April 13, 2007 | David F. Coppedge

Cosmology: Crisis or Confidence?

What is it with cosmology these days?  On the one hand, astronomers seem more confident than ever.  They speak of this as the era of “precision cosmology,” when the only task remaining seems to be refining the decimal points; e.g., the first refinements of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) won John Mather and George Smoot a Nobel Prize this year.  On the other hand, there have been disturbing comments from respectable quarters hinting that if a complete collapse is not imminent, at least major rethinking is going on.  Some of the most fundamental evidences for and assumptions behind the “standard model,” presented as fact in popular publications and planetarium shows, are being questioned.
    The confident claims are so ubiquitous as to need no documentation (see, for instance, 11/02/2002, 02/21/2005, 10/31/2006).  As reported here recently, however, there are rumblings of discontent bordering on revolution (see 02/18/2007, 09/05/2006).  Alarming statements of cracks in the cosmological edifice have intensified in recent weeks.  Let’s take a look at some examples.

  1. String at the breaking point:  As noted previously, (02/18/2007), string theory seems to be on trial for impersonating a science.  What’s notable in a book review in The New Criterion, though, is that for a long time, it has been the only game in town – the only theory of fundamental physics under serious consideration to unify the large and small aspects of the universe.  Martin Gardner called it a “messy” theory that is beginning to mimic the clumsy epicycles of Ptolemaic cosmology.  The book he reviewed tells all: The Trouble with Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next by Lee Smolin (see also 11/07/2006, bullet 2).1  In this book, Smolin, a former believer in string theory, chides the “groupthink” atmosphere among the adherents as a “cultlike atmosphere in which those who disagree with the ideology are considered ignoramuses or fools.”  Yet critics point to the fact that it makes no predictions and is little more than an untestable conjecture propped up with adjustments as needed.
  2. Ugly desperation:  Nature this week2 reported on a conference in London by cosmologists unsatisfied with current theory.  It quotes Douglas Scott, one of the attendees: “There is a sense of desperation.  The standard model is horribly ugly, but the data support it.”  The ugliness stems largely from current big bang theory’s dependence on two imponderable substances, dark matter and dark energy.  Even though WMAP measured the cosmic background radiation to high degrees of precision (09/20/2004, 02/14/2003), invoking dark energy as an explanation is “a profound problem from the viewpoint of fundamental physics.”  Can a horribly ugly model really be true, even if the data seem to support it?  Attendees were encouraged to share their misgivings about the standard model.  No consensus or alternative was forthcoming.
  3. My unlucky stars:  “When astronomers wish upon a star, they wish they knew more about how stars explode,” began Tom Siegfried in Science this week.3  “In particular, experts on the stellar explosions known as supernovae wonder whether textbook accounts tell the true story–especially for a popular probe of the universe’s history, the supernovae designated as type Ia.”  He then shares some dirty secrets that should cause gasps among those who respect cosmological law but don’t know how the sausage is made:

    In fact, new observational surveys suggest that cosmic evidence based on type Ia supernovae rests on a less-than-secure theoretical foundation.  “We put the theory in the textbooks because it sounds right.  But we don’t really know it’s right, and I think people are beginning to worry,” says Robert Kirshner, a supernova researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  “We keep saying the same thing, but the evidence for it doesn’t get better, and that’s a bad sign.”

    The import of this can hardly be overstated.  For the last decade, fundamental concepts about the age, expansion and acceleration of the universe have rested on the assumption the Type Ia supernovae are reliable standard candles.
        Siegfried even invokes the imagery of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” to describe how cosmologists parade their theory without evidential support.  Apparently not all Type Ia supernovae have the same brightness as formerly presumed, and may fall into two classes– as if the Type I vs II and Type I vs Ia distinctions were not upsets enough in the history of astronomy.
        Even accepted models of how supernovae ignite are being questioned.  One of the architects of the “accelerating universe” theory, Alex Filippenko (UC Berkeley), who based his conclusion on supernova measurements, calls the contradictory evidence “a very, very serious issue.”  Siegfried ended with talk of “worrisome gaps in current textbooks accounts” that must be plugged, and how “answers to many critical questions remain elusive.

  4. Faulty ladder:  Lower down in the cosmic distance-scale ladder, Cepheid variables are causing new worries.  Robert Cowen wondered in the Christian Science Monitor if the universe might be 15% larger than earlier thought, based on recalibration of the variable stars first used as distance indicators by Henrietta Swan Leavitt.  Cowen writes that astronomers need to heed Ronald Reagan’s advice, “Trust but verify.”  Unfortunately, trusted values are not holding up.  As one astronomer worried, “astronomers absolutely need to trust this number because we use it for countless calculations.”  It underlies the crucial value of the Hubble constant as well as helps calibrate the Type Ia supernovae.
  5. Can darkness shed light?  The universe is getting darker, said the New York Times.  Richard Panek didn’t mean to imply that there is more dark matter or dark energy than previously thought.  He meant to question science’s ability to fathom the universe when it has to resort to imponderable substances.  He feels science is going backwards by positing that most of the universe is unknown, and possibly even unknowable.  His article rips current thinking that cosmology knows what it is talking about.  What is dark energy?  “The difficulty in answering that question has led some cosmologists to ask an even deeper question: Does dark energy even exist?  Or is it perhaps an inference too far?  Cosmologists have another saying they like to cite: ‘You get to invoke the tooth fairy only once,’ meaning dark matter, ‘but now we have to invoke the tooth fairy twice,’ meaning dark energy.”  This is not sounding very scientific.  It makes one wonder what new experiments like ESSENCE (see Science Daily), searching for dark energy, will find: the essence of the universe in outer space, or the essence of human imagination in inner space.
  6. Glad to be here:  Again in the New York Times (April 12), an article questioned how the universe was able to survive the big bang.  Kenneth Chang reported on a Fermilab test: “An experiment that some hoped would reveal a new class of subatomic particles, and perhaps even point to clues about why the universe exists at all, has instead produced a first round of results that are mysteriously inconclusive.”  The impact on big bang theory: “The Standard Model has proved remarkably effective and accurate, but it cannot answer some fundamental questions, like why the universe did not completely annihilate itself an instant after the Big Bang.
        The problem is that the MiniBooNE, or mini-Booster Neutrino Experiment, did not provide evidence that neutrinos could keep the universe from collapsing: “The birth of the universe 13.7 billion years ago created equal amounts of matter and antimatter,” Chang asserts.  “Since matter and antimatter annihilate each other when they come in contact, that would have left nothing to coalesce into stars and galaxies.  There must be some imbalance in the laws of physics that led to a slight preponderance of matter over antimatter,” he continues.  Presumably, “that extra bit of matter formed everything in the visible universe.”
        Another new detector will also attempt to address the antimatter problem, reported Science Daily.  The conundrum of why the universe contains so little antimatter is a long-known dark secret rarely discussed in the literature.

For those needing respite from all this controversy, look at Astronomy Picture of the Day where a colorful new picture of the Pleiades was posted, just taken by the Spitzer Space Telescope.  And JPL started a new feature called “What’s Up” listing heavenly sights the rest of us can just look at and enjoy.  Kind of reminds you of the good old days when astronomy was calm and relaxing.

1Gardner’s review ends with an interesting historical anecdote about a cosmological conjecture by Lord Kelvin that sounds surprisingly modern.
2Jenny Hogan, “Physicists question model of the Universe,” Nature 446, 709 (12 April 2007) | doi:10.1038/446709a.
3Tom Siegfried, “Surveys of Exploding Stars Show One Size Does Not Fit All,” Science, 13 April 2007: Vol. 316. no. 5822, pp. 194-195, DOI: 10.1126/science.316.5822.194.

What are layman supposed to believe?  Evolutionary cosmologists are looking increasingly like soothsayers, whose pronouncements sound good in generalities but fall apart under scrutiny.  Now you see why Bob Berman got so frustrated a few years ago (10/06/2004) he exclaimed that cosmologists were clueless.  They are living in Alice in Wonderland where imagination rules.  “Unfortunately,” he ranted, “cosmologists are starting to resemble naked emperors parading before the mass media.”  Where have we heard that allusion before? (11/30/2005, 01/31/2003).
    Try to imagine anything in creationist cosmology that is anywhere near as as far-fetched or empirically challenged as the ideas now being discussed by modern secular cosmologists (cf. 08/11/2006, 12/18/2005).  At least creationists have an adequate Cause for the origin and fine-tuning of the universe.
    Every person struggling to relate the big questions to the evidence of the senses will have problems to solve, but when the pros run headlong into absurdities without remorse while conning the public with textbook lies, it’s time to blow the whistle and call for a serious “time out,” like Bob Berman advised.  Big words and big toys are inadequate to cover intellectual nakedness.  Cosmology has lost its way.  It is not making progress, it is going backwards.  Why?  Because its underlying assumption that secular naturalism is adequate to explain ultimate origins is flawed from the get-go.
    You can’t explain a system from within the system.  The universe has a cause that is beyond itself.  By definition, that makes the cause supernatural (05/11/2006).  Let that be the starting assumption once again, and science will get back on track (online book).  Let it recognize the fundamental nature of information—intelligence—design, and the lights will come back on (John 1:1-4).  Let it rediscover purpose in life (John 1:5-18), and it will again make progress – full steam ahead.

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Categories: Astronomy, Cosmology, Physics

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