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University of Maryland research relates to study of alternate universes

University of Maryland

University of Maryland

Next time you fail one of your exams, sleep through an important job interview or spill coffee on your brand-new laptop, take comfort in the idea that somewhere far away in an alternate reality, everything may be going your way.

It’s a nice thought, that there could be a perfect version of yourself in an alternate universe. For one, it takes off some of the pressure of always getting things right.

It sounds like something straight out of an episode of Doctor Who. But according to scientists in some circles, Doctor Who may not be completely crazy.

For years, researchers have debated the theory of the existence of the multiverse: alternate universes outside of our own that exist in separate dimensions and have completely different laws of physics. Though many scientists view the theory as mere philosophical debate lacking much scientific merit, others remain cautiously open-minded. Cole Miller, an astronomy professor at this university, said there are many theories around the multiverse idea, but currently no way to prove them right or wrong.

“When we look out into the visible universe” — meaning everything within our range of sight — “there are hints that the totality of all there is, the cosmos, is much larger than this. It could be infinitely large,” he said. “Speculation can get pretty wild.”

Recently, university researcher Igor Smolyaninov and Towson researcher Vera Smolyaninova, along with Towson students Evan Bates and Bradley Yost, created an experiment that demonstrates properties similar to what may exist in an alternate universe.

This experimental demonstration, carried out in a tiny glass container just a couple of inches tall and an inch wide, provides a physical analogy for how light can behave differently in a system made of materials not naturally found on earth, Smolyaninov said. The system is made of ferrofluid-based material, a magnetized substance that can manipulate light to behave in ways that it doesn’t normally behave, he said.

In the demonstration, the light behaved as a physical object does in our space-time, Smolyaninova said.

Confused yet?

Space-time is the mathematical theory that encompasses the four dimensions of our world — three spatial dimensions and one time dimension — and dictates how physical objects behave, she said.

Unfortunately, the experiment doesn’t bring scientists any closer to obtaining hard evidence in support of the multiverse theory. And to actually create another universe would be impossible, Smolyaninova said. This experiment is solely to show how light can reproduce itself through this new material.

But the experiment is only the beginning, and there’s still ample potential for future discoveries.

Paulo Bedaque, a physics professor and skeptic of the multiverse idea, said he doubts the experiment will lead to any breakthroughs in physics, but it may give rise to new innovations in the field of engineering. Work with this ferrofluid-based material could lead to the creation of new substances with practical applications, he said.

Part of the experiment’s purpose is to perfect the ferrofluid-based material and show that it can be used in place of more complicated and costly artificial materials. That could aid scientists in other experiments as well as in practical work, such as preventing computer chips from overheating, Smolyaninova said.

After about six months of work, the team is planning to add a new twist to the experiment: coating some particles in gold to try to improve the properties of the material, Smolyaninov said.

Miller said he hopes the researchers will eventually be able to create conditions we don’t have on earth and witness the resulting impacts on the laws of physics on a small scale.

“If they are able to customize what these metamaterials can do, it sounds like it could lead to some pretty interesting breakthroughs,” Miller said.

For example, in their mini-system, researchers could experiment with what could happen to the laws of physics close to a black hole, or what would happen if protons weighed more or less than they do, he said.

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