The history of the universe in ten minutes

As communicators of science our job is often to take huge amounts of complicated information and condense it into something understandable. Scientist, composer, and author Glenna Burmer recently took on a monumental task: explain the 13.8 billion year history of the universe in a ten-minute movie.

Glenna Burmer

Glenna Burmer talked during a presentation at the Museum of Flight about her process for creating her movie “The Big Bang.” Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“There are some challenges being an amateur filmmaker and trying to condense this much information into a movie,” Burmer understated. She did it, though, and you will be able to see her work as part of the Origins: Life and the Universe multimedia concert that will be held Nov. 7 at Benaroya Hall. Burmer is one of eight composers whose work will be featured at the event. She and UW professor Matt McQuinn spoke at the Museum of Flight last Saturday to explain the Big Bang and preview Burmer’s film.

Burmer is a scientist; a molecular pathologist and expert in immunohistochemistry.

“As a passion, I have always loved astronomy,” she said in explaining her involvement in the project. Though a scientist, Burmer comes from a family of artists and musicians.

“Consequently, I’ve always wanted to try to synthesize science, art, and music, and this concert gives me the first-time opportunity to really do that,” she explained.

Among the challenges in doing a film about the Big Bang is that there’s no existing footage of the event, so creating visuals relied in part on particle animation technology. Burmer admits to being thrown off a bit by tensor calculus, membrane theory, and string theory, but she got enough understanding to help animators create a sequence demonstrating a Big Bang based on ekpyrotic theory. The animation shows two 3-D universes.

“They approach each other, they leak gravity, and they bud off our universe,” Burmer explained.


UW astronomy professor Matt McQuinn explained the evidence for the Big Bang during a talk Oct. 17 at the Museum of Flight. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Her film also uses pieces of many of the computer simulations McQuinn, a theoretical astrophysicist and cosmologist, used in explaining the Big Bang. He started out with an account of the discovery of the cosmic microwave background, the signature of the Big Bang. Our coverage of a recent Seattle lecture by Jim Peebles tells this tale as well.

McQuinn noted that the best evidence for a hot Big Bang is that there is way more helium in the universe than could have been created by fusion in stars. The explanation is that, soon after the Big Bang, hydrogen fused much more easily in the hot, dense new universe. Astronomers have built models based on the measurements of the radiation in the cosmic microwave background and how much helium such conditions would produce.

“The predictions from the hot Big Bang model just fall perfectly on the measurements,” of what is actually out there, McQuinn said. “This, coupled with the fact that we have seen the cosmic microwave background, makes it almost indisputable that there was a hot Big Bang. No respected scientist questions this picture any more.”

McQuinn explained that galaxies eventually formed because of fluctuations in the density of mass and energy. An as-yet undetected particle called the inflaton may be the cause.

originsposter“This particle seeded these density fluctuations,” McQuinn said. “The predictions of this model are in striking agreement with what we see, so people think that this is the answer for the source of energy fluctuation.”

“From studying the cosmic microwave background radiation, we’ve come to these profound conclusions,” McQuinn concluded. “We’re able to explain the universe down to planetary scales.”

The “Origins” concert is part of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Department of Astronomy at the UW. The concert will feature the work of eight composers and accompanying celestial photography. It is a benefit for the scholarship program at the University of Washington Astrobiology Program in the Department of Astronomy. Tickets are $32, $22 for students, and are available online or by calling the Benaroya Hall ticket office at 206-215-4747.

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