Crystal clear. The ripples seen in the sky by TRICEP echo from a universe that existed before our own.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/CXC/SAO

Crystal clear. The ripples seen in the sky by TRICEP echo from a universe that existed before our own.

Scientists Find Imprint of Universe That Existed Before the Big Bang

Staff Writer

Rich oversees Science's international coverage.

This story ran on 1 April 2014 and is an April Fools' joke. Enjoy!

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Cosmologists sifting data from a landmark gravitational wave study have reconstructed a snapshot of our universe in the moments preceding the big bang. The controversial view has posed a fresh enigma—and ignited a firestorm of controversy.

“It’s not every day that you wake up and find out what happened before the big bang,” says John Blutarsky, a cosmologist at Jersey University in Hoboken. Yet some physicists are skeptical. "It's one thing to talk about concrete concepts, such as dimensions too small to be detected and atomic-scale black holes," says Barbara Jansen, a string theorist at Idaho State University in Pocatello. "But to speculate about a time before time? Get real."

The latest findings build on a study of the big bang’s afterglow, the cosmic microwave background. Last month, cosmologists working with the Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization, or BICEP, telescope announced that they had spotted traces of gravitational waves rippling through the infant universe in the first sliver of a second after the big bang. The faint pinwheel-like swirls, called B modes, indicated that particles called inflatons propelled a rapid inflation of the early universe.

The new work comes from the Tachyonic Retrospective Inferences of Cosmologically Extrapolated Preconditions, or TRICEP, imager. The team managed to discern even fainter swirls, called AF modes: traces of deflatons (pronounced DEF-luh-tons) that brought the previous incarnation of our universe crashing down. “Just imagine a helium balloon shrinking over time as the gas escapes,” says TRICEP spokesman Doug Neidermeyer, a cosmologist at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York. “Now imagine a universe-sized helium balloon deflating in a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a quadrillionth of a second. Not so easy to imagine, is it?”

By all accounts, the TRICEP team scored a technological coup. The AF modes are 1/200 as strong as the B modes BICEP spotted. To detect them, the 127-member TRICEP team used a telescope outfitted with a revolutionary $11 million detector knitted out of individual superconducting carbon nanotubes, paid for in part by Google and the Roman Catholic Church. As hard as it was building the telescope, hauling it to its perch on Cerro Lolita in Chile was harder, researchers say. "Word got round to the llama owners we hired that the detector involved nanotechnology and they refused to touch it," says Eric “Otter” Stratton, a graduate student at Western South Dakota State University in East Borealis. In the end, he and a dozen other students pulled the 1.2-tonne device up the 2112-meter peak on a sledge. It was worth it, Stratton says: “My Ph.D. adviser promised to shave a year off my dissertation.”

Scientists are sparring over the findings. "This signal is nothing but a simple manifestation of my model of fractal, self-similar spacetime," claims Vernon Wormer, a cosmologist vaguely associated with the University of Connecticut, Storrs. However, Mandy Pepperidge, a physicist at University College London who is not part of the TRICEP collaboration, says that the evidence for AF modes is indisputable. "Look,” she says, “you believed me about that God particle thing, right?"

One obvious implication of the new work is that deflatons are antiparticles of inflatons. “The logical assumption,” Neidermeyer says, “is that the universe that existed before ours was exactly the same as ours. Except that it was made of antimatter.” However, he goes a step further than many of his colleagues, arguing that the previous universe was filled with antimatter-based doppelgängers of every living being of our present universe. “If you are a nice person,” Neidermeyer explains, “it would mean your doppelgänger was quite nasty, or even wicked. And vice versa. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that if you are short, then your doppelgänger was tall. Or that Einstein’s doppelgänger was the anti-village idiot. It’s a spiritual thing.” That conclusion is inescapable, he says, given the constraints of the standard model of particle physics.

Theologians have already begun adapting the new view of the pre-universe to biblical scholarship. “Precreation is totally compatible with creationism,” says Kent Dorfman, a self-professed intelligent designer in private practice in Halifax, Canada. “What this means for procreation is less clear.”

In a curious twist, TRICEP’s finding was anticipated decades ago. “Everything they’ve reported and concluded is consistent with the contents of a dream that Albert Einstein had in the early morning hours of 1 April, 1938, in which he envisioned the demise of our universe as expressed in Dedekind-infinite sets,” says Blutarsky, a member of the BICEP team who minored in science history as an undergraduate at Faber College.

However, the BICEP and TRICEP teams are sparring over the quantum implications of inflaton-deflaton duality. Neidermeyer’s team has discovered that inflatons, now hurtling into the void at the boundary of our present universe, “eventually run out of gas and change flavor to deflatons.” Precision measurements of AF waves suggest that once 36.34% of inflatons have converted to deflatons, the remaining inflatons will change flavor and the universe will implode in the next big bang. “Spooky action at one helluva distance,” Neidermeyer says. His team has estimated, based on the measurable slowing of the expansion of our universe, that 36.32% of inflatons have already changed flavor. That doesn’t mean the world is ending tomorrow, he says. There are so many extant inflatons that it will take years to reach the 36.34% tipping point. “The next big bang will occur at 7:06 UTC on Thursday, 1 April, 2038,” he says. “Don’t worry though. It will happen so fast, we won’t feel a thing.”

“That’s such bullshit,” Blutarsky says. As elegant as it would have been for the next big bang to occur exactly 100 years after Einstein’s dream, he says, the BICEP team has come to a radically different conclusion. “We found that that the inflaton-deflaton phase change occurs at 36.36%,” he says. In their scenario, the universe will end at 13:06 UTC on Friday, 13 May, 2039. “A less satisfying result,” Blutarsky says. “April Fool’s Day is always preferable to Friday the 13th. But that’s science.”

Later this year, the teams will join forces and deploy a balloon-borne telescope, called the QUAntitatively Deeper Research Into Compressed Exouniversal Phases, or QUADRICEP, experiment, to try to settle the question. Hot on their heels is a rival team in Beijing, which raised $2.3 billion earlier today for a space mission that they say could scoop QUADRICEP: Beyond Everything Now Considered about How Physical Reality Exists in the preSent and paSt (BENCH PRESS). Mobilization of the People’s Liberation Army, says a BENCH PRESS representative, will enable the team to launch their experiment next week, if not earlier.

Posted in Physics, Space