Tim Maudlin writes: Ever since the 1920s when Edwin Hubble discovered that all visible galaxies are receding from one another, cosmologists have embraced a general theory of the history of the visible universe. In this view, the visible universe originated from an unimaginably compact and hot state. Prior to 1980, the standard Big Bang models had the universe expanding in size and cooling at a steady pace from the beginning of time until now. These models were adjusted to fit observed data by selecting initial conditions, but some began to worry about how precise and special those initial conditions had to be.
For example, Big Bang models attribute an energy density — the amount of energy per cubic centimetre — to the initial state of the cosmos, as well as an initial rate of expansion of space itself. The subsequent evolution of the universe depends sensitively on the relation between this energy density and the rate of expansion. Pack the energy too densely and the universe will eventually recontract into a big crunch; spread it out too thin and the universe will expand forever, with the matter diluting so rapidly that stars and galaxies cannot form. Between these two extremes lies a highly specialised history in which the universe never recontracts and the rate of expansion eventually slows to zero. In the argot of cosmology, this special situation is called W = 1. Cosmological observation reveals that the value of W for the visible universe at present is quite near to 1. This is, by itself, a surprising finding, but what’s more, the original Big Bang models tell us that W = 1 is an unstable equilibrium point, like a marble perfectly balanced on an overturned bowl. If the marble happens to be exactly at the top it will stay there, but if it is displaced even slightly from the very top it will rapidly roll faster and faster away from that special state.
This is an example of cosmological fine-tuning. In order for the standard Big Bang model to yield a universe even vaguely like ours now, this particular initial condition had to be just right at the beginning. Some cosmologists balked at this idea. It might have been just luck that the Solar system formed and life evolved on Earth, but it seemed unacceptable for it to be just luck that the whole observable universe should have started so near the critical energy density required for there to be cosmic structure at all. [Continue reading…]