Manual Weird Universe: Exploring the Most Bizarre Ideas in Cosmology

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It is the best method we have to navigate and make sense of this wondrous universe of ours. For centuries, science has helped us chart our relationship to the natural world. And like any good map, it also points the way forward. But although the path to answers is decidedly different, there is a profound parallel in the underlying objects of curiosity. At its heart, my research as a theoretical astrophysicist, mapping dark matter and understanding the formation of black holes, is driven by the same sense of wonder and search for explanation of the universe that the ancients probably felt.

I am still engaged in exploring the meanings of maps and how they anchor us, matters that first intrigued me as a girl in Delhi. My work exploits the bending of light from distant galaxies, gravitational lensing, to map the invisible dark matter that causes these deflections.

Natarajan maps the winding road of the lexicon:. This was the scene of a gruesome incident on June 20, Although scholars such as J. Little have called these numbers into question, the Black Hole of Calcutta remains a powerful, macabre reminder of and sordid metaphor for the utter callousness of the nawab. What is perhaps most surprising is just how well some of these descriptions fit an astrophysical object that had not yet been observed.

In astronomy, a black hole is a physical location of no return. Natarajan traces the route of this astrophysically perfect term from the grim and gritty prisons of Calcutta to the ivory towers of Cambridge, England:. Michell, a polymath born in , studied at Cambridge and later taught Hebrew, Greek, mathematics, and geology there.

Despite his religious commitments and duties, he was very much at the leading edge of science, and his reputation for originality was such that many of the active scientists of the day, the likes of Benjamin Franklin and Henry Cavendish, visited and maintained regular correspondence with him. Natarajan considers the presently indispensable role of black holes in the unfolding cosmic puzzle and puzzlement of our understanding:. Today we know that black holes exist in the centers of most, if not all, galaxies. Our own galaxy, the Milky Way, harbors one such black hole four million times the mass of our sun… Fortunately, our solar system is way too far from the center of the Milky Way for us to feel the presence of or be affected by its central black hole.

Astronomers now believe that black holes, despite their odd behaviors, are an inevitable consequence of the standard physics that describes the evolution of stars. The theory of stellar evolution predicts that stars born fifteen to twenty times more massive than our sun, after exhausting their fuel supply of hydrogen, will end their lives as black holes.

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Black holes may have exotic properties, but they are important constituents of the universe, playing a significant role in the assembly and evolution of galaxies. As Wendy L. Generations of great astronomers have come to grief trying to measure the universe. At issue is a number called the Hubble constant, named after Edwin Hubble, the Mount Wilson astronomer who in discovered that the universe is expanding. As space expands, it carries galaxies away from each other like the raisins in a rising cake. The farther apart two galaxies are, the faster they will fly away from each other.

The Hubble constant simply says by how much. But to calibrate the Hubble constant, astronomers depend on so-called standard candles: objects, such as supernova explosions and certain variable stars, whose distances can be estimated by luminosity or some other feature. This is where the arguing begins. Until a few decades ago, astronomers could not agree on the value of the Hubble constant within a factor of two: either 50 or kilometers per second per megaparsec.

A megaparsec is 3. But in , a team using the Hubble Space Telescope, and led by Dr. Freedman, reported a value of For every megaparsec farther away from us that a galaxy is, it is moving 72 kilometers per second faster.

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More recent efforts by Adam G. Riess, of Johns Hopkins and the Space Telescope Science Institute, and others have obtained similar numbers, and astronomers now say they have narrowed the uncertainty in the Hubble constant to just 2. But new precision has brought new trouble. These results are so good that they now disagree with results from the European Planck spacecraft , which predict a Hubble constant of The discrepancy — 9 percent — sounds fatal but may not be, astronomers contend, because Planck and human astronomers do very different kinds of observations.

Planck is considered the gold standard of cosmology.

It spent four years studying the cosmic bath of microwaves left over from the end of the Big Bang, when the universe was just , years old. But it did not measure the Hubble constant directly. Rather, the Planck group derived the value of the constant, and other cosmic parameters, from a mathematical model largely based on those microwaves.

What if that baby picture left out or obscured some important feature of the universe? One approach, some astrophysicists suggest, is to add more species of lightweight subatomic particles, such as the ghostlike neutrinos , to the early universe. Physicists already recognize three kinds of neutrinos, and argue whether there is evidence for a fourth variety. These would give the universe more room to stash energy, in the same way that more drawers in your dresser allow you to own more pairs of socks.

Thus invigorated, the universe would expand faster, according to the Big Bang math, and hopefully not mess up the microwave baby picture.


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A more drastic approach, from the Johns Hopkins group, invokes fields of exotic anti-gravitational energy. Never miss an eclipse, a meteor shower, a rocket launch or any other astronomical and space event that's out of this world. String theory suggests that space could be laced with exotic energy fields associated with lightweight particles or forces yet undiscovered.

Only five percent of the universe is visible. What is the rest made up of?

Those fields, collectively called quintessence, could act in opposition to gravity, and could change over time — popping up, decaying or altering their effect, switching from repulsive to attractive. The team focused in particular on the effects of fields associated with hypothetical particles called axions.

Had one such field arisen when the universe was about , years old, it could have produced just the right amount of energy to fix the Hubble discrepancy, the team reported in a paper late last year. The jury is still out. Marchenko, ' On cutting the legitimate exchange from machines of great hints ' Dokl.

Top Weirdest cosmology theories | New Scientist

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Top 10: Weirdest cosmology theories

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