Einstein, Quarks, and String Theory — Space Facts That Will Impress the Pants off Your Friends

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Remember the nerds in your class that were into space and astronomy in high school? While most of us were trying to scrape by without having an embarrassing moment in front of our crush, these kids were nerding their hearts out. But I promise you, space is cool– and we need to take the time to learn about it. And, if you’re going to ask, watching 2001: A Space Odyssey doesn’t count.

Prominent figures like Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan, and Neil deGrasse Tyson sure are smart, but who’s to say that the concepts they promote can’t be understood by anyone who dares to take the plunge. It’s a fascinating, endless universe out there, so let’s explore why. Though be warned– your brain might implode from the gravity of the information– or worse, be sucked into the singularity of the black hole.

Let’s start with how it all began – or how the theory of how it all began, the Big Bang.

Ironically, the first person to formulate the theory was a Catholic priest, Georges Lemaître. Prior to being ordained, he was an engineer and even while in seminary he studied at the Cambridge solar physics laboratory.

In 1927 he presented his idea, which was based on the concept of redshifts.

Redshifts are the observation that the farther away two objects are from one another, the longer their light wavelengths are. The length of these wavelengths are directly proportional to their velocity, supporting the notion that the universe is expanding. The Big Bang theory estimates that the universe is nearly 14 billion years old!

One of the most solid forms of evidence we have that the Big Bang did occur is referred to as the cosmic microwave background or CMB.

 Scientists in the 1940s reasoned that if the big bang occurred, the radiation created from the event would have cooled as the universe continually expanded, eventually reaching the microwave portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. Years later, this reasoning was confirmed when scientists observed the CMB radiation in deep space (and thus deep time).

Any discussion on space would be lacking without an homage to Edwin Hubble.

Hubble’s Law is based on two premises: objects in deep space have a redshift, and that the Doppler shift (the change in light wavelength or frequency from an observer to the source of the wave) of different galaxies are traveling at a velocity proportional to their distance from Earth.

To this end the core accretion model holds the most weight, no pun intended.

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 Scientists estimate that approximately 4.6 billion years ago, the sun was formed from a cloud of dust and gas known as a solar nebula. As these materials swirled in space, gravity caused them to collapse. Once the sun was created, the remaining atmosphere began to glom together as the solar winds propelled the lighter elements away. Thus, our planet’s rocky core was formed, with increasingly lighter material composing the successive layers of our planet.

Einstein’s theory on General Relativity rocked the paradigm, managing to merge both space and time.

Put simply, the effect acceleration has on an object are synonymous with the effect that gravity has on an object– a large object attracts objects because it warps a single fabric, the fabric of spacetime.

String Theory, which is often referred to as the “theory of everything,” is the best working hypothesis that scientists have to explain the four fundamental forces of the universe.

Gravity (the theory of relativity), weak force, strong force, and electromagnetism (quantum mechanics) make up the String Theory. The basic key feature of string theory is that vibrating filaments (strings) and membranes (branes) constitute everything in our universe. Different particles, such as neutrinos, electrons, and quarks, are characterized by the distinct energy vibrations of those strings and branes.

If string theory proves true, it will result in several exciting implications.

One of which is the likelihood of a multiverse, or parallel universes. How is this possible? Scientists think that each string vibrates on a series of 10 or 11 dimensions and because we live in a 3-dimensional world, we cannot see these remaining dimensions. Further, there are only so ways that matter can be arranged, meaning that patterns of matter will be repeated. Since the universe is constantly expanding, it’s also possible that there are infinite parallel universes.

What about wormholes?

We often hear the term “wormholes” thrown around in the media and in conversation, but considering its commonplace in the vernacular, science doesn’t have a clear understanding of them. A wormhole is a tunnel that connects two points in spacetime, an event that’s possible via Einstein’s theory of relativity. However, the walls of this tunnel are attracted to each other so to prevent them from collapsing, negative energy must be present. Although this is an unlikely scenario, science has not been able to definitely reject the possibility.

The Holographic Principle

This intriguing theory was first presented by Gerard ‘t Hooft but fleshed out and promoted by Leonard Susskind in the 1990s. In sum, it proposes that our 3-dimensional universe is actually a projection of a 2-dimensional hologram. This is demonstrated by diving into a black hole. The event horizon, or rim of a black hole, radiates intense heat and objects that reach the event horizon may be imprinted on its surface. Therefore, what we may be seeing in our world could be a reflection of an imprinted surface from a lower dimension.

Is it really possible to time travel? – In essence, yes!

Einstein’s theory of special relativity asserts time varies based on how fast an object is moving in relation to another. We have shown that the effects of gravity, combined with the speed that satellites travel cause clocks on Earth to gain 38 microseconds per day. Thus, astronauts who return to Earth are ever so slightly younger than their identical twin counterparts.

Science estimates that 80 percent of the universe is made of dark matter, a substance that does not emit light or energy.

Confused? Well, the stars give us a clue. Scientists observed that stars at the edge of a galaxy actually rotate faster than predicted, following different physics than something like a spinning ball. The only explanation is that the universe contains matter that we can’t see.

Matter and Antimatter:

Before we dig into antimatter, let’s define matter. Matter, is composed of atoms, which can be further broken down into electrons, protons, and neutrons. Electrons hold a negative charge, protons, a positive charge, and neutrons have a neutral charge. The nucleus of an atom holds protons and neutrons, while electrons orbit around the nucleus. Antimatter holds all these same principles, but it turns them inside out. So, protons now hold a negative charge and are termed as antiprotons, while electrons hold a positive charge and are referred to as positrons. When antimatter and matter collide, they eliminate one another and their mass is converted into pure energy.

Remember when you were a kid and your teacher taught you the mnemonic device, My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas?

Besides the fact that it’s now outdated (since Pluto is no longer considered a planet), it’s also doesn’t share the entire story. Exoplanets don’t belong to our solar system and are divided into various categories, including terrestrial planets, gas giants, and super-Earths. The first exoplanet was detected in 1988 and confirmed in 2012, and since then nearly 4,000 have been discovered.

Galactic cannibalism describes the process that spiral galaxies use to grow bigger, they consume other galaxies!

This is observed when two galaxies collide and their respective gravitational forces duke it out to conclude which one will be subsumed. Hint – it’s almost always the smaller one.

The electromagnetic spectrum isn’t the only way waves emitted, gravity waves also exist!

They are considered distortions in the fabric of spacetime and can travel at the speed of light. That said, they are very weak and scientists generally believe it would take a cataclysmic event to detect them.

How about Neutrinos?

These particles are little. In fact, their mass is virtually zero and they can pass through materials unperturbed. Neutrinos are produced inside the burning core of stars and are created in supernova explosions. Though, don’t dismiss them as useless! Scientists believe that they helped tip the matter-antimatter scale towards matter, explaining why we’re made of the former, not the latter.

I recall using the bathroom in my friend’s home, only to notice that his toilet was by a brand named, “Quasar…”

It’s an oddly fitting name, considering quasars relate to black holes. A quasar is a type of active galactic nucleus (AGN), meaning that they are extremely bright. They exist as a result of an accretion disk, or a ring of gas and stars that circle a black hole. On average, they are hundreds or thousands of times more luminous than their host galaxy!

What’s inside a vacuum?

Trick question! Quantum physics asserts that vacuums are actually packed with subatomic particles. They’re very unstable, constantly being manufactured and destroyed and are endowed with an anti-gravitational force that forces space apart.

How Was the Sun Made?

We spoke about how the Big Bang created the universe, but how about the star that’s responsible for making our own habitable? Space contains a lot of floating particles. This includes routine elements like hydrogen, helium, and oxygen, but also vestiges from dead stars. Nearly 4.5 billion years ago, energy waves altered these particles, compressing them so tightly that they collapsed under the weight of gravity and begun to rotate. This eventually transformed into a protostar or baby star.

And what about the moon?

Our moon has a very different creation story– one that’s perhaps less dramatic. Scientists suggest that a body as large as Mars crashed into Earth, breaking off a segment of it and thrusting it into space. Because the earth has a larger mass, the moon was drawn into its orbit.

The Superposition Principle:

In quantum mechanics, all matter is reduced down to two entities: particles and waves. The superposition principle states that particles can be in two places at once. The best way to explain how this happens is through a hallmark experiment; the double-slit experiment. In this paradigm, a beam of light is directed towards a partition with two slits with the expectation that the photons will scatter in two columns on the other side. Instead what forms are multiple columns of light on the other side, validating that each photon simultaneously crosses every possible course, en route. This principle bears out with other elementary particles as well.

One reason why it may be difficult to connect with how cool space can be is that it’s extremely difficult to feel excitement over something you don’t have an inherent sense for.

The video above helps! The narrator breaks down the size of various celestial bodies, using a tennis ball as the comparative size of the earth.

Proxima Centauri b is the closest exoplanet we have found, orbiting a small red dwarf star only 4.2 light years away.

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Proxima Centauri b orbits its star at a distance that may be hospitable for life, but there’s one caveat: it’s likely that the planet is tidally locked to its star, meaning that only a portion of its surface faces the star. This would create a polarized environment, with the half facing the star drenched in light and the other half frozen in the dark.

The Real Death Star

Apart from the Death Star in the fictions series Star Wars, there are true death stars floating in the galaxies. A star that is about 1.3 to 2 times the mass of the sun will transform into a neutron star after its death. It exits in a supernova explosion, the grand finale of star deaths. The neutron star is made purely from neutrons because the gravity of the explosion actually merges protons and electrons.

The Light Paradox

The electromagnetic spectrum is the range of wavelengths and photon energies of electromagnetic radiation. Thus, it covers all visible and non-visible light. The higher the frequency of a wavelength of light, the more energy it has and the more damaging it is to the human body. Although we typically associate “red” with “hot,” the higher frequency waves appear blue to our eyes. This is why infrared saunas are considered healthy for us, while the blue light from our phones is harmful.

Piggy-backing off of our statement on the electromagnetic spectrum, gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) are understood as the brightest in the universe.

GRBs are released when a supernova or superluminous supernova occurs and can last from ten milliseconds to several hours.

In 2017, the first neutron star collision was witnessed.

As these two neutrons stars orbited one another, they eventually merged, creating ripples in spacetime with gravitational waves. Another possible outcome of a neutron star collision? A black hole.

Cosmic Dust:

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Cosmic dust can be a nuisance to astronomers, potentially blocking the object they’re observing. Despite this, scientists believe that it is instrumental in creating the universe. When stars collapse, they release elements like carbon, silicon, and iron. These heavier elements combine with oxygen and form minerals and poof– cosmic dust is born! This dust circulates throughout space and is thought to be instrumental in creating rocky planets, like Earth and Mars.

Qapla’

Qapla’ is Klingon, meaning “success!” A little grounding in our universe provides a whole lot of inspiration, doesn’t it? Now, make like a Quasar and use your knowledge to illuminate your world.