Bluedot, Jodrell Bank Observatory, Mission Control, July 7 2017.
It’s a tall order trying to explain life, the universe and everything – or at least how it all started – to a tent full of festival folk on a cloudy Friday in a field in Cheshire in forty minutes. But particle physics Professor Jeff Forshaw gives it a fair old stab, taking us by the atoms and dragging us back to the Big Bang and further. Forshaw’s got the credentials as Professor of Particle Physics at the University of Manchester and the 2013 recipient of the Kelvin Medal for explaining science to non-experts, of which there are plenty in the audience, including myself of course.
The question is this: what caused the Big Bang? And, therefore, what came before it? Questions soon on the minds of every budding undergraduate cosmologist which, back in Forshaw’s student days, were dismissed as senseless. There was nothing, he was told, the universe just wasn’t and then was. But that’s not where we are with modern cosmology, as Forshaw defiantly explains. We’re soon into the depths of graphs, charts and infinitesimal particles from 13.8 billion years ago but, with astonishment, I think I’m following. So here goes.
The universe was a big cold gas, totally chill, and from it emerged inflaton particles which formed, seemingly from nowhere, like dew on grass. These guys decayed and, in doing so, broke down into much smaller, lighter particles which moved a lot faster. This fast movement heated up the gas enough to trigger the bang and then, 380,000 years later (a mere hiccup of time), cooled enough for the particles to calm the hell down and become atoms. At which point, photons, the light particles, were able to stop zipping around and fly off in straight lines into the forever and always. It its these intrepid fellas that allow us to measure the universe and figure all this out.
But all this is theory. Forshaw rattles through graphic after graphic to show that the random patterning of background radiation and mapped galaxies supports the theory, but equally admits that all this could well be rubbish. What we refer to as the ‘universe’ is everything we’ve been able to see – whatever came before us is too far away for us to get a glimpse of. So it could be this hot gas or it could be a field of superalien god beings raving through their own festival of music and science without much of a care for us tiny little upstarts. To be honest, its really quite hard to say.
Professor Forshaw was speaking from his new book Universal: A Guide to the Cosmos co-authored with Professor Brian Cox, him from off the telly. Available in all good bookshops, in every corner of our known universe.