Trouble in Cosmologyland
Underneath the veneer of certainty portrayed by TV documentaries about the universe are deep questions and controversies. Some of these briefly appear on publicly-available news stories, only to be covered by new coats of certainty. Are the new veneers fixing the problems or, instead, whitewashing serious weaknesses in current cosmological understanding? Here are some quick looks under the veneer.
- Disturbing: “Dwarf galaxies suggest dark matter theory may be wrong,” wrote Leila Battison for the BBC News. We’ve heard it for years; “The current theory holds that around 4% of the Universe is made up of normal matter – the stuff of stars, planets and people – and around 21% of it is dark matter.” Why, then, did leading cosmologist Carlos Frenk call new developments “disturbing”? The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) has been unable to find cold dark matter (CDM), an essential ingredient for the Standard Model of the birth and evolution of the universe. “Scientists working on the problem have recently expressed dismay at the universally negative results coming from the LHC, and this has led some to consider that the standard model may be wrong.” Either cosmologists do not understand the formation of dwarf galaxies, or (something that Frenk is “losing sleep” over), a more disturbing alternative is dawning on them: “that CDM does not exist, and the predictions of the standard model relating to it are false.”
- Hunt for darkness: Various teams are still searching for dark matter anyway. PhysOrg reported 67 anomalous results from the CRESST experiment deep under a mountain in Italy that cannot be explained except by Weakly Interacting Massive Particles (WIMPs), a theoretical form of dark matter. That does not mean dark matter is real; only that it has not been ruled out by these unexplained detections.
- Antimatter, anti-dark matter: Meanwhile, other detectors are disconfirming dark matter. “Antimatter enthusiasts will love it; dark matter hunters not so much,” quipped Stuart Clark for New Scientist. “NASA’s FERMI satellite has confirmed a previous hint that there is more antimatter than expected coming from space. The bad news is that the result almost certainly rules out dark matter as the source.”
- Long-held assumption doubted: We’ve been told for quite awhile that large galaxies grew by collisions with smaller ones. “ESA’s Herschel infrared space observatory has discovered that galaxies do not need to collide with each other to drive vigorous star birth,” Science Daily reported. “The finding overturns this long-held assumption and paints a more stately picture of how galaxies evolve.” That is, for now. Whatever picture emerges next, “These new observations now change our perception of the history of the Universe.”
- Will God Particle be science fiction? The Higgs Boson (a.k.a. “God particle”) is running out of places to hide. Central to cosmological theories for the origin of mass, it continues to elude detection by the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. Finding the Higgs was one of the world’s largest detector’s prime missions (see video posted on Deseret News for explanation). Believers are running out of time waiting for God-ought (where ought is slang for zero). PhysOrg reported; “if it’s not there, it will be known to be science fiction by December.”
- Cosmological Principle under siege: One of the most beloved of all cosmological notions is that the universe is homogeneous and isotropic – that at large scales, every place looks the similar to any other, so that there is no preferred direction or location in the universe. Watch out; PhysOrg titled an entry, “New evidence for a preferred direction in spacetime challenges the cosmological principle.” Enter an anisotropy to muck things up. The article explains, “the universe’s expansion is accelerating at a faster rate in one direction than another. In the most recent study, scientists have analyzed data from 557 Type 1a supernovae and found, in agreement with some previous studies, that the universe’s expansion seems to be accelerating faster in the direction of a small part of the northern galactic hemisphere.” Critics point to contrary evidence from the cosmic microwave background. “Yet considering that the cosmological principle is one of the pillars of modern cosmology whose fundamental importance is difficult to exaggerate, threats to its credibility won’t be taken lightly,” the article ended. “If the cosmological principle turns out to be wrong, it would dramatically change the way we look at the world.”
Speaking of the Cosmological Principle, it has been wrongly been attributed to Copernicus – a man who admired God’s supreme architecture of the heavens. Dava Sobel, who wrote the illuminating historical Galileo’s Daughter, that did much to debunk the science-vs-religion myth of the Galileo affair, has a new book out: A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos (Walker/Bloomsbury 2011). Owen Gingerich reviewed it in Nature last week (Nature 477, 15 Sept 2011, pp. 276–277, doi:10.1038/477276a) and considers it “first rate… a charming and accurate book, although it omits much of the technical background in which earlier accounts revelled.” Apparently the semi-fictional account by this gifted writer gives prominence to Rheticus, a Lutheran: “True to the historical record, Rheticus finally persuades the ageing canon to allow a copy of his manuscript to be taken to Nuremberg for printing.” See the 4/30/2004 entry, “Lutherans Helped Copernicus,” for more non-fiction about this central character in the rise of modern cosmology; see also our online biography of Copernicus (March 2008, right sidebar)
Why do most teachers, textbook writers, and TV documentary producers concentrate on the whitewash, and ignore the termites? Find many more termites in the cosmology house by searching on "Cosmology" topics on our search bar. Listen also to some of the things David Berlinski told National Review TV last month about scientists' hubris about physics and cosmology (see list of episodes on Evolution News & Views).