Antonio Padilla is a theoretical physicist and cosmologist at the University of Nottingham. He has served as Head of Cosmology in the UK for over a decade and is known for his frequent guest appearances on the popular YouTube channel, File No.
Below, Antonio shares 5 key insights from his new book, Great Numbers and Where to Find Them: A Cosmic Quest from Zero to Infinity. Listen to the audio version – read by Antonio himself – in the Next Big Idea app.
This is a small number, and small numbers betray something unexpected. For example, I’m a really bad singer. Definitely not expected to win The tenth factor or American Idol. You might say that the probability of me winning is a really small number.
The Higgs boson is also unexpected, so it also has a small number. You may have heard of the Higgs boson. This came in the news after its discovery at the CERN particle physics laboratory in 2012. Particle physicists were running excitedly at the time. The Higgs were said to be the last piece of the particle jigsaw, helping to explain the origin of mass in our universe.
What no one has ever told you is that we particle physicists also feel a little shy. Our best microscopic theories told us that the Higgs boson was able to shape the transformation into other fundamental particles. All that change in shape should have weighed so much that Higgs weighed in at a few micrograms—about like a fairy fly, a tiny wasp that just so happens to be the world’s smallest insect.
“The Higgs was said to be the last piece of the particle jigsaw, which helps explain the origin of mass in our universe.”
The thing is, basic particles don’t tend to weigh as much as insects. Although, in theory, Higgs should Weighs as much as a fairy bug, it doesn’t weigh as much. It’s 0.0000000000000001 times lighter and no one understands why. We’ve tried to explain what’s going on in several ways: looking at extra dimensions, massive supersymmetries as we multiply the number of particles in nature, and even trying to break the Higgs down into tiny bits. But in vain, because experiments at CERN have not yet seen any evidence that explains the Higgs boson. The puzzle remains.
Higgs was unexpected, but not as unexpected as our universe. Our universe is described by a really small number: 10(-120). That’s less than one part in googol.
The universe is expanding, which means that the distance between galaxies is getting wider, not because galaxies are racing away from each other, but because space itself is growing. This expansion is accelerating. Something is driving the universe, causing it to grow at an ever-increasing rate.
Most physicists believe that it is being pushed by the energy of empty space. This is the so-called vacuum energy—The energy left when the universe is emptied of all the stars, planets, humans, and little green men, so that only the void remains. You might think that something empty does not hold any energy, but this is not true. Quantum mechanics tells us that a void is a vibrant, bubbling broth of virtual particles that pops up and out of existence. These particles weight the vacuum much in the same way as the Higgs weight. It gives the void an energy that can propel the universe.
The problem is that she wants to push it hard. When you do the math, you’ll realize that a vacuum must contain a great deal of energy. In fact, the energy is so great, it should have pushed the universe into oblivion the moment it was born – but it didn’t happen. The universe grew older and older. That’s because the real energy of the vacuum is much lower than we expected. To restore the amount of cosmic acceleration we see through telescopes, we need the vacuum energy to be 10(-120) times smaller than our theoretical expectations.
It’s rubbish, isn’t it? I’ve spent most of my career thinking about this problem. The universe should have known from the start that it would grow old. She must have had some degree of foreknowledge.
Maybe you heard about googol? It’s a 1 followed by a hundred zeros. Well, the googolplex is bigger: it’s a number followed by googol zeros! To properly estimate the scale of this, consider the googolplician world. This is the universe which is the googolplex in metres, inches, or any other Earth-like unit.
“In the googolplician world, a doppelgänger is out there, probably reading Book Bites.”
In the googolplician world, you’ll find something pretty cool: doppelgängers. Replicas of you and me and everyone you know. I don’t mean just lookalikes, but replicas, right down to quantum DNA: same nose, same hair, even same thoughts.
It all comes down to the number of different ways you can piece together a human-sized space. There are far fewer ways than googolplex to do this. The reason has to do with the physics of black holes. Anyway, one of these groupings corresponds to me, one to you, one to an empty space, etc. As you navigate throughout the googoplician universe, seeing repetition is inevitable. There are not enough arrangements available to keep it different each time.
In a googolplician world, a doppelgänger is right there, probably reading Book Bites.
4. Graham No..
Think of a really large number and try to visualize it. Are you still here? If you were, I’m sure you didn’t think of Graham’s number, because if you did, you would die.
Graham’s number is big. In fact, it has long been said to be the largest number ever shown in a mathematical proof. Graham’s number isn’t as big as a trillion, or even a googolplex. It’s real leviathan. If you try to picture its decimal representation written all over it, number after number, your head will collapse into a black hole. It is a condition known as black hole head death and there is no known cure.
It happens because there is a huge amount of information in Graham’s number, and the information is weighing. What if Justin Bieber tricked us into thinking Graham’s number? When Graham’s Number entered his brain, he was taking a block. Eventually, there’s so much of this his brain starts to heat up and he wants to explode. Assuming he can avoid this, then what? More numbers, more information, more weight. Eventually he got to a point where the only object capable of storing that much weight in a space the size of his head would be a black hole.
“The hope is that we will one day be able to discover what is really happening at the center of a black hole, and perhaps Canat the moment of creation.
Black holes the size of a head are very dangerous. The problem is that the surface of the black hole is very close to the frightening singularity that lies within. This is where space and time are infinitely torn apart and the gravitational field becomes infinitely strong. If a fan approaches the black hole Pepper, the gravitational waves at the head of the black hole will tear the fan to shreds. Graham’s number would be bad news for anyone obsessed with Justin Bieber.
Black Hole Biebers may seem fanciful, but black holes are unmistakably real, and within them all lies a singularity – the place where spacetime touches infinity, where the gravitational field spirals out of control. This is where the physical world seems to break and our equations no longer make sense. You don’t just find singularities inside black holes. You also find them in the Big Bang, when you trace the universe back to the beginning of time.
To overcome these infinities, we need a quantum theory of gravity – a way of thinking about the strongest gravitational fields and how they interact with all of the physical world on the smallest of scales. We need a theory of everything.
Meaning a theory in which the basic building blocks of nature are not particles, but threads. Tiny little threads, writhing and vibrating, make up each one of us, and space-time itself. These strings are expected to annihilate infinite gravity, and the hope is that one day we can use them to find out what’s really going on at the center of a black hole, and maybe, just Can, at the moment of creation. in Genesis.
Through a string symphony, we may one day know the mind of God.
To listen to the audio version read by author Antonio Padilla, download the Next Big Idea app today: