In her book, Before the Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe and What Lies Behind, quantum cosmologist Laura Mercini Hutton focuses on the introduction to this galactic ring, reflecting on what came before that put the universe in a position to strike. Open. There is no physical evidence for this age, so it’s a bit like investigating a murder before it happens. But this quandary can still be explored, at least in the field of theoretical physics.
Theoretical physicists take a different approach to solving problems, which explains the old joke that physicists are happiest when they identify new questions rather than new solutions. New questions—particularly those that cannot be answered with human equations, theories, or principles—point to a larger discovery that still exists, if you’re lucky, that will lead to a dramatic rearrangement of our understanding of our universe and its building blocks.
Fortunately for Mersini-Houghton, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, you don’t need expensive equipment to come to theoretical conclusions. You can make headway while sitting in a café staring at your notebook, which is where she admits she had her first idea of the origins of the universe. By combining quantum mechanics, which explores how light and matter behave at subatomic levels, with string theory, which posits that energy and matter behave as tiny oscillating filaments, I realized that our universe looks like a “wave function” of a much larger multiverse. To take one mind-boggling step forward, her theory allows that as long as there’s enough energy to roam, new universes could be created as routinely as a queen bee popping worker bees.
This is a fascinating discovery when you consider that the universe may have been born from humble pre-bang origins. It’s also great for Mersini Hutton, who mixes her scientific theories with compelling memories from her restrained childhood. She was born during the Cold War in Albania, a country she describes as impoverished, paranoid, and detached from the rest of the world — “Europe’s North Korea,” she wrote. Her father, a university professor, sparked her imagination with books and art before his exile to the countryside. His fate was not bad in comparison. Others in his family were imprisoned or killed.
There are incredible scenes from Mersini Hutton’s life that show her sense of emotional punch, which surely helped her build a lasting and vibrant mind. After her father’s forced absence again, he persuaded his wife to claim in court that he had abused her, so that she could obtain a divorce and keep the children in the family home. By chance, the judge who listened to the suggestion was a childhood friend of Mersini’s father Hutton and immediately discovered the trick. The divorce was refused, which closed the family’s path. But then the path changed again. Her father was allowed to return home, and the family remained together.
Or there is a disagreement with chance when a British economist came to Albania in 1992 on a development mission. He and Mersini (in the days before Houghton’s addition) became friends, but to no surprise at Zurich airport, he called her over megaphone and told her he had bought the seat next to her to accompany her. For her new adventure in the United States that their future has been decided. The marriage of an astrophysicist to an economist seems like the beginning of a joke. But it worked, and in the early years of their marriage, they continued to walk like distant particles, and lived separate lives on separate continents.
Students of physics and the broader sciences will be deeply impressed by this exciting journey into the universe from one of the brightest minds in astrophysics. But for anyone who scored an A or below in high school physics and craved Cliffs Notes, here it is: Our universe is big, much bigger than we can imagine, and perhaps part of a multiverse behaving strangely, and it all started from a tiny point it erupted in An indescribably great explosion.
Mersini-Houghton has the receipts to prove this, or at least to show how she came to her persuasive conclusions. She brazenly admits that her multiverse theory is not for everyone. At some point you remember when, during a discussion with another astrophysicist, the two mostly agreed that only about half of their colleagues believed in the multiverse, and of those, there were a few different ideas about how it was formed and how it behaves.
But uncertainty about how energy expands is the driving force behind cosmology in general, as well as how Mersini Hutton seems to view her path as a scientist. A speck of energy exploded, and a little girl from an unexpected place changed our sense of space and time. Sometimes boundaries can lead to great things.
Daniel Stone is a former National Geographic editor and author of “food explorer. his next book,Sinking: Obsession, the Deep Sea, and the Titanic Shipwreck“in August.
The origin of the universe and beyond
Written by Laura Mercini Houghton
Harper Collins. 240 pages $27.99.