Scientists simulate the end of the universe

Researchers at the University of Maryland just tried to simulate the the Big Crunch – the end of the universe. Who knew all you needed was gold and plastic?

Researchers at the University of Maryland just simulated the end of the universe, also known as the “Big Crunch.” Electrical engineer Igor Smolyaninov of the University of Maryland, working with colleagues Ehren Hwang and Evgenii Narimanov, published a paper on this recent Big Crunch experiment. It appeared on the physics pre-print website arXiv on July 20, 2011.

The Big Crunch sits all the way across from the Big Bang on the space-time continuum. The Big Bang is a theory of how the universe began. It postulates that matter and light began as one, and then exploded apart. This explosion created the universe we know today. By contrast, the Big Crunch is a theory that explains how our universe eventually comes undone: it folds back onto itself, collapsing into a black hole. The University of Maryland researchers were trying to get a handle on this latter theory.

To do it, they used what are called metamaterials – in this case, a plastic called polymethyl methacrylate embedded in a grid on gold film. Scientists can use materials like this to test the behavior of the entire universe because the mathematical equations used to describe light traveling through metamaterials are the same as the equations used to describe space and time. This mathematical similarity is what allows physicists to probe big cosmic questions in a microcosmic setting.

That said, in their Big Crunch experiment, the UM researchers suddenly excited particles known as plasmons with a laser beam, turning the “juice” in their analogical, thin-film universe way up. And then … there was no more juice at all.

The physics involved is slightly beyond me, so I invite one and all to help me parse exactly what happened. This is what WIRED’s Brandon Keim describes:

As photon-electron waves called plasmons flowed through the gold they followed the rules of a universe with two dimensions of space and one of time, said Smolyaninov. Flowing through the plastic, they followed the rules of a universe with one dimension of space and two of time.

When the substances are placed perpendicular to each other, as on this grid, then a dimension of time runs up against a dimension of space. As plasmons excited by a beam of laser light coursed through the plastic and hit the gold, time effectively came to an end. Plasmons diverged at that boundary, their photons rising in energy in accordance with predictions.

A little complicated, no? It sounds like space and time collided in a perpendicular way, where the plastic met the gold. And they canceled each other out, by meeting a mutual dead-end. In other words, the universe “stopped.”

In similar, future studies, Smolyaninov says, he’s hoping to also find traces of what is called Hawking Radiation, a quantum phenomenon first outlined by Stephen Hawking. It’s a type of radiation said to exist at the edge of black holes.

Beth Lebwohl