COSMOLOGISTS CLASH OVER THE BEGINNING OF THE UNIVERSE

WIRED | 6/16/2019 | Natalie Wolchover
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In 1981, many of the world’s leading cosmologists gathered at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, a vestige of the coupled lineages of science and theology located in an elegant villa in the gardens of the Vatican. Stephen Hawking chose the august setting to present what he would later regard as his most important idea: a proposal about how the universe could have arisen from nothing.

Original story reprinted with permission from Quanta Magazine, an editorially independent publication of the Simons Foundation whose mission is to enhance public understanding of science by covering research develop­ments and trends in mathe­matics and the physical and life sciences.

Hawking - Talk - Origin - Stories - Rejoinder

Before Hawking’s talk, all cosmological origin stories, scientific or theological, had invited the rejoinder, “What happened before that?” The Big Bang theory, for instance—pioneered 50 years before Hawking’s lecture by the Belgian physicist and Catholic priest Georges Lemaître, who later served as president of the Vatican’s academy of sciences—rewinds the expansion of the universe back to a hot, dense bundle of energy. But where did the initial energy come from?

The Big Bang theory had other problems. Physicists understood that an expanding bundle of energy would grow into a crumpled mess rather than the huge, smooth cosmos that modern astronomers observe. In 1980, the year before Hawking’s talk, the cosmologist Alan Guth realized that the Big Bang’s problems could be fixed with an add-on: an initial, exponential growth spurt known as cosmic inflation, which would have rendered the universe huge, smooth, and flat before gravity had a chance to wreck it. Inflation quickly became the leading theory of our cosmic origins. Yet the issue of initial conditions remained: What was the source of the minuscule patch that allegedly ballooned into our cosmos, and of the potential energy that inflated it?

Brilliance - Way

Hawking, in his brilliance, saw a way to end the...
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