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The Universe: Whodunnit?


Cosmology is essentially a whodunnit but, unlike your typical 600-page detective yarn, this story doesn't unfold clue by clue until the denouement in last few pages. The puzzle — basically, "How the hell can we explain our presence here?" — is more cryptic than ever. For all the thousands of brilliant minds working on the problem and despite deep-space observations and investigations into the tiniest atomic particles, we're stuck. Notwithstanding all that science has revealed to us in the last 200-odd years, we're still essentially blind, deaf and a mystery unto ourselves. By rights, we shouldn't be here. Three models of the universe are victims of their own success: • Einstein's 1915 General Theory of Relativity ("mass tells space-time how to curve and space-time tells mass how to move") gives us gravity. It has passed every test (hundreds!) with flying colors. • The Standard Model of particle physics is based on quantum field theory, which took 40 years to assemble starting in the 1960s; it's been tested to better than 10 parts in a billion. Finding the Higgs boson in 2013 only confirmed what we already knew. • The 100-year-old Big Bang scenario — we live in an evolving, expanding universe that began in an incredibly hot and dense state nearly 14 billion years ago — fits all our observations. Three self-consistent models, tested down to the finest details ... except they're mutually inconsistent. Nothing works to bring them into agreement. We need a bigger picture, a "Eureka moment," to get us out of the doldrums in which we've been drifting for the past few decades. At this point, such a moment appears unlikely. To illustrate the extent of our ignorance, take the most obvious example: time. You'll agree, I think, that past and future are different in every way — that is, time has an "arrow." Cosmologists explain this by saying that the past is low entropy, an "unnatural" ordered state (imagine all the air molecules in a room clustered into a small, dense ball); the future is high entropy: disorderly (as with air molecules spread randomly throughout the room). We're now 14 billion years into randomness (fortunately, we live close to a low-entropy star that keeps us organized). Eventually, all the ordered bits of the universe will mush into a high-entropy featureless emptiness. The arrow of time, then, derives from the extremely low entropy state that the universe…

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