Book Review of “Before the Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe and What Lies Beyond” by Laura Mercini-Houghton


Over the past century, astrophysicists have accumulated around the notion that our universe originated from a big bang, when our prenatal universe was so small, hot, and compressed that matter and time effectively did not exist. The evidence for this came mostly from computing the many known quantities of universal expansion, chiefly its speed and content, and running the tape upside down to reach the first tiny fraction of a second in the universe.

In his book,Before the Big Bang: What is the Origin of the Universe and Beyond,” Quantum cosmologist Laura Mersini-Houghton focuses on the prequel to this galactic episode, wondering what already happened that put our universe in a state of bursting open. There is no physical evidence of this epoch. , so it’s like investigating a murder before it happens. But it’s still possible to explore this question, at least in the field of theoretical physics.

Theoretical physicists take a different approach to solving problems, which explains the old joke that a physicist is happiest when he identifies new questions rather than new solutions. The new questions – especially those with human equations, theories or theories unanswered – mean that a major discovery is still to be made that, if you’re lucky, will lead to a dramatic reordering of our understanding of our universe and its building blocks.

Lucky for Professor Mersini-Houghton of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, you don’t need expensive equipment to reach theoretical conclusions. You may have a breakthrough while sitting in the coffee shop staring at your notebook, where she believes she had her first glimpse of the origins of the universe. By combining quantum mechanics, which explores how light and matter behave at subatomic levels, with string theory, which holds that energy and matter behave as tiny vibrating strings, he realized that our universe appears to be a “wave function” of a much larger multiverse. And to take it a mind-boggling step further, his theory allows that, as long as there is enough energy to go around, it is possible that new universes can be created as regularly as queen bees to worker bees. takes out.

This is a remarkable discovery when you consider that the universe must have been born from such a minor pre-Bang origin. It is also notable for Mersini-Houghton, who intersects his scientific theories with compelling memories from his constrained childhood. She was born during the Cold War in Albania, a country she describes as poor, insane, and cut off from the rest of the world—the “North Korea of ​​Europe,” she writes. His father, a university professor, sparked his imagination with books and art before being exiled to the countryside. Her fate was no worse than hers; Others in his family were imprisoned or killed.

There are incredible scenes from Mersini-Houghton’s life that showcase her sense of emotional arousal, which certainly helped make her such a tenacious and vivid mind. After another forced absence of his father, he persuaded his wife to claim in court that he abused her, so that she could be divorced and the children to be placed in the family home. Incidentally, the judge hearing the motion was a childhood friend of Mersini-Houghton’s father and immediately noticed the move. Divorce was denied, sealing the way for the family. But then the path changed. Her father was allowed to return home, and the family remained together.

Or when a British economist came to Albania on a development mission in 1992, the chance is likely to strike. He and Mercini (in the days before she hooked up to Houghton) became friends, but it wasn’t until he surprised her at Zurich airport, paged her over a loudspeaker, and informed her that he had sex with her. Bought a seat next to him to sit on. For his new adventure in the United States that his future was decided. An astronomer marrying an economist sounds like the beginning of a joke. But it worked out, and for the early years of their marriage, they lived separate lives on different continents, like distant molecules.

Students of physics and the wider sciences will be deeply fascinated by this exciting tour of the universe by one of the brightest minds in astrophysics. But for anyone who got an A-minus or less in high school physics and is curious to the Cliffs Notes version, here it is: our universe is bigger, much bigger than we can imagine, and Possibly part of a strangely behaving multiverse, and it all started from a point infinitely small that exploded into an indescribably big bang.

Mersini-Houghton has the receipts to prove it, or at least to show how she came to her persuasive conclusion. She seriously admits that her multiple theory is not for everyone. At one point she recalls, when during an argument with another astrophysicist, the two mostly agreed that only half of their colleagues believed in the multiverse, and that some of them had different views on how it was shaped. and how it behaves.

But uncertainty about the expansion of energy is the driving force behind cosmology in general, and is also how Mersini-Houghton considers his path as a scientist. A space of energy exploded, and a young girl from an unexpected place changed our sense of space and time. Sometimes boundaries can produce remarkable things.

Daniel Stone is the former editor of National Geographic and the author of “food explorer“His next book,”Sinkable: The Passion, the Deep Sea, and the Shipwreck of the Titanic”, will be released in August.

What is the origin of the universe and beyond

by Laura Mersini-Houghton

HarperCollins. 240 pp. $27.99.

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