Choices in The Quantum Universe
This kind of enthusiasm is rare oftentimes: as the questions get bigger, the answers that a committee can contribute often become more narrow and legalistic. But that kind of binary choice, either between a fun or tedious task, hardly seemed worthy when considering the biggest questions, particularly when the questions concern quantum mechanics.
Drell chaired a group of particle physicists charged with authoring the Quantum Universe report.
Their 58-page analysis focuses on nine fundamental questions in response to a request by two major research funding agencies, the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation. Their conclusion answering such fundamental questions requires new knowledge from particle physics. "Quantum Universe makes it clear: These new discoveries are our problem," Drell said.
What can particle physics do to answer "the truly exciting scientific questions of this century"? In response, the committee singled out nine crucial questions.
It's one thing to write science fiction about antimatter engines to the stars or speculate on worm holes that tunnel vast distances across the galaxy. But to do the hard work of putting down compelling experiments and theories was one charter for the Quantum Universe committee.
Many of the issues -- such as the possible existence of extra dimensions of space -- were "by definition esoteric," as the predicatment was described by Steve Kahn, a Stanford astrophysicist and deputy director of the newly established Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology (KIPAC). "We struggled a lot to explain the idea of symmetry," Drell said. "It is incredibly interesting and yet such an abstract concept. We rewrote that about 20 times."
The Nine Questions
I. Einstein's dream of unified forces
Cosmologists today are trying to answer these age-old questions, according to Science magazine writer, Charles Seife, who also authored the book, Alpha and Omega. Seife told Astrobiology Magazine that "Quantum mechanics and relativity were incredibly important and dramatic changes of the rules that occurred after several centuries of scientific observation and theory."
On an historical timeline, he summarized many of these questions as attempts to understand the role of "depth" in our broad world view. When looking at the night sky, the naive observer sees a flat blanket of blackness marked with twinkling stars. What's behind?
Seife noted that "It doesn't take much imagination to think of the night sky as a sphere enclosing the Earth. It took a lot of work to show that the heavens had depth -- vast depth. Astronomers have to use subtle clues to flesh out that extra dimension: parallax,Cepheid variables, the Tully-Fisher relation, and supernovae are all tools which gave scientists more and more understanding of how deep the universe really is."
"The acoustic waves and big bang were important," summarized Seife, "until the universe was 400,000 years old and set the pattern for the clumping of matter in the cosmos; until then, the important forces were gravity and the radiation pressure of photons bouncing off of matter, set against the backdrop of an expanding universe. And don't forget dark energy in addition to gravity and the initial energy of the big bang as a driver!"