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Mind blown moments: The Singularity

I’ve recently picked up “The End of Everything”, by theoretical cosmologist Katie Mack (@AstroKatie). I’m not done yet, but have already encountered a number of “mind blown” moments (MBM) in the book*.

Today’s MBM relates to “the singularity.” Not the technological singularity when artificial intelligence becomes so good that it either enslaves us all or we merge with it as one common giant brain, but the “big bang” singularity. It's that latter singularity, which describes a time when our universe was compressed into an infinitely dense state. Shortly after the moment of singularity came the big bang and for the last 13.8 billion or so years, things have been getting farther and farther apart, yet closer and closer in time to my lunch tomorrow.

End of everything in shelf 12

The big bang wasn’t really a bang, nor was it an explosion in the conventional sense. The universe - whatever the fabric of it is - was infinitely compressed at the time of the singularity. Then, it started expanding and is still expanding today. The stuff inside the universe (you, me, my lunch, the sun, planets, stars and such) is not what is expanding as described by the big bang theory. The fabric of the universe itself is expanding. Our friend gravity keeps us and other things that are close together on an astrophysical scale from expanding while the universe we are in expands.

You can demonstrate this to your 4th grade students by taking an empty balloon and sticking a bunch of gold stars all over it. Blow up the balloon. The gold stars don’t get bigger. Imagine that the gold stars represent real stars and galaxies and the paper backing of the gold stars is the gravity holding those stars and galaxies together. The stars don't expand when the balloon does, because gravity (the paper backing) holds them to their original size, but they all get farther apart.

You might also notice that no matter where you look on the balloon, everything is equally getting farther apart as the balloon expands. In this visual metaphor, the balloon represents the fabric of the universe and the gold stars represent all of the matter in the universe. As you blow up the balloon, stars don't expand, but get farther apart from each other.

This singularity is often described as an infinitely small and infinitely dense point. Certainly, it could have been a point, but what I learned today is that it wasn’t necessarily a small point. It could just as likely have been an infinitely large feature as an infinitely small one. The important factor is “infinitely dense.” Regardless of if it were large or small, what we can observe is essentially the same - as long as it started with the same infinite density regardless of size. [Quick question: What is more fun to try to wrap your head around, infinitely dense and infinitely small. or infinitely dense and infinitely large?]

We can see pretty much back to a horizon of the infinitely dense state*, but not further. If the singularity were infinitely small, that horizon would be the end of everything**. If the singularity were infinitely big, that horizon would just be the time and visibility horizon with infinitely more stuff beyond it - somewhat the “edge of everything.” That is my mind blown moment.

Duane Benson
You get extra points for every item you identify in my bookshelf

* If you would like to learn more on the subject of this blog post, please do check out “The End of Everything” by Katie Mack.

** Not necessarily the same titular end of everything described in the book. Or maybe it is. I haven’t finished reading it as of this writing. I might have finished it by now. I hope I have. It's a really good book.

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