In Search of a Road to Reality
The new cosmologies are not shedding much light, except on the sheer power of the human imagination. Whatever they were supposed to explain has been rendered by their own rules unexplainable. What follows?
In a 2012 triumph, the Large Hadron Collider detected the previously theoretical Higgs boson (the "God particle," thought to give everything in the universe mass). But the boson did not support any radical new cosmologies. Its lightness suggests the existence of other similar particles. That's promising for research but little more than that. Indeed, the Higgs's feast of data "seems to match the standard model's predictions perfectly" and leaves "usurpers of 'standard model' [with] little to chew on, as Nature put the matter in 2012. Science writer John Horgan says, "The Higgs doesn't take us any closer to a unified theory than climbing a tree would take me to the Moon."
Meanwhile researchers are finding greater structure in the universe than they anticipated. Spiral galaxies are "pin-ups of the cosmos" and thus "something of a headache" if chaos and disorder are expected. Much of the vast array of proposed life-friendly exoplanets, that would show Earth to be just average, could mainly be gas and dust.
Britain's Guardian asks, thinking about the multiverse, "Has physics gone too far?" Perhaps a better question would be, is New Atheist cosmology failing as physics? Because, make no mistake, an admitted motive for seeking alternatives to the Big Bang and the fine-tuning of our universe is getting rid of their theistic implications.
Worse, for some, the hateful Big Bang bangs on, oblivious of its critics. Cosmologist Alexander Vilenkin, resigned to the Big Bang's reality, theorizes that it was "merely one of a series of big bangs creating an endless number of bubble universes." Another scheme to get rid of the Big Bang as a singularity involves a rainbow universe where time has no beginning, a model that, as Scientific American tells us, "is not widely accepted." No wonder because, as one critic put it, the scheme must get rid of the singularity within the Standard Model of physics. Similarly, another new cosmology accounts for the apparent acceleration of the universe -- but only if there is no Big Bang: "This universe has no beginning or end, just alternating periods of expansion and contraction." It also has no cosmic microwave background, which our universe inconveniently does have.
Still others propose that the Big Bang was a "mirage from [a] collapsing higher-dimensional star," a thesis with which the new Planck data apparently disagree. In general, experimental findings continue to support the Standard Model. As New Scientist's editors put it in a 2012 editorial titled "The Genesis problem":
Many physicists have been fighting a rearguard action against it for decades, largely because of its theological overtones. If you have an instant of creation, don't you need a creator?But does that mean evidence matters again? Not clear. Some say we now have the tools to examine the beginning of the universe scientifically; others that we may never know what it was like. And there's always the option of declaring stubborn facts off limits. Steven Weinberg reflects:
Cosmologists thought they had a workaround. Over the years, they have tried on several different models of the universe that dodge the need for a beginning while still requiring a big bang. But recent research has shot them full of holes. It now seems certain that the universe did have a beginning.
Physical science has historically progressed not only by finding precise explanations of natural phenomena, but also by discovering what sorts of things can be precisely explained. These may be fewer than we had thought.So are there any science questions the multiverse does answer? In "The Accidental Universe: Science's Crisis of Faith," Alan Lightman echoes,
According to the current thinking of many physicists, we are living in one of a vast number of universes. We are living in an accidental universe. We are living in a universe uncalculable by science.If science finds the universe "uncalculable," surely the meaning of "anti-science" changes. Isn't "anti-science" a mere unwillingness to waste valuable time and funds on matters into which no one may usefully inquire?
Here's an alternative: On the road to reality, evidence must matter again. The weight of the evidence must count. And when it does count, if our cosmos is orderly, new approaches will emerge. They may be emerging now.
Intriguingly, a recent article in Scientific American noted, "Some researchers think that the world, at root, does not consist of material things but of relations or of properties, such as mass, charge and spin." But information, not matter, is fundamentally relational.
So, is the basic substance of the universe information? In that case, the ID theorists are right.
Editor's note: Here is the "Science Fictions" series to date at your fingertips.