The Meaning of Inflation

Our little meeting here in Copenhagen is more-or-less over and I’ve now got a free day to enjoy my birthday. It’s a lovely sunny morning and I’m looking forward to being a tourist. Yesterday we had a busy day of talks and discussions followed by a pleasant dinner in a nearby restaurant. One of the good things about small informal meetings like this is that you really get the chance to ask proper questions and have a meaningful dialogue, although sometimes things get a bit heated – especially when people like Leonid Grishchuk are present!

Leonid’s talk yesterday contained various polemical statements about cosmic inflation involving words like “bullshit” and “nonsense”. In the subsequent discussion the question arose as to what, precisely, the word inflation means.

In a nutshell, cosmic inflation is the name given to a short period of rapidly accelerating expansion in the very early Universe that caused it to expand by an enormous factor and also laid down a spectrum of fluctuations through quantum-mechanical processes.  Inflation is a part of the standard “Big Bang” cosmological model, and there is a great deal of circumstantial evidence for it having happened and it’s a very elegant theory. I think it’s safe to say that there isn’t definitive proof but it’s certainly a thriving industry associated with its many versions.

However, the point is that there are many variants of the basic inflationary universe scenario – involving different fields, energy scales and so on – and, although they share some common features, they also differ dramatically from one to the other. What, it was asked, are the essential elements of inflation and what bits are just the trimmings?

In order to contribute meaningfully to the discussion I called upon the assistance of the Oxford English Dictionary to see how it defines inflation. The result was unexpectedly hilarious. Here are the first four definitions as they appear in the OED’s online edition:

  1. The action of inflating or distending with air or gas
  2. The condition of being inflated with air or gas, or being distended or swollen as if with air
  3. The condition of being puffed up with vanity, pride or baseless notions
  4. The quality of language or style when it is swollen with big or pompous words; turgidity, bombast

I was quite surprised that definitions to do with economics only appear further down the list, but cosmology’s position even lower down wasn’t unexpected.   However, the leading entries are brilliant, especially definition number 3, which I think is hilarious. I’ll never be able to mention inflation again without thinking of that!

I fear I may have given Leonid quite a bit of ammunition for future anti-inflation rants although if he uses the phrase “baseless notions” in future talks he should perhaps also be careful  to steer clear of “bombast”…

8 Responses to “The Meaning of Inflation”

  1. OED Cosmic(2): Also, universal; infinite; immense.

    What does this mean for bombastic cosmic inflation I wonder….

  2. Anton Garrett Says:

    The greatest ideas in physics are both beautiful and intelligent. I regard inflation as intelligent but not beautiful.

  3. telescoper Says:

    Can physics be beautiful if the Universe is ugly?

  4. Anton Garrett Says:

    Dunno. IS the universe ugly?

  5. telescoper Says:

    I’ve seen worse.

  6. Andrew Liddle Says:

    telescoper Says: I’ve seen worse.

    Ah, proof of the multiverse at last.

  7. Doesn’t the OED start with the oldest meanings first?

  8. telescoper Says:

    It can’t be so. The oldest references are not in the same order as the definitions.

    The oldest quotation for (1) is 1601 while that for (3) is 1531.
    Incidentally the latter says

    Singular inflacyons & elacyons of the mynde

    You see that spelling was no better in those days.

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