SPIDER sense tingles with peek into cosmos

Last week a group of scientists from universities across the world, including UBC, launched a telescope designed to peer back to the beginnings of space and time.

The team transported the Hummer-sized SPIDER to Antarctica, where it was hoisted 36 kilometres above the earths surface by a helium balloon bigger than a soccer stadium. According to an article in Scientific American, the name derives its insect-like appearance when all six of SPIDER’s cameras are extended. (you may object that insects have six legs and arachnids have eight, but we’re talking about experts in astronomy, not entomology.)

A bit of background here – the cosmic microwave background, to be precise. Back in 1964, two engineers at Bell Labs couldn’t identify the source of background noise in their receiving equipment, which was originally built to detect radio waves bounced off satellites. After ruling out any of the possible suspects – including pigeons nesting in the antennae – they determined the buzz was evenly spread across the sky.

Astronomers believe the engineers found the residual radiation from the Big Bang, cooled after 13 billion years to 3 degrees Kelvin above absolute zero. In other words,  the glow from the fires of creation.

The SPIDER’s six cameras are poised to look back to the first half-million years of the universe, the ‘era of light’ when radiation was freed from the hot soup of matter-energy. The researches are looking for polarized light in the cosmic microwave background, a theorized signature of gravitational waves. A positive finding will give greater credence to the theory of cosmic inflation, the linchpin of Big Bang theory. (Cosmic inflation supposedly took the universe from smaller than a grain of sand to a macroscopic scale faster than the speed of light.)

Actually, if we’re to get technical, there wasn’t anything for the inflating cosmos to expand into in the typical sense, because space and time came bundled with the matter-energy from the Big Bang. Wrap your head around that one.

The only thing hotter than the moment of creation are the exchanges online between deists, atheists, and armchair cosmologists on what accounted for the so-called ‘singularity’ that birthed the universe. As author Terrance Mkckenna observed back in the nineties, “What orthodoxy teaches us about time is that the universe sprang from utter nothingness in a single moment… It’s almost as if science said, ‘give me one free miracle, and from there the entire thing will proceed with a seamless, causal explanation.’”

The one free miracle McKenna refers to is the instantaneous appearance of all the mass-energy of the universe (hardware) and the laws (software) to go with it.

No wonder Pope Pius XII welcomed the Big Bang theory in 1951 during an address to the Pontifical Academy of Science.  For the pontiff, the newly minted hypothesis seemed to allow for a narrow but manageable aperture for God’s hand. (The scientific community’s response to this theological endorsement was muted.)

However, “nothing” turns out to be a problematic concept in physics. Every second inside your body and all around you, “virtual particles’’ are popping in and out of existence.  They emerge from the so-called “zero-point field” and disappear back into it in extremely small amounts of time.

These subatomic whill-o-the-whisps have actually been detected in the lab. As long as they dematerialize quickly enough(according to a time-energy variant of the Uncertainty Principle), they don’t violate the conservation of energy or any other physical law.

Similarly, many cosmologists argue a quantum fluctuation in a primeval field scaled up into the ultimate free lunch: the cosmos itself. According to this line of thinking, if you add all the original matter and antimatter together, along with all the mysterious “dark energy” and “dark matter”, the net amount should equal zero.

This sounds like the ultimate accounting trick, sort of like how money is created out of nothing as loans by commercial lenders. Maybe we should call it ‘the Big Bank theory.’

Here’s hoping SPIDER gives us a peek into the vault.

The Vancouver Courier, Jan. 9

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