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Brad Cownden


Using supercomputers, math, and way-out-there thinking to study the big bang

June 25, 2018 — 

There is a menu of theories to choose from for how the universe began, the most popular being the big bang option where every tiny part of every particle to ever exist was squeezed into a dot so compact it had no dimension at all. Then this “singularity” blew up and expanded. But it didn’t expand into emptiness because that didn’t exist: the only space that existed was the space it created as it inflated.

It’s wrong to picture this exploding dot surrounded by anything because nothing exists outside of it. No space. No time.

Theoretical physicist Brad Cownden, 3MT finalist and PhD student in physics and astronomy, works with his advisor, adjunct professor Andrew Frey, to understand these early moments of the universe, especially the plasma created at the beginning.

“My interests in space and astronomy are really what led me to what I study now,” Cownden says. “Starting with the solar system, I kept thinking: what is beyond? In our search to see beyond our galaxy, local group, or supercluster, we are also looking further back in time. At the edge of the observable universe, we see an imprint of the hot, dense plasma that made up the universe 300,000 years after the big bang.”

Large particle accelerators can create plasmas—thick soups made of the innards of protons and neutrons—but we still lack good theories for how they would have behaved, which is important if you want to know how everything around you got there.

Using supercomputers, math, and way-out-there thinking, Cownden is developing a better theory of plasmas by using the holographic principle.

In his research, Cownden imagines a scenario where an easily-solved theory lives inside a sphere, and the hard-to-solve plasma is wrapped around its surface. What’s a theoretical physicist to do? Study the easy part to reveal the difficult part.

In everyday life, holograms are used to encode the information from three dimensions (like that picture of a bird on the back of many credit cards) into only two dimensions.

In physics, the holographic principle stipulates that the information from inside the sphere (three dimensions) must constantly be encoded onto the surface (two dimensions). So Cownden studies how the theory inside the sphere behaves, and uses the holographic principle to translate those results into a description of the plasma.

And the plasma behaves oddly.

Imagine heating a pot of plasma on the stove. Contrary to how a pot of water would boil, a plasma would have some parts that heat up while other parts stay cold.

“The whole thing may never become the same temperature. Pretty weird, right?,” Cownden says. “I’ve always been amazed with how—and why—the universe works the way it does. I hope that my research using the holographic principle will help us better understand the strange behaviour of the early universe.”

Cownden shares his passion in science, math, and computers with inner-city youth through coding camps. There he hopes to spark an interest in in the next generation of stargazers.

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Research at the University of Manitoba is partially supported by funding from the Government of Canada Research Support Fund.

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