Archive | February 2012

A Gift

As a child I asked my mother and god for a gift. I prayed desperately to possess this gift. Amazingly some magic worked and one fine day, 22nd august 2002 to be precise I was standing outside the operation theater waiting for the gift. Suddenly a kind old lady, with a mask on her face and a brightly colored bundle in her hand came to me. I could not believe it. Two twinkling eyes were gazing into mine as if asking me, “Is this what u wanted??” I held this baby girl in my arms, grinning from ear to ear. Frankly speaking I was stunned. She was perfect! Better than what I had imagined. She was a precious gift adding so much joy and meaning to my life. Today when she plays with me, fights with me and laughs at my silly jokes, I know what I feel about life. 
It is indeed a precious possession, it is your existence which may or may not be repeated again. The peculiar part is that though the start and end of life is unpredictable, it is after all an unbelievably precious gift given exclusively to each one of us and it needs to be used meaningfully. Life is precious because, unlike anything else, it’s up to us of what we make of it. This being said, life is not inanimate, it has immense possibility and potential to enrich other lives and earth itself.

My Follower

I remember the day when I first met my follower. It was a dark, moonless night. There were shadows everywhere. I was walking home all alone form a long day. I was lost in my own thoughts, engrossed in looking back at the happy memories I had of that day. I was really happy inside, smiling at myself. When I was about half way home, I strongly felt that I was being followed. I looked back instantly, but there was nothing but darkness that greeted me. It seemed like a false alarm so I continued walking, but the sensation didn’t go, it lingered on for what seemed like an eternity. I continued walking trying to ignore this strange sensation. I was really scared. Every minute kept turning back to look if someone was there, but nothing was. The feeling became stronger and stronger by the minute, and I started walking faster and faster. This continued to the point where I was almost sprinting home. I reached my building, pressed the button for the lift and let out a sigh of relief. But as I was watching the lift comedown, I felt as if, someone or something was going to be there, in the lift, to greet me when it came down. This feeling was absolutely terrifying, in fact it was so nerve racking that instead of waiting for the lift, I took the stairs and ran home, after reaching my floor I knocked the door. As I was waiting there eagerly, for someone to answer the door, I felt as if the entire corridor was collapsing on me. That there were eyes everywhere, watching my every move, just waiting to strike. The door opened and I was greeted by my little sister. I just pushed the door open and slammed it behind my back. I was finally home, the feeling was gone, the atmosphere was peaceful, and I was all alone again…

The beginning

Physics is the science of understanding, the science of answering the big questions. Questions like- who are we? Where did we come from? And when did time and space begin? But out of the numerous questions that physicists all over the world are trying to answer, the one I find most intriguing is the question of “when and how did it all begin?” The universe is big, I mean very big! Even the world’s fastest and most powerful computers have a tough time when trying to recreate the universe graphically. I mean let’s have a look at what we know, we are human beings, and we are the smartest living organisms on planet earth. The earth is a pretty tiny planet which is well known because it’s the only planet in our solar system capable of sustaining life. Our solar system is made of nine planets orbiting the sun. The sun is a star, the closest one to earth. But it’s not a very special one, it’s a pretty average sized star, and produces a pretty average amount of energy. Now as we go further away, the nearest star to the sun is ‘Proxima Centauri’, it’s a red giant about 4.2 light years away. Both the sun and Proxima Centauri are part of a huge cluster of stars all a few light years away from each other. This massive cluster of stars is the ‘milky way’. The ‘milky way’ is a galaxy, and we are a part of this galaxy. The Milky Way is about 120,000 light years across and yet, it’s only a tiny speck of light in the Virgo super cluster which consists of millions of such galaxies! The Virgo Super cluster is just an average sized super cluster, millions of such super cluster come together to form ligaments which are billions upon billions of light years across. And hundreds of billions of such ligaments form the universe. Now when we look at the big picture, all we can do is wonder, what place do we hold? Many of the people who read this will think about their importance in this massive world, and then feel rather insignificant. What I like to believe is that I’m not a separate entity; I am a part of this universe. Just like how cell contribute to make an organism. I contribute to this world. And therefore I am a part of this universe. But it doesn’t end there; the universe is expanding, getting even bigger than it already is. And when I look up at the millions of stars in the night sky, all I can do is wonder, where did all of this come from?

Well, planets, stars, and human beings are all made up of matter. Matter is basically everything that forms the material world. The air we breathe, the food we eat and even the water we drink, everything is made up of matter. Now where did all of this matter come from? Well to tell you the truth, the atoms and molecules present in your body were created at the same time the atoms and molecules present in the sun were created. The hydrogen and oxygen atoms present in the everyday bottle of mineral water can be dated back to 14 billion years in the past!
And strangely all of this matter was created at one instance. The moment of creation, that is known as ‘the big bang’. It was a cataclysmic event, so significant that it marked the creation of time and space. All the matter present in the profoundly big universe was created at this event! The big bang was the defining event of the universe and everything in it. The secrets of our past, present and future seems to have been locked up in this event. Hence, many of the world’s physicists have devoted their life to understanding this event. And therefore it is our job to respect their life’s work and teach our children the truth, not stories about how an all-powerful god created the universe out of nothing!

Now, let’s move on. Many of us haven’t been able to grasp this concept properly. And I say this because many a time people come and ask me, “If the universe was created in the big bang, what was there before it?” Well the thing is EVERYTHING was created in the big bang! It was when time began and space was created therefore implying that there NOTHING before the universe! I know this concept is quiet difficult to understand, but don’t worry, it gets even harder! These complex theories even manage to confuse theoretical physicists.
Now what exactly was the big bang? The big bang was basically an explosion. There was a small dense spec of energy, smaller than an atom, infinitely small and infinitely hot. Scientists still haven’t yet figured out what triggered the explosion but it was the most catastrophic event. Phenomenal amount of energy was released in a very short amount of time. The universe expanded in a millionth millionth millionth millionth millionth of a second by a million million million million times. To put it in simpler terms the universe expanded from the size of a golf ball to the size of the earth in a millionth millionth millionth millionth millionth of a second. Now what all those millions tell you is that the universe expanded fast! So fast that the speed of expansion exceed the speed of light. Now you will probably think… that’s not possible. The laws of physics state that NOTHING can travel faster than light. But the laws of physics actually permit this. How? The laws of physics state that nothing can go faster than light, NOTHING meaning empty space can actually go faster than light.

During the big bang, Things were happening so fast that conventional methods of measuring time were not applicable. So scientists use a different term when trying to explain this phenomenon. It’s called ‘Planck time’. Planck time is basically the time taken for a photon (light) to cross a distance of 1 Planck length. This is about the diameter of a proton, which is an extremely small length! And therefore Planck time is the smallest time measurement that will ever be possible.

Now shortly after the explosion (a few Planck times later) the universe had changed from a tiny spec of energy to a raging storm of super-hot energy. How hot? It was Trillions of degrees. Expanding faster than the speed of light. Well this super-hot energy eventually cooled giving birth to very tiny subatomic particles, which later congealed to form the atoms of today. This prediction was made even before the existence of this event was actually theorized, by one of the greatest minds ever to live – Albert Einstein, in his most famous equation E=mc2, which states that energy can be converted into matter and back into energy. But this was just a theory until now. Scientists tested this theory at the Large Hadron Collider located in Switzerland. This machine is the size of a city and it is used to recreate the conditions similar to just after the big bang. This machine facilitates colliding of particles at nearly the speed of light. During the testing, the scientists actually saw the particles separate and turn into energy for just some milliseconds and turn back to sub atomic particles. So the theory is true. Thus explaining how pure energy transformed into small particles of matter.

But still initially the universe was so dense and so hot that the subatomic particles were very unstable. The energy was converting into matter and the matter was converting back into energy, it was utter chaos. But this environment eventually cooled and the matter remained in the state of matter for prolonged periods of time. But when energy was converting into matter it was also converting into another particle, a different type of matter, which threatened the existence of the universe. It was ‘anti-matter’, yes it’s real. You might have heard this tern thrown around in many science fiction novels. But it does actually exist in reality. Anti-matter, in short is the mirror image of ordinary matter, its evil twin. All the subatomic particles in anti-matter are of the opposite charge and revolve in the opposite directions. The reason why the formation of anti-matter was a threat to the existence of the entire universe is that when anti-matter collides with ordinary matter the both blow themselves to smithereens. They simply annihilate each other in a violent explosion. Just to give you a better perspective, when 1 gm. of antimatter collides with 1 gm. of ordinary matter the explosion is equal to the explosion of 36,000 tons of TNT. That’s almost equal to the explosion made by the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki together!

So during this time, anti-matter and matter were colliding and were annihilating each other. If this would have continued both the particles would have canceled each other out. And that wouldn’t have been good now, would it? Well this was the battle for existence where the side with the most number of soldiers won. And luckily the formed matter was a fraction of a little more compared to the formed antimatter. So, in the end, matter won. And we all are made of that tiny fraction of matter which survived that violent phase. Well this tiny fraction was enough to form all the planets, stars and galaxies which exist all around us. Now do you see enormity of the scales we are talking about here?

After this war was over the universe was still very hot and dense. If you were there you would see electrical storms raging all around. Actually you wouldn’t have been able to see because, photons, meaning light hadn’t formed yet. The universe was just a milky soup of sub-atomic particles. This cauldron was so hot and chaotic that the electrons and other sub-atomic particles could not condense to form atoms. Eventually, after about 380,000 years the universe started cooling down and that milky soup became transparent. That’s when the electrons began condensing to form atoms. The first atoms which formed were hydrogen atoms, since they are the simplest. These hydrogen atoms came together to form the first baby stars. This was the most spectacular event. After the nuclear fusion began in the stars, first light escaped. And that relatively small number of photons illuminated everything revealing the infant universe. The Dark Age had finally ended in the life of the universe and as the years progressed, this infant universe matured into the universe we see today.
But the universe we see today when we look up at the night sky isn’t all there is to it. For the record, the big bang hasn’t stopped yet. The galaxies around us are moving away from us at mind blowing speeds. And as they move further away from us, they actually accelerate. This was first noticed by the great astronomer “Edwin Hubble”.

What we now know is that the universe is held together by a force called ‘dark matter’. It is the glue that holds the universe together. But it has an opposing force called ‘dark energy’ which works in the opposite way. It basically tries to push everything apart. Right now, the dark energy is overpowering the dark matter and thus, the stars and distant galaxies are moving further away from us. And this eventually may lead to the death of the universe as we know it!

Right now there are two contradictory theories propounding as the probable reason for the death of the universe in the distant future. There is the ‘big rip’ which says that the universe will expand to such an extent that the galaxies will be lonely specs of lights and will die by burning themselves out. Or ‘big crunch’ which says that the universe will basically collapse in on itself like how a balloon does when the air is let out. But no need to brace yourself so soon! This will take almost an eternity. And eternity is an awful long time, especially towards the end.
Well if the universe dies, maybe its leftover energy may give rise to another big bang, which will form another universe. Or maybe it has already happened and we are just another tiny phase in this never ending cycle. Either way, the universe is fascinating! And the more you try to learn about it, the less you think you know. So, I guess it would be better to stop learning, wouldn’t it?
HA! As if that’s happening! 🙂