From Vanderbilt University: “Filling the early universe with knots can explain why the world is three-dimensional”

Vanderbilt U Bloc

Vanderbilt University

Oct. 13, 2017
David Salisbury

1
(Keith Wood / Vanderbilt)

The next time you come across a knotted jumble of rope or wire or yarn, ponder this: The natural tendency for things to tangle may help explain the three-dimensional nature of the universe and how it formed.

An international team of physicists has developed an out-of-the-box theory that shortly after it popped into existence 13.8 billion years ago the universe was filled with knots formed from flexible strands of energy called flux tubes that link elementary particles together. The idea provides a neat explanation for why we inhabit a three-dimensional world and is described in a paper titled Knotty inflation and the dimensionality of space time accepted for publication in the European Physical Journal C and available on the arXiv preprint server.

“Although the question of why our universe has exactly three (large) spatial dimensions is one of the most profound puzzles in cosmology … it is actually only occasionally addressed in the [scientific] literature,” the article begins.

For a new solution to this puzzle, the five co-authors – physics professors Arjun Berera at the University of Edinburgh, Roman Buniy at Chapman University, Heinrich Päs (author of The Perfect Wave: With Neutrinos at the Boundary of Space and Time) at the University of Dortmund, João Rosa at the University of Aveiro and Thomas Kephart at Vanderbilt University – took a common element from the standard model of particle physics and mixed it with a little basic knot theory to produce a novel scenario that not only can explain the predominance of three dimensions but also provides a natural power source for the inflationary growth spurt that most cosmologists believe the universe went through microseconds after it burst into existence.

The common element that the physicists borrowed is the “flux tube” comprised of quarks, the elementary particles that make up protons and neutrons, held together by another type of elementary particle called a gluon that “glues” quarks together. Gluons link positive quarks to matching negative antiquarks with flexible strands of energy called flux tubes. As the linked particles are pulled apart, the flux tube gets longer until it reaches a point where it breaks. When it does, it releases enough energy to form a second quark-antiquark pair that splits up and binds with the original particles, producing two pairs of bound particles. (The process is similar to cutting a bar magnet in half to get two smaller magnets, both with north and south poles.)

“We’ve taken the well-known phenomenon of the flux tube and kicked it up to a higher energy level,” said Kephart, professor of physics at Vanderbilt.

The physicists have been working out the details of their new theory since 2012, when they attended a workshop that Kephart organized at the Isaac Newton Institute in Cambridge, England. Berera, Buniy and Päs all knew Kephart because they were employed as post-doctoral fellows at Vanderbilt before getting faculty appointments. In discussions at the workshop, the group became intrigued by the possibility that flux tubes could have played a key role in the initial formation of the universe.

2
Computer graphic showing the kind of tight network of flux tubes that the physicists propose may have filled the early universe. (Roman Buniy / Chapman University)

According to current theories, when the universe was created it was initially filled with a superheated primordial soup called quark-gluon plasma. This consisted of a mixture of quarks and gluons. (In 2005 the quark-gluon plasma was successfully recreated in a particle accelerator, the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven National Laboratory, by an international group of physicists, including three from Vanderbilt: Stevenson Chair in Physics Victoria Greene and Professors of Physics Charles Maguire and Julia Velkovska.)

BNL RHIC Campus

BNL/RHIC Star Detector

BNL RHIC PHENIX

Kephart and his collaborators realized that a higher energy version of the quark-gluon plasma would have been an ideal environment for flux tube formation in the very early universe. The large numbers of pairs of quarks and antiquarks being spontaneously created and annihilated would create myriads of flux tubes.

Normally, the flux tube that links a quark and antiquark disappears when the two particles come into contact and self annihilate, but there are exceptions.

If a tube takes the form of a knot, for example, then it becomes stable and can outlive the particles that created it. If one of particles traces the path of an overhand knot, for instance, then its flux tube will form a trefoil knot. As a result, the knotted tube will continue to exist, even after the particles that it links annihilate each other. Stable flux tubes are also created when two or more flux tubes become interlinked. The simplest example is the Hopf link, which consists of two interlinked circles.

In this fashion, the entire universe could have filled up with a tight network of flux tubes, the authors envisioned. Then, when they calculated how much energy such a network might contain, they were pleasantly surprised to discover that it was enough to power an early period of cosmic inflation.

Since the idea of cosmic inflation was introduced in the early 1980s, cosmologists have generally accepted the proposition that the early universe went through a period when it expanded from the size of a proton to the size of a grapefruit in less than a trillionth of a second.

4
Alan Guth, Highland Park High School and M.I.T., who first proposed cosmic inflation

HPHS Owls

Lambda-Cold Dark Matter, Accelerated Expansion of the Universe, Big Bang-Inflation (timeline of the universe) Date 2010 Credit: Alex MittelmannColdcreation

5
Alan Guth’s notes. http://www.bestchinanews.com/Explore/4730.html

This period of hyper-expansion solves two important problems in cosmology. It can explain observations that space is both flatter and smoother than astrophysicists think it should be. Despite these advantages, acceptance of the theory has been hindered because an appropriate energy source has not been identified.

“Not only does our flux tube network provide the energy needed to drive inflation, it also explains why it stopped so abruptly,” said Kephart. “As the universe began expanding, the flux-tube network began decaying and eventually broke apart, eliminating the energy source that was powering the expansion.”

When the network broke down, it filled the universe with a gas of subatomic particles and radiation, allowing the evolution of the universe to continue along the lines that have previously been determined.

The most distinctive characteristic of their theory is that it provides a natural explanation for a three-dimensional world. There are a number of higher dimensional theories, such as string theory, that visualize the universe as having nine or ten spatial dimensions. Generally, their proponents explain that these higher dimensions are hidden from view in one fashion or another.

The flux-tube theory’s explanation comes from basic knot theory. “It was Heinrich Päs who knew that knots only form in three dimensions and wanted to use this fact to explain why we live in three dimensions,” said Kephart.

A two-dimensional example helps explain. Say you put a dot in the center of a circle on a sheet of paper. There is no way to free the circle from the dot while staying on the sheet. But if you add a third dimension, you can lift the circle above the dot and move it to one side until the dot is no longer inside the circle before lowering it back down. Something similar happens to three-dimensional knots if you add a fourth dimension – mathematicians have shown that they unravel. “For this reason knotted or linked tubes can’t form in higher-dimension spaces,” said Kephart.

The net result is that inflation would have been limited to three dimensions. Additional dimensions, if they exist, would remain infinitesimal in size, far too small for us to perceive.

The next step for the physicists is to develop their theory until it makes some predictions about the nature of the universe that can be tested.

The research was supported by U.S. Department of Energy grant DE-SC0010504, the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, The European Commission and the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology.

See the full article here .

Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

STEM Icon

Stem Education Coalition

Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt was in his 79th year when he decided to make the gift that founded Vanderbilt University in the spring of 1873.

The $1 million that he gave to endow and build the university was the commodore’s only major philanthropy. Methodist Bishop Holland N. McTyeire of Nashville, husband of Amelia Townsend who was a cousin of the commodore’s young second wife Frank Crawford, went to New York for medical treatment early in 1873 and spent time recovering in the Vanderbilt mansion. He won the commodore’s admiration and support for the project of building a university in the South that would “contribute to strengthening the ties which should exist between all sections of our common country.”

McTyeire chose the site for the campus, supervised the construction of buildings and personally planted many of the trees that today make Vanderbilt a national arboretum. At the outset, the university consisted of one Main Building (now Kirkland Hall), an astronomical observatory and houses for professors. Landon C. Garland was Vanderbilt’s first chancellor, serving from 1875 to 1893. He advised McTyeire in selecting the faculty, arranged the curriculum and set the policies of the university.

For the first 40 years of its existence, Vanderbilt was under the auspices of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. The Vanderbilt Board of Trust severed its ties with the church in June 1914 as a result of a dispute with the bishops over who would appoint university trustees.

kirkland hallFrom the outset, Vanderbilt met two definitions of a university: It offered work in the liberal arts and sciences beyond the baccalaureate degree and it embraced several professional schools in addition to its college. James H. Kirkland, the longest serving chancellor in university history (1893-1937), followed Chancellor Garland. He guided Vanderbilt to rebuild after a fire in 1905 that consumed the main building, which was renamed in Kirkland’s honor, and all its contents. He also navigated the university through the separation from the Methodist Church. Notable advances in graduate studies were made under the third chancellor, Oliver Cromwell Carmichael (1937-46). He also created the Joint University Library, brought about by a coalition of Vanderbilt, Peabody College and Scarritt College.

Remarkable continuity has characterized the government of Vanderbilt. The original charter, issued in 1872, was amended in 1873 to make the legal name of the corporation “The Vanderbilt University.” The charter has not been altered since.

The university is self-governing under a Board of Trust that, since the beginning, has elected its own members and officers. The university’s general government is vested in the Board of Trust. The immediate government of the university is committed to the chancellor, who is elected by the Board of Trust.

The original Vanderbilt campus consisted of 75 acres. By 1960, the campus had spread to about 260 acres of land. When George Peabody College for Teachers merged with Vanderbilt in 1979, about 53 acres were added.

wyatt centerVanderbilt’s student enrollment tended to double itself each 25 years during the first century of the university’s history: 307 in the fall of 1875; 754 in 1900; 1,377 in 1925; 3,529 in 1950; 7,034 in 1975. In the fall of 1999 the enrollment was 10,127.

In the planning of Vanderbilt, the assumption seemed to be that it would be an all-male institution. Yet the board never enacted rules prohibiting women. At least one woman attended Vanderbilt classes every year from 1875 on. Most came to classes by courtesy of professors or as special or irregular (non-degree) students. From 1892 to 1901 women at Vanderbilt gained full legal equality except in one respect — access to dorms. In 1894 the faculty and board allowed women to compete for academic prizes. By 1897, four or five women entered with each freshman class. By 1913 the student body contained 78 women, or just more than 20 percent of the academic enrollment.

National recognition of the university’s status came in 1949 with election of Vanderbilt to membership in the select Association of American Universities. In the 1950s Vanderbilt began to outgrow its provincial roots and to measure its achievements by national standards under the leadership of Chancellor Harvie Branscomb. By its 90th anniversary in 1963, Vanderbilt for the first time ranked in the top 20 private universities in the United States.

Vanderbilt continued to excel in research, and the number of university buildings more than doubled under the leadership of Chancellors Alexander Heard (1963-1982) and Joe B. Wyatt (1982-2000), only the fifth and sixth chancellors in Vanderbilt’s long and distinguished history. Heard added three schools (Blair, the Owen Graduate School of Management and Peabody College) to the seven already existing and constructed three dozen buildings. During Wyatt’s tenure, Vanderbilt acquired or built one-third of the campus buildings and made great strides in diversity, volunteerism and technology.

The university grew and changed significantly under its seventh chancellor, Gordon Gee, who served from 2000 to 2007. Vanderbilt led the country in the rate of growth for academic research funding, which increased to more than $450 million and became one of the most selective undergraduate institutions in the country.

On March 1, 2008, Nicholas S. Zeppos was named Vanderbilt’s eighth chancellor after serving as interim chancellor beginning Aug. 1, 2007. Prior to that, he spent 2002-2008 as Vanderbilt’s provost, overseeing undergraduate, graduate and professional education programs as well as development, alumni relations and research efforts in liberal arts and sciences, engineering, music, education, business, law and divinity. He first came to Vanderbilt in 1987 as an assistant professor in the law school. In his first five years, Zeppos led the university through the most challenging economic times since the Great Depression, while continuing to attract the best students and faculty from across the country and around the world. Vanderbilt got through the economic crisis notably less scathed than many of its peers and began and remained committed to its much-praised enhanced financial aid policy for all undergraduates during the same timespan. The Martha Rivers Ingram Commons for first-year students opened in 2008 and College Halls, the next phase in the residential education system at Vanderbilt, is on track to open in the fall of 2014. During Zeppos’ first five years, Vanderbilt has drawn robust support from federal funding agencies, and the Medical Center entered into agreements with regional hospitals and health care systems in middle and east Tennessee that will bring Vanderbilt care to patients across the state.

studentsToday, Vanderbilt University is a private research university of about 6,500 undergraduates and 5,300 graduate and professional students. The university comprises 10 schools, a public policy center and The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center. Vanderbilt offers undergraduate programs in the liberal arts and sciences, engineering, music, education and human development as well as a full range of graduate and professional degrees. The university is consistently ranked as one of the nation’s top 20 universities by publications such as U.S. News & World Report, with several programs and disciplines ranking in the top 10.

Cutting-edge research and liberal arts, combined with strong ties to a distinguished medical center, creates an invigorating atmosphere where students tailor their education to meet their goals and researchers collaborate to solve complex questions affecting our health, culture and society.

Vanderbilt, an independent, privately supported university, and the separate, non-profit Vanderbilt University Medical Center share a respected name and enjoy close collaboration through education and research. Together, the number of people employed by these two organizations exceeds that of the largest private employer in the Middle Tennessee region.
Related links