What’s new in our universe?

This is the answer of Leonard (Lenny) Susskind:

Leonard Susskind (1940- )

Leonard Susskind, the discoverer of string theory, is the Felix Bloch Professor in theoretical physics at Stanford University. His contributions to physics include the discovery of string theory, the string theory of black hole entropy, the principle of “black hole complementarity”, the holographic principle, the matrix description of M-theory, the introduction of holographic entropy bounds in cosmology, the idea of an anthropic string theory “landscape”.


“The beginning of the 21st century is a watershed in modern science, a time that will forever change our understanding of the universe. Something is happening which is far more than the discovery of new facts or new equations. This is one of those rare moments when our entire outlook, our framework for thinking, and the whole epistemology of physics and cosmology are suddenly undergoing real upheaval. The narrow 20th-century view of a unique universe, about ten billion years old and ten billion light years across with a unique set of physical laws, is giving way to something far bigger and pregnant with new possibilities.”

Megaverse or multiverse

“Gradually physicists and cosmologists are coming to see our ten billion light years as an infinitesimal pocket of a stupendous megaverse. At the same time theoretical physicists are proposing theories which demote our ordinary laws of nature to a tiny corner of a gigantic landscape of mathematical possibilities.
“This landscape of possibilities is a mathematical space representing all of the possible environments that theory allows. Each possible environment has its own laws of physics, elementary particles and constants of nature. Some environments are similar to our own corner of the landscape but slightly different. They may have electrons, quarks and all the usual particles, but gravity might be a billion times stronger. Others have gravity like ours but electrons that are heavier than atomic nuclei. Others may resemble our world except for a violent repulsive force (called the cosmological constant) that tears apart atoms, molecules and even galaxies. Not even the dimensionality of space is sacred. Regions of the landscape describe worlds of 5,6…11 dimensions. The old 20th century question, ‘What can you find in the universe?’ is giving way to ‘What can you not find?’

Artist impression of the Megaverse

Arguments against multiverse theories

In his 2003 New York Times opinion piece, “A Brief History of the Multiverse”, author and cosmologist Paul Davies offered a variety of arguments that multiverse theories are non-scientific:

For a start, how is the existence of the other universes to be tested? To be sure, all cosmologists accept that there are some regions of the universe that lie beyond the reach of our telescopes, but somewhere on the slippery slope between that and the idea that there is an infinite number of universes, credibility reaches a limit. As one slips down that slope, more and more must be accepted on faith, and less and less is open to scientific verification. Extreme multiverse explanations are therefore reminiscent of theological discussions. Indeed, invoking an infinity of unseen universes to explain the unusual features of the one we do see is just as ad hoc as invoking an unseen Creator. The multiverse theory may be dressed up in scientific language, but in essence, it requires the same leap of faith.

George Ellis, writing in August 2011, provided a criticism of the multiverse, and pointed out that it is not a traditional scientific theory. He accepts that the multiverse is thought to exist far beyond the cosmological horizon. He emphasized that it is theorized to be so far away that it is unlikely any evidence will ever be found. Ellis also explained that some theorists do not believe the lack of empirical testability and falsifiability is a major concern, but he is opposed to that line of thinking:

Many physicists who talk about the multiverse, especially advocates of the string landscape, do not care much about parallel universes per se. For them, objections to the multiverse as a concept are unimportant. Their theories live or die based on internal consistency and, one hopes, eventual laboratory testing.

Ellis says that scientists have proposed the idea of the multiverse as a way of explaining the nature of existence. He points out that it ultimately leaves those questions unresolved because it is a metaphysical issue that cannot be resolved by empirical science. He argues that observational testing is at the core of science and should not be abandoned:

As skeptical as I am, I think the contemplation of the multiverse is an excellent opportunity to reflect on the nature of science and on the ultimate nature of existence: why we are here…. In looking at this concept, we need an open mind, though not too open. It is a delicate path to tread. Parallel universes may or may not exist; the case is unproved. We are going to have to live with that uncertainty. Nothing is wrong with scientifically based philosophical speculation, which is what multiverse proposals are. But we should name it for what it is.— George Ellis, “Does the Multiverse Really Exist?, Scientific American

Pocket universes

“The diversity of the landscape is paralleled by a corresponding diversity in ordinary space. Our best theory of cosmology called inflationary cosmology is leading us, sometimes unwillingly, to a concept of a megaverse, filled with what Alan Guth, the father of inflation, calls ‘pocket universes.’ Some pockets are small and never get big. Others are big like ours but totally empty. And each lies in its own little valley of the landscape.

Man’s place

“Man’s place in the universe is also being reexamined and challenged. A megaverse that diverse is unlikely to be able to support intelligent life in any but a tiny fraction of its expanse. Many of the questions that we are used to asking such as ‘Why is a certain constant of nature one number instead of another?’ will have very different answers than what physicists had hoped for. No unique value will be picked out by mathematical consistency, because the landscape permits an enormous variety of possible values. Instead the answer will be ‘Somewhere in the megaverse the constant is this number, and somewhere else it is that. And we live in one tiny pocket where the value of the constant is consistent with our kind of life. That’s it! There is no other answer to that question.’

Anthropic principle

“The kind of answer that this or that is true because if it were not true there would be nobody to ask the question is called the anthropic principle. Most physicists hate the anthropic principle. It is said to represent surrender, a giving up of the noble quest for answers. But because of unprecedented new developments in physics, astronomy and cosmology these same physicists are being forced to reevaluate their prejudices about anthropic reasoning. There are four principal developments driving this sea change. Two come from theoretical physics, and two are experimental or observational.

10500 universes

“On the theoretical side, an outgrowth of inflationary theory called eternal inflation is demanding that the world be a megaverse full of pocket universes that have bubbled up out of inflating space like bubbles in an uncorked bottle of Champagne. At the same time string theory, our best hope for a unified theory, is producing a landscape of enormous proportions. The best estimates of theorists are that 10500 distinct kinds of environments are possible.

“Very recent astronomical discoveries exactly parallel the theoretical advances. The newest astronomical data about the size and shape of the universe convincingly confirm that inflation is the right theory of the early universe. There is very little doubt that our universe is embedded in a vastly bigger megaverse.

Cosmological constant

“But the biggest news is that in our pocket the notorious cosmological constant is not quite zero, as it was thought to be. This is a cataclysm and the only way that we know how to make any sense of it is through the reviled and despised anthropic principle.

“I don’t know what strange and unimaginable twists our view of the universe will undergo while exploring the vastness of the landscape. But I would bet that at the turn of the 22nd century, philosophers and physicists will look back nostalgically at the present and recall a golden age in which the narrow provincial 20th century concept of the universe gave way to a bigger better megaverse, populating a landscape of mind-boggling proportions.”

In cosmology, the cosmological constant (usually denoted by the Greek capital letter lambda: Λ), alternatively called Einstein’s cosmological constant, is the constant coefficient of a term Albert Einstein temporarily added to his field equations of general relativity. He later removed it. Much later it was revived and reinterpreted as the energy density of space, or vacuum energy, that arises in quantum mechanics. It is closely associated with the concept of dark energy.

Einstein originally introduced the constant in 1917 to counterbalance the effect of gravity and achieve a static universe, a notion which was the accepted view at the time. Einstein abandoned the constant in 1931 after Hubble’s confirmation of the expanding universe. From the 1930s until the late 1990s, most physicists agreed with Einstein’s retraction, assuming the cosmological constant to be equal to zero. That changed with the surprising discovery in 1998 that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, implying the possibility of a positive value for the cosmological constant.

Since the 1990s, studies have shown that around 68% of the mass–energy density of the universe can be attributed to so-called dark energy. The cosmological constant Λ is the simplest possible explanation for dark energy, and is used in the current standard model of cosmology known as the ΛCDM model.

According to quantum field theory (QFT) which underlies modern particle physics, empty space is defined by the vacuum state which is a collection of quantum fields. All these quantum fields exhibit fluctuations in their ground state (lowest energy density) arising from the zero-point energy present everywhere in space. These zero-point fluctuations should act as a contribution to the cosmological constant Λ, but when calculations are performed these fluctuations give rise to an enormous vacuum energy. The discrepancy between theorized vacuum energy from quantum field theory and observed vacuum energy from cosmology is a source of major contention, with the values predicted exceeding observation by some 120 orders of magnitude, a discrepancy that has been called “the worst theoretical prediction in the history of physics“. This issue is called the cosmological constant problem and it is one of the greatest mysteries in science with many physicists believing that “the vacuum holds the key to a full understanding of nature“.

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