by Wal Thornhill | October 29, 2006 2:26 pm
“There are some ideas so wrong that only a very intelligent person could believe them.”
Consensus discourages dissent… It is the enemy of science, just as it is the triumph of politics. A theory accepted by 99 percent of scientists may be wrong. Committees… that decide which projects shall be funded are inevitably run by scientists who are at peace with the dominant theory. Changing the consensus on cosmology will be an arduous task, like turning a supertanker with a broken rudder.
…the competition of theories has been the driving force behind scientific progress. Isolated individuals and private companies have been the most fruitful sources of this advance.
—paraphrasing Tom Bethell from his book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science
The Nobel Prize in Physics for 2006 was shared between John C. Mather and George F. Smoot “for their discovery of the blackbody form and anisotropy of the cosmic microwave background [CMB] radiation.”
They announced in 1992 the discovery of residual heat from the big bang, as well as minute variations in temperature across the sky that indicated the beginnings of structure in the early universe that evolved into galaxies and clusters of galaxies. “Those measurements really confirmed our picture of the Big Bang,” Smoot said. “By studying the fluctuations in the microwave background, we found a tool that allowed us to explore the early universe, to see how it evolved and what it’s made of.”
The results from COBE were “the greatest discovery of the century, if not all times,” the British physicist Stephen Hawking has said.
“These measurements… marked the inception of cosmology as a precise science,” the Nobel jury said in its citation.
David Suzuki in a recent interview made the practical observation that ideas considered “red-hot” when he left university are now considered laughable. Science advances by incremental steps, he said. Our mistake is to place too much emphasis on those steps when they occur. By doing so we may be missing the bigger picture.
This highlights a problem faced by the Nobel Prize committee. If an award is granted too soon after one of science’s incremental steps their decision may shortly prove to be an embarrassment. I predict that the Nobel Prize in Physics for 2006 will have some present committee members red-faced because the “Big Bang” theory it rewards is already dead! Technically, the Big Bang is not even a theory. It is a hypothesis that, despite the Nobel committee’s imprimatur, remains devoid of real experimental and descriptive verification.
Strictly, theories are hypotheses that have been tested and found valid. The Big Bang is a highly adaptable hypothesis that has been repeatedly modified after failing tests. Some of those modifications are incredible, involving the invention of “dark” matter that responds to gravity but not to electromagnetic radiation. There is no known matter that does not involve electric charge and/or magnetism, so how is this possible? More recently, “dark energy” has been added to the Bang because it is perceived that it is accelerating. The Big Bang is, by scientific standards, an execrable hypothesis that defies the principles of physics and common sense. Future historians of science will judge this era insane.
Dennis Overbye described the situation in an essay in the NY Times:
You might wonder just exactly what kind of triumph “precision cosmology” represents when 96 percent of the universe is unknown dark stuff. Stars and people we know about. But the best guess for dark matter is that it is some kind of subatomic particle that will be discovered someday.
Dark energy was a complete surprise. How often do you toss a handful of gravel into the air and the rocks speed up as they leave your hand and disappear into the sky? The leading contender for an explanation is a fudge factor representing the repulsive force of empty space that Einstein danced in and out of his equations 75 or so years ago. But no one really knows.
The observation that saved the Big Bang theory from the trash in 1991 was the discovery honoured by this Nobel Prize. However, it remains a bold assumption that the COBE results can be interpreted as the afterglow of a Big Bang.
The truth is, as one might expect, much simpler. At the heart of the Big Bang hypothesis is the interpretation of the redshift of faint distant objects as proof that the universe is expanding. Now called the “Hubble expansion,” it is an interpretation that was not supported by Hubble. History has been rewritten. As my sadly missed colleague, Amy Acheson, wrote in 2003:
The disproof of the Big Bang is already nearly 40 years old. Halton Arp’s first major paper on discordant redshifts was submitted to the The Astrophysical Journal in 1966, at a time when he had just finished his Atlas of Peculiar Galaxies and was listed by the Association of Astronomical Professionals as ‘most outstanding young astronomer’ and among the top 20 astronomers in the world. The editor, Chandrasekhar, rejected that paper because of its subject, without even being submitted to peer review.
Concerning M87, 2C273, and M49, one of several aligned configurations discussed in that first paper, Arp said, (Seeing Red, 1998) ‘Perhaps even more convincing is the common-sense question: Is it significant that the brightest quasar in the sky falls in the dominant cluster in the sky — and forms a pair with the brightest radio galaxy in the cluster, almost exactly aligned across the brightest galaxy in the center of the cluster?’ … It is incomprehensible to me how astronomers could have continued believing that quasars were at their redshift distance after even this one single result. More than 30 years ago astronomy took a gamble, against odds of a million to one, that this observation was an accident. Arp was squeezed out of his Palomar telescope assignment because the allotment committee would not permit telescope time to any non-Big Bang project.
Of course, Amy was not the only one to have sounded a warning. Carl Sagan wrote in his book COSMOS in 1980:
“If Arp is right, the exotic mechanisms proposed to explain the energy source of the distant quasars—supernova chain reactions, super-massive black holes and the like—would be unnecessary. Quasars need not then be very distant.”
And in New Scientist of May 22, 2004, an “Open Letter to the Scientific Community” was published. It has now been signed by hundreds of researchers around the globe. The letter notes:
“the big bang theory can boast of no quantitative predictions that have subsequently been validated by observation. The successes claimed by the theory’s supporters consist of its ability to retrospectively fit observations with a steadily increasing array of adjustable parameters, just as the old Earth-centred cosmology of Ptolemy needed layer upon layer of epicycles.”
The open letter led to a conference, “Crisis in Cosmology: Challenging Observations and the Quest for a New Picture of the Universe,” held in Portugal in June 2005. Its stated aim was to:
“consider the present state of understanding of the universe in the light of the increasing number of observations that challenge the conventional cosmological model. Participants will address observations such as the non-Gaussianity of the CMB, the excessive apparent ages of high-z galaxies, discrepancies in dark matter observations, the early formation of large-scale structure, the increasingly discordant results for light element abundances, the angular-size/redshift relation, and others.”
If Arp and others are right and the Big Bang is dead, what does the Cosmic Microwave Background signify?
The simplest answer, from the highly successful field of plasma cosmology, is that it represents the natural microwave radiation from electric current filaments in interstellar plasma local to the Sun. Radio astronomers have mapped the interstellar hydrogen filaments by using longer wavelength receivers. The dense thicket formed by those filaments produces a perfect fog of microwave radiation—as if we were located inside a microwave oven. Instead of the Cosmic Microwave Background, it is the Interstellar Microwave Background. That makes sense of the fact that the CMB is too smooth to account for the lumpiness of galaxies and galactic clusters in the universe. We cannot “see” them through the local microwave fog.
Ironically for the Nobel jury, the death notice for the Big Bang has been provided by the unprecedented accuracy of the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, or WMAP project, which was designed to map the CMB. Rather than “pinpoint when the first stars formed and provide new clues about events that transpired in the first trillionth of a second of the universe,” the more detailed map matches the unique heated plasma signature of interactions between local interstellar hydrogen filaments. So it is, with a sigh of utter relief, we can dispose of all the whimsical nonsense accompanying the Big Bang hypothesis—the invisible dark matter, the dark energy, the expanding universe (whatever that meant) and creation of matter from nothing. (And cosmologists can don sackcloth and ashes and admit their profound ignorance—while pigs perform aerobatics overhead and the Nobel committee ask for their prize money back.)
As the Open Letter notes:
“Big Bang proponents have won the political and funding battle so that virtually all financial and experimental resources in cosmology are devoted to Big Bang studies. Funding comes from only a few sources, and supporters of the Big Bang dominate all the peer-review committees that control the funds. As a result, the dominance of the Big Bang within the field has become self-sustaining, irrespective of the scientific validity of the theory.”
It points to a failure of the way science is done today and the way scientists are trained.
One of the casualties in modern physics has been the natural philosopher. If natural philosophers had retained their primary role in physics, instead of having it usurped by mathematicians like Einstein, Hawking, and many others who jumped on the bandwagon, we might have fewer “visions of God” in their “beautiful” mathematical equations and a better grounding in the extent of our ignorance.
If there were less reliance on monocultural monolithic research establishments and some modest funding for independent scholars, as suggested by the biologist Rupert Sheldrake, we might see once more the kind of freewheeling market of ideas we had at the end of the 19th century. Of course that market today needs the Internet to loosen the shackles of scientific censorship and control through anonymous peer review.
On the question of education, I regularly attend seminars given by leading researchers. The strongest impression is that of an enthusiastic “show and tell” at primary school —although the language is far more arcane. Perhaps this recognition stems from the fact that I was one of those kids who exalted in memorizing astronomical facts from encyclopaedias and books and presenting them to my under-whelmed classmates. Such display of cleverness established the intellectual pecking order in the class and often sets a lifelong behavior pattern for academics. The disturbing thing is that the basic stories I told more than 50 years ago have not changed, despite the avalanche of surprises from space probes. Those “once-upon-a-time” narratives have become a modern myth.
The seminar performances remind me that most academics have never left school. The satisfaction in embellishing a childhood fable is palpable. And the media encourages drama and exaggeration. These people deliver to the public what passes for science in press releases and contrived video clips of imaginary objects and events. But the same schoolyard imperatives apply. You are OK if you stick to the accepted storyline. You are out if you deviate too far. It can be a very cosy environment for those who conform, but it stifles or excludes the non-conformists who, history shows, are commonly the source of real breakthroughs. It seems to me that our teachers must emphasize the things we don’t really know or that were controversial and decided by a vote, instead of a sanitized myth of scientific progress. That way we might challenge more thoughtful students to take up science.
And the myths we are told without a moment’s reflection? Why, they start with the Big Bang, which somehow begets stars and galaxies. Galaxies somehow contrive to form spirals. Stars somehow manage to shine steadily despite the belief they are thermonuclear bombs. Stellar nebulae somehow beget planets from a disk of dust and gas. The Earth somehow finds itself with a lot of water and a large moon. Venus somehow is hellishly hot, has no moon and spins slowly backwards. “Somehow” is the operative process in modern cosmology. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that somehow we are giving Nobel prizes to those responsible for revitalizing this nonsense.
George Smoot recalls that when he first started his career, cosmology wasn’t even considered a real science. “It was a fringe field,” he said. True, cosmology is no longer a fringe field but it is equally true that it remains “not real science.” The reason for this is exposed in his comment, “Human beings have had the audacity to conceive a theory of creation and now, we are able to test that theory.” Human beings have misconstrued religious stories of creation as referring to the universe, when that is clearly impossible. Scientists then had the audacity to think they had to conceive a competing hypothesis of creation of the universe, when that too is clearly impossible: We don’t understand the real nature of matter or its interactions via gravity or light. We haven’t even begun to accept the possibility that electricity plays a fundamental role in the universe. And as for the tests of the Big Bang hypothesis, they are viewed through the distorting lens of preconception. Afterwards theory is bent to fit. That may explain the ‘Alice in Wonderland’ appeal of cosmology— “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
It’s not that most of the matter and energy in the universe is dark, but that most cosmologists are totally in the dark about the real nature of the universe.
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