Dr. Alex Filippenko's Five Fascinating Astrophysical Insights
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the dizzyingly fast progress of physics research suggests that we may be living in a multiverse, where extraterrestrial life and cosmic twins are very much possible.
By Melissa Pandika
At the Chabot Space and Science Center in Oakland, California, OZY geeked out with UC Berkeley astronomy professor Dr. Alex Filippenko in a panel discussion that probed the mysteries of our universe.
Once you hear Dr. Filippenko speak, it’s not surprising that students have voted him best professor on campus a record nine times. Whether it’s in the classroom or on Reddit, he takes on huge ideas — say, the possibility of parallel universes — in a totally comprehensible way, hitting the most essential, intriguing points with the same wide-eyed wonder that first drew him to astronomy. He makes getting your mind blown easy, even fun.
A director on Chabot’s foundation board, Dr. Filippenko got hooked on astronomy after “discovering” Saturn through a telescope his parents gave him as a teenager. A few decades later, he joined the team that made the 2011 Nobel Prize-winning discovery that the universe is expanding at an ever-increasing rate. When not researching the explosion mechanisms of supernovas and gamma-ray bursts, he’s indulging his addiction to observing solar eclipses. (He’s spotted 13 so far, and counting.)
Our universe might be part of a multiverse, perhaps even an infinite multiverse.
From cosmic twins to the limitlessness of the unknown, we present Dr. Filippenko’s five most intriguing scientific and educational insights.
Parallel Universes? Yup, Definitely Possible
Looks like our universe isn’t so special after all. A recent discovery has made the possibility of parallel universes even more plausible. Last month, researchers announced the detection of ripples in space-time formed during the first tremors of the Big Bang. The finding bolsters the inflation theory, which holds that the universe underwent a period of extremely rapid expansion in its first tiny fraction of a second — giving the Big Bang its bang.
If this process happened once, it should “quite naturally” happen many times — perhaps infinitely, Dr. Filippenko said. “Our universe might be part of a multiverse, perhaps even an infinite multiverse, with all these bubbles going off, all these little Big Bangs … and we’re just one of these bubbles. That’s kind of freaky, huh?” Freaky, indeed.
Phoning E.T. — and Evil Twins
So far, astronomers have observed trillions of planets orbiting roughly a hundred billion stars — in our own Milky Way galaxy alone. “We have every reason to believe that … if our galaxy is filled with planets orbiting other stars, so will other galaxies,” Dr. Filippenko said. Despite the low odds of life on another planet, multiplying those odds by lots and lots of planets still yields a high probability.
Even more mind-boggling, it’s “essentially certain” that somewhere there exists a planet exactly like Earth, home to people exactly like us, undergoing exactly the same experiences at exactly the same time. Because in an infinite multiverse, every combination of conditions, including those that resulted in our own existence, would occur more than once, meaning that each of us might have a cosmic twin.
So a slight, sinister tweak of those otherwise identical Big Bang conditions could produce — yes, evil twins. “Somewhere else, I’m actually a terrible person,” Dr. Filippenko said. “That person looks like me, they have the same name, they behave the same way … but they go off and do terrible things. That really bothers me!”
Astronomy’s Golden Age
Powerful telescopes and other technological advances have allowed scientists to begin investigating questions once thought unanswerable: How did the universe begin? Are there other universes like ours? Does life on other planets exist?
In the past decade alone, researchers have discovered evidence of the universe’s accelerating expansion, dark energy, inflation theory and possibly a multiverse, not to mention nearly 1,500 exoplanets — planets beyond our solar system. “This has been a golden age of astronomy,” Dr. Filippenko said.
The Vast Unknown Unknowns
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Scientific progress will never reach a point when it answers everything to our satisfaction, simply because “we don’t even know yet what it is we don’t know,” Dr. Filippenko said. For example, classical physics, pioneered by Sir Isaac Newton, did a good job describing the physical behavior of baseballs and other large objects. In 1900, Lord Kelvin declared: “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics.”
But then along came Albert Einstein, Erwin Schrödinger and others who noticed that classical physics fell apart at the atomic scale, leading them to propose quantum theory to explain the behavior of tiny objects.
Meanwhile, a “theory of everything” that reconciles the classical and quantum theories remains the holy grail of physics. But even if researchers do develop such a theory, it might not hold true for certain physical circumstances — ones they have yet to observe. “I don’t know if there’s ever an end,” Dr. Filippenko said.
Passion > Pedagogy
The secret behind Dr. Filippenko’s nine “Best Professor” wins? “Just be passionate about your subject,” he said. He recalled some his own professors, who were great scholars — but didn’t seem excited about the course material. “This person does not seem excited by what he or she is saying … so why should I be excited?”
He tells struggling students to focus on a few key topics he wants them to remember for the rest of their lives. Like how the explosion of stars billions of years ago ejected hydrogen and helium into space, which then produced carbon, calcium and other elements that make up the raw materials for life. “All of us are made of star stuff,” Dr. Filippenko said. “That makes you more than within the universe. You are an integral part of the universe … . Ninety-nine point something percent of the cases, [students are] like, ‘Whoa. Whoa.’”
- Melissa Pandika, Melissa Pandika is a lab rat-turned-journalist with an eye to all things science, medicine and more. Likes distance running, snails, late-night Korean BBQ + R&B slow jams.Contact Melissa Pandika