Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Big Bang Theory Song Gets It Right.

Every once in a while I watch a show on the Discovery Channel (or channel like it such as The Science Channel, etc...) about the beginning of the universe where they inevitably suggest the universe may have begun as a singularity.

Look, there was no singularity at the beginning of our universe!!!

The singularity is an artifact caused by applying classical physics to energy regiems where classical physics breaks down.  Therefore, people (and especially scientists) need to stop claiming the universe sprang from a singularity.

In fact, I was recently at a cosmology conference where a panel of prominent cosmologists told us one of the most important public relations things was can do is dispel the idea that the universe began as a singularity. (This was the same conference where we where entertained by the music from the drummer of the Grateful Dead.)

What Actually Happened?

The best description about what happend is found in the open lines of the theme song for the Big Bang Theory:
Our whole universe was in a hot dense state,
Then nearly fourteen billion years ago expansion started.
(Perhaps the Discovery Channel should hire Barenaked Ladies to start their material for them?)

We know ~13.7 Billion years ago the universe was in a hot dense state and began expanding in accordance with the Friedman equations.  That's what we know.

What Happened Before Then?

We don't know for 100% sure, but the data heavily favors the idea the universe went through an inflationary phase.

And What Happened Before Then?

This is where our understanding breaks down.  Many things are possible and I personally think the best motivated ideas are related to those where the universe inflates from a small patch of some pre-existing universe. (Many cosmologists share this belief)  Nevertheless, I admit this may be wrong.

However, one thing is for sure: the universe did not begin as a singularity!


  1. As I was watching 'Big Bang Theory' last night I was wondering if you guys were into the show also. So which character are you? Sheldon? Leonard? Howard? Surely not Raj! =:) Do you have a Penny?

  2. Stan,

    That's funny. I've only watched a handful of the shows but I admit I was watching the show last night as well.

    I don't know what character I am. I'm definitely not a Howard, Raj or Penny. Maybe a combination f Sheldon and Leonard. Though, funny enough, we have someone in our research group that publicly calls me Sheldon every time I say something that resembles him. (And then there was the 97% score on the nerd test.)

    As for Penny, I am married so there you go.

  3. Man! I start thinking I'm reasonably well informed and then you say that what I've learned is wrong.

    You scientists---always changing your minds.

  4. Jared*,

    I'm sure you're fine. I don't fault anyone but physicists for the public thinking the universe sprang from a singularity. Like Schrodinger's Cat post we just discussed, some bizarre results in physics come about only because we are applying classical physics to scenarios where it doesn't apply.

    80 years ago this was justified. But for decades we've known singularities are just an effect of classical physics breaking down.

    Physicists need to start being more clear about this.

    They need to say: "We don't know exactly what happened but at least we know it wasn't a singularity as that is just a classical side effect we don't know how to resolve yet."

  5. Jared* and Joe,

    But the term singularity sounds so cool and ominous...

    More seriously, "singularity" is simply physicist-ease for "our equations fail miserably and we need new ones".

    And as far as PR goes, I think you'll probably actually get more people interested in cosmology by calling it a "singularity" rather than a "hot dense state". Singularities in movies and TV shows lead to interesting plot twists, while hot dense state sounds like a crowded bus in July.

  6. Nick,

    You're absolutely right. The singularity idea doesn't go away (I'm guessing) because it sounds so wired and scientists like throwing out lines like "Where time and all the laws of physics break down mwha-ha-ha!!"

    I saw a show the other day where it was said "In the beginning there was a singularity where a singularity means a black box we don't understand." I guess that's fine, but it also goes to show that physicists don't want to give up being able to use the word singularity.

    You solar physicist nee to start coming up with some crazy jargon.

  7. Joe,

    Well, we can't claim that time and the laws of physics break-down in the sun, but if you tell people that the sun is currently shooting out billions of neutrinos that are passing through them every second, they do get a little impressed. We don't get as many Discovery channel shows or sitcoms as you cosmologists, but I do think we have an easier time answering questions about practical applications.

  8. The Discovery Channel myth that bothers us solar people is that the sun is responsible for global climate change. I get told all the time that the Discovery Channel told someone that the sun caused the Medieval Warm Period in the 11th and 12th centuries and Little Ice Age in the 16th and 17th centuries, which is true, but then they claim that the effects of the sun on the current climate are uncertain. Again, that is true but we can rule out the sun as the primary driver at anywhere from a 3-sigma to 8-sigma confidence level, depending on whom you ask.

  9. Nick,

    You make a great point. I continue to hear the Sun being blamed for global warming myself. It would be nice to hear the media say this has been ruled out by several sigma.

    Bye the way, you need to come up with some crazy imagery when explaining solar flares. Something like "Imagine giant magnetic fields blowing off the face of the sun with the force of X nuclear weapons etc..." I understand this isn't 100% correct, but that's the whole point. :)

  10. I am happy with "the universe inflates from a small patch of some pre-existing universe".


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