Lawrence Krauss on "Seeing" the Early Universe

Theoretical physicist and cosmologist Lawrence M. Krauss spoke at CSICon 2016 about scientists' attempt to look back in time to the beginning of our universe.

At a 2016 convention hosted by the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, theoretical physicist Lawrence M. Krauss spoke about scientists' attempts to look back to when the universe was just fractions of a second old. A few highlights from Krauss' talk are listed below, and his full presentation can be seen at the bottom of this article.

Inflation and the Universe’s “Baby Picture”

The Cosmic Microwave Background radiation (CMB) is the oldest visible light in the universe. According to Inflationary Cosmology, the CMB is essentially the afterglow radiation that was produced when the nascent universe rapidly inflated when it was some 380,000 years old.

“[The universe] went from the size of an atom to the size of a basketball in a billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a second,” Krauss said.

Before inflation, the universe was extremely small, hot and dense. It was governed by quantum mechanics, and everything was in flux.

“When Inflation happens, all those quantum fluctuations get frozen in,” Krauss said, noting that there were tiny variations, or “lumps,” in temperature across the CMB that became the spots where galaxies and other matter formed. “[Those fluctuations] later manifest themselves in density, in matter.”

The CMB effectively confirms the Big Bang Theory — the radiation pattern looks exactly like what scientists in the mid-20th century predicted when they first theorized that the universe was once a very small, dense place.

Scientists are now trying to look farther back in time, well beyond the CMB. 

Gravitational Waves

“We can never see back earlier than [the CMB], and by ‘see’ I mean look with light,” Krauss said. “We have to use something that interacts much more weakly than light.”

Instead of light, scientists are using gravity to look back on the early universe. 

Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity first predicted the existence of gravitational waves, which, in simplified terms, are ripples in the fabric of spacetime caused by the acceleration of objects. 

The theory of inflation predicts that the early universe would have produced certain kinds of gravitational waves. If scientists one day find evidence of these particular gravitational waves, we’d be able to ‘see’ the universe when it was just a fraction of a second old – “essentially at the Big Bang,” Krauss said.

In September 2015, scientists first detected gravitational waves disrupting spacetime. The waves came from the collision of two black holes some 1.3 billion light years away, but they were extremely hard to detect – the spacetime “wobbling” generated by the waves was so subtle that it was thousands of times smaller than the nucleus of an atom.

The video below describes how scientists at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) first directly detected the waves in 2015.

Eternal Inflation and Multiple Universes

“If we can show that inflation happened, and we can measure the characteristics of inflation, then we know something very interesting,” Krauss said, referring to the idea of eternal inflation.

Eternal inflation suggests that, in extremely simplified terms, inflation caused the universe to expand at different rates in different places, and this gave rise to an infinite number of bubble universes. This process, according to some theorists, could go on forever.

What’s more, the laws of physics could be unique in each bubble universe. Some universes might not even have galaxies at all.

“You’ll never see these universes because they’re expanding away from us faster than light,” Krauss said. “It sounds like it’s metaphysics. But if we could measure the properties of inflation, we might be able to measure grand unification and understand particle physics, and understand those properties and prove that inflation was eternal. And if that’s the case, we will know that there must be other universes out there.”

Although we’ll never be able to see these other universes, scientists would theoretically be able to confirm their existence through indirect experiments.

“It will be like being in 1905 when Einstein first showed that atoms existed in his Ph.D. thesis,” Krauss said. “No one ever thought you’d see an atom. So we’ll turn this metaphysical explanation into physics. And that’s the beauty of science.”

You can watch Krauss' presentation at CSICon 2016 in the video below:

Big Think
Sponsored by Lumina Foundation

Upvote/downvote each of the videos below!

As you vote, keep in mind that we are looking for a winner with the most engaging social venture pitch - an idea you would want to invest in.

Lumina Foundation and Big Think have partnered to bring this entrepreneurial competition to life, and we hope you'll participate! We have narrowed down the competition to four finalists and will be announcing an audience's choice award and a judges' choice award in May.

The creator of the winning video — chosen by Big Think's audience, the Lumina Foundation, and an independent panel of experts (bios below) — will be flown to New York for a taping in the Big Think studio as a way to further promote their vision for a new, disruptive idea in post-secondary education.

Thank you to all of the contestants who spent time submitting applications, and best of luck to our final four competitors.

Finalist: Greater Commons - Todd McLeod

Greater Commons, founded by Todd McLeod and Andrew Cull, is an organization that helps people live happier, more successful and fulfilling lives through agile learning. The current education system is inefficient and exclusionary, in which many students who end up earning a degree, if at all, enter a career not related to their field of study. Greater Commons solves this problem and gap in post-high school secondary education in a variety of ways. Passionately and diligently, Great Commons helps others obtain skills, knowledge, wisdom, motivation, and inspiration so that they may live better lives.

Finalist: PeerFoward - Keith Frome

PeerForward is an organization dedicated to increasing the education and career success rates of students in low-income schools and communities by mobilizing the power of positive peer influence. PeerForward works with partner schools to select influential students as a part of a team, systemizing the "peer effect." Research in the fields of sociology of schools, social-emotional learning, adult-youth partnerships, and civic education demonstrates that students can have a positive effect on the academic outcomes of their peers. PeerForward is unique through its systemic solutions to post-secondary education.

Finalist: Cogniss - Leon Young

Cogniss combines technology and best practice knowledge to enable anyone to innovate and share solutions that advance lifelong learning. Cogniss is the only platform to integrate neuroscience, through which it solves the problem of access by providing a low-code platform that enables both developers and non-developers to build sophisticated education apps fast, and at a much lower cost. It addresses the uneven quality of edtech solutions by embedding research-based learning design into its software. App creators can choose from a rich set of artificial intelligence, game, social and data analytics, and gamification to build their perfect customized solution.

Finalist: Practera - Nikki James

Practera's mission is to create a world where everyone can learn through experience. Today's workplaces are increasingly dynamic and diverse, however, costly and time-consuming experiential learning is not always able to offer the right opportunities at scale. Many students graduate without developing the essential skills for their chosen career. Practera's team of educators and technologists see this problem as an opportunity to transform the educational experience landscape, through a CPL pedagogical framework and opportunities to apply students' strengths through active feedback.

Thank you to our judges!

Our expert judges are Lorna Davis, Dan Rosensweig, and Stuart Yasgur.

Lorna Davis is the Senior Advisor to Danone CEO and is a Global Ambassador for the B Corp movement. Lorna has now joined B-Lab, the non-for-profit that supports the B Corporation movement on an assignment to support the journey of large multi nationals on the path to using business as a force of good.

Dan Rosensweig joined Chegg in 2010 with a vision for transforming the popular textbook rental service into a leading provider of digital learning services for high school and college students. As Chairman and CEO of Chegg, Dan commits the company to fulfilling its mission of putting students first and helping them save time, save money and get smarter.

Stuart Yasgur leads Ashoka's Social Financial Services globally. At Ashoka, Stuart works with others to initiate efforts that have mobilized more than $500 million in funding for social entrepreneurs, engaged the G20 through the Toronto, Seoul and Los Cabos summits and helped form partnerships with leading financial institutions and corporations.

Again, thank you to our incredible expert judges.

  • Beethovan and Picasso are the perfect examples for mastering the creative process.
  • Behind each of their works are countless studies and sketches.
  • The lesson? Never erase anything, keep iterating, and find new paths to familiar destinations.

'Upstreamism': Your zip code affects your health as much as genetics

Upstreamism advocate Rishi Manchanda calls us to understand health not as a "personal responsibility" but a "common good."

Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Upstreamism tasks health care professionals to combat unhealthy social and cultural influences that exist outside — or upstream — of medical facilities.
  • Patients from low-income neighborhoods are most at risk of negative health impacts.
  • Thankfully, health care professionals are not alone. Upstreamism is increasingly part of our cultural consciousness.
Keep reading Show less

Meet the Bajau sea nomads — they can reportedly hold their breath for 13 minutes

The Bajau people's nomadic lifestyle has given them remarkable adaptions, enabling them to stay underwater for unbelievable periods of time. Their lifestyle, however, is quickly disappearing.

Wikimedia Commons
Culture & Religion
  • The Bajau people travel in small flotillas throughout the Phillipines, Malaysia, and Indonesia, hunting fish underwater for food.
  • Over the years, practicing this lifestyle has given the Bajau unique adaptations to swimming underwater. Many find it straightforward to dive up to 13 minutes 200 feet below the surface of the ocean.
  • Unfortunately, many disparate factors are erasing the traditional Bajau way of life.
Keep reading Show less