The Early Days of a Better Nation

Saturday, October 01, 2005

The Big Bag Never Opened

Some time in the 1980s The Guardian, then so notorious for misprints that it was nicknamed The Grauniad, published an article that referred to 'the big bag theory' of the origin of the universe. A letter pointing out this mistake was sportingly illustrated with a cartoon of the Greek goddess Cornucopia, shaking the stars and galaxies out of a big bag.

There is in fact a connection between the Big Bang theory and cornucopia, but it's an entirely negative one. Such at any rate is the claim made by Eric J. Lerner, in his book The Big Bang Never Happened, which I recently rediscovered while tidying the workroom.

I first read Lerner's book several years ago. It didn't convince me, but it stimulated me to pay more attention to New Scientist's cosmology articles, which I had hitherto skimmed. Re-reading it after a few years of thus paying (more) attention, it made a lot more sense than it did the first time. Some of it is dated - Lerner was sceptical of galactic black holes, which have now been observed. It's been criticised, defended by its author and others, and I have no competence to comment. However, the technical back-and-forth is becoming increasingly beside the point. Problems with the Big Bang are now so mainstream that Lerner is cited, as a minority viewpoint but by no means a crackpot, in New Scientist itself, which recently devoted an issue to the subject. Even the plasma cosmology, developed by the Swedish physicist and Nobel Laureate Hannes Alfvén, seems to make more sense these days, with observations of obvious plasma flows and vast electromagnetic phenomena.

While there's little doubt that the observable universe is expanding, and that that expansion had a beginning in some kind of big bang, this does not necessarily imply the full eldritch pantheon of the Big Bang theory. That the entire universe emerged literally from nothing for completely unknown reasons, was inflated in an instant to a much larger size by a completely unknown force, is still accelerating outward under the influence of another completely unknown force, and that nine-tenths of it consists of a completely unknown form of matter, might seem at first glance an odd conclusion for a scientific deduction. If the name hadn't already been taken, the Big Bang theory would be known as scientific creationism.

And, like an earlier creationism, it has increasing difficulty in dealing with the evidence from the past. A cursory search turns up reports of: bafflingly early large-scale structures, old-looking early galaxies and even speculation that the most sacred relic of the Big Bang, the cosmic background radiation, is local in origin:
The most contentious possibility is that the background radiation itself isn't a remnant of the big bang but was created by a different process, a "local" process so close to Earth that the radiation wouldn't go near any gravitational lenses before reaching our telescopes.
The article continues with a brisk summary of the Big Bang's problems:
Although widely accepted by astrophysicists and cosmologists as the best theory for the creation of the universe, the big bang model has come under increasingly vocal criticism from scientists concerned about inconsistencies between the theory and astronomical observations, or by concepts that have been used to "fix" the theory so it agrees with those observations.

These fixes include theories which say the nascent universe expanded at speeds faster than the speed of light for an unknown period of time after the big bang; dark matter, which was used to explain how galaxies and clusters of galaxies keep from flying apart even though there seems to be too little matter to provide the gravity needed to hold them together; and dark energy, an unseen, unmeasured and unexplained force that is apparently causing the universe not only to expand, but to accelerate as it goes.

In research published April 10 in the "Astrophysical Journal, Letters," Lieu and Mittaz found that evidence provided by WMAP point to a slightly "super critical" universe, where there is more matter (and gravity) than what the standard interpretation of the WMAP data says. This posed serious problems to the inflationary paradigm.

Recent observations by NASA's new Spitzer space telescope found "old" stars and galaxies so far away that the light we are seeing now left those stars when (according to big bang theory) the universe was between 600 million and one billion years old -- much too young to have galaxies with red giant stars that have burned off all of their hydrogen.

Other observations found clusters and super clusters of galaxies at those great distances, when the universe was supposed to have been so young that there had not been enough time for those monstrous intergalactic structures to form.
No doubt a suitable fix for these will be in shortly, if it isn't already. To the making of epicycles there is no end.

What's really intriguing, though, is that Lerner has not been content with theory. In fact, contentment with theory is for him the root of the problem. Like Alfvén, he affirms that the best way to understand cosmic processes is through hands-on experimental work with similar processes in the laboratory. As director of Lawrenceville Plasma Physics, he has conducted extensive research into plasma physics, particularly the plasma focus device, with the ultimate aim of developing cheap fusion power. He has some US government support and private investment, and a step-by-step business plan.

And Cornucopia? Well, Lerner's thesis is that there's a tight connection between technological devlopment, our understanding of the universe, and the general condition of society. The Big Bang cosmology has an immense ideological appeal in a society without any hopeful vision of the future. The shift from experiment and observation to increasingly arcane theory and the multiplication of epicycles is a further malign twist, digging us deeper into the hole. Fundamental technological developments are slowed down. Apart from biotech, in which great advances in both theory and practice have gone together, the rest of our technology - even the Internet - is an elaboration, refinement and diffusion of developments made half a century or more ago.

And that's why the big bag never opened.


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