Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Dancing with the folks whut brung ya

So, it remains close, this sorry election. And some polls show Romney ahead. I guess it’s another example of “dancing with the folks whut brung ya”.  The Romney forces,  beginning with the Bush Neo-Con crowd who destroyed the economy through greed, deregulation and tax cuts producing record deficits, are now promising “Change from Day One”. You betcha they will. Mr. Romney wants now to eliminate FEMA (at the height of the Frankensturm Sandy) and give the function back to the states, so that the Feds have no actual power or money to help in disasters. It’s their standard answer to all things—give it back to the states, who we know have such a good record in that regard. Take away Medicare and give people vouchers that exclude pre-existing conditions, so that individual families can fight with insurance companies to obtain insurance worse than what they now have under Medicare standards. Yeah, that’s Change from Day One we can believe in.

Oh, and they continue to rage on about people getting government issued food stamps.  Talk about no shame. As Romney continues to park his money in tax-free accounts offshore, he actively despises poor people. The Romney-Ryan folks really do hate the 99%. Yet, 49% of American voters still seem predisposed to invite them to lead the country.
Maybe Americans are yearning for a return to yesteryear, when good old King George ran the place . . . ya know, when there were real tea partiers, instead of the fake Astroturf crowd organized by the Kochs of the land.
Yeah, that’s right folks. Dance with the crowd whut brung ya.  And when Ford Motor Company begins to fail, Mitt’ll sell it to the Chinese and tell the auto workers to move to Florida to pick lettuce and oranges with the Mexican kids.
So, remember you 47% plus people—annoy a Republican. Go to the polls and vote.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Dreary Election

As the election nears, it is beginning to be difficult both to pay attention (we voted on the first day of early voting) and to avoid becoming depressed about the prospects of republicans basically stealing the election.  It has been such a depressing affair, beginning with the early Gong Show, mounted by the republicans. Think of it—assailed by the likes of Rick Perry, Sarah Palin and Ric Santorum and Michelle Bachman. That these clowns actually thought so little of our once great nation that they believed they could and should be president is itself depressing. Have we sunk so low that we actually deserve the clowns?  Romney, as awful as he is, actually seems a shining light on the hill compared with the clowns.

And then the Romney decided to hang out with Paul Ryan and have him a step away from the presidency. This guy is a devotee of a fantasy writer of post-apocalyptic fantasyland. But, to be fair, he’s also a good Catholic—talk about post-apocalyptic fantasyland. What a great combination for a possible vice president—a follower of that Nazi Pope who seems not to mind priests raping children, but can’t tolerate birth control, abortion, gays, or science. Yeah, that Paul Ryan, the one who seems to despise those less fortunate souls who have to rely on food stamps, at least partly because Ryan’s republican banker thieves stole their livelihood.  What a guy.
And now we are being visited by that Frankensturm, currently smashing into the eastern seaboard. That storm seems to be interfering with the election process—keeping at least some folks away from the polls.  And since that’s the job of republican poll watchers, maybe we should conclude that God is weighing in??  But no, it isn’t God. That’s for the stupid people, like Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, who seem to believe that God intervenes whimsically in all of our petty affairs. But they’re idiots and we should really try to ignore idiots.
I guess I am not alone in devoutly wishing for the end of this dreadful election (“but, be careful what you wish for, Richard”). I have been paying attention and in fact voting since 1956. This particular election seems the most awful of all the ones in which I have participated (by voting).  I know, 1964 seemed scary—Johnson v. Goldwater. But Goldwater seems a paragon of virtue when compared with Romney-Ryan.  Then there was Nixon, lying to us about his Vietnam plans.  We of course were treated to wholesale lying and corruption in the 2000 and 2004 elections—that’s when republicans discovered apparently that it was ok to engage in the Big Lie, because Americans are after all, pretty stupid. And we paid the price fully for that act of foolishness.  This election continues to be affected and corrupted by the eight Bush-Neo-Con years.  This process seems to be wearing out all of us to the point of exhaustion.  But will it ever go away? Maybe not, because republicans have discovered that it’s ok to buy any and all of our elections—huge money matters, apparently to the exclusion of anything else.—thanks Supremes.
Well, let’s be positive--maybe we will all awaken on November 7th and discover that the world is still ok and the republicans have crawled back into their spiderholes, joining Dickie-bird Cheney.  And the sun will shine and people will begin working at reasonable wages and home values will return to normal, and everyone will resume smiling at one another. Oh, and maybe the Faux News network will announce that it has entered Chapter 7 bankruptcy proceedings. Wouldn’t that be a nice pre-Christmas present for America???
Just a thought.
Oh, and if you haven’t already . . . annoy a republican -- Vote.

Monday, October 22, 2012

It's Time to Vote

We are approaching an interesting period of comparative history. As most people know by now, George McGovern recently ended his hold on this life and is now gone from our world. Mr. McGovern presented this country with a sense of decency and intelligence now fast disappearing from our political arena. We are so in love with our media feeding frenzies that we seem unable, or unwilling to apply such decency and even common sense to our national decision-making processes.

George McGovern ran for the presidency in 1972 against a person, Richard Nixon, who has now gone into history as a criminal and a war crimes figure of historic proportions. He had a plan in 1968 to end the war in Vietnam, or so he told us. His plan was to enlarge the bombing campaign to include countries with which we were not at war and to expand greatly the killing fields of Southeast Asia.  We had a four year history to examine prior to the election in 1972. That history showed a compelling need for a “regime change” in America.  There were even early warning signs of a presidency that was resorting to outright criminal behavior to remain in office. Yet, the nation re-elected him, defeating George McGovern in a landslide.  What kind of nation might we have become had the reverse happened? We will never know.

Happily, in 2008, when Barack Obama ran for the presidency against John McCain, the Nation was so weary from the eight disastrous years of Bush and Republican misrule, arguably the worst period since the period just prior to the Great Depression under Mr. Hoover.  We opted to “throw the bums out”.
Having cleaned house, however, the Nation failed to understand fully the breadth and depth of the economic and global mess Mr. Obama had inherited.  Americans have notoriously short attention spans, and little to no memory of recent history. Americans were paying attention, only to a point.  By the time of the inauguration, it was back to business—“get me a beer hon, so I can relax and watch Dem Bears.”
Despite the reporting of just how extensive and how grave was the damage wrought by the Bush Neo-Cons, Americans seemed not to grasp what was happening. They expected a rapid turnaround, despite the collapsing structures all around them. It was as though we were in San Francisco in the middle of the 1906 quake, while assuming that the commute to work might be a little more difficult the next day.
So, after nearly four years of digging ourselves out, with zero assistance from Republican ne’er-do-wells—the “Just Say No” crowd—we are now officially fed up with blaming Bush for the continuing misery, and we imagine that by now, all the problems should have disappeared.  But the truth is, it’s really now 1936 all over again. Hopefully, it will not take WW III to bail us out, although Republicans seem to be heading in that direction for their answers.
The Nation under President Obama has made some large strides towards a more favorable economic structure, but we have miles to go before we sleep. Rather than reducing regulations and reducing the tax rates, we need to do the opposite. We need, in fact, to reinvent our entire financial system, much as we did after Great Depression I. This time, the changes may need to be reinvention more than redesign.
We also don’t need to mindlessly expand our military as some have argued (Mitt comes to mind). We need to reinvent our military, so that it can operate with relatively greater brainpower.  We probably need to reinvent the War against Terrorists. It is not really a “War” per se. In the Taliban and Al Qaida, we have one or more organized crime rings composed of assassins. They remain operational through exporting opium, and through their ability to hide in places like Pakistan that seem to have vast regions outside their national control.  The answer to that problem is not clear, but building three more nuclear submarines per year is surely not an answer.
If ever this Nation needed a thoughtful national election it is here and now.  Unfortunately, our media has deteriorated to the point of being a national joke, led in their mindless quest for ratings of course by Murdoch’s Faux News Network.  The people are surely suffering from election reporting fatigue. But we really cannot afford to succumb to such fatigue.  We must think as we go to vote, and go to vote we must. Thinking is hard, because it requires sweeping away the garbage heaped on us daily by the media.
My wife and I have already voted in North Carolina, joining several hundred thousand other citizens of this state.  Hopefully, the national polls are wrong and the President will be re-elected.
But before you enter the voting booth, it would be well to remember that a vote for Romney-Ryan is equivalent to a vote to re-elect George W. Bush. The Nation cannot afford such a disaster.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Pathetic Taliban

So, the Taliban in Pakistan are afraid of a little girl.
How Pathetic are they??
They specifically targeted and then shot in the head Malala Youfsatzi, a 14 year old girl.

And what was her crime?? She promoted the education of girls. Wow! How heretical. Imagine that. A 14-year old girl wants to be educated, and wants other girls to be educated.  And for that, the cowardly Taliban shot her in the head. Aren’t they brave defenders of their faith . . . well no; they’re sniveling little cowards who disgrace the very concept of Islam.
The Taliban seem to be ignorant little people still living mentally in the 13th century; people without a moral compass. And people who are so insecure about their god, that they must kill little girls who wish only to become educated.
The Taliban leaders defile their religion with every breath.
May they all rot in hell.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire

So the first debate is in the history book being written by the Faux News Network. And I understand that Bill O’Reilly is writing another book, entitled “Who Killed America”, in which he blames the political campaign season for the demise of America the Beautiful. I understand that he and Jon Stewart collaborated on the book (well technically, they each wrote half, and O’Reilly is still arguing about whose half gets to go first).

I know that some people think that it wasn’t POTUS who showed up at the debate but his body double, supplied by the Secret Service (SS). Others argue that he was out drinking champagne with Michelle to celebrate his victory over the Mittster, since he was certain that his pet rock might have been able to beat Romney.
But No, everyone insists that Romney won.  But what they don’t say, or perhaps don’t agree on is, just exactly what he won. Liar of the Year???
Let’s see, he came on stage, played the part of the Village Liberal by lying about his proposals to make them look like a far lefty had written his answers. Obama was so taken aback by Romney’s absurdist replies to questions that he was unable to respond himself.  In her Sunday column, Maureen Dowd nailed the whole thing, when she made Obama sit down with President  Bartlett (even better than Clint arguing with an empty chair) who posed as Romney, while coaching POTUS on how he should have replied.
Dowd goes on . . .
“BARTLET “I want to take that $716 billion you’ve cut and put it back into Medicare.”
OBAMA The $716 billion I’ve cut is from the providers, not the beneficiaries. I think that’s a better idea than cutting the exact same $716 billion and replacing it with a gift certificate, which is what’s contained in the plan that’s named for your running mate.
BARTLET “Pre-existing conditions are covered under my plan.”
OBAMA Not unless you’ve come up with a new plan since this afternoon.
BARTLET “You doubled the deficit.”
OBAMA When I took office in 2009, the deficit was 1.4 trillion. According to the C.B.O., the deficit for 2012 will be 1.1 trillion. Either you have the mathematics aptitude of a Shetland pony or, much more likely, you’re lying.
BARTLET “All of the increase in natural gas has happened on private land, not on government land. On government land, your administration has cut the number of permits and licenses in half.”
OBAMA Maybe your difficulty is with the words “half” and “double.” Oil production on federal land is higher, not lower. And the oil and gas industry are currently sitting on 7,000 approved permits to drill on government land that they’ve not yet begun developing.
BARTLET “I think about half the green firms you’ve invested in have gone out of business.”
OBAMA Yeah, your problem’s definitely with the word “half.” As of this moment there have been 26 recipients of loan guarantees — 23 of which are very much in business. What was Bain’s bankruptcy record again?
BARTLET And finally?
OBAMA Governor, if your ideas are the right ideas for our country, if you have a plan and it’s the best plan for our future, if your vision is the best vision for all of us and not 53 percent of us, why aren’t you able to make that case in the same ZIP code as the truth?
OBAMA Tell John Sununu anytime he wants to teach me how to be more American he knows my address for the next four years. He used to have an office there before he was fired. “
So, maybe Maureen Dowd should be POTUS’ coach for the next session. She knows how to speak truth to inanity.


Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Reality & Perception

"If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to perceive it, does it make a sound?"

Philosopher George Berkeley, in his work, A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710), proposes, "But, say you, surely there is nothing easier than for me to imagine trees, for instance, in a park [...] and nobody by to perceive them. [...] The objects of sense exist only when they are perceived; the trees therefore are in the garden [...] no longer than while there is somebody by to perceive them."[1] Nevertheless, Berkeley never actually wrote about the question.

Berkeley's example is referred to by William Fossett twenty years later in a consideration of the emergence of meaning: "[T]ease apart the threads [of the natural world] and the pattern vanishes. The design is in how the cloth-maker arranges the threads: this way and that, as fashion dictates. [...] To say something is meaningful is to say that that is how we arrange it so; how we comprehend it to be, and what is comprehended by you or I may not be by a cat, for example. If a tree falls in a park and there is no-one to hand, it is silent and invisible and nameless. And if we were to vanish, there would be no tree at all; any meaning would vanish along with us. Other than what the cats make of it all, of course."[2]

Some years later, a similar question is posed. It is unknown whether the source of this question is Berkeley or not. In June 1883 in the magazine The Chautauquan, the question was put, "If a tree were to fall on an island where there were no human beings would there be any sound?" They then went on to answer the query with, "No. Sound is the sensation excited in the ear when the air or other medium is set in motion."[3] This seems to imply that the question is posed not from a philosophical viewpoint, but from a purely scientific one. The magazine Scientific American corroborated the technical aspect of this question, while leaving out the philosophic side, a year later when they asked the question slightly reworded, "If a tree were to fall on an uninhabited island, would there be any sound?" And gave a more technical answer, "Sound is vibration, transmitted to our senses through the mechanism of the ear, and recognized as sound only at our nerve centers. The falling of the tree or any other disturbance will produce vibration of the air. If there be no ears to hear, there will be no sound."[4]

There is a well-known story of Hui-neng, a well-respected Buddhist monk who later became known as the founder of the Zen school, who one day happened to be passing by two monks.

"Two monks were arguing about the temple flag waving in the wind. One said, "The flag moves." The other said, "The wind moves." They argued back and forth but could not agree.

The Sixth Ancestor said, "Gentlemen! It is not the wind that moves; it is not the flag that moves; it is your mind that moves." The two monks were struck with awe."

- The Mumonkan Case 29, translation by Robert Aitken

And if humankind becomes extinct, and no one is around to pray,

Does God still exist?

Monday, October 1, 2012

On the Zen of the Big Bang and Nothingness

My good friend George commented on my Zen of Nothingness posting, to wit:
"Your mistakes are too numerous to discuss individually; we will need several hours to do that!
But your basic mistake is straightforward: You're looking at only one side of a two-sided state-of-being. Try thinking about what existed before the Big Bang. How did our "something" come into existence out of "nothing"? When you get a handle on that question you'll have a better understanding of what happens next."

So, I thought it might be useful to share with our readers a few of the lines of thinking about what existed before the Big Bang. There are many, but here are three I recently came across.
Just trying to be helpful here.

The Birth of Time: Quantum Loops Describe the Evolution of the Universe

ScienceDaily (Dec. 17, 2010) — What was the Big Bang and what happened before it? Scientists from the Faculty of Physics, University of Warsaw have attempted to answer the question. Within the framework of loop quantum gravity they have put forward a new theoretical model, which might prove useful for validating hypotheses about events prior to the Big Bang. This achievement is one of the few models describing the full Einstein's theory and not merely its greatly simplified version.

Physicists from the Faculty of Physics, University of Warsaw have put forward -- on the pages of Physical Review D -- a new theoretical model of quantum gravity describing the emergence of space-time from the structures of quantum theory. It is not only one of the few models describing the full general theory of relativity advanced by Einstein, but it is also completely mathematically consistent. "The solutions applied allow to trace the evolution of the Universe in a more physically acceptable manner than in the case of previous cosmological models," explains Prof. Jerzy Lewandowski from the Faculty of Physics, University of Warsaw (FUW).

While the general theory of relativity is applied to describe the Universe on a cosmological scale, quantum mechanics is applied to describe reality on an atomic scale. Both theories were developed in the early 20th century. Their validity has since been confirmed by highly sophisticated experiments and observations. The problem lies in the fact that the theories are mutually exclusive.

According to the general theory of relativity, reality is always uniquely determined (as in classical mechanics). However, time and space play an active role in the events and are themselves subject to Einstein's equations. According to quantum physics, on the other hand, one may only gain a rough understanding of nature. A prediction can only be made with a probability; its precision being limited by inherent properties. But the laws of the prevailing quantum theories do not apply to time and space. Such contradictions are irrelevant under standard conditions -- galaxies are not subject to quantum phenomena and quantum gravity plays a minor role in the world of atoms and particles. Nonetheless, gravity and quantum effects need to merge under conditions close to the Big Bang.

Traditional cosmological models describe the evolution of the Universe within the framework of the general theory of relativity itself. The equations at the core of the theory suggest that the Universe is a dynamic, constantly expanding creation. When theorists attempt to discover what the Universe was like in times gone by, they reach the stage where density and temperature in the model become infinite -- in other words, they lose their physical sense. Thus, the infinities may only be indicative of the weaknesses of the former theory and the moment of the Big Bang does not have to signify the birth of the Universe.

In order to gain at least some knowledge of quantum gravity, scientists construct simplified quantum models, known as quantum cosmological models, in which space-time and matter are expressed in a single value or a few values alone. For example, the model developed by Ashtekar, Bojowald, Lewandowski, Pawłowski and Singh predicts that quantum gravity prevents the increase of matter energy density from exceeding a certain critical value (of the order of the Planck density). Consequently, there must have been a contracting universe prior to the Big Bang. When matter density had reached the critical value, there followed a rapid expansion -- the Big Bang, known as the Big Bounce. However, the model is a highly simplified toy model.

The real answer to the mystery of the Big Bang lies in a unified quantum theory of matter and gravity. One attempt at developing such a theory is loop quantum gravity (LQG). The theory holds that space is weaved from one-dimensional threads. "It is just like in the case of a fabric -- although it is seemingly smooth from a distance, it becomes evident at close quarters that it consists of a network of fibres," describes Wojciech Kamiński, MSc from FUW. Such space would constitute a fine fabric -- an area of a square centimetre would consists of 1066 threads.

Physicists Marcin Domagała, Wojciech Kamiński and Jerzy Lewandowski, together with Kristina Giesel from the Louisiana State University (guest), developed their model within the framework of loop quantum gravity. The starting points for the model are two fields, one of which is a gravitational field. "Thanks to the general theory of relativity we know that gravity is the very geometry of space-time. We may, therefore, say that our point of departure is three-dimensional space," explains Marcin Domagała, PhD (FUW).

The second starting point is a scalar field -- a mathematical object in which a particular value is attributed to every point in space. In the proposed model, scalar fields are interpreted as the simplest form of matter. Scalar fields have been known in physics for years, they are applied, among others, to describe temperature and pressure distribution in space. "We have opted for a scalar field as it is the typical feature of contemporary cosmological models and our aim is to develop a model that would constitute another step forward in quantum gravity research," observes Prof. Lewandowski.

In the model developed by physicists from Warsaw, time emerges as the relation between the gravitational field (space) and the scalar field -- a moment in time is given by the value of the scalar field. "We pose the question about the shape of space at a given value of the scalar field and Einstein's quantum equations provide the answer," explains Prof. Lewandowski. Thus, the phenomenon of the passage of time emerges as the property of the state of the gravitational and scalar fields and the appearance of such a state corresponds to the birth of the well-known space-time. "It is worthy of note that time is nonexistent at the beginning of the model. Nothing happens. Action and dynamics appear as the interrelation between the fields when we begin to pose questions about how one object relates to another," explains Prof. Lewandowski.

Physicist from FUW have made it possible to provide a more accurate description of the evolution of the Universe. Whereas models based on the general theory of relativity are simplified and assume the gravitational field at every point of the Universe to be identical or subject to minor changes, the gravitational field in the proposed model may differ at different points in space.

The proposed theoretical construction is the first such highly advanced model characterized by internal mathematical consistency. It comes as the natural continuation of research into quantization of gravity, where each new theory is derived from classical theories. To that end, physicists apply certain algorithms, known as quantizations. "Unfortunately for physicists, the algorithms are far from precise. For example, it may follow from an algorithm that a Hilbert space needs to be constructed, but no details are provided," explains Marcin Domagała, MSc. "We have succeeded in performing a full quantization and obtained one of the possible models."

There is still a long way to go, according to Prof. Lewandowski: "We have developed a certain theoretical machinery. We may begin to ply it with questions and it will provide the answers." Theorists from FUW intend, among others, to inquire whether the Big Bounce actually occurs in their model. "In the future, we will try to include in the model further fields of the Standard Model of elementary particles. We are curious ourselves to find out what will happen," says Prof. Lewandowski. 




And for those of you not already hopelessly lost in the mists of time and QuantumTalk, here is yet another discussion of this same basic question. 

What happened before the Big Bang?

We spend a lot of time thinking about futurism, but the past is pretty interesting, too. In this week's "Ask a Physicist" we get extra speculative and think about what things may have been like before the beginning of time. What was there before the Big Bang? Did anything exist before our current universe? Here's what we know.

For the most part, I try to keep these columns as by-the-numbers as possible. I generally want to focus on the consensus view of physics, and only like to veer off into the realm of crackpot science and speculation every so often.

But sometimes people have burning questions that they need answered that physics doesn't have an authoritative answer to. Discussion section, here's your lucky day! Step into your time cube and consider a question put to me by Dave Ranautta and several others. They ask:

What was there before the big bang? I appreciate that there are no facts concerning what existed prior (if anything) but are there popular theories?

Standard Answer: Nothing. So please don't ask.

I've talked a lot about the expanding universe in this column. The standard picture comes from general relativity, which describes a sort of stretching of space-time. The normal analogy is to think of us as ants on a balloon. In the past, the universe (aka "the balloon") was smaller than it is now, and, taken far enough back, the universe, presumably, was a single point. That was the moment of the big bang.

In the normal general relativity picture of things, the moment of creation produced not only space, but time; the two are incredibly intermixed, after all. To Einstein, talking about what happened before the Big Bang is just as nonsensical as asking what happens if you travel north of the North Pole. There just isn't just a place, or consequently such a time.

This is likely to make people squeamish. After all, if there was no time before the Big Bang (or no space, for that matter) where did we come from? Shouldn't there be something resembling causality in the universe?

What are our options?

We have some wiggle room, however. As I've discussed previously (and far less speculatively) not only don't we know what happened before the Big Bang, we don't even know what happened in the instant immediately following the Big Bang.

Our knowledge of physics in the first 10^-44 seconds after the beginning (which, admittedly, is a pretty damn short time) is virtually non-existent. This instant is known as the Planck Time, and since we don't know what happened before the Planck time with anything even remotely resembling certainty, we absolutely don't know what happened before the Big Bang. Regardless, logic dictates that we're left with one of two possibilities:

§  The universe had some sort of beginning, in which case we're left with the very unsettling problem of what caused the universe in the first place.

§  The universe has been around forever, in which case there's literally an infinite amount of history, both before and after us.

Neither of these is satisfying. Take the Old Testament view, for instance. We're to understand that God created the world. In that case our universe has a definite beginning. However, God himself is supposed to be eternal. What was he doing before he created our universe? It's no more satisfying to assert that the universe has been here all along. Is there literally an infinite amount of history? That doesn't make sense.

As a particularly clever cheat (or theory, if you prefer), in 1982 Alex Vilenkin of Tufts University showed how what we've learned from quantum mechanics might shed light on the how the universe popped into being.

Model #1: The Universe out of Nothing

Vilenkin noted that if we were to somehow start with a small bubble of a universe, two things could happen. If it were large enough, it would undergo exponential growth — just like our universe did in the first instants. If it were small, it would collapse.

Here's where things get weird. Quantum mechanics predicts all sorts of strange things, including half-dead/half-alive cats, or the possibility of teleportation. It also predicts the possibility that apparently impossible things are really just improbable. Image by CottonIJoe/Flickr.

For instance, it's possible (but brain-bendingly unlikely) that you could spontaneously find yourself teleported to Alpha Centauri (readers: please insert obligatory Hitchiker's reference here). More commonly radioactive decay can be thought of as a small piece of an atomic nucleus that shouldn't really be able to escape from the rest somehow randomly tunneling away. The universe is just like that sometimes.

In the same way, a small universe can randomly tunnel into a larger one. The amazing thing about Vilenkin's model is that even if you make the "little" universe as small as you like, this tunneling still can occur. It even works if the little universe has no size at all. You know what we call something with no size?


Prior to the Big Bang, the state of the universe was something that possessed (no fooling) zero size and for which time was essentially undefined. The universe then tunneled out of nothing into the expanding universe we know and love.

The problem is that the "nothing" that the universe popped out of wasn't really nothing. It had to know about quantum mechanics somehow, and we've always been taught to think that the physics is a property of the universe. It's troubling to think that the physics existed before the universe did, or, for that matter, before time did.

Of course, this is the basic problem with any definite origin for the universe. Somehow all of the complexity had to be created from nothing, and it's difficult to reconcile that.

The other possibility seems equally troubling. The universe might literally be eternal — or at least have an infinite history. While it's not clear what the theological implications of an infinite universe, we can at least try to figure out how an infinite universe might work.

Model #2: The Universe gave birth to itself

In 1998, J. Richard Gott and Li Xin Li, both then at Princeton, proposed a model in which the universe arose from what can only be described as a time machine. Gott and Li showed that it was possible to solve Einstein's equations of general relativity in such a way that a universe started off going around and around in a continuous loop, and that that loop could serve as the "trunk" of a tree that sprouted, giving rise to our own universe. Since a picture says a thousand words, let's illustrate with their own figure.Credit J.R. Gott and L.-X. Li
The way to read this image is that for the most part, time travels from bottom to top, and that everything begins with the little loop at the bottom. That is the origin of the universe. This means that the universe has no beginning, since the loop goes around and around infinitely.

We can talk about the "time after the Big Bang" as the time after the loop sprouted off into the future and a universe was born. You'll also notice that there isn't just a single horn coming out of the initial time loop, but many. This is totally consistent with the concept of a multiverse, just to add another level of speculative awesomeness to the discussion.

Model #3: This Is Not the First Universe

For a long time, cosmologists played around with the idea that the universe might ultimately collapse on itself. Then, in 1998, two teams discovered that the universe was accelerating, essentially demonstrating that we were way off base. You may also recall that these folks won the Nobel prize this year for their discovery.

Even though on the surface it doesn't look as though our universe will ultimately collapse under its own weight, there is still a great deal of allure to this picture. If the universe were somehow to end in a big crunch, then maybe what's really happening is that we'll eternally undergo a series of expansions and contractions, on and on for infinity. Our universe, in this case, is just one in an infinite series.

The problem with this (besides the fact that there is too little stuff in our universe to make it collapse again) is one of disorder. As we've discussed previously, the universe loves disorder. If you've ever stacked soda cans, there's only one way to stack them, and that's straight up. But if you knock them over, they go everywhere. There are more ways to destroy a soda can tower then there are to build one, and as time goes on, the universe finds ways of destroying all other forms of order, too.

If our universe was the result of a series of expansions and collapses, then our Big Bang occurred billions or trillions of years after some beginning (and what caused that?), so it would have had a very long time to get disordered. But it isn't. Looking back, our universe was very smooth, and in a very high state of order. This wouldn't solve the problem at all.

But in recent years, there have been a number of new cyclic models that allow an eternal universe to exist. In 2002, Paul Steinhardt, of Princeton University, and Neil Turok, of Cambridge, devised a model that exploits the extra dimensions found in string theory. String theory supposes that our universe might not be three-dimensional at all, but might have as many as ten spatial dimensions. Our own universe might simply live on a three-dimensional membrane (or "brane" for short) that is floating through the universe, barely interacting with the other universes.

However, the different branes (universes) could interact gravitationally. In this model, the dark energy that accelerates the universe isn't a real thing at all, but just a remnant of the gravitational attraction between branes, and the dark matter is just ordinary matter on the other, nearby brane. Occasionally the branes collide with one another, which would set off "Big Bangs" within the different branes and then everything would proceed as we've already seen.

These models are extremely elegant and deal with the whole "increase of disorder" problem in a really novel way. In cycle after cycle, the branes get more and more stretchy, which means that the disorder gets spread out over a larger and larger volume. The local patch that we call our universe, however, is just a small patch of the brane, so we seem to start nearly from scratch at each go-round. It sounds great, but a big problem is that these models require string theory to be correct, and on that the jury is definitely still out.

And there are even more models, some including extra dimensions, some include concepts like "loop quantum gravity," some infinite in time, and some with a definite duration. At the end of the day, the Big Bang theory has the same basic problem as evolutionary theory. Both do a nearly perfect job in explaining how the universe (or life) changed when it first came about, but neither can explain how things really got started in the first place.

This column was adapted from parts of Chapter 7 of A User's Guide to the Universe.

Dave Goldberg is the author, with Jeff Blomquist, of "A User's Guide to the Universe." (follow us on twitter, facebook, twitter or our blog.) He is an Associate Professor of Physics at Drexel University and is currently working on "The Universe in the Rearview Mirror," a new book all about symmetry that will be published by Dutton in 2013. Please send email to askaphysicist@io9.com with any questions about the universe.


Now, for those of you who like to obtain "all the news that's fit to print" from our very own NY Times, here is their interpretation of the question.

What Happened Before the Big Bang?

Published: November 11, 2003

Like baseball, in which three strikes make an out, three outs on a side make an inning, nine innings make a regular game, the universe makes its own time. There is no outside timekeeper. Space and time are part of the universe, not the other way around, thinkers since Augustine have said, and that is one of the central and haunting lessons of Einstein's general theory of relativity.

In explaining gravity as the ''bending'' of space-time geometry, Einstein's theory predicted the expansion of the universe, the primal fact of 20th-century astronomy. By imagining the expansion going backward, like a film in reverse, cosmologists have traced the history of the universe credibly back to a millionth of a second after the Big Bang that began it all.

But to ask what happened before the Big Bang is a little bit like asking who was on base before the first pitch was thrown out in a game, say between the Yankees and the Red Sox. There was no ''then'' then.

Still, this has not stopped some theorists with infinity in their eyes from trying to imagine how the universe made its ''quantum leap from eternity into time,'' as the physicist Dr. Sidney Coleman of Harvard once put it.

Some physicists speculate that on the other side of the looking glass of Time Zero is another universe going backward in time. Others suggest that creation as we know it is punctuated by an eternal dance of clashing island universes.

In their so-called quantum cosmology, Dr. Stephen Hawking, the Cambridge University physicist and author, and his collaborators envision the universe as a kind of self-contained entity, a crystalline melt of all possibilities existing in ''imaginary time.''

All these will remain just fancy ideas until physicists have married Einstein's gravity to the paradoxical quantum laws that describe behavior of subatomic particles. Such a theory of quantum gravity, scientists agree, is needed to describe the universe when it was so small and dense that even space and time become fuzzy and discontinuous. ''Our clocks and our rulers break,'' as Dr. Andrei Linde, a Stanford cosmologist likes to put it.

At the moment there are two pretenders to the throne of that ultimate theory. One is string theory, the putative ''theory of everything,'' which posits that the ultimate constituents of nature are tiny vibrating strings rather than points. String theorists have scored some striking successes in the study of black holes, in which matter has been compressed to catastrophic densities similar to the Big Bang, but they have made little progress with the Big Bang itself.

String's lesser-known rival, called loop quantum gravity, is the result of applying quantum strictures directly to Einstein's equations. This theory makes no pretensions to explaining anything but gravity and space-time. But recently Dr. Martin Bojowald of the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics in Golm, Germany, found that using the theory he could follow the evolution of the universe back past the alleged beginning point. Instead of having a ''zero moment'' of infinite density -- a so-called singularity -- the universe instead behaved as if it were contracting from an earlier phase, according to the theory, he said. As if the Big Bang were a big bounce.
Oh, there's one minor problem I have noted in all of the material I have read on Quantum Physics. None of it seems to shed any light on what happens to us after our filament burns out and we go dark. Maybe we need to consult one of our Quantum Physicists about that minor omission in their papers. Dr. Hawking . . .??? Dr. Einstein . . .Hello??? Anyone there???