If the Big Bang Is the Answer, Why Are There So Many Questions?

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Posted on February 25, 2014 in Astronomy, Cosmology, Physics

Any scientific explanation that leads to more questions than answers should be considered suspect.

A good scientific theory often opens up more questions about nature – new avenues of research into related questions.  When the questions become reflexive, though (questioning the explanatory value of the theory itself), that theory loses usefulness, especially when it has to posit occult phenomena that merely shift previous unknowns to new unknowns or unknowables.  (Among the big bang’s new occult phenomena are inflation, dark matter, and dark energy.)

The big bang is often portrayed as a triumph of discovery, a confirmation of a theoretical prediction.  Simultaneously, it explained the expansion of the universe, the origin of matter from nothing, and the origin of time.  In actuality, it has left a train of puzzles as big as the theory itself.  Why a bang?  What banged?  What came before the bang?  Not only that, the original theory has been encumbered by ad hoc speculations like inflation, dark matter and dark energy, because the original theory encountered serious problems.

For the 50th anniversary of the big bang theory (based on Penzias and Wilson’s 1964 discovery of the cosmic background radiation), Lisa Grossman on New Scientist listed six lingering questions:

  1. Why is the early universe so smooth?  (This required a theory rescue device known as “inflation”; see 2/21/2005.)
  2. Was there anything before the big bang?  (Inflation erased the first part of the expansion, and no physics can explain the initial explosion or what triggered it.)
  3. Could ancient life have emerged in the big bang’s glow?  (This was recently speculated based on temperature decline, but is impossible to know.)
  4. What are dark matter and dark energy?  (Current consensus requires these imponderable substances.)
  5. What is the universe’s ultimate fate?  (The accelerating universe predicts a heat death; why did it not already occur?)
  6. Will the big bang become an untestable theory?  (Once galaxies accelerate out of view, it will erase all evidence of an expansion, so why are we living in a special time?)

A theory of the whole universe must be capable of accounting for all the objects within it.  A supernova recently observed in the “Cigar” Galaxy (M82) is helping to refine measurements of the expansion rate of the universe, PhysOrg reported.  Measurements of Type 1a supernovae were critical to the proposal that dark energy is making the universal expansion accelerate.   Another article on PhysOrg, while claiming confirmation of big bang predictions that galaxies should grow “inside out,” relies on various what-if’s and assumptions that are part and parcel of big bang cosmology.

More often, a theory becomes a framework for interpreting observations, rather than an explanation for the observations.   An example is seen on Science Daily, where a star is called the “oldest in the universe” that formed “shortly after the big bang,” even though it’s in the hub of the Milky Way.  Another Science Daily article purports to show the most distance galaxy in the universe, “harkening back to a time when our universe was only about 650 million years old.”  They say it’s “producing about 10 times more stars, as is typical for galaxies in our young universe.”  The prodigious star-production rate, though, was a surprise to big bang theory, not a prediction from it (1/09/14, 9/14/13).

Not everything fits well, though.  Judd Bowman in Nature, writing about a paper in the same issue, worried that “Simulations of the cosmos cast doubt on assumptions about the temperature of primordial hydrogen gas when it was ionized by the first stars and galaxies, complicating the interpretation of ongoing observations.” In another Nature paper, astronomers found a way to reconcile “challenges” to “the standard cosmological paradigm” of cold dark matter and dark energy.   As Thomas Kuhn described the process of “normal science” (i.e., how science is actually done between scientific revolutions), scientists typically do “puzzle solving” work within the accepted paradigm rather than casting doubt on the paradigm (e.g., 12/03/13).

The dark-matter dark-energy big-bang paradigm, in particular, has profound philosophical implications.  Eric Hand, writing for Nature, was troubled by a program he saw at the Hayden Planetarium.  Called Dark Universe, it focuses on “the great unseen,” the dark reality needed by current theory (dark matter and dark energy), even though efforts to find dark matter continue to turn up empty (10/30/13; see also Live Science) and nobody knows what dark energy is (10/21/12).  Hand found it both “dislocating and transfixing” to consider that most of reality consists of things we cannot observe or comprehend.

These are humbling, even alienating, concepts. Dark matter, the unknown stuff that knits the Universe together, outnumbers the atoms that make up stars, planets and people by a ratio of nearly six to one. Midway through the show, in what he calls its Halloween scene, director Carter Emmart represents dark matter as a spooky black web against a dark-grey background.

Dark energy is even more terrifying. This repulsive force was discovered in the late 1990s, when far-off supernovae were found to be a little more distant than expected.… Dark energy is accelerating the expansion of the Universe, and threatens one day to hurl other galaxies beyond the view of the Milky Way.

What is the cause of the “concepts” that Eric Hand referred to?  Did the conceptual realm emerge from the big bang?  A question rarely asked is how the appeal to occult forces can be considered scientific.  For instance, how do dark matter and dark energy (mysterious “unknown stuff”) differ from the fictional Star Wars Force that knits all of reality together in George Lucas’s imaginary universe?  It could be argued that both Lucas’s and the cosmologists’ universes point to observable effects that are “explained” by their occult forces.  To the surprise of skeptics in the Star Wars movies, visible effects were clearly seen.  In our observable universe, we see unexpected dimness in distant supernovae, and unexplained dynamical motions in galaxies and galaxy clusters.  Whether the hypothetical occult forces are the cause of these observations is a different question.   Critics could, with references to cases in the history of science like alchemy, argue that a theory that relies so heavily on occult forces offers little improvement in scientific explanation over mythology (1/06/14).

The “occult” is supposed to be the antithesis of science.  Given modern cosmology’s implicit reliance on MUST (mysterious unknown stuff), what, pray tell, is the difference?  It’s Star Worse all over again, with science geeks manipulating the dork side of the farce.  Since they love darkness rather than light, metaphors bewitch them (2/01/11).

 

4 Comments

John C February 25, 2014

Excellent article. The Merriam-Webster Electronic Dictionary gives “must” this third definition as a noun: “the expressed juice of fruit and especially grapes before and during fermentation; also : the pulp and skins of the crushed grapes.” This would tie in directly to the preparations for the feast of Darwine you so often mention. Students at universities need to realize that in Dark Matter/Energy, Inflation, etc. all they are being given is pulp and skins, nodes without branches, of a theory that is produced by believing in itself in spite of the evidence.

noblackholes February 25, 2014

Thanks for this article. Given all the problems with the big bang theory, it would be interesting to see an article that sets out exact what evidence points towards the big bang. There is the red shift. Is there anything else (except the philosophic need for an explanation that omits God)?

If it is just redshift, we know the numbers don’t work out, so all the ad hoc gymnastics needed to save the theory would seem to send us to look for a different explanation of red shift (e.g., a hint of entropy in the propagation of light?)

radha108 February 25, 2014

I just read recently that the Big Bang theory is based on two completely controversial mathematical theories, Einstein’s relativity theory and the quantum mechanics. Thus, because of irreconcilable controversy there is actually no Big Bang theory at all but only a Big Chaos in the minds of the scientists.

Editor February 25, 2014

The two theories are not controversial or contradictory; both of them are routinely used today. Cosmologists just don’t know how to bring them together in the initial singularity postulated in the big bang.

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