THIS WEEK 28 October 2015
Light given off by hydrogen shortly after the big bang has left some unexplained bright patches in space. Are they evidence of bumping into another universe?
THE curtain at the edge of the universe may be rippling, hinting that there’s more backstage. Data from the European Space Agency’s Planck telescope could be giving us our first glimpse of another universe, with different physics, bumping up against our own.
That’s the tentative conclusion of an analysis by Ranga-Ram Chary, a researcher at Planck’s US data centre in California. Armed with Planck’s painstaking map of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) – light lingering from the hot, soupy state of the early universe – Chary revealed an eerie glow that could be due to matter from a neighbouring universe leaking into ours.
This sort of collision should be possible, according to modern cosmological theories that suggest the universe we see is just one bubble among many. Such a multiverse may be a consequence of cosmic inflation, the widely accepted idea that the early universe expanded exponentially in the slimmest fraction of a second after the big bang.
Once it starts, inflation never quite stops, so a multitude of universes becomes nearly inevitable. “I would say most versions of inflation in fact lead to eternal inflation, producing a number of pocket universes,” says Alan Guth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an architect of the theory.
Energy hidden in empty space drives inflation, and the amount that’s around could vary from place to place, so some regions would eventually settle down and stop expanding at such a manic pace. But the spots where inflation is going gangbusters would spawn inflating universes. And even areas within these new bubbles could balloon into pocket universes themselves.
Like compositions on the same theme, each universe produced this way would be likely to have its own spin on physics. The matter in some bubbles – the boring ones – would fly apart within 10-40 seconds of their creation. Others would be full of particles and rules similar to ours, or even exactly like ours. In the multiverse of eternal inflation, everything that can happen has happened – and will probably happen again.
That notion could explain why the physical constants of our universe seem to be so exquisitely tuned to allow for galaxies, stars, planets and life (see “Just right for life?“).
Sadly, if they do exist, other bubbles are nigh on impossible to learn about. With the space between them and us always expanding, light is too slow to carry any information between different regions. “They could never even know about each other’s existence,” says Matthew Johnson of York University in Toronto, Canada. “It sounds like a fun idea but it seems like there’s no way to test it.”
However, if two bubbles started out close enough that they touched before expanding space pushed them apart forever, they could leave an imprint on each other. “You need to get lucky,” Johnson says.
“If two bubbles started out close enough that they touched, they could leave an imprint on each other”
In 2007, Johnson and his PhD adviser proposed that these clashing bubbles might show up as circular bruises on the CMB. They were looking for cosmic dance partners that resembled our own universe, but with more of everything. That would make a collision appear as a bright, hot ring of photons.
By 2011, they were able to search for them in data from NASA’s WMAP probe, the precursor to Planck. But they came up empty-handed.
Now Chary thinks he may have spotted a different signature of a clash with a foreign universe.
“There are two approaches, looking for different classes of pocket universes,” Johnson says. “They’re hunting for lions, and we’re hunting for polar bears.”
Instead of looking at the CMB itself, Chary subtracted a model of the CMB from Planck’s picture of the entire sky. Then he took away everything else, too: the stars, gas and dust.
With our universe scrubbed away, nothing should be left except noise. But in a certain frequency range, scattered patches on the sky look far brighter than they should. If they check out, these anomalous clumps could be caused by cosmic fist-bumps: our universe colliding with another part of the multiverse (arxiv.org/abs/1510.00126).
These patches look like they come from the era a few hundred thousand years after the big bang when electrons and protons first joined forces to create hydrogen, which emits light in a limited range of colours. We can see signs of that era, called recombination, in the light from that early hydrogen. Studying the light from recombination could be a unique signature of the matter in our universe – and potentially distinguish signs from beyond.
“This signal is one of the fingerprints of our own universe,” says Jens Chluba of the University of Cambridge. “Other universes should leave a different mark.”
“This signal is one of the fingerprints of our own universe. Others should leave a different mark”
Since this light is normally drowned out by the glow of the cosmic microwave background, recombination should have been tough for even Planck to spot. But Chary’s analysis revealed spots that were 4500 times as bright as theory predicts.
One exciting explanation for this is if a surplus of protons and electrons – or something a lot like them – got dumped in at the point of contact with another universe, making the light from recombination a lot brighter. Chary’s patches require the universe at the other end of the collision to have roughly 1000 times as many such particles as ours.
“To explain the signals that Dr Chary found with the cosmological recombination radiation, one needs a large enhancement in the number of [other particles] relative to photons,” Chluba says. “In the realm of alternative universes, this is entirely possible.”
Of course there are caveats, and recent history provides an important reality check. In 2014, a team using the BICEP2 telescope at the South Pole announced another faint signal with earth-shaking cosmological implications. The spirals of polarised light, spotted in the cosmic background, would have provided more observational evidence for the idea of inflation and helped us understand how inflation occurred. But it turned out that signal came from dust grains within our galaxy.
Princeton University’s David Spergel, who played a major role in debunking the BICEP2 finding, thinks dust may again be clouding our cosmological insights. “I suspect that it would be worth looking into alternative possibilities,” he says. “The dust properties are more complicated than we have been assuming, and I think that this is a more plausible explanation.”
Joseph Silk of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, is even more pessimistic, calling claims of an alternate universe “completely implausible”. While he thinks the paper is a good analysis of anomalies in Planck data, Silk also believes something is getting in the way. “My view is that they are almost certainly due to foregrounds,” he says.
Chary acknowledges that his idea is as tentative as it is exciting. “Unusual claims like evidence for alternate universes require a very high burden of proof,” he writes.
He makes an effort to rule out more prosaic explanations. If it is dust, Chary argues, it would be the coldest dust we’ve ever seen. It’s probably not noise masquerading as a signal. It could be carbon monoxide moving toward us, but we don’t usually see that. It could be faraway carbon, but that emission is too weak.
“I am certain he made every effort to ensure that the analysis is solid,” says Chluba. Even so, foregrounds and poorly understood patterns could still be the source of the signals. “It will be important to carry out an independent analysis and confirm his finding,” Chluba says.
One obstacle to checking is that we’re limited by the data itself. Planck was hyper-sensitive to the cosmic microwave background, but it wasn’t intended to measure the spectral distortions Chary is looking for. Johnson’s team also plans to use Planck to look for their own alternate universes, once the data they need is released to the public – but they estimate that Planck will only make them twice as sensitive to the bubble collisions they’re looking for as they were with WMAP.
An experiment that could help might be on its way. Scientists at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center plan to submit PIXIE, the Primordial Inflation Explorer, to be considered for funding at the end of 2016.
PIXIE’s spectral resolution could help characterise Chary’s signals if they really are there, Chluba says. But even if they aren’t, reconstructing how inflation happened could still lead us once again back to the multiverse – and tell us what kind of bubble collisions we should look for next (see diagram).
(Image: Rudi Sebastian/Plainpicture)
Just right for life?
If our universe is just one of many, that could explain why it seems so exquisitely tuned for our existence.
If dark energy, the repulsive influence hiding in empty space that speeds up the expansion of the universe, were just a little stronger, matter would be flung apart before galaxies could ever form. If it were attractive instead, the universe would collapse. But it is shockingly puny, and that’s weird, unless our universe is one of many in the multiverse.
Compared with what we might expect from quantum theory, dark energy is 120 orders of magnitude too small. So far, no compelling explanation for that discrepancy has emerged. But if the multiverse exists, and dark energy varies from bubble to bubble (see main story), that might not seem so strange.
That’s because our own universe might be an oddball compared to most bubbles. In many, dark energy would be too strong for galaxies, stars and planets to form, but not in all. “Plenty of them would have energies as small as what we observe,” says physicist Alan Guth of MIT.
That still leaves us struggling to explain why our universe is one of the special ones. Our best answer so far, Guth says, is a philosophical headache: our universe has to be special because we are alive in it. In a more average region, where dark energy is stronger, stars, planets, and life would never have evolved.
That could mean life only exists in a sliver of the multiverse, with any conscious beings convinced their own slice of space is special, too.
This article appeared in print under the headline “A brush with a universe next door”