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What came before the Big Bang?

Inflationary universe?

   Matter and radiation are gravitationally attractive, so in a maximally symmetric spacetime filled with matter, the gravitational force will inevitably cause any lumpiness in the matter to grow and condense. That's how hydrogen gas turned into galaxies and stars. But vacuum energy comes with a high vacuum pressure, and that high vacuum pressure resists gravitational collapse as a kind of repulsive gravitational force. The pressure of the vacuum energy flattens out the lumpiness, and makes space get flatter, not lumpier, as it expands.
   So one possible solution to the flatness problem would be if our Universe went through a phase where the only energy density present was a uniform vacuum energy. The maximally symmetric solution to the Einstein equation under those conditions is called de Sitter space and the metric can be written

de Sitter line element

In de Sitter cosmology, the Hubble parameter H is constant and related to the cosmological constant as shown.
   The vacuum energy density is uniform in space and time, so the ratio of the curvature of space to the energy density will decrease exponentially as space expands in time:

Flatness problem solved with Inflation

Any deviations from flatness will be exponentially suppressed by the exponential expansion of the scale factor, and the flatness problem is solved.
   Both the de Sitter spacetime and the Robertson-Walker spacetime start expanding from a(t) close to zero. But for a spacetime with matter or radiation, a(t) goes to zero when the time t goes to zero, because a(t) goes like a power of t. When the scale factor depends exponentially on time, the scale factor goes to zero when time t goes to minus infinity. Therefore the horizon distance integral can blow up instead of neatly converge

Horizon problem solved with Inflation

and solve the horizon problem.

But how does Inflation work?

   The vacuum energy that drives the rapid expansion in an inflationary cosmology comes from a scalar field that is part of the spontaneous symmetry breaking dynamics of some unified theory particle theory, say, a Grand Unified Theory or string theory.
   This scalar field is sometimes called the inflaton. The equation of motion for this field in the de Sitter metric above is

Inflaton equation of motion

and the Einstein equation with a scalar field density becomes

Friedmann equation with scalar

The conditions for inflationary behavior require that the scalar field time derivatives are small compared to the potential, so that most of the energy of the scalar field is in potential energy and not kinetic energy

Inflationary slow roll conditions

These are called the slow roll conditions because the scalar field evolves slowly when these conditions are satisfied.

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    Another crucial element in an inflationary model is the thermal behavior of the scalar field effective potential Veff(f). The effective potential includes quantum corrections from particle scattering. The shape of the potential can change with temperature, allowing for phase transitions. At very high temperatures, higher than some critical temperature Tcrit, the minimum of the effective potential is at zero, in the symmetric phase of the theory. As the temperature drops to T=Tcrit, a second minimum forms in the potential at some value f0 and the vacuum with f=0 becomes metastable. At temperature T<Tcrit, the new minimum f=f0 becomes the energetically favorable vacuum configuration. (The scale usually assumed for Tcrit is the GUT scale of about 1014 GeV.)
    In an inflation model, rather than making uniform transition to the new vacuum, the field stays in the old vacuum, now called the false vacuum. (When steam does this in the gas-to-liquid phase transition of water at Tcrit=373°K, it is called supercooling.) The vacuum energy of the supercooled false vacuum drives a de Sitter expansion of the Universe (or the part of it that becomes our Universe) which is called the period of inflation, with cosmological constant L given by

Cosmological constant for inflation

where V(0) is the value of the scalar potential in the false vacuum.
   Eventually bubbles form of the true vacuum in the broken symmetric phase with f=f0. The slow roll parameters grow large and the inflationary phase comes to an end. If the the false vacuum bubble has expanded by at least 60 e-folds, the horizon and flatness problems are no more, because the radiation-dominated expansion that follows comes out of one extraordinarily flat causally connected domain.

A testable prediction?

   It's always good to have testable predictions from a theory of physics, and the inflation theory has a distinct prediction about the density variations in the cosmic microwave background. A bubble of inflation consists of accelerating vacuum. In this accelerating vacuum, a scalar field will have very small thermal fluctuations that are nearly the same at every scale, and the fluctuations will be have a Gaussian distribution. This prediction fits current observations and will be tested with greater precision by future measurements of the cosmic microwave background.

So are all the problems solved?

   Despite the prediction above, inflation as described above is far from an ideal theory. It's too hard to stop the inflationary phase, and the monopole problem has other ways of resurfacing in the physics. Many of the assumptions that go into the model, such as an initial high temperature phase and a single inflating bubble have been questioned and alternative models have been developed.
   Today's inflation models have evolved beyond the original assumption of a single inflation event giving birth to a single Universe, and feature scenarios where universes nucleate and inflate out of other universes in the process called eternal inflation.
   There is also another attempt to solve the problems of Big Bang cosmology using a scalar field that never goes through an inflationary period at all, but evolves very slowly so that we observe it as being constant during our own era. This model is called quintessence, after the ancient spiritual belief in the Quinta Essentia, the spiritual matter from which the four forms of physical matter are made.
   Another currently unsolved problem is the how to accommodate for Inflation in string cosmology and M-theory cosmology. There are dimensions to compactify, branes to wrap, hierarchies to set, geometry to resolve, supersymmetry to break -- a laundry list of processes and transitions that have to be described within in a string theory cosmology.

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