Theoretical physicist Jonas Mureika, associate professor at Loyola Marymount University, has come up with a groundbreaking proposal that is drawing widespread attention in the esoteric and clubby world of particle physicists.
If accurate, this idea will remake our understanding of the universe at the very beginning of time, when the Big Bang presumably took place. On the human side of things, Mureika’s eureka moment has created an existential problem: He won’t know if he is right for almost two decades.
That’s because it will be at least 2026 before NASA and the European Space Agency launch a space “telescope” called LISA -- Laser Interferometer Space Antenna -- that can measure gravitational waves emitted by the Big Bang. And it will be a few more years before it is in place slightly behind Earth’s orbit. The long wait, however, doesn’t faze the 39-year-old Mureika.
“You have to have patience with frontier issues, such as this,” he said, in a recent interview in his office in Seaver Hall. “It is good to know that it will be done in my lifetime. In the meantime, there are a lot of other things to do to test it and different predictions that stem from it to play out.”
In recent years, physicists such as Mureika and his co-author, Dejan Stojkovic of SUNY Buffalo, N.Y., have increasingly come to believe that in the moments after the Big Bang, the universe existed in fewer than three dimensions of space. These advocates of the “vanishing-dimension theory” argue that as the universe matured, bursts of energy added a second dimension, then a third, creating the physical world that we are familiar with today.
Mureika and Stojkovic have proposed a novel method to test the fewer-dimensional hypothesis, which was published to wide interest in the March 11 issue of the research journal Physical Review Letters
, and noted in Wired Science
, Physical Review Focus
, World Science
, where the scientific issues are more fully explained.
Such a determination about the nature of the young universe would go a long way toward settling many problems in the world of theoretical physics, where there is an active debate about how many dimensions exist now, whether the same number have always existed, as well as what the universe was like at the Big Bang, when it was young, tiny, hot and very dense.
Why is this important? Mureika explains: “It’s a paradigm shift that revolutionizes almost all our ideas about primordial cosmology. More importantly, confirming the existence of a number of dimensions other than three would probably be one of – if not the -- most fundamental scientific discovery ever. It would forever change our perception and understanding of the universe in which we live.”
The vanishing-dimension advocates believe the 1-Dimension universe, (meaning one dimension of space and one of time), and the 2-Dimension universe (two dimensions of space) can also be seen at sub-atomic levels. “What is happening in those tiny, sub-atomic spaces were also happening epochs ago, at the time of the Big Bang,” said Mureika.
Because these lower dimensions occurred in the past, when the universe was very, very tiny and existed at much higher levels of energy (and temperature), they would also be occurring now at sub-atomic levels, he explained.
Mureika and Stojkovic have proposed a new and, they hope, definitive way to test the fewer-dimensional hypothesis. They want to use LISA, which will be able to look deep into space (and thus back in time), to measure the gravitational waves that originated in the Big Bang and detect the transition between 2-D and 3-D.
That’s because gravitational waves – tiny ripples in the fabric of space – only exist in the 3-D universe. And that is the heart of the Mureika and Stojkovic paper. It proposes that observing this “cut-off” frequency, beyond which no waves exist, is a unique and robust signature of these “vanishing dimensions.”
Seems simple. And 20 years isn’t that long a wait for a physicist. They are, after all, used to measuring time in epochs.