Custom-Made Metamaterials Could Show Scientists a Tabletop Big Bang

Using materials analogous to different space-times, scientists might be able to create a toy "big bang" in the laboratory

Early Universe


For all the visualizations, artist's renderings and animations of the birth of our universe, it is still exceedingly hard to imagine the Big Bang: from nothing emerges everything.

But what if you could create a big bang on a lab bench -- make a model of the universe's emergence. University of Maryland engineering professor Igor Smolyaninov has proposed just that, describing the opportunity to create a "toy big bang" using precisely designed metamaterials that are mathematically analogous to certain conditions of the real-world big bang.

Metamaterials are artificially engineered structures made to embody properties not always possible in nature. Specifically, some metamaterials can reproduce the behavior of light in a variety of spacetimes unlike the dimensions we perceive in the world (with two dimensions of space and two of time, for example). Because light moves in a metamaterial the same way it would move in a certain spacetime, we can see a representation of what might happen in such a spacetime by dealing with the metamaterial instead.

Smolyaninov gives a mathematical demonstration that one metamaterial -- representing two space dimensions and two time dimensions -- could undergo a phase transition leading to the equivalent of a sudden reduction to only one time dimension and the creation of lots of particles. In effect, it would be like a model Big Bang -- the creation of a new 2,1 spacetime and a bunch of matter.