Four new scientific reviews tackle the origins of space, time, and the universe—and the mystery of why the cosmos seems ideally suited for human life.
What happened before the Big Bang? Is our cosmos precisely tuned to foster life? Is time an illusion? What are the building blocks of reality?
On Friday, November 12, science think-tank the Foundational Questions Institute (FQXi) will publish the first in a new series of reports that unravel these and other perplexing questions.
“These reports cover some of humanity’s deepest and oldest questions about where we come from, who we are, the fate of the universe, and why we perceive reality as we do,” says FQXi series editor Zeeya Merali. “Scientists are now homing in on the often surprising answers with the help of new experiments and observations — and discovering new puzzles and mysteries along the way.”
Stepping back from the deluge of narrowly-focused publications, these reviews provide an up-to-date picture of what we have learned through decades of physics research and billions of dollars of investments. These reviews enable readers without scientific training to explore what physicists say about the basis of reality. They highlight not only the areas of consensus but also the open questions and debates that are driving the frontiers of physics.
The series includes four research reviews: Cosmological Origins, Emergence, Time, and Fine Tuning, each authored by an accomplished science writer. The project began in 2019 through a grant from the John Templeton Foundation to FQXi, a nonprofit organization that supports innovative research at the frontiers of physics and cosmology.
The first review in the series, “Cosmological Origins” by Mitch Waldrop, offers a unique vantage point: it begins by introducing the reader to the revolutionary shifts in human understanding of the cosmos before drilling down into the major discoveries of the past century. It explores the Big Bang, the explosive growth that followed, and the conundrum of the accelerating expansion of the universe. The vast majority of cosmic stuff exists in some unknown form, and Waldrop reviews the latest experiments that are attempting to reveal the identity of this enigmatic ‘dark matter’ and ‘dark energy.’ The review culminates with one of the biggest current controversies in physics: conflicting observations have led to a billion-year discrepancy in the calculated age of the universe.
Over the next two months, the second, third, and fourth reviews will be published in succession.
The second review, “Time” by Kate Becker, explores the apparent contradiction between what we experience—that time flows reliably in one direction, taking us from womb to tomb—and the prediction from physics that there is no difference between the past, present and future, and that fundamental processes can go backwards or forwards. On large scales in which general relativity applies, time can be warped by motion and gravity. On the tiny scale, however, particles dance to a quantum tune, timed against the ticks of a perfect wristwatch. Reconciling these tensions is at the heart of contemporary physics. Becker also describes mounting evidence that at the fundamental scale cause and effect becomes blurred. This ‘indefinite causality’ could one day be harnessed to make more powerful computers.
The third review, “Emergence” by George Musser, explores how a group of things can display features that are not found in any one of its components. In many exotic materials, such as the wonder-material graphene, the properties of the whole are far greater than the sum of its parts, potentially yielding tremendous practical applications. Upon close inspection, both solid matter and empty space exhibit bizarre characteristics. But Musser shows that a deeper understanding of the unexpected similarities between the rules that govern them may offer a new explanation for how space itself emerges from nothing, woven together by quantum effects.
The fourth review, “Fine Tuning” by Miriam Frankel, examines the fact that our universe has uncannily fortuitous physical parameters—as far as humans are concerned—in the form of the masses of subatomic particles, the strengths of the fundamental forces, cosmic structures and dimensions of spacetime. If any of these constants were slightly different, intelligent life of any form would not exist. Whether this is an improbable coincidence or an inevitable consequence of a multiverse, Frankel argues it is an opportunity to more deeply probe the nature of our cosmos.
Thomas Burnett, the John Templeton Foundation’s Assistant Director of Communications, says of the new research series, “For those of us who don’t have the time to follow every new development in physics, it is refreshing to have narratives that tie together the most important threads and present them in an accessible way. These research reviews have taught me more about physics than all of the other reading I have done since college.”