Category Archives: Big Bang

Our solar system’s water may actually be older than the sun

A study of the ancient molecular clouds throughout our galaxy, has revealed that water, the compound necessary for sustaining life as we know it, has been around much longer than we realized. In fact, the earliest reservoirs in the universe may have appeared as soon as one billion years after the Big Bang event.

The biggest mystery with the formation of water, however, is how a molecule consisting of two hydrogen atoms and an oxygen atom would have existed in the early universe, as element weighing more than helium are the products of stars, formed within their cores many ages after the Big Bang occurred.

The earliest stars in the known universe would not only have to form, but would take substantial amounts of time to afterwards mature and die. Therefore the heavier elements like oxygen would take centuries before rising from the furnace of these stars by means of stellar winds and through supernovae events (the death of a star), which would take place eons after. Considering the entire life cycles of stars, alongside the fact that an ever expanding universe which the Big Bang model requires would imply that it took time for the oxygen atoms to be released in sufficient numbers throughout the universe, have all contributed to astronomer suspicions that the molecular bonds necessary for water did not come into existence until rather late in the history of the cosmos.

The new research, which was published this week through the journal Astrophysical Journal Letters, suggests that the wait for the earliest water in the universe was not nearly as long. In fact, not only were there molecules, but probably a heavy abundance of water only a billion years after the universe was born.

“We looked at the chemistry within young molecular clouds containing a thousand times less oxygen than our sun. To our surprise, we found we can get as much water vapor as we see in our own galaxy,” said Avi Loeb, an astrophysicist from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) in Massachusetts.

The first stars which came to existence in the 100 million years following the Big Bang were gigantic and unstable. Of gaseous materials, these early stars rapidly burnt out their supply of hydrogen fuel, before exploding in the supernovae phase – explosive events of radiation that can be seen across galaxies. These cosmic explosions unleashed heavier elements into the universe. What resulted were extensive pockets of gasses rich with the heavy elements. Of course, by comparison to the modern Milky Way Galaxy, these early gas clouds that formed after the explosion were still rather poor in oxygen.

Even with such low levels of oxygen, the overall environment at the time was rather suitable for “cooking” water molecules – providing the spark necessary for hydrogen and oxygen to bond. Temperatures of 80 degrees Fahrenheit were rather ideal for combining what oxygen that happened to exist with the plentiful number of hydrogen atoms.

“These temperatures are likely because the universe then was warmer than today and the gas was unable to cool effectively,” said the study’s co-investigator Shmuel Bialy of Tel Aviv University.

“The glow of the cosmic microwave background was hotter, and gas densities were higher,” added Amiel Sternberg, another co-author who is also from Tel Aviv University.

The early days of our universe’s history were far from the in place to be, as an abundance of these young stars would actively unleash a great deal of powerful ultraviolet radiation strong enough to rip apart the newly-formed water molecules. After several million years of water production, however, the destructive impact given off by the ultraviolet light would eventually while the resulting water formation would then continue to accelerate, producing a wealth of organic molecules that can even be seen throughout our own solar system.

The new study has only focused on how water formation occurs in the gaseous phase, without taking into consideration liquid water or ice, the predominant form in which it occurs throughout our galaxy, encrusting a number of moons and planets.

This surprising discovery suggests that even within the first billion years of our universe, there was quite a nurturing environment for H2O production in clouds, and that there may have been a number of worlds containing life, possibly even on some of the protoplanets within our own solar system before they were destroyed. This distribution of water in relatively oxygen poor clouds may even be the reason that life as we know it is so dependent on water, as the epochs that followed would see the formation of stars in a universe that already had water in it.

James Sullivan
James Sullivan is the assistant editor of Brain World Magazine and a contributor to Truth Is Cool and OMNI Reboot. He can usually be found on TVTropes or RationalWiki when not exploiting life and science stories for another blog article.

How the Large Hadron Collider Might Disprove the Big Bang

First proposed in 1927 by Belgian physicist Georges Lemaitre as the “Hypothesis of the Primeval Atom,” the Big Bang Theory (mostly associated with the sitcom but popularized in movies since Disney’s Fantasia), remains the predominant explanation for the origin of how our universe got to be the way it is today – starting from a particle smaller than an atom that inflated some 13.8 billion years ago.

It wasn’t always, though. For another forty years, despite the increasing evidence of an ever-expanding universe – galaxies drifting apart from each other, of varying ages and shapes; an abundance of light chemicals like hydrogen (about 75% of the universe) and helium; and the presence of cosmic microwaves, radiation that transitioned from visible light (some of the leftover radiation can be seen in the static given off by analog TV signals) – many astronomers clung to a steady-state model of the universe that gradually acquires matter. Astronomer Fred Hoyle even derisively referred to it once as the “Big Bang” and the name stuck.

So was there anything before it? We don’t know. Then again, there also was no time or space before the Big Bang event either. Some evidence has been proposed that the universe has always existed, eons before the Big Bang set everything in its current state. The overwhelming majority of the universe is invisible, and sometimes the question is raised of whether the universe really is singular – or is it one of many? Nothing is sacred as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) is unleashed in Geneva this week.

If the Large Hadron Collider finds miniature black holes, it may provide the evidence we need that parallel universes in fact do exist, and potentially that the Big Bang did not occur as cosmologists once envisioned. Already, the particle accelerator, currently the largest in the world, discovered the Higgs boson, known as the God Particle, which physicists suspect is what provides other particles with mass.

If these holes give off a specific wavelength of energy, they could be further testimony for a rather controversial theory known as ‘rainbow gravity,’ proposing that our universe may reach an indefinite distance back in time, without a singular point of origin, and no cosmic inflation event necessary to start the beginning of matter as we know it.

The theory is reconciled from Einstein’s theory of general relativity and suggests that varying wavelengths of light affect gravity in different ways. Were you to look backwards in time, the universe is more dense than in the present. Although it comes close to an extreme and infinite density, it never quite gets there. Consequently, its concept of the early universe is a bit different than the picture we have now.

While this all sounds very surreal – Earth would scarcely feel the impact of rainbow gravity. Black holes, however, would pick up on it considerably – increments that could be sizable and measurable, and easily within the range of the LHC.

“We have calculated the energy at which we expect to detect these mini black holes in gravity’s rainbow [a new theory]. If we do detect mini black holes at this energy, then we will know that both gravity’s rainbow and extra dimensions are correct,” said CERN researcher Dr. Mir Faizal to

This week will be the LHC’s second run, after being shut down for new installations at the beginning of 2013. It will be fully operational by Wednesday with its beams opening full circle.

When the 27 km accelerator is active it will begin hammering together protons at a rate nearly twice the energy needed to discover Higgs boson.

Rolf Heuer, Director General of CERN, hailed the switch-on as unprecedented, ‘a new era for physics’ that could shed some light on those not so visible forces in the universe: dark matter, dark energy and super-symmetry.

“I want to see the first light in the dark universe. If that happens, then nature is kind to me,” said Heuer.

Then there is that sci-fi fantasy that almost seems within reach of the LHC – a bridge between two worlds, or rather, two universes – a probability that another parallel dimension could bleed into our own.

Do the physicists have an explanation for this yet?

“Just as many parallel sheets of paper, which are two dimensional objects [breadth and length] can exist in a third dimension [height], parallel universes can also exist in higher dimensions,” added Dr Faizal.

“We predict that gravity can leak into extra dimensions, and if it does, then miniature black holes can be produced at the LHC.

“Normally, when people think of the multiverse, they think of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, where every possibility is actualised. This cannot be tested and so it is philosophy and not science.

“This is not what we mean by parallel universes. What we mean is real universes in extra dimensions.

“As gravity can flow out of our universe into the extra dimensions, such a model can be tested by the detection of mini black holes at the LHC.”

Since its two-year hibernation, the new and improved LHC has quite a few things to brag about before being fired up for its next run: newer, more powerful magnets, superior cryogenics (you read that right – the LHC is in fact the coldest place on Earth, with an epic cooling system that can keep noble gases like krypton in liquid form), higher voltage and even higher energy beams that mean an acceleration nearly twice what it made on its first run.

Frances Saunders, president of the IOP, said, “This has been a massive effort by all the scientists and engineers at CERN to upgrade the LHC and its detectors and get it ready to operate at almost double the collision energies of the first run.

“As well as allowing greater study of the Higgs boson there is much anticipation amongst the physics community as to what else may be found at these higher energies, testing our theories and understanding of concepts such as supersymmetry and potentially giving greater insight into the 95 per cent of the universe that is composed of dark matter and dark energy.”

James Sullivan
James Sullivan is the assistant editor of Brain World Magazine and a contributor to Truth Is Cool and OMNI Reboot. He can usually be found on TVTropes or RationalWiki when not exploiting life and science stories for another blog article.

What are fundamental particles?

It is often claimed that the Ancient Greeks were the first to identify objects that have no size, yet are able to build up the world around us through their interactions. And as we are able to observe the world in tinier and tinier detail through microscopes of increasing power, it is natural to wonder what these objects are made of.

We believe we have found some of these objects: subatomic particles, or fundamental particles, which having no size can have no substructure. We are now seeking to explain the properties of these particles and working to show how these can be used to explain the contents of the universe.

There are two types of fundamental particles: matter particles, some of which combine to produce the world about us, and force particles – one of which, the photon, is responsible for electromagnetic radiation. These are classified in the standard model of particle physics, which theorises how the basic building blocks of matter interact, governed by fundamental forces. Matter particles are fermions while force particles are bosons.

Matter particles: quarks and leptons

Matter particles are split into two groups: quarks and leptons – there are six of these, each with a corresponding partner.

Leptons are divided into three pairs. Each pair has an elementary particle with a charge and one with no charge – one that is much lighter and extremely difficult to detect. The lightest of these pairs is the electron and electron-neutrino.

And then some.
James Childs, CC BY

The charged electron is responsible for electric currents. Its uncharged partner, known as the electron-neutrino, is produced copiously in the sun and these interact so weakly with their surroundings that they pass unhindered through the Earth. A million of them pass through every square centimetre of your body every second, day and night.

Electron-neutrinos are produced in unimaginable numbers during supernova explosions and it is these particles that disperse elements produced by nuclear burning into the universe. These elements include the carbon from which we are made, the oxygen we breathe, and almost everything else on earth. Therefore, in spite of the reluctance of neutrinos to interact with other fundamental particles, they are vital for our existence. The other two neutrino pairs (called muon and muon neutrino, tau and tau neutrino) appear to be just heavier versions of the electron.

J J Thomson’s 1897 cathode ray tube with magnet coils – used to discover the electron.
Science Museum London, CC BY-SA

Since normal matter does not contain these particles it may seem that they are an unnecessary complication. However during the first one to ten seconds of the universe following the Big Bang, they had a crucial role to play in establishing the structure of the universe in which we live – known as the Lepton Epoch.

The six quarks are also split into three pairs with whimsical names: “up” with “down”, “charm” with “strange”, and “top” with “bottom” (previously called “truth” and “beauty” though regrettably changed). The up and down quarks stick together to form the protons and neutrons which lie at the heart of every atom. Again only the lightest pair of quarks are found in normal matter, the charm/strange and top/bottom pairs seem to play no role in the universe as it now exists, but, like the heavier leptons, played a role in the early moments of the universe and helped to create one that is amenable to our existence.

Force particles

There are six force particles in the standard model, which create the interactions between matter particles. They are divided into four fundamental forces: gravitational, electromagnetic, strong and weak forces.

A photon is a particle of light and is responsible for electric and magnetic fields, created by the exchange of photons from one charged object to another.

The gluon produces the force responsible for holding quarks together to form protons and neutrons, and for holding those protons and neutrons together to form heavier nuclei.

Three particles named the “W plus”, the “W minus” and the “Z zero” – referred to as intermediate vector bosons – are responsible for the process of radioactive decay and for the processes in the sun which cause it to shine. A sixth force particle, the graviton, is believed to be responsible for gravitation, but has not yet been observed.

Anti-matter: the science fiction reality

We also know of the existence of anti-matter. This is a concept much beloved by science fiction writers, but it really does exist. Anti-matter particles have been frequently observed. For example, the positron (the anti-particle of the electron) is used in medicine to map our internal organs using positron emission tomography (PET). Famously when a particle meets its anti-particle they both annihilate each other and a burst of energy is produced. A PET scanner is used to detect this.

Each of the matter particles above has a partner particle which has the same mass, but opposite electric charge, so we can double the number of matter particles (six quarks and six leptons) to arrive at a final number of 24.

We give matter quarks a number of +1 and anti-matter quarks a value of -1. If we add up the number of matter quarks plus the number of anti-matter quarks then we get the net number of quarks in the universe, this never varies. If we have enough energy we can create any of the matter quarks as long as we create an anti-matter quark at the same time. In the early moments of the universe these particles were being created continuously – now they are only created in the collisions of cosmic rays with the atmosphere of planets and stars.

The famous Higgs boson

There is a final particle which completes the roll call of particles in what is referred as the standard model of particle physics so far described. It is the Higgs, predicted by Peter Higgs 50 years ago, and whose discovery at CERN in 2012 led to a Nobel Prize for Higgs and Francois Englert.

The Higgs boson is an odd particle: it is the second heaviest of the standard model particles and it resists a simple explanation. It is often said to be the origin of mass, which is true, but misleading. It gives mass to the quarks, and quarks make up the protons and neutrons, but only 2% of the mass of protons and neutrons is provided by the quarks, and the rest is from the energy in the gluons.

At this point we have accounted for all the particles required by the standard model: six force particles, 24 matter particles and one Higgs particle – a total of 31 fundamental particles. Despite what we know about them, their properties have not been measured well enough to allow us to say definitively that these particles are all that is needed to build the universe we see around us, and we certainly don’t have all the answers. The next run of the Large Hadron Collider will allow us to refine our measurements of some of these properties – but there is something else.

The great collider.
Image Editor, CC BY

Yet the theory is still wrong

The beautiful theory, the standard model, has been tested and re-tested over two decades and more; and we have not yet made a measurement that is in contradiction with our predictions. But we know that the standard model must be wrong. When we collide two fundamental particles together a number of outcomes are possible. Our theory allows us to calculate the probability that any particular outcome can occur, but at energies beyond which we have so far achieved it predicts that some of these outcomes occur with a probability of greater than 100% – clearly nonsense.

Theoretical physicists have spent much effort in trying to construct a theory which gives sensible answers at all energies, while giving the same answer as the standard model in every circumstance in which the standard model has been tested.

The most common modification implies that there are very heavy undiscovered particles. The fact they are heavy means lots of energy will be needed to produce them. The properties of these extra particles can be chosen to make sure that the resulting theory gives sensible answers at all energies, but they have no effect on the measurements that agree so well with the standard model.

The number of these undiscovered and as-yet-unseen particles depends on which theory you choose to believe. The most popular class of these theories are called supersymmetric theories and they imply that all the particles which we have seen have a much heavier counterpart. However, if they are too heavy, problems will arise at energies we can produce before these particles are found. But the energies that will be reached in the next run of the LHC are high enough that an absence of new particles will be a blow to all supersymmetric theories.

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