Review of “Before the Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe and What Lies Beyond” by Laura Mersini-Houghton

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Over the past century, astrophysicists have coalesced around the idea that our universe resulted from a big bang, when our prenatal universe was so small, hot, and compressed that matter and time effectively didn’t exist. Proof of this mainly came from calculating several known quantities of universal expansion, mainly its speed and content, and running the tape in reverse to arrive at the universe’s first tiny fraction of a second.

In her book, “Before the Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe and What Lies Beyond,” quantum cosmologist Laura Mersini-Houghton focuses on the prequel to this galactic episode, pondering what happened before that put our universe in a position to be knocked open. There’s no physical evidence for that time, so it’s kind of like investigating a murder before it happened. But this dilemma is still possible to explore, at least in the field of theoretical physics.

Theoretical physicists take a different approach to solving problems, which explains the old joke that a physicist is happier when they identify new questions instead of new solutions. New questions — especially those unanswered with human equations, theories, or principles — imply that greater discovery is yet out there that, if you’re lucky, will lead to a dramatic reorganization of our understanding of our universe. and its constituent parts.

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 get a breakthrough sitting in a cafe looking at your notebook, where she admits she got her first idea of ​​the origins of the universe. By combining quantum mechanics, which explores the behavior of light and matter at subatomic levels, with string theory, which posits that energy and matter behave like tiny vibrating strings, she realized that our universe seemed like a “wave function” of a much larger multiverse. . And taking it even further, his theory allows that, as long as there is enough energy for everyone, it is possible that new universes could be created as regularly as a queen bee brings out worker bees. .

It’s a remarkable discovery considering that the universe may have originated from such humble pre-bang origins. It’s also notable for Mersini-Houghton, who interweaves her scientific theories with fascinating memories of her constrained childhood. She was born during the Cold War in Albania, a country she describes as poor, paranoid and cut off from the rest of the world – “Europe’s North Korea”, she writes. His father, a university professor, stimulated his imagination with books and art before going into exile in the countryside. His fate was not bad in comparison; other members of his family were imprisoned or killed.

There are incredible scenes from Mersini-Houghton’s life that demonstrate her sense of emotional boost, which almost certainly helped her build such an enduring and lively spirit. After another of his father’s enforced absences, he persuaded his wife to claim in court that he abused her, so she could get a divorce and keep the children in the family home. Luckily, the motion judge was a childhood friend of Mersini-Houghton’s father and immediately spotted the ruse. The divorce was denied, sealing the family’s path. But then the path changed again. Her father was allowed to return home and the family remained together.

Or it was by chance when a British economist came to Albania in 1992 on a development mission. He and Mersini (in the days before the Houghton’s addition) became friends, but it wasn’t until he surprised her at Zurich airport, called her on the loudspeaker and told her informed that he had purchased the seat next to her to accompany her. to his new adventure in the United States that their future was settled. An astrophysicist marrying an economist sounds like the start of a joke. But it worked, and for the first few years of their marriage, they carried on as distant molecules, living separate lives on separate continents.

Students of physics and science at large will be deeply fascinated by this fascinating tour of the cosmos by one of the most brilliant minds in astrophysics. But for anyone who got an A-minus or less in physics in high school and yearns for the Cliffs Notes version, here it is: Our universe is vast, much larger than we can imagine, and perhaps makes part of a weirdly behaving multiverse, and it all started from an infinitesimally small dot that erupted in an indescribably big bang.

Mersini-Houghton has the recipes to prove it, or at least to show how she arrived at her convincing conclusions. She soberly admits that her multiverse theory isn’t for everyone. At one point, she recalls that in a debate with another astrophysicist, the two men agreed that only about half of their colleagues believe in the multiverse, and of those there are a handful of ideas. different in shape and behavior.

But the uncertainty about how energy expands is the propelling force of cosmology in general, and it’s also how Mersini-Houghton seems to envision his path as a scientist. An energy point exploded and a young girl from an unlikely place changed our sense of space and time. Sometimes boundaries can lead to remarkable things.

Daniel Stone is a former National Geographic editor and the author of “The food explorer.” His next book,Submersible: Obsession, the depths of the sea and the sinking of the Titanicwill be published in August.

The origin of the universe and what lies beyond

By Laura Mersini-Houghton

Harper Collins. 240 pages. $27.99.

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