Would you be surprised to learn that the same laws of physics operate across Earth, our solar system, and the Universe at large? These universal rules are helping us to gain greater understanding of the early Universe.
Professor David Wands, Director of the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation (ICG) is using these laws to study the whole Universe and see how it started. He wants to know the physics and physical processes occurring at the beginning of everything.
David and his colleagues in the ICG are using new technologies and techniques to look far out into the Universe. The further back he can see, the further back in time he travels – because he’ll see the Universe as it was millions or even billions of years ago.
As new information comes in, we can test our ideas by the new observations with increased precision. We can see whether our theories really stand up to the scrutiny of experimental data that’s coming in.
Solving the puzzle of the Universe
How did the Universe come to be here, the way it is? David is driven to solve this puzzle. Which starts with trying to simply understand what’s out there. By gaining new insight and developing new ideas, David aims to discover the answers.
We can’t yet see the Big Bang. Cosmologists can only see light from the hot dense plasma it created. The cosmic microwave background radiation reveals the Universe as it was 400,000 years after the Big Bang. The limit of ordinary light has been reached.
Developing more detailed pictures of this light over the last 60 years has revealed ripples in the hot plasma. This poses yet more questions. Why are they there? And why do they look like this?’
That’s telling us something about the early Universe, before the time we can see in light. That’s really state of the art in terms of what we know about the early Universe.
Seeing beyond the light
One way that David is hoping to see beyond the visible light of the plasma is with gravitational waves:
"We could see behind that plasma surface to a much earlier time, almost to the Big Bang itself. We might actually see back to an era we call the Planck era where even classical gravity breaks down. We would require a quantum theory of gravity to describe the Universe at that time."
But gravitational waves are a relatively recent discovery. They were first detected in 2015, and the technology isn’t yet advanced enough to see back so far. Yet. As gravitational wave detectors become more sensitive, and are eventually sent into space on satellites, it may become possible.
"We don’t know if the signal is there or if it’s strong enough for us to ever detect it. But if you don’t try, you won’t know. The pictures we have of the Universe today would have been thought impossible 20 years ago. So we’ve got to build the techniques and the technologies to try."
Whilst cosmologists are searching for greater knowledge and understanding of our Universe, their techniques are proving to have Earthly advantages too. Techniques for understanding images and spotting signals in data are proving very useful in a range of applications.
David’s colleagues are working with cardiologists looking at data from heart monitors. Their hope is to use this as diagnostic tool to improve patient outcomes. They’re also working with electricity companies, trying to understand data from smart meters and what inferences can be made. The hope is that this emerging area of data science can then be applied more broadly, such as helping companies extract signals from their business data.
At Portsmouth, scientists like David are studying the Universe on a large scale, to try and answer some of the biggest questions in science today. And through this they’re helping us back on planet Earth.
You can now explore the most distant regions of the younger universe with this VR app, developed in conjunction with the University’s Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation