Sleepless in the Physics Lab: 7 Cosmic Questions That Induce Insomnia

by Regis Nicoll

A virulent strain of insomnia has hit a special group of folks: physicists. According to an article in NewScientist.com, there are seven conundrums that can keep these crumple-jacketed oracles “tossing and turning in the wee hours.”

The article was reporting on a panel discussion held in October 2009 at the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Canada. Upon being asked, “What keeps you awake at night?” the group of physicists came up with the following list of vexing questions. Disappointingly, their discussion failed to reveal the depth of these mysteries and why they are so discomforting. To better understand the troubled spirits of scientists, I thought it would be helpful to fill in some detail for each of the seven questions.

1. Why this universe?

Among researchers of a particular bent, there is an uneasy recognition that our universe is a very special place—an “against-all-odds” place, really, whose existence depends on a host of delicately balanced parameters. Newton’s gravitational constant, the mass and charge of the electron, and the strengths of the weak and strong nuclear forces are just a few of the factors that, if varied but a smidgeon, would make our cosmic home quite different—perhaps one in which apples fell up, or, more likely, in which there could be no applies at all!

Fidgeting over the apparent “deck-stacking,” scientists have been scratching around for something—anything—that could explain our cosmos as the inevitable product of natural, unintelligent processes. Today, a favorite construct is the “multiverse”: a vast menagerie of universes in which every imaginable (and unimaginable!) combination of parameters is realized somewhere. Despite its growing popularity, the multiverse hypothesis hinges on propositions that far overreach what has been, or even can be, demonstrated.

For example, one “many worlds” scenario advanced in the 1950s postulated that, at the quantum level, every slice of the cosmos splits off in every moment of time to form a parallel universe. This mind-numbing production of worlds, contingent upon a controversial reading of quantum mechanics, has provoked many researchers to look elsewhere for answers to our Goldilocks existence…

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Sleepless in the Physics Lab: 7 Cosmic Questions That Induce Insomnia