World Renowned Cosmologist Offers More Questions Than Answers

Laura Mersini-Houghton addresses big questions at Prior-Jollek Hall (W. Bostwick photo)
Laura Mersini-Houghton addresses big questions at Prior-Jollek Hall (W. Bostwick photo)

The more we know about the universe, the more we understand how much we don’t know and the more intense becomes our desire and need to know.

This is the best summation available to this non-scientist of an hour-and-a-half talk presented Saturday night at Prior-Jollek Hall on the campus of St.Thomas’s Antilles School by famed cosmologist and theoretical physicist Laura Mersini-Houghton.

Thanks to quantum physics, a fundamental theory which describes nature at the smallest scales of energy levels of atoms and subatomic particles, the one thing physicists are confident about, Mersini-Houghton said, is what happened in the first few seconds after the formation of the universe.

But that in itself creates more questions, the most fundamental of them being: what was the energy that generated the Big Bang.

“The chance of our universe starting the way that it did [from this most minuscule of particles] is ridiculously small – nearly zero.” So, she asks, “what energy drove it into an explosion.”

Spoiler alert: no one knows.

Another enigma arising from what scientists do generally agree on relative to those first few seconds relates to what we humans on planet earth think of as “our” universe. Mersini-Houghton is of the multiverse school of thought which proposes that what we consider our universe cannot be the only one – that we are only a microcosm in a host of parallel universes.

Mersini-Houghton suggests when you apply quantum mechanics you don’t find just one universe, but rather a pool of universes all created from this most tiny of particles at the same time in the same way. This line of thinking is supported by expanded views of string theory. What this also implies is “we are not the center of the cosmos,” Mersini-Houghton said.

Her body of work suggests that the shape and behavior of our universe are the result of our interaction with these other universes which all sprang from the Big Bang.

On Saturday night, to illustrate her point, Mersini-Houghton used her arms to show how one electron in New York City and another in London affect each other. One goes one way causing the other to reverse itself an ocean apart from one another.

In a less obvious, but very important action-reaction scenario, Mersini-Houghton spoke of the nuclear-reactor tragedy at Chernobyl Ukraine more than 30 years ago. A day after the explosion at Chernobyl radiation alerts were set off 1,000 miles away at a nuclear plant in Forsmark, Sweden. In fact, Sweden is credited with blowing the whistle on Soviet officialdom that had failed to acknowledge the extent of the worst nuclear reactor accident in the history of the planet.

It may be a stretch for some, to consider the events are related, but Mersini-Houghton pointed out that a phone call made by then-president Ronald Regan about the responsibility of nations of the world to each other was the catalyst for the dismantling of Berlin Wall four years later.

Action – reaction.

In the end we will never know for sure about our sister universes, Mersini-Houghton laments because we do not have the ability to “get to” them. Not yet anyway.

Because of the global interconnection between people and the world of technology in which we live, however, Mersini-Houghton is adamant that we have to continue to observe, research and theorize about the nature of this and other universes.

In the same way that events on our planet can be seen as the cause of other seemingly unrelated events, so too are we acted upon she believes by events much farther afield.

Among the other unresolved questions Mersisi-Houghton highlighted Saturday night were what are black holes and what is dark energy, which she pointed out makes up 70 percent of our universe. No one has come close to figuring out what that energy is.

But they will if our comparatively short history from Aristotle to now is any indication of the possibilities.

These greatest of all minds, including Galeleo and more recently Neils Bohr, have all turned up information that lead to the next and the next and the next breakthroughs. Things change and theories are scrapped as new technology and information is developed. Theoretically, or “cosmologically” to quote Mersini-Houghton, optimistically we have another five or so billion years – around the same time as our sun is expected to die – to work on these great questions.

From left, Carol Folt, Stephen Hawking and Laura Mersini-Houghton. (Photo provided by University of North Carolina)
From left, Carol Folt, Stephen Hawking and Laura Mersini-Houghton. (Photo provided by University of North Carolina)

As an example of how theories even in our own times change, we look to Stephen Hawking. In 2015, at the sold out Hawking Radiation conference attended by scores of the world’s greatest theorists and cosmologists in Stockholm, Sweden, organized by Mersini-Houghton and the chancellor of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Carol L. Folk, Hawking suggested that black holes might be the corridor between universes.

“They are not the eternal presence they were once thought. Things can get through a black hole, both through the outside and possibly through another universe. So,” Hawking quipped, “if you feel you are in a black hole, don’t give up, there is a way out.”

Mersini-Houghton is a Fulbright scholar at the University of Maryland and professor at UNC Chapel Hill. She appeared on St. Thomas as part of the speaker’s series offered by The Forum, a non-profit organization dedicated to offering high-quality programs featuring music, theater, film and speakers on St. Thomas.