The universe as we know it originated in a great explosion that we call the big bang. For nearly a century cosmologists have been studying the aftermath of this explosion: how the universe expanded and cooled down, and how galaxies were gradually pulled together by gravity. The nature of the bang itself has come into focus only relatively recently. It is the subject of the theory of inflation, which was developed in the early 1980s by Alan Guth, Andrei Linde? and others, and has led to a radically new global view of the universe.
Inflation is a period of super-fast, accelerated expansion in early cosmic history. It is so fast that in a fraction of a second a tiny subatomic speck of space is blown to dimensions much greater than the entire currently observable region. At the end of inflation, the energy that drove the expansion ignites a hot fireball of particles and radiation. This is what we call the big bang.
The end of inflation is triggered by quantum, probabilistic processes and does not occur everywhere at once. In our cosmic neighborhood, inflation ended 13.7 billion years ago, but it still continues in remote parts of the universe, and other “normal” regions like ours are constantly being formed. The new regions appear as tiny, microscopic bubbles and immediately start to grow. The bubbles keep growing without bound; in the meantime they are driven apart by the inflationary expansion, making room for more bubbles to form. This never-ending process is called eternal inflation. We live in one of the bubbles and can observe only a small part of it. No matter how fast we travel, we cannot catch up with the expanding boundaries of our bubble, so for all practical purposes we live in a self-contained bubble universe.
The theory of inflation explained some otherwise mysterious features of the big bang, which simply had to be postulated before. It also made a number of testable predictions, which were then spectacularly confirmed by observations. By now inflation has become the leading cosmological paradigm.
Another key aspect of the new worldview derives from string theory, which is at present our best candidate for the fundamental theory of nature. String theory admits an immense number of solutions describing bubble universes with diverse physical properties. The quantities we call constants of nature, such as the masses of elementary particles, Newton’s gravitational constant, and so on, take different values in different bubble types. Now combine this with the theory of inflation. Each bubble type has a certain probability to form in the inflating space. So inevitably, an unlimited number of bubbles of all possible types will be formed in the course of eternal inflation.
This picture of the universe, or multiverse, as it is called, explains the long-standing mystery....