe: A Brief Tour
    1. Introduction
    2. 1.1 The Nature of Astronomy
    3. 1.2 The Nature of Science
    4. 1.3 The Laws of Nature
    5. 1.4 Numbers in Astronomy
    6. 1.5 Consequences of Light Travel Time
    7. 1.6 A Tour of the Universe
    8. 1.7 The Universe on the Large Scale
    9. 1.8 The Universe of the Very Small
    10. 1.9 A Conclusion and a Beginning
    11. For Further Exploration
  3. 2 Observing the Sky: The Birth of Astronomy
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 2.1 The Sky Above
    3. 2.2 Ancient Astronomy
    4. 2.3 Astrology and Astronomy
    5. 2.4 The Birth of Modern Astronomy
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  4. 3 Orbits and Gravity
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 3.1 The Laws of Planetary Motion
    3. 3.2 Newton’s Great Synthesis
    4. 3.3 Newton’s Universal Law of Gravitation
    5. 3.4 Orbits in the Solar System
    6. 3.5 Motions of Satellites and Spacecraft
    7. 3.6 Gravity with More Than Two Bodies
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  5. 4 Earth, Moon, and Sky
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 4.1 Earth and Sky
    3. 4.2 The Seasons
    4. 4.3 Keeping Time
    5. 4.4 The Calendar
    6. 4.5 Phases and Motions of the Moon
    7. 4.6 Ocean Tides and the Moon
    8. 4.7 Eclipses of the Sun and Moon
    9. Key Terms
    10. Summary
    11. For Further Exploration
    12. Collaborative Group Activities
    13. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  6. 5 Radiation and Spectra
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 5.1 The Behavior of Light
    3. 5.2 The Electromagnetic Spectrum
    4. 5.3 Spectroscopy in Astronomy
    5. 5.4 The Structure of the Atom
    6. 5.5 Formation of Spectral Lines
    7. 5.6 The Doppler Effect
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  7. 6 Astronomical Instruments
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 6.1 Telescopes
    3. 6.2 Telescopes Today
    4. 6.3 Visible-Light Detectors and Instruments
    5. 6.4 Radio Telescopes
    6. 6.5 Observations outside Earth’s Atmosphere
    7. 6.6 The Future of Large Telescopes
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  8. 7 Other Worlds: An Introduction to the Solar System
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 7.1 Overview of Our Planetary System
    3. 7.2 Composition and Structure of Planets
    4. 7.3 Dating Planetary Surfaces
    5. 7.4 Origin of the Solar System
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  9. 8 Earth as a Planet
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 8.1 The Global Perspective
    3. 8.2 Earth’s Crust
    4. 8.3 Earth’s Atmosphere
    5. 8.4 Life, Chemical Evolution, and Climate Change
    6. 8.5 Cosmic Influences on the Evolution of Earth
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  10. 9 Cratered Worlds
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 9.1 General Properties of the Moon
    3. 9.2 The Lunar Surface
    4. 9.3 Impact Craters
    5. 9.4 The Origin of the Moon
    6. 9.5 Mercury
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  11. 10 Earthlike Planets: Venus and Mars
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 10.1 The Nearest Planets: An Overview
    3. 10.2 The Geology of Venus
    4. 10.3 The Massive Atmosphere of Venus
    5. 10.4 The Geology of Mars
    6. 10.5 Water and Life on Mars
    7. 10.6 Divergent Planetary Evolution
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  12. 11 The Giant Planets
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 11.1 Exploring the Outer Planets
    3. 11.2 The Giant Planets
    4. 11.3 Atmospheres of the Giant Planets
    5. Key Terms
    6. Summary
    7. For Further Exploration
    8. Collaborative Group Activities
    9. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  13. 12 Rings, Moons, and Pluto
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 12.1 Ring and Moon Systems Introduced
    3. 12.2 The Galilean Moons of Jupiter
    4. 12.3 Titan and Triton
    5. 12.4 Pluto and Charon
    6. 12.5 Planetary Rings
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  14. 13 Comets and Asteroids: Debris of the Solar System
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 13.1 Asteroids
    3. 13.2 Asteroids and Planetary Defense
    4. 13.3 The “Long-Haired” Comets
    5. 13.4 The Origin and Fate of Comets and Related Objects
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  15. 14 Cosmic Samples and the Origin of the Solar System
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 14.1 Meteors
    3. 14.2 Meteorites: Stones from Heaven
    4. 14.3 Formation of the Solar System
    5. 14.4 Comparison with Other Planetary Systems
    6. 14.5 Planetary Evolution
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  16. 15 The Sun: A Garden-Variety Star
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 15.1 The Structure and Composition of the Sun
    3. 15.2 The Solar Cycle
    4. 15.3 Solar Activity above the Photosphere
    5. 15.4 Space Weather
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  17. 16 The Sun: A Nuclear Powerhouse
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 16.1 Sources of Sunshine: Thermal and Gravitational Energy
    3. 16.2 Mass, Energy, and the Theory of Relativity
    4. 16.3 The Solar Interior: Theory
    5. 16.4 The Solar Interior: Observations
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  18. 17 Analyzing Starlight
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 17.1 The Brightness of Stars
    3. 17.2 Colors of Stars
    4. 17.3 The Spectra of Stars (and Brown Dwarfs)
    5. 17.4 Using Spectra to Measure Stellar Radius, Composition, and Motion
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  19. 18 The Stars: A Celestial Census
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 18.1 A Stellar Census
    3. 18.2 Measuring Stellar Masses
    4. 18.3 Diameters of Stars
    5. 18.4 The H–R Diagram
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  20. 19 Celestial Distances
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 19.1 Fundamental Units of Distance
    3. 19.2 Surveying the Stars
    4. 19.3 Variable Stars: One Key to Cosmic Distances
    5. 19.4 The H–R Diagram and Cosmic Distances
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  21. 20 Between the Stars: Gas and Dust in Space
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 20.1 The Interstellar Medium
    3. 20.2 Interstellar Gas
    4. 20.3 Cosmic Dust
    5. 20.4 Cosmic Rays
    6. 20.5 The Life Cycle of Cosmic Material
    7. 20.6 Interstellar Matter around the Sun
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  22. 21 The Birth of Stars and the Discovery of Planets outside the Solar System
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 21.1 Star Formation
    3. 21.2 The H–R Diagram and the Study of Stellar Evolution
    4. 21.3 Evidence That Planets Form around Other Stars
    5. 21.4 Planets beyond the Solar System: Search and Discovery
    6. 21.5 Exoplanets Everywhere: What We Are Learning
    7. 21.6 New Perspectives on Planet Formation
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  23. 22 Stars from Adolescence to Old Age
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 22.1 Evolution from the Main Sequence to Red Giants
    3. 22.2 Star Clusters
    4. 22.3 Checking Out the Theory
    5. 22.4 Further Evolution of Stars
    6. 22.5 The Evolution of More Massive Stars
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  24. 23 The Death of Stars
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 23.1 The Death of Low-Mass Stars
    3. 23.2 Evolution of Massive Stars: An Explosive Finish
    4. 23.3 Supernova Observations
    5. 23.4 Pulsars and the Discovery of Neutron Stars
    6. 23.5 The Evolution of Binary Star Systems
    7. 23.6 The Mystery of the Gamma-Ray Bursts
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  25. 24 Black Holes and Curved Spacetime
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 24.1 Introducing General Relativity
    3. 24.2 Spacetime and Gravity
    4. 24.3 Tests of General Relativity
    5. 24.4 Time in General Relativity
    6. 24.5 Black Holes
    7. 24.6 Evidence for Black Holes
    8. 24.7 Gravitational Wave Astronomy
    9. Key Terms
    10. Summary
    11. For Further Exploration
    12. Collaborative Group Activities
    13. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  26. 25 The Milky Way Galaxy
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 25.1 The Architecture of the Galaxy
    3. 25.2 Spiral Structure
    4. 25.3 The Mass of the Galaxy
    5. 25.4 The Center of the Galaxy
    6. 25.5 Stellar Populations in the Galaxy
    7. 25.6 The Formation of the Galaxy
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  27. 26 Galaxies
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 26.1 The Discovery of Galaxies
    3. 26.2 Types of Galaxies
    4. 26.3 Properties of Galaxies
    5. 26.4 The Extragalactic Distance Scale
    6. 26.5 The Expanding Universe
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  28. 27 Active Galaxies, Quasars, and Supermassive Black Holes
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 27.1 Quasars
    3. 27.2 Supermassive Black Holes: What Quasars Really Are
    4. 27.3 Quasars as Probes of Evolution in the Universe
    5. Key Terms
    6. Summary
    7. For Further Exploration
    8. Collaborative Group Activities
    9. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  29. 28 The Evolution and Distribution of Galaxies
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 28.1 Observations of Distant Galaxies
    3. 28.2 Galaxy Mergers and Active Galactic Nuclei
    4. 28.3 The Distribution of Galaxies in Space
    5. 28.4 The Challenge of Dark Matter
    6. 28.5 The Formation and Evolution of Galaxies and Structure in the Universe
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  30. 29 The Big Bang
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 29.1 The Age of the Universe
    3. 29.2 A Model of the Universe
    4. 29.3 The Beginning of the Universe
    5. 29.4 The Cosmic Microwave Background
    6. 29.5 What Is the Universe Really Made Of?
    7. 29.6 The Inflationary Universe
    8. 29.7 The Anthropic Principle
    9. Key Terms
    10. Summary
    11. For Further Exploration
    12. Collaborative Group Activities
    13. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  31. 30 Life in the Universe
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 30.1 The Cosmic Context for Life
    3. 30.2 Astrobiology
    4. 30.3 Searching for Life beyond Earth
    5. 30.4 The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  32. A | How to Study for an Introductory Astronomy Class
  33. B | Astronomy Websites, Images, and Apps
  34. C | Scientific Notation
  35. D | Units Used in Science
  36. E | Some Useful Constants for Astronomy
  37. F | Physical and Orbital Data for the Planets
  38. G | Selected Moons of the Planets
  39. H | Future Total Eclipses
  40. I | The Nearest Stars, Brown Dwarfs, and White Dwarfs
  41. J | The Brightest Twenty Stars
  42. K | The Chemical Elements
  43. L | The Constellations
  44. M | Star Chart and Sky Event Resources
  45. Index

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Describe two important properties of the universe that the simple Big Bang model cannot explain
  • Explain why these two characteristics of the universe can be accounted for if there was a period of rapid expansion (inflation) of the universe just after the Big Bang
  • Name the four forces that control all physical processes in the universe

The hot Big Bang model that we have been describing is remarkably successful. It accounts for the expansion of the universe, explains the observations of the CMB, and correctly predicts the abundances of the light elements. As it turns out, this model also predicts that there should be exactly three types of neutrinos in nature, and this prediction has been confirmed by experiments with high-energy accelerators. We can’t relax just yet, however. This standard model of the universe doesn’t explain all the observations we have made about the universe as a whole.

Problems with the Standard Big Bang Model

There are a number of characteristics of the universe that can only be explained by considering further what might have happened before the emission of the CMB. One problem with the standard Big Bang model is that it does not explain why the density of the universe is equal to the critical density. The mass density could have been, after all, so low and the effects of dark energy so high that the expansion would have been too rapid to form any galaxies at all. Alternatively, there could have been so much matter that the universe would have already begun to contract long before now. Why is the universe balanced so precisely on the knife edge of the critical density?

Another puzzle is the remarkable uniformity of the universe. The temperature of the CMB is the same to about 1 part in 100,000 everywhere we look. This sameness might be expected if all the parts of the visible universe were in contact at some point in time and had the time to come to the same temperature. In the same way, if we put some ice into a glass of lukewarm water and wait a while, the ice will melt and the water will cool down until they are the same temperature.

However, if we accept the standard Big Bang model, all parts of the visible universe were not in contact at any time. The fastest that information can go from one point to another is the speed of light. There is a maximum distance that light can have traveled from any point since the time the universe began—that’s the distance light could have covered since then. This distance is called that point’s horizon distance because anything farther away is “below its horizon”—unable to make contact with it. One region of space separated by more than the horizon distance from another has been completely isolated from it through the entire history of the universe.

If we measure the CMB in two opposite directions in the sky, we are observing regions that were significantly beyond each other’s horizon distance at the time the CMB was emitted. We can see both regions, but they can never have seen each other. Why, then, are their temperatures so precisely the same? According to the standard Big Bang model, they have never been able to exchange information, and there is no reason they should have identical temperatures. (It’s a little like seeing the clothes that all the students wear at two schools in different parts of the world become identical, without the students ever having been in contact.) The only explanation we could suggest was simply that the universe somehow started out being absolutely uniform (which is like saying all students were born liking the same clothes). Scientists are always uncomfortable when they must appeal to a special set of initial conditions to account for what they see.

The Inflationary Hypothesis

Some physicists suggested that these fundamental characteristics of the cosmos—its flatness and uniformity—can be explained if shortly after the Big Bang (and before the emission of the CMB), the universe experienced a sudden increase in size. A model universe in which this rapid, early expansion occurs is called an inflationary universe. The inflationary universe is identical to the Big Bang universe for all time after the first 10–30 second. Prior to that, the model suggests that there was a brief period of extraordinarily rapid expansion or inflation, during which the scale of the universe increased by a factor of about 1050 times more than predicted by standard Big Bang models (Figure 29.25).

No Alt Text
Figure 29.25 Expansion of the Universe. This graph shows how the scale factor of the observable universe changes with time for the standard Big Bang model (red line) and for the inflationary model (blue line). (Note that the time scale at the bottom is extremely compressed.) During inflation, regions that were very small and in contact with each other are suddenly blown up to be much larger and outside each other’s horizon distance. The two models are the same for all times after 10–30 second.

Prior to (and during) inflation, all the parts of the universe that we can now see were so small and close to each other that they could exchange information, that is, the horizon distance included all of the universe that we can now observe. Before (and during) inflation, there was adequate time for the observable universe to homogenize itself and come to the same temperature. Then, inflation expanded those regions tremendously, so that many parts of the universe are now beyond each other’s horizon.

Another appeal of the inflationary model is its prediction that the density of the universe should be exactly equal to the critical density. To see why this is so, remember that curvature of spacetime is intimately linked to the density of matter. If the universe began with some curvature of its spacetime, one analogy for it might be the skin of a balloon. The period of inflation was equivalent to blowing up the balloon to a tremendous size. The universe became so big that from our vantage point, no curvature should be visible (Figure 29.26). In the same way, Earth’s surface is so big that it looks flat to us no matter where we are. Calculations show that a universe with no curvature is one that is at critical density. Universes with densities either higher or lower than the critical density would show marked curvature. But we saw that the observations of the CMB in Figure 29.18, which show that the universe has critical density, rule out the possibility that space is significantly curved.

No Alt Text
Figure 29.26 Analogy for Inflation. During a period of rapid inflation, a curved balloon grows so large that to any local observer it looks flat. The inset shows the geometry from the ant’s point of view.

Grand Unified Theories

While inflation is an intriguing idea and widely accepted by researchers, we cannot directly observe events so early in the universe. The conditions at the time of inflation were so extreme that we cannot reproduce them in our laboratories or high-energy accelerators, but scientists have some ideas about what the universe might have been like. These ideas are called grand unified theories or GUTs.

In GUT models, the forces that we are familiar with here on Earth, including gravity and electromagnetism, behaved very differently in the extreme conditions of the early universe than they do today. In physical science, the term force is used to describe anything that can change the motion of a particle or body. One of the remarkable discoveries of modern science is that all known physical processes can be described through the action of just four forces: gravity, electromagnetism, the strong nuclear force, and the weak nuclear force (Table 29.3).

The Forces of Nature
Force Relative Strength Today Range of Action Important Applications
Gravity 1 Whole universe Motions of planets, stars, galaxies
Electromagnetism 1036 Whole universe Atoms, molecules, electricity, magnetic fields
Weak nuclear force 1033 10–17 meters Radioactive decay
Strong nuclear force 1038 10–15 meters The existence of atomic nuclei
Table 29.3

Gravity is perhaps the most familiar force, and certainly appears strong if you jump off a tall building. However, the force of gravity between two elementary particles—say two protons—is by far the weakest of the four forces. Electromagnetism—which includes both magnetic and electrical forces, holds atoms together, and produces the electromagnetic radiation that we use to study the universe—is much stronger, as you can see in Table 29.3. The weak nuclear force is only weak in comparison to its strong “cousin,” but it is in fact much stronger than gravity.

Both the weak and strong nuclear forces differ from the first two forces in that they act only over very small distances—those comparable to the size of an atomic nucleus or less. The weak force is involved in radioactive decay and in reactions that result in the production of neutrinos. The strong force holds protons and neutrons together in an atomic nucleus.

Physicists have wondered why there are four forces in the universe—why not 300 or, preferably, just one? An important hint comes from the name electromagnetic force. For a long time, scientists thought that the forces of electricity and magnetism were separate, but James Clerk Maxwell (see the chapter on Radiation and Spectra) was able to unify these forces—to show that they are aspects of the same phenomenon. In the same way, many scientists (including Einstein) have wondered if the four forces we now know could also be unified. Physicists have actually developed GUTs that unify three of the four forces (but not gravity).

In these theories, the strong, weak, and electromagnetic forces are not three independent forces but instead are different manifestations or aspects of what is, in fact, a single force. The theories predict that at high enough temperatures, there would be only one force. At lower temperatures (like the ones in the universe today), however, this single force has changed into three different forces (Figure 29.27). Just as different gases or liquids freeze at different temperatures, we can say that the different forces “froze out” of the unified force at different temperatures. Unfortunately, the temperatures at which the three forces acted as one force are so high that they cannot be reached in any laboratory on Earth. Only the early universe, at times prior to 10–35 second, was hot enough to unify these forces.

No Alt Text
Figure 29.27 Four Forces That Govern the Universe. The behavior of the four forces depends on the temperature of the universe. This diagram (inspired by some grand unified theories) shows that at very early times when the temperature of the universe was very high, all four forces resembled one another and were indistinguishable. As the universe cooled, the forces took on separate and distinctive characteristics.

Many physicists think that gravity was also unified with the three other forces at still higher temperatures, and scientists have tried to develop a theory that combines all four forces. For example, in string theory, the point-like particles of matter that we have discussed in this book are replaced by one-dimensional objects called strings. In this theory, infinitesimal strings, which have length but not height or width, are the building blocks used to construct all the forms of matter and energy in the universe. These strings exist in 11-dimensional space (not the 4-dimensional spacetime with which we are familiar). The strings vibrate in the various dimensions, and depending on how they vibrate, they are seen in our world as matter or gravity or light. As you can imagine, the mathematics of string theory is very complex, and the theory remains untested by experiments. Even the largest particle accelerators on Earth do not achieve high enough energy to show whether string theory applies to the real world.

String theory is interesting to scientists because it is currently the only approach that seems to have the potential of combining all four forces to produce what physicists have termed the Theory of Everything.3 Theories of the earliest phases of the universe must take both quantum mechanics and gravity into account, but at the simplest level, gravity and quantum mechanics are incompatible. General relativity, our best theory of gravity, says that the motions of objects can be predicted exactly. Quantum mechanics says you can only calculate the probability (chance) that an object will do something. String theory is an attempt to resolve this paradox. The mathematics that underpins string theory is elegant and beautiful, but it remains to be seen whether it will make predictions that can be tested by observations in yet-to-be-developed, high-energy accelerators on Earth or by observations of the early universe.

The earliest period in the history of the universe from time zero to 10–43 second is called the Planck time. The universe was unimaginably hot and dense, and theorists believe that at this time, quantum effects of gravity dominated physical interactions—and, as we have just discussed, we have no tested theory of quantum gravity. Inflation is hypothesized to have occurred somewhat later, when the universe was between perhaps 10–35 and 10–33 second old and the temperature was 1027 to 1028 K. This rapid expansion took place when three forces (electromagnetic, strong, and weak) are thought to have been unified, and this is when GUTs are applicable.

After inflation, the universe continued to expand (but more slowly) and to cool. An important milestone was reached when the temperature was down to 1015 K and the universe was 10–10 second old. Under these conditions, all four forces were separate and distinct. High-energy particle accelerators can achieve similar conditions, and so theories of the history of the universe from this point on have a sound basis in experiments.

As yet, we have no direct evidence of what the conditions were during the inflationary epoch, and the ideas presented here are speculative. Researchers are trying to devise some experimental tests. For example, the quantum fluctuations in the very early universe would have caused variations in density and produced gravitational waves that may have left a detectable imprint on the CMB. Detection of such an imprint will require observations with equipment whose sensitivity is improved from what we have today. Ultimately, however, it may provide confirmation that we live in a universe that once experienced an epoch of rapid inflation.

If you are typical of the students who read this book, you may have found this brief discussion of dark matter, inflation, and cosmology a bit frustrating. We have offered glimpses of theories and observations, but have raised more questions than we have answered. What is dark matter? What is dark energy? Inflation explains the observations of flatness and uniformity of the university, but did it actually happen? These ideas are at the forefront of modern science, where progress almost always leads to new puzzles, and much more work is needed before we can see clearly. Bear in mind that less than a century has passed since Hubble demonstrated the existence of other galaxies. The quest to understand just how the universe of galaxies came to be will keep astronomers busy for a long time to come.

Footnotes

  • 3 This name became the title of a film about physicist Stephen Hawking in 2014.
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