Sunday 12 February 2017

Signals From the Dawn of Time!

The animation shows a computer simulation of an oscillon, a strong localized fluctuation of the inflaton field of the early universe. According to the calculations of Prof. Stefan Antusch and his team, oscillons produced a characteristic peak in the otherwise broad spectrum of gravitational waves.

© Department of Physics, University of Basel
Ancient signals from the early universe | University of Basel News.

The early universe sent out signals with information about its formation. All we need to do is look in the right place and in the right way to find these ancient signals. Scientists working at the University of Basel believe they have at last shown what we should be looking for.

The signals are tiny fluctuations in the gravity wave field. Although Albert Einstein predicted the existence of gravity waves they were only detected at the end of 2015. Already science is moving on to make use of this new technological ability and so to look further back into the formation of the Universe.

Gravity waves are emitted by all bodies accelerating in space, some are very weak but, like those from a massive black hole swallowing a galaxy, some will be much stronger. This stochastic background of gravity waves from a wide range of different sources will produce a broad spectrum of wave frequencies but the Basel team believe they have identified a specific frequency associated with the early Universe and strong enough to stand out from it.

I don't pretend to understand the maths involved here but cosmologists believe the very early universe was dominated by a particle known as the inflaton and its associated field. At that stage the Universe was about the size of a football and extremely dense. With that degree of compression there was almost nowhere for any particles to move to despite the great heat, before it would collide with another particle. We are talking about a universe that was about a hundred trillion times as dense as water with a temperature of about a trillion degrees Centigrade.

Cosmologists believe in those conditions inflatons underwent oscillations which have a special property causing them to clump and oscillate in localised regions know as oscillons which can be visualised as standing waves. These standing waves will have long since disappeared but they would have emitted gravity waves which should still be detectable. It is the echo these standing waves would have left in the gravity wave field that we need to be looking for.

The Basel team have now calculated the shape of this signal as it should appear in the gravity wave field - rather like defining for the first time what the needle in the haystack actually looks like. It's always a good idea to know what you're looking for before you start looking.

Although creationists dismiss the Theory of Evolution as 'just a theory' they readily accept the Theory of Gravity, even though we actually know very little about what gravity is and how it acts on bodies in space. No doubt had their favourite creation myth offered a simplistic notion of what gravity is they would be equally dismissive of scientific explanations of it but the authors of this early origin myth took gravity so much for granted that it never occurred to them that it even requires an explanation. In fact, we understand much less about gravity than we do about evolution, but studies like this are closing that gap in our understanding as scientists move closer to closing another gap in which creationists sit their ever-shrinking little imaginary friend.

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