March 4, 2015 | David F. Coppedge

Cosmic Theater

Cosmologists act less like scientists and more like actors, the more that anomalies threaten their paradigm.

The first billion years: Undoubtedly some things unfolded over time, but how much can really be known?  Steve Tingay on The Conversation tries his hand at unlocking, with a handful of observations as his keys, “the mystery of the first billion years of the universe.” It’s a difficult trick, he admits, because “More than 100 million years has been wiped off the age of the first stars …” His stage act at unlocking the mystery includes props like the Planck telescope and a multitude of radio receivers in his home continent of Australia. But overall, the show has more ignorance than knowledge: “we currently know little about what happened after the first stars formed,” he admits. We see stars and galaxies now, sure; but how did the universe get this way?  His stage-left exit proposes that decades of future research with more antennas may find the long-lost key.

The matter of antimatter: Where did the universe get its matter? Everyone knows there should be equal amounts of antimatter, but it’s been missing ever since antimatter was first discovered experimentally. UCLA physicists offer a new solution: they “propose that the matter-antimatter asymmetry could be related to the Higgs boson particle, which was the subject of prominent news coverage when it was discovered at Switzerland’s Large Hadron Collider in 2012.” This solution, that invokes a slight excess of matter resulting from motion in the initial Higgs field, still requires that all the matter in the universe is the tiny fraction that remained after all the antimatter annihilated most of the matter.

Accounting for lithium: Another “long-standing problem” in cosmology is getting lithium to exist. Some could have come in the Big Bang, according to consensus theory, and some from cosmic ray interactions. A paper in Nature now claims it can originate in novae by nucleosynthesis. The evidence is a nova containing a beryllium isotope that could decay into lithium. A companion article in Nature says that this means “novae may play a larger part in lithium production than previously thought.” Welcome this new actor to the stage, i.e.

Lumpiness squared: Nature reported another unexpected thing: a supermassive black hole too early for gradual accumulation of structure after a very smooth beginning. “Astronomers have discovered an extremely massive black hole from a time when the Universe was less than 900 million years old,” Bram Venemans writes. That’s but 7% of the commonly-accepted age of the universe. If you suspend a little cognitive dissonance, you can make sense out of the observations:

Theoretically, it is not implausible to find a black hole of more than 10 billion solar masses within 1 billion years after the Big Bang. But it is still surprising to uncover such a massive black hole in the early Universe. It must have been accreting gas at close to the maximum rate for most of its existence; the maximum rate is set by the pressure of the radiation emitted by the in-falling material. The prolonged period of almost maximum accretion is puzzling, because the strong radiation emitted by a quasar is generally assumed to be capable of halting accretion, limiting its existence to 10 million to 100 million years. The fact that the supermassive black hole has grown to 12 billion solar masses in less than a billion years implies that the radiation did not inhibit the high accretion.

Stop the presses: Almost everything cosmologists know is wrong, if a cosmologist from Alberta persuades enough colleagues. There was no big bang, Saurya Das claims, according to Tia Ghose writing for “In the new formulation, the universe was never a singularity, or an infinitely small and infinitely dense point of matter,” Das claims (but there was a hot expansion).  “In fact, the universe may have no beginning at all.” He thus brings back the old idea of an infinitely old universe. And you thought the big bang was settled science. Actually, the big bang has major problems: no explanation for dark matter and dark energy, no success at reconciling quantum mechanics with general relativity, and no way to get the laws of physics out of an initial singularity. This new model helps with those but creates bigger issues. Das has apparently not considered the physical and philosophical problems with an infinite universe: namely, that the second law of thermodynamics precludes it.

Constant constants: Just as stage hands have to work with real materials no matter the amount of fantasy in the theater production, physicists have to conform to known laws and constants. PhysOrg reports that analysis of light from distant quasars seen from the Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile shows “that there was no measurable change in the mass ratio of protons and electrons over a span of 12 billion years.” Whatever dark energy is or does, it has not affected these fundamental constants, some Australian scientists at the VLT concluded. Constants don’t evolve.

This is a classic example of Kuhnian science. In his Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1961), Thomas Kuhn argued that scientists are committed to puzzle-solving within a paradigm, or a model of a scientific achievement (such as Newtonian mechanics or relativity theory) that provides a pattern for future work. They cannot think outside the paradigm, or at least, they are trained to regard outside ideas as non-scientific. The paradigm we see here is big-bang cosmology. As astronomers and cosmologists work, they only know how to interpret what they see within the 13.7 billion year model they are familiar with. But anomalies accumulate. The puzzle-solving activity becomes more convoluted until a breaking point comes, and a new paradigm emerges among bold thinkers. Kuhn was not right on all fronts, but gave a perceptive view that questions the myth of progress (scientism).

None of these announcements topple the big bang paradigm, but you can see how they are putting stress on it. You can also see how most astronomers will go to great lengths to re-interpret difficult observations from within the paradigm. It takes a bold mind willing to question a paradigm to understand that the anomalies are often more serious than insiders admit. The big bang story is becoming less about science and more about theater. Don’t hitch your apologetic to this dying paradigm.




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