Double Trouble for Cosmology
Two developments are converging to threaten the standard big bang model of the universe’s origin.
Out of the blue: An unexpected finding from two teams of observational astronomers threatens a major pillar of cosmology: the idea that heavy elements are cooked inside stars, and that these heavy elements enrich galactic dust clouds that accrete into stars and planets. This has been textbook orthodoxy since the days of Fred Hoyle. Now, astronomers are finding that the heavy elements are not getting distributed inside the galaxies, but outside—in the thin dark halos surrounding the galaxies. Nature could hardly keep its composure about this surprise:
It emerges that most of the elements heavier than helium are not found in galaxies, where they can be mixed into future stars and planets. Instead, these elements largely reside far from galaxies in ionized gas and dust particles….
All of the elements on which life is based (carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, iron and so on) are formed in stars and in the explosive stellar deaths known as supernovae. Therefore, it seems reasonable to expect that they will be found where the stars and supernovae are located — in galaxies. However, studies by Shull et al. and Peek et al. have now revealed that the vast majority of these ‘metals’, as astronomers call all elements not produced in the Big Bang, reside far from the galaxies in which they were born, in the form of both ionized gas and complex molecules.
Writer Molly S. Peeples recounts the hoary tradition among astronomers who grew complacent with the tidy picture of heavy elements (“metals”) increasing in galaxies as supernovas continually pop off. But what if the heavy elements aren’t in the galaxies where they are needed for planets? This could have drastic implications for astrobiology.
Admittedly, the new measurements that locate heavy elements far outside in the halo are hard to make. But the implications are staggering:
The combined results of these two studies point to a tantalizing conclusion: most of the elements constituting life are not found in galaxies, where they can be incorporated into future stars and planetary systems; instead, they are predominantly distributed thousands to millions of light years away from galaxies. Although it has been known, or strongly suspected, for decades that galaxies do not contain most of the metals that they have produced, it has been only in recent years that astronomers have been able to systematically locate, quantify and characterize this material outside galaxies.
“Tantalizing” may be her euphemism for “shocking.” Look at her use the word “astounding” next, then watch as she connects the dots about earth’s privileged position in the universe:
It is astounding that most of the potential building blocks of life are found so far from their birthplaces, and that so much of it can survive the trip out of galaxies as complex molecules. As our understanding of intergalactic space in the local Universe increases, so does what this vast expanse of rarefied gas tells us about galaxies — and about just how rare and precious our own place in the cosmos is.
The implications in this article can hardly be overstated, if the observations hold up to further confirmation. This is potentially another “everything you know is wrong” episode for secular astronomers and astrobiologists.
Out of the black: As if that were not enough, another admission came out of Nature this week: it’s crunch time for dark matter. All the searches for WIMPs (the “pet theory” of what dark matter is, “weakly interacting massive particles”) have turned up empty. If the upgraded Large Hadron Collider doesn’t find them when it goes online in March, cosmologists will have no explanation for the mysterious unknown stuff they have been claiming for years makes up 85% of unobservable reality. Dark matter will become little more than a placeholder for ignorance, a kind of occult material invented to keep the standard big bang model from falling apart.
“But the string of disappointments means that some theorists are already beginning to back away from WIMPs and look at alternatives,” Davide Castelvecchi writes about cosmologists looking at weird “heavy neutrinos” and theoretical “axions” as they wimp out. But as cartoonist Sidney Harris famously showed, a mathematical derivation becomes suspect when the analyst has to insert the phrase, “then a miracle happens.” Already, one cosmologist is using that word to describe popular dark matter theory as “the WIMP miracle” that “does have a theoretical nicety to it.” Many a “nice” theory has crumbled under the hammer of empirical reality.
Misguided theists, including some well-meaning Christians, insist that we must mold our interpretations of the Bible to current scientific understanding. That would be a great idea — if they had understanding. Who wants to yoke up with these losers? That’s not to criticize their observations, and the training it takes to be able to make them. We’re talking about their “understanding” of how the universe got the way it is. Look at what they call understanding— reliance on mysterious unknown stuff, faith that humans are insignificant, and admissions every once in awhile that “everything you know is wrong.” Well, Carl Sagan is wrong, according to Nature: the writer concluded that we need to appreciate “just how rare and precious our own place in the cosmos is.” Sagan, and more recently Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson, have pounded their pulpits about how humans are specks that really “suck” (see video clip on ENV).
If they want to remain suckers, we won’t stand in their way. Meanwhile, some of us who respect observational science will praise God for His handiwork. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart,” Solomon said, “and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths”— including your scientific research. Read how physicist Sir David Brewster gained understanding with that outlook.