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Cosmology Is Having Its Own Darwinian Crisis


Editor's Note: Denyse O'Leary writes in our current cover story about how "Many in cosmology have never made any secret of their dislike of the Big Bang," since on its evidence the universe appears "suddenly created" and "finely tuned." We asked another new contributor, physicist Rob Sheldon, for his take on an interesting 2010 arXive paper by Roger Penrose and V.G. Gurzadyan, "Concentric circles in WMAP data may provide evidence of violent pre-Big-Bang activity," that tries to solve the problem of the Big Bang by substituting an "eternal, cyclic cosmos."

Dr. Sheldon received his PhD from the University of Maryland, College Park. After appointments at the University of Bern in Switzerland, Boston University, and the University of Alabama in Huntsville, he is currently consulting with NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center.

As you know by now, the finiteness of the universe is extremely disturbing to materialists, who want an infinite universe to avoid ever having to discuss a creator. It's a gambit pioneered by Democritus and Epicurus, ridiculed by Aristotle, and promoted by Lucretius and then the 17th-century materialists. The usual counter to materialism was biology, beginning with Aristotle, because of the inescapable evidence of purpose, of teleology. This is what made Darwin so very, very popular. He provided a materialist answer to the evidence of teleology in biology. 

But the success was short lived, because some sixty years later, around 1915-1919, Einstein developed his "General Theory of Relativity" demonstrating that the universe had a beginning. This is documented by the astronomer Robert Jastrow in his 1979 book God and the Astronomers. Stanley Jaki expands the critique in his important book God and the Cosmologists. Both of them point out that the discovery of the beginning of the universe undermines materialism. (Jaki's critique is, of course, the more scathing.)

Sir Roger Penrose is a member of the Humanist Society, which is the polite version of "New Atheists." So he has an interest in eliminating the appearance of a creation event. One of the early attempts at this was to posit a "bouncing" universe that would alternately expand and contract and expand again. Stephen Hawking teamed up with Penrose to demonstrate that this was impossible, because the contraction would lead to a black hole, from which nothing could bounce.

Recent suggestions coming from "quantum loop gravity" posit an incompressible "stringy" physics below the size scale of the proton that can cause the universe to bounce out of a black hole. My objection to most of those theories is that the forces they invoke are unobservable right now, so it is akin to adding a "tooth fairy" to the theory. One rule-of-thumb in physics is that every theory can invoke one tooth fairy, but never two. All these theories have a second tooth fairy that makes the first one vanish.

But the real demise of the "bouncing Big Bang" was the discovery that there wasn't enough matter in the universe to slow down the expansion of the Big Bang, so there will never be a "Big Crunch." Instead, the galaxies will fly further and further apart as the stars burn out into cold cinders and the black hole at the center of every galaxy will slowly consume every cinder until untold eons later the black holes evaporate via "Hawking radiation" into a vast emptiness of lonely photons.

Penrose, however, has lost neither his hope nor his imagination. He suggests that when the last black hole vanishes, the universe will have no measuring sticks, no matter in it. At this point it is ruled completely by the laws of electromagnetics and therefore will spontaneously shrink 50 orders of magnitude until it generates matter again, at which point it will look exactly the same as the Big Bang looked at 10^-34 seconds -- hot and seething with energy and creative potential. And you thought the Phoenix was a silly Greek myth?

Presumably, the signature of this shrinking will be a gravity wave set up in the fabric of space-time, such that the resulting Big Bang is the second event of creation. Thus we can look at the distribution of Cosmic Microwave Background and see an echo of the first event. Since Penrose is a theorist, he hired an experimentalist to do the data mining in the CMB data set, and the arXive paper supposedly finds a ring of brighter CMB that Penrose attributes to this effect. So, is this a classic "hypothesis -- prediction -- validation" paper?

I doubt it, for the following reasons:

  • Penrose's theory is so vague in particulars that it can be used to fit any set of data.

  • The ring that is observed looks too "perfect," which suggests it is an artifact of the data processing.

  • The processing of the CMB data also involves a "ring" type of comparison to remove the "noise" in the detector. Basically the CMB signal is about 2 orders of magnitude below the noise of stars, nebula, dust, etc., and it takes a huge amount of data processing to extract it. So I think this paper simply magnifies some of the deficiencies of the data collection.

  • I really hate to say this, but the paper never made it out of the arXiv server and into the peer-reviewed literature. So I would imagine that my criticisms were also made of the paper, and the authors either couldn't respond to them, or the effect went away when they did.

  • Inasmuch as Sir Roger's theory is particular, it makes certain predictions about reality that don't seem to work too well in the present. This "evaporation" of matter into photons, for example, was a common theory for thirty years about the instability of the proton. Sir Fred Hoyle wanted protons to spontaneously appear, which means they also spontaneously disappear. So if you can collect some 10^32 protons in one place and look for 10^8 seconds, one can put a rather strict upper limit on this "evaporation" likelihood. This was done in a detector in Japan, and no protons were ever seen to decay. This means we need to invoke a second, "cloaking tooth fairy" to cover the first, and the theory starts to look more and more like the pathology of Darwinism.

Which, in fact, it is.

Image credit: NASA.