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Could the universe collapse into a singularity? New study explains how.

big bang, expansion of the universe.
An illustration of the Big Bang and the expansion of the universe. (Image credit: Shutterstock)

Has the universe been around forever? If so, perhaps it's been bouncing back and forth in a never-ending cycle of big bangs in which all matter bubbles out of a singularity, followed by big crunches, in which everything gets swallowed up again to form that dense point from which the universe is born again. And the cycle continues over and over and over.

The math of those theories, however, has never really worked out in a way that could tell us whether our universe is cyclic or has one beginning and one end. But recently, a team of theorists has invoked the powers of so-called string theory to solve some fundamental riddles of the early universe. The result could give us the theoretical push needed to build a universe from scratch, and hence lend support to a repeating universe.

Related: From Big Bang to present: snapshots of our universe through time

Painting the picture

If you want to build your own private theoretical model of the universe, be my guest. Nobody will ever stop you from making your own cosmology. But if you want to play the game of the universe, you have to play by its rules. That means that no matter what your model of the cosmos contains, you have to confront some cold, hard observational evidence.

For instance, we know that we live in an expanding universe, in which galaxies and stars are flying away from us at an ever-increasing speed. Scientists can tell that by using different types of techniques to calculate how fast galaxies at different distances from us are moving away. We also have pictures of the baby universe, when it was just 380,000 years old (and I really do mean "baby," as the universe is currently 13.8 billion years old).

Within that baby picture, we see interesting patterns — tiny splotches and blotches that reveal the existence of slight temperature and pressure differences in that young universe.

We are able to explain all these observations (and more) with what's called Big Bang cosmology, plus an additional idea known as inflation, which is a process that we think happened when the universe was less than a second old. During that process (which itself lasted for the teensiest sliver of a second), the universe became much, much larger, taking quantum differences and making them bigger in the process. Those differences eventually grew, as slightly denser patches had slightly stronger gravity, making them bigger. Over time, those differences became large enough to imprint themselves as splotches in the baby picture of the universe (and billions of years later, things like stars and galaxies, but that's a separate story).

King of the early universe

Tired of the Big Bang Theory and want your own version of cosmology? That's fine, but you'll have to explain things like the expansion of the universe and the splotches in the baby picture of cosmos. In other words, you have to do a better job at explaining the universe than inflation does.

This seems easy, but it isn't. The pressure, density and  temperature differences in the universe's early years has bedeviled many alternative cosmologies, including one of the most popular let's-go-bigger-than-the-big-bang ideas, known as (are you ready for this), Ekpyrotic universe. The word ekpyrotic comes from the Greek for word for "conflagration," which refers to an ancient philosophical idea of a constantly repeating universe.

In the Ekpyrotic scenario, the universe … constantly repeats. Under that perspective, we are currently in a "bang" phase, which will eventually (somehow) slow down, stop, reverse, and crunch back down to incredibly high temperatures and pressures. Then, the universe will (somehow) bounce back and re-ignite in a new big bang phase.

The trouble is, it's hard to replicate the blotches and splotches in the baby picture of the universe in an Ekpyrotic universe. When we attempt to put together some vague physics to explain the crunch-bounce-bang cycle (and I do emphasize "vague" here, because these processes involve energies and scales that we aren't even coming close to understanding with known physics), everything just comes out too … smooth. No bumps. No wiggles. No splotches. No differences in temperature, pressure or density.

And that doesn't just mean the theories don't match observations of the early universe. It means that these cosmologies don't lead to a universe filled with galaxies, stars or even people.

So that's kind of a bummer.

Related: How will the universe end?

The S-brane saves the day

The name of the game in the past few years of Ekpyrotic theories is to try to match the same observations that inflation does. In the latest attempt to overcome this hurdle and make Ekpyrotic cosmologies at least somewhat respectable, a team of researchers invoke none other than the S-brane.

Right. S-branes. So you've heard of string theory, right? That's the universe of fundamental physics where every particle is really a tiny, vibrating string. But a few years ago, theorists realized that the strings don't have to be one-dimensional. And the name they give to a multidimensional string? A brane.

As for the "S" part? Well most branes in string theory can roam around freely through both space and time, but the hypothetical S-brane can exist only in one instant in time, under very special conditions.

In this new Ekpyrotic scenario, when the universe was at its smallest and densest configuration possible, an S-brane appeared, triggering the re-expansion of a cosmos filled with matter and radiation (a big bang) and with small variations in temperature and pressure (giving rise to the well-known splotches in the baby pictures of the universe). That's what three physicists propose in a new paper published online in July to the preprint server arXiv, meaning the paper has yet to be peer-reviewed.

Is this idea correct? Who knows. String theory is on thin theoretical ice recently, as experiments like those at the Large Hadron Collider have failed to find any hints of a theory known as supersymmetry, which is a critical underpinning of String theory . And the concept of S-branes is itself a controversial idea within the String Theory community, as it's not exactly known if branes would be allowed to exist only in one moment in time.

There's also the fact that not only is the universe as we know it expanding, but it's accelerating in its expansion, with no sign whatsoever of it slowing down (let alone collapsing) anytime soon. Figuring out what could make it hit the brakes and reverse course, then, is tricky.

Still, Ekpyrotic (and other) ideas are worth exploring, because the earliest moments of the universe provide some of the most puzzling and challenging questions to modern physics.

Paul M. Sutter is an astrophysicist at SUNY Stony Brook and the Flatiron Institute, host of Ask a Spaceman and Space Radio, and author of Your Place in the Universe.

Originally published in Live Science.

Paul Sutter

Paul M. Sutter is a research professor in astrophysics at  SUNY Stony Brook University and the Flatiron Institute in New York City. He regularly appears on TV and podcasts, including  "Ask a Spaceman." He is the author of two books, "Your Place in the Universe" and "How to Die in Space," and is a regular contributor to, Live Science, and more. Paul received his PhD in Physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2011, and spent three years at the Paris Institute of Astrophysics, followed by a research fellowship in Trieste, Italy. 

  • Valentine Michael Smith
    Think top-down, yo. As in manifold - a toroidal device, the inner surface containing the function of the universe - meaning form followed function.
  • FB36
    IMHO, the progress of theoretical physics towards TOE is STUCK today because of physically unrealistic theories like String Theory!

    Hint: There cannot be any ideal/perfect geometric objects like 0-dimensional points (0 size & infinite density singularities) or 1-dimensional (0 width) strings, in the real physical universe!!!
  • Stephen B Fry
    admin said:
    All you need is some string.

    How to build a universe after a big bounce : Read more
    Replying to the article :
    "Could the universe collapse into a singularity?"
    I report that this was predicted / stated to be true in the book "The Rosicrucian Cosmo-Conception" of 1912 (?) by Max Heindel.
    I was astonished to read that this "Belief Group" simply predicted the Big Bang some 50 years before scientists postulated it.
    Heindel states unequivocally:
    Our 'Universe' expands from nothing 7 times, before collapsing back into a point and becoming non-existent for a period before re-expanding again. Further, we are currently in the expansion phase of the 3rd explosion from nothing, and in the 2nd part of this phase our universe will once again contract to a point. They give names to each of these 7 expand-contract processes, based on ... ( the planets ! - if I remember rightly).
    I think he says ours is the 'Saturn' phase.
    Heindel writes didactically, i.e. "These are the facts."
    I gather they were acquired by a process of spiritual enquiry or intuition or something of that sort. This was interesting to me as I had started this curiosity path with Carlos Castaneda who successfully inspires the idea that there may be various levels or types of perception of reality, and I was interested in the idea that if you adjust you mind appropriately you may be able to perceive certain facts of this sort.
    What is extraordinary is that Heindel states them as discovered fact! I.e. humans have this capacity...
    Subsequently I discovered Rudolf Steiner, and learned that he 'discovered' a whole lot of similar 'observed' 'facts' by the same process. Now Steiner is quite convincing. Takes a lot of reading (took me a year to read his "Occult Science" ! ), though. Turns out ( I think - memory not precise ) he states exactly the same thing: 7 cycles, 7 expansions, we are in the expansion part of the third. And named after the planets... He started writing around 1890 I think.
    Maybe the Rosicrucians adapted his perceptions. Anyway, be advised that leading 'Spiritual Vision' folk (in Steiner's case, impressively coherent in the use, working and adaptation of the mind) predicted the Big Bang probably pre-1900 and maybe pre-1980 (have to look it up). Need to read a lot more of Steiner - v interesting...
  • Valentine Michael Smith
    Whether all humans may have access to this capacity, most will not find it. Unsurprising given the social conditions, and people's tendency to take revelation as gospel, and make life decisions let alone build one's life around such.

    My idea above suggests cycle. Doesn't affect my life.
  • Breton Prof
    My theory is something my mind came up with before I knew about anyone else's theory. That the universe has been here for possibly millions, billions or even trillions of earth years. I call it Quantum Time. This basically means that the universe happens all at the same time from the beginning to the end all in one universal split second, then it starts all over again. We are constantly being born and dying each time; with the proviso that we can try to improve our existence each time we are here. If we get it right then we can change our lives and the people & planet we live on and evolve to the next level of our evolution; if we get it wrong then we get the chance to try again. This is why we have that Deja vu feeling or gut feeling (because we have done it all before). Scientists have proved that we subconsciously know what is coming before we think it. To me, this smells of us being all involved in some kind of galactic experiment.