I was born in the 50’s and the science that we were taught in school tended to promote the Steady State model of the universe.
I eventually came to possess a copy of George Gamow’s ‘1,2,3 … Infinity’ and, even though I couldn’t understand everything, learned a lot more about cosmology.
Along with early calculations of the Speed of Light I learned about Einstein’s ‘discovery’ that it was the upper speed limit to everything. Another of one of the things I learned about was the Hubble Red Shift – essentially saying that the further away something is from us the faster it is receding. And that this can be reduced to a simple constant.
When I was 12, way back in 1965, coincidentally the same year that the Penzias and Wilson discovered the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation, I made a couple of calculations using relatively simple arithmetic and close approximations for things like the speed of light and the red shift. I used the value of the red shift to calculate the outer limit of the observable universe to be about 12.5 Billion Light Years. That limit was the distance at which the light from anything would be red-shifted so far that it would appear that the object was receding from us at the speed of light.
I’m no genius – this was just a bright, inquisitive kid using approx. values (from published observations) and long hand arithmetic with pencil and paper.
The implication of that result is that we could NEVER see the light from anything at that distance, or further … one of science’s little perplexing parts.
BUT – What did it mean?
I’ll confess I had no real idea – I was just a kid after all … but later in the 60’s the theory called ‘The Big Bang’ got a lot more traction and, coincidentally, the approximation of the size of the universe was not that far off from my spitball calculation. (Partly this new breathe of life in BB was the result of Penzias and Wilson discovering the CMB back in ’65.)
When I learned of this correlation I felt a bit of pride I’ll admit but soon there was a niggling little doubt. Maybe that was the younger me that clung to a Steady State model … maybe the coincidence felt to pat for comfort. Doubt’s like that – it’s a feeling and not a rational thought.
In the years afterward I learned there was much back and forth questioning over whether the curvature and mass led to a universe that would eventually collapse back in on itself or keep expanding forever. A lot of work has gone into trying to come up technology that can give us observations so we’re not just spinning our wheels and creating theoretical ‘wheels within wheels’ like the pre-Copernican earth-centric model that church-bound European thinking used to be stuck with. This has resulted in space observatories such as COBE and WMAP and now Planck. Each lets us see more detail and each time we learn more and some theories become reinforced and others become refuted.
Now we have Dark Matter, Dark Energy, the Inflationary variant of the Big Bang – and we think that the universe is not only expanding but it’s gaining speed as it goes … maybe. We also used to think that nothing ever escaped a Black Hole … but Hawking has shown that’s not quite correct.
Experts in Cosmology and Physics have tended to dismiss the book, reject a number of the ideas and find errors with parts of it. They may be correct and this is their field.
But I find an interesting aspect to researching this piece … something I’d suspected and find more evidence for.
Lerner worked in Plasma Physics, Alfven’s field. It is a field where theories can be tested ‘in the lab’ or by observing the local space environment around our planet and our local star, the sun. Back in the early 90’s there was another concept that was proposed about a phenomena that appeared to fly in the face of accepted physics and came from working scientists that happened to be Chemists. It also got short shrift from the experts in the area on which it intruded: the physics of fusion. That proposal was Cold Fusion and it was more of an observation from the lab rather than an elegant theory from the blackboard.
I get the impression, and I’m not alone in this, that theoretical physicists have a hard time accepting alternative ideas that come from people outside their particular bailiwick. Especially if those ideas contradict the cherished ideas on which they have worked long and hard on. And if these new ideas are difficult to fit within the existing theoretical framework AND predict experimental data that is hard to reproduce then the proponents of established models find it easier to attack, refute and dismiss.
Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann are not physicists, they are Chemists. They’re not crack pots as the public at large were given to believe – they were working scientists who had much experience working with reconciling the real world to theory. Chemistry is an area where not only you can test your theories, but you are more likely to run into observed data that requires re-evaluation of theory to understand.
Eric Lerner only got a BA in physics – he ostensibly left graduate work because he was dissatisfied with the dominance of mathematics over experiment. But Hannes Alfven was a Nobel prize winning physicist who worked in an area of Physics that yields more places where theories are testable than Cosmology.
I suspect there is an inherent hubris involved in being a physicist working in cosmology, high energy, or condensed matter. Unlike ‘those other scientists’ working in their fields these physicists are working on the very stuff of the universe- all else is … not quite as important somehow. Doesn’t that feel kind of like Heart Surgeons versus all the other doctors?
I read the article linked here (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/9946222/New-images-confirm-Big-Bang-theory.html) and I find one thing off the bat that piques the doubter in me: “The maps appear to support the “inflation” theory, which says the universe briefly expanded faster than the speed of light an instant after the Big Bang.”
I’d forgotten a lot of the Inflation theory … my thoughts about it are starting to come back though and if I remember at the time I first encountered that my thought was that it wasn’t ‘space’ as we think about it that expanded but the metric or something underlying the metric that changed.
Whatever that might mean … when we run into things that violate the ‘laws’ we’re observing today we tend to explain them away with statements like ‘the physical laws were different back then because the “world” was different’.
In the article referred to the last paragraph mentions ‘anomalies’: “But because the precision of Planck’s map is so high, it has also revealed some unexplained anomalies in the data that require further study. Among these interesting findings are fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background over large scales that do not match what the standard model of physics predicts, including an asymmetry in the average temperatures on opposite hemispheres of the skies.” Further study, to a cosmologist, means reworking the theories to fit the observations … I cannot shake the feeling that this is ‘wheels within wheels’ thinking … but that’s only a feeling. Science is about adjusting theories to fit observations.
The article at the Guardian goes into more detail on those ‘anomalies’ http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2013/mar/21/planck-telescope-light-big-bang-universe
The article in the New York Times also explains them in more detail and goes into what it might mean for the Standard Model.
At one point that article says “The map, the Planck team said in news conferences and in 29 papers posted online Thursday morning, is in stunning agreement with the general view of the universe that has emerged over the past 20 years“ but not so far down the article it mentions “however, the new satellite data underscored the existence of puzzling anomalies that may yet lead theorists back to the drawing board”.
WMAP, the previous observatory to study this, had shown many of these same anomalies but many had argued these were possible errors in analysis or ‘contamination from the Milky Way’. Now Planck shows them in greater detail so it’s back to revising the theories.
Another thing Planck gives us is a better estimation of the Hubble Red Shift constant: we used to think that things moved away from us 67 kilometers per second faster for every million parsecs (1 parsec = 3.26 light years) but now we see that it is closer to 69 KPS / MPSec. I’ll have to go look through the boxes of stuff from my junior high school years and see if I still have my old calculations …
So what does it all mean? Should you care?
I’m tempted to say ‘of course you should care.’ with some indignance, but I know that for most of the people on this planet it matters little even if they can understand the questions involved. Many n my own country find who’s going to win the Stanley or Grey Cup of far more importance. Who will be the next American Idol?
Sigh … I guess I find that rather sad but for those people I’m probably the one to be pitied.
“Why is the sky blue? What’s beyond the 12.5 Billion Light Year wall?” … I miss that kid. He had a bright future ahead of him. But life somehow got in the way and his friends persuaded him temporal things were much more important. Well they were certainly more distracting, I’ll give them that …
You don’t have to believe any of this or me. I’m just a non-scientist guy wearing a Collander showing my allegiance to a ‘religion’ that says the world was creating by a Flying Spaghetti Monster.
A religion where you can Believe it or Not …