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Rob Sheldon: The real reason there is a crisis in cosmology

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This image represents the evolution of the Universe, starting with the Big Bang. The red arrow marks the flow of time.
Big Bang/NASA

Last week, we pointed to an item in Scientific American grappling with the current crisis in cosmology.Rob Sheldon, our obliging physics color commentator, offers some thoughts on that:

“Bjorn Ekeberg and I are on the same page.” he says:


The edifice of the Big Bang has some serious cracks in it. It isn’t that physics models have to be perfect, but this one is so essential to the entire field, there’s a feeling of the ground shifting under the cosmologists feet. You might even say that cosmology wasn’t a field of physics until this model came along.

Compounding the problem is hubris. (Please don’t misunderstand what I say, I’m just the King’s Fool for space science.) Europeans have America envy–the Americans are so much better funded, they get to do everything first–first to the Moon, lasers, computers, biotech, etc. When the European Space Agency is planning a mission, it’s hard for the slower-moving wheels of European parliaments to beat the US to a discovery. Consequently, they like to repeat a US mission but do it better–a better flyby of a comet (Halley, ROSETTA) a better cosmic microwave background telescope (Planck), etc.

And after a spectacular mission, they can then take their time analyzing the data (since there won’t be another for so long). Bit by dribbled bit, the data from Planck has been analyzed so thoroughly and squeezed so hard they’ve gotten blood from this turnip. (Yes, I spent 3 years in Switzerland with the ROSETTA team.) That’s what the 6-digit accuracy on the Big Bang model is all about, which the Europeans proudly call “precision cosmology.”

So not only is the Big Bang model the foundation of the field of cosmology, but the model has been invested with centuries of scientist-man-years, a cultural treasure like the pyramids of Egypt. It gives ESA bragging rights. To suggest that the theory is suffering the fate of Ozymandias:

Two vast and trunkless legs of stone//Stand in the desert…
Near them, on the sand//Half sunk a shattered visage lies… ”

— Percy Bysshe Shelley

is not something taken lightly, certainly not by most cosmologists.

Well, how can we tell whether the investment is wasted or not? Surely there is still something valuable, something progressive to be said for sticking with the model?

Ekeberg, being the careful philosopher, knows on which side his bread is buttered. Here’s his take on Ozymandias:

Each new discrepancy between observation and theory can of course in and of itself be considered an exciting promise of more research, a progressive refinement toward the truth. But when it adds up, it could also suggest a more confounding problem that is not resolved by tweaking parameters or adding new variables.

Bjørn Ekeberg, “Cosmology Has Some Big Problems” at Scientific American

Let me say what Bjorn can’t–the discrepancies are a consequence of bad metaphysics (like the reason Einstein added the cosmological constant to the model) and are irreparable.

Either the universe has a beginning, or it doesn’t, and if it has a beginning we are not going to escape it with bouncing or multiverses or inflation or wormholes. We must accept the metaphysical consequences of a beginning and move on. Nearly everything that has failed about the Big Bang model has been added because of bad metaphysics, a refusal to accept the consequences of a beginning.

The remaining pieces of the Big Bang model that are failing and which can’t be attributed to bad metaphysics were added from sheer laziness (or to say it more generously) from the limitations of paper-and-pencil calculations and primitive computers. We now have both better mathematical tools and better computers, so neither of these excuses work any longer. Therefore there is no reason to assume isotropic, homogeneous, non-magnetic solutions are the only valid ones.

I am reminded of something I heard from David Eubank, the founder of the Free Burma Rangers who said: “The reason we don’t do the right thing, is often because of pride and laziness; we don’t want to be embarrassed, and we don’t want to give up our comfort.” It is time for cosmologists to be both courageous and brave.

And this is where I part ways with Ekeberg. He has only suggested that the model is wrong, he has not suggested how it can be repaired. He hints at some of the options: Do we add “new physics”, “new particles”, or abandon “old physics”? His comment about adding floors to the model is similar to “new physics” so that he appears not to favor that option. But the alternative, which also appears to be Sabine Hossenfelder’s solution, is to abandon “old physics” and modify the Newtonian gravity paradigm, an approach known as MOND. While only a few have advocated MOND, the response from the community has been pretty vicious.

My solution is none of those things. Rather, I argue we need to abandon all the bad metaphysics that motivated the add-ons to the model. That would be inflation, isotropy, homogeneity, dark energy, “dark matter” in its “new particle” expression, and of course, non-magnetic “gas”. Once all these barnacles are off the model, we can then embrace the difficulties of a fully kinetic plasma (ie. not MHD), a fully 3-D model, and cast about for formulations that can effectively explain the data.

What gets me excited, is that my preliminary research shows that we have some excellent candidate models with nothing more exotic than extremely large magnetic fields. Some would hold that any magnetic field at all is exotic, but I reply that at least we have lots of evidence of astrophysical objects with large magnetic fields, making this assumption far more empirical than “new particles” or “MOND”. In other words, all we need is courage and bravery, willing to face the criticism and the difficulties of non-homogeneous, anisotropic, 3-D models.

What we don’t need, however, is some sort of metaphysical justification for abandoning empirical physics or believing in 5 dimensions and invisible particles. It isn’t our faith in the philosophy of science that needs repair, but our former gullibility that let scientists slip in bad metaphysics.

The hard work of the Planck team is not wasted, because the repairs to the model will make it even more physical, and therefore not just “precise” but also “accurate”. The ground may be shifting in cosmology, but it is finding its true foundation.


The Long Ascent: Genesis 1â  11 in Science & Myth, Volume 1 by [Sheldon, Robert]


Rob Sheldon is author of Genesis: The Long Ascent

See also: At Scientific American: Understanding the cosmology crisis All that said, faith in mathematics is better than faith in a lucky rabbit’s foot because the mathematics might make sense someday.

Rob Sheldon: Here’s why physicists are surprised by the universe’s increased expansion rate The two methods differ in that one is “direct” and the other “indirect”. Clearly one or both of them is making a mistake. Since it is hard to find (and people have looked) a reason why the direct method is failing, the feeling is that the indirect method must have a mistake in its model.

and

The Big Bang: Put simply,the facts are wrong.

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11 Replies to “Rob Sheldon: The real reason there is a crisis in cosmology

  1. 1
    Bob O'H says:

    Either the universe has a beginning, or it doesn’t, and if it has a beginning we are not going to escape it with bouncing or multiverses or inflation or wormholes. We must accept the metaphysical consequences of a beginning and move on. Nearly everything that has failed about the Big Bang model has been added because of bad metaphysics, a refusal to accept the consequences of a beginning.

    Eh? Isn’t the whole point of the Big Bang that it accepts that there is a beginning, and thus everything the theory posits has to be a consequence of this?

  2. 2
    Pearlman says:

    Nice article. FYI there already is a model that adds up with all the empirical evidence, that makes testable predictions, many readily observable, others awaiting expert testing. It is based on a start by a hyper-dense space, proto-galactic formation prior to cosmic inflation expansion, no subsequent cosmic expansion, we are by the center of the entire universe that approximates the visible universe. see SPIRAL cosmological redshift hypothesis and model with it’s ‘magnetic repulsion’ cosmic expansion sub-hypothesis

  3. 3
    ET says:

    Bob O’H:

    Isn’t the whole point of the Big Bang that it accepts that there is a beginning, and thus everything the theory posits has to be a consequence of this?

    The big bang pertains to the beginning of this universe and could very well be part of the big bounce.

  4. 4
    Seversky says:

    I don’t understand all this fuss about a crisis in physics. Isn’t this exactly what forces the creation of exciting new science? If what some seem to be claiming is true – that the existing models are flawed and patching them up isn’t working – then this is the time to look for radical new approaches.

    What is ugly about all this gloating about failures in science is that it has unsavory parallels to the bitter partisanship which has infected political discourse here and abroad.. To paraphrase Churchill, if you don’t have “jaw, jaw” you will eventually have “war, war”. The problem is convincing children of the digital age is that the real thing is way different from video-games.

  5. 5
    FourFaces says:

    If physicists truly understood the causality of motion, they would know that the so-called Big Bang cannot possibly be the beginning of the physical universe. Newton gave us a cause for acceleration but he never did the same for inertial motion. He was aware of the problem but could not come up with a solution. He ended up ascribing the cause to divine intervention.

    A careful examination of the problem of motion will reveal that we are immersed in an immense 4-D lattice of particles without which there can be no motion at all. This 4-D lattice must precede the Big Bang. In my opinion, there was a beginning but first God had to “stretch out the heavens like the fabric of a tent.” The closest analog to the lattice is what physicists call the zero-point energy field. One day, in the not too distant future, we will learn how to tap into the lattice for unlimited, clean, free energy and super-fast transportation. Just saying.

    PS. The real crisis in physics/cosmology is that physicists have no clue what causes motion. Worse, they don’t even realize it’s a crisis.

  6. 6

    Bob O’H #1.
    Well, yes, the BB is the idea of a beginning, like the hull is the idea of a ship. But this particular ship is covered in barnacles–inflation, vacuum fluctuations, isotropy, homogeneity, non-magnetic, dark energy, dark matter particles–to name just a few. The barnacles have destroyed its ability to go anywhere and a boat that doesn’t move and is covered in barnacles is called a wreck.

    Pearlman #2.
    I took a look at SPIRAL, which appears to be a Jewish variant of Young Earth Creationist models. The biggest problem I have with all these models is not that they don’t explain the science very well, but rather that they mangle the Torah. If you have any religious sentiment, you should not contradict Moses so much. Take a look at my book “The Long Ascent: Gen 1-11 in Science and Myth” which tries to do justice to Moses, and explains why the Creation of the Garden was much closer to 11,900 BC than 5777. (The creation of the Universe was some 40 logarithmic days earlier.)

    Seversky #4
    Crises are best known by people whose careers are threatened by them. When its other peoples jobs, its a recession; when its your job, its a depression. Likewise for a science crisis.
    The problem is not simply “exciting new science”, it is “fundable jobs in science”. To use another quote from my office coffee mug, “Why is there never time ($$) enough to do it right, but plenty of time ($$) to do it over?” And that’s what we’re facing in cosmology–a lot of people’s jobs are going to go away before we will do it right. One more quote from my favorite forgotten physicist, Max Planck “Science progresses one funeral at a time.”

    FourFaces #5
    You are proposing, of course, a metaphysical revolution in physics concerning motion. There is precedent for such revolutions. Aristotle’s views held sway until the High Middle Ages when Nicholas of Oresme came up with “momentum”. Newton invented the calculus so he could put “momentum” on solid mathematical footing. And quantum mechanics (QM) has made “momentum” an observable that does not commute with position. Each of these has changed our idea of motion. And while 100 years have gone by since Einstein introduced us to his ideas of 4-D spacetime in his General Relativity (GR), we are still unsuccessful in combining QM and GR. Einstein dedicated the last 30 years of his life to combining them. Ten years before his death, Stephen Hawking gave a lecture at CalTech saying he’d abandoned the attempt. Edward Witten has spent his life trying to do it (http://backreaction.blogspot.c.....dward.html) and my sense of the interview is that he has likewise abandoned the attempt. So three of the very brightest minds have failed.
    So if you think you have a solution, by all means take a vacation to Martha’s Vineyard and write it up. It is the holy grail of physics and no fame or reputation is needed to publish a solution to this riddle.

  7. 7
    PaV says:

    Either the universe has a beginning, or it doesn’t, and if it has a beginning we are not going to escape it with bouncing or multiverses or inflation or wormholes. We must accept the metaphysical consequences of a beginning and move on. Nearly everything that has failed about the Big Bang model has been added because of bad metaphysics, a refusal to accept the consequences of a beginning.

    May I rephrase this statement?
    “Either Natural Selection is powerful enough to bring about the changes the fossil record records, or it doesn’t, and if Natural Selection isn’t powerful enough we are not going to fix it with fitness landscapes or neutral drift or punctuated equilibria or population genetics. We must accept the metaphysical consequences of Natural Selection being relatively impotent and move on. Nearly everything that has failed about the Darwinian model has been added because of bad metaphysics, a refusal to accept the consequences of directed evolution.”

    Does this help frame the state of affairs in the ID-Natural Selection debate?

    [Bob O’H: the Big Bang was proposed by a Jesuit priest, Fr. Georges LeMaitre. He called it the “primeval atom.” Fred Hoyle, as a term of derision, labeled this inference as the “Big Bang.” Not all additions to the theory are derived from the notion of the Big Bang as this theory is itself an inference; rather, out of necessity, other items were added.]

  8. 8
    PaV says:

    Rob:

    Isn’t it true that physicists assume that spape itself is coming into existence at every instant of time? Now, what about the vacuum energy? Wouldn’t this also come into existence at every instant of time? Yes, this forces us to discard the notion of conservation of energy as it is now understood; however, IMHO the only way forward is to reflect more deeply on what this is saying to us.

  9. 9
    FourFaces says:

    Robert Sheldon:

    You are proposing, of course, a metaphysical revolution in physics concerning motion.

    There is nothing metaphysical about expecting an effect to have a cause. But I’m unwilling to argue my point further. It would be a waste of effort, I suspect.

  10. 10

    Pav #8,
    Some would debate the whole concept of time, and especially the “coming into existence at every instant of time”. For example, Lee Smolin has several books out where he argues that time is the only “real” metaphysical thing, and “space” just has to accommodate it. I’ll bypass all the philosophy and say that I think time is real, as is space. The BB argues that “space-time” is expanding, so when you inflate a balloon, is the balloon “coming into existence” or was it always there? In some ways the balloon is changing–size, pressure, stretch–but in other ways it isn’t changing–color, mass, chemical composition.

    What Einstein said was that space-time was like that balloon, and depending on what you were looking at, it might be changing or staying constant. We could imagine putting a “grid” on the deflated balloon with a ballpoint pen, and then looking at the grid after we blew it up. Certainly the spacing on the grid changed, unless we used a ruler that was drawn on the balloon itself. But do the angles of the intersecting lines on the balloon change? To a large extent, the physics of cosmology is identical to “conformal geometry” the geometry of rubber sheets and balloons. So I will allow that given some divine observation point, that space is “coming into existence”.

    But this doesn’t apply to vacuum energy. Vacuum energy is, as you pointed out, an abandonment of “the conservation of energy” principle. I consider this a major problem with the whole concept. It states that the “volume” of the spacetime grid has some energy in it, so when it expands, it has more energy in it. Then a trillion years in the future, when all the stars have burnt out and the galaxy is a cold vapor of expanding gas and little black holes, the universe will have all of its energy in the spacetime itself, which will be expanding at light speed because it is accelerating. This whole scenario just seem wrong on so many levels. It shows no design. It shows unstable behavior. It shows no reuse of materials and resources. It’s just downright unsustainable. No designer worth his salt would throw away the investment in information and energy that the universe represents.

    Let’s say it the opposite way. The whole BBN process that made our universe out of hot explosion, shows so much reuse, so much information, so much design and planning, that it is inconceivable to me that the nihilism of dark energy would be a part of that plan, would be consistent with the beginning of the universe.

    So what are my alternatives?

    Replace dark energy with magnetic fields. Bingo, all the same observational constraints, but without any of the mess of destroying the conservation of energy. Why physicists have been opting for the bizarre, unreal, physics destroying ideas of inflation, black holes, dark energy when alternatives exist, is a notion that escapes me. It is just so irrational.

  11. 11
    FourFaces says:

    As Kant would argue, if space and time exist, where are they, and what are they made of? Neither exists in the physical universe, of course. They are creations of the soul/mind. One day, in the not too distant future, physicists will wake up from their stupor and realize that space (volume, surface, distance, etc.) is an illusion. This will open the way to the invention of technologies that will allow us to travel instantly from anywhere to anywhere. The universe is ONE, something that the ancients apparently understood thousands of years ago. Conservation laws are nonlocal and instantaneous for this reason.

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