Quarks, dark energy and multiverse might not seem like humorous subjects, but at astrophysicist Michael Turner’s lecture, “Before the Big Bang,” they were just that.
Turner, a theoretical astrophysicist and director of the Kavli Institute at the University of Chicago, gave the lecture at the Rio Theatre on Monday marking the 12th annual Halliday Lecture in astronomy.
Through wit and patient explanation, Turner presented some of the newest and biggest ideas in astrophysics and cosmology, covering more than just the Big Bang.
“[The title] is a little bit of a bait and switch, because we don’t know what happened before the Big Bang,” Turner said. “[But] in the last 20 years in cosmology, our understanding of the universe has really advanced dramatically, and that question, which didn’t used to be a question that we could even think about, is now a question that we can start formulating and trying to answer.”
While scientists might not be sure what came before the Big Bang, they are fairly certain about what came just after. Turner said even before the formation of protons and neutrons, the earliest universe was filled with elementary particles known as quarks.
This universe was essentially a “quark soup,” Turner said. In his lecture, he drove the point home with a slide of a Campbell’s soup can labeled “Quark Soup,” causing the hall to erupt in laughter. But audience member Mary Scheller said such techniques help get across complex information.
“That’s a mnemonic that stands in your mind,” Scheller said. “When I think about what was perhaps the origination of [the universe], it was ‘quark soup,’ and I’ll see that soup can.”
Not everything Turner presented could be explained with a simple mnemonic, like dark energy and dark matter.
Turner said ordinary matter only makes up about 4.5 percent of the universe. Dark matter, a completely different type of matter, makes up about 24 percent. But Turner said the real mystery lies with dark energy. He said dark energy is a force we know scarcely anything about, yet it makes up a majority of the universe — about 71 percent — and has some very strange properties.
“[What] is even more amazing is that it has repulsive gravity,” Turner said. “Its gravity, instead of pulling things toward it, pushes things away. [We] haven’t solved the dark matter puzzle yet, but we feel like we’re pretty close to solving that, we have a working hypothesis. Dark energy, we’re almost clueless about.”
Topics on which cosmologists know little was the prevailing theme of Turner’s lecture. He discussed the strides and discoveries that astrophysics have made in the last century. A lot of these discoveries have led to even more questions.
“We know a lot about the universe, and that wasn’t true 20–30 years ago,” said Turner, “but we understand a lot less.”
The scientific community knows little about the multiverse, or the idea of multiple universes. But it is one of many current hypotheses for what happened before the Big Bang.
In front of a colorful slide of several universes contained in cosmic bubbles, Turner said ours could be one of an infinite number of universes, a “multiverse,” each with its own laws of physics.
“It could be that what we call the ‘big-b’ Big Bang, is really just the ‘little-b’ big bang,” said Turner in the lecture.
Despite the complex topics presented in the lecture, most of the audience was ready and excited for Turner’s presentation.
“It’s a fun way to spend the evening,” said Robert Anderson, a second-year ecology and evolutionary biology major and biochemistry minor.
His friends, Reid Sherman, Miles Grey and William Estell, also UCSC students, agree.
“I expect not to be thoroughly confused,” said Sherman, a fourth-year planetary sciences major.
Turner said that although the ideas he presents are big, they are ones that everyone wants to know about because they bring us closer to our origin.
“We’re asking the most basic questions that we can ask,” Turner said. “Where do we come from?