The Big Bang: Science or Scientism?
Fall 2007 Issue
“Samuel Langley once said that the scientific establishment can be like a pack of hounds sent off as a body on the wrong scent. That’s what has to be reoriented.”
“If the universe as a whole has a finite age, then whatever puts the universe into motion would have to be outside the universe, supernatural.”
“In the history of ideas it is an easy connection to see that these changes in cosmology were closely linked with the political and social developments of the period.”
“What you are doing is devaluing science and making it seem very much like a faith-based system. You ‘believe’ science because this is what the expert says.”
“The big bang is essentially a creationist philosophy. It is creationist both because it opens the door to a supernatural origin of the universe itself, and because it basically says the universe seems absurd. We are asked to believe in it because the experts say it’s true.”
So says Eric J. Lerner, president of Lawrenceville Plasma Physics, Inc., in New Jersey. In addition to plasma physics, Lerner has written and done extensive research in the fields of cosmology and astrophysics. It is on the subject of cosmology that Vision contributor Dan Cloer recently interviewed him.
DC Edwin Hubble is considered the father of the expanding universe, and the popular impression is that he is the originator of the big bang idea. His writing does not seem to show this, however. Shouldn’t Georges Lemaître be more directly linked to the origin of the big bang idea?
EL It is absolutely true that Hubble did not think the redshift-distance relationship that he discovered necessarily came from an expansion of the universe or from the physical recession of the galaxies that he and others were observing. He certainly did not believe this was the only explanation for the correlation between distance and redshift. Lemaître originated the big bang hypothesis and directly connected it with Christian theology.
DC Are you saying, then, that everything we claim to know about the universe—black holes, quasars, the formation of galaxies, the role of gravity—we really don’t understand, because we place them in the wrong context?
EL Obviously this sometimes happens in science with an incorrect paradigm, but cosmology is not astronomy. Astronomy is a much bigger field than cosmology, and I think we have a lot of really solid knowledge about the history and evolution of stars and to some extent galaxies. Our space science and planetary knowledge is expanding rapidly. But at the level of cosmology—the largest-scale structure of the universe and its history—we are moving in the wrong direction. Samuel Langley once said that the scientific establishment can be like a pack of hounds sent off as a body on the wrong scent. That’s what has to be reoriented.
DC The big bang model tends to encourage questions about a beginning and about ultimate causes. Is this a wrong perspective? Is seeking a beginning just a nonscientific question?
EL There is certainly a big tension between the big bang and one of the basic tenets of the scientific method, which is the idea of cause and effect. One of the things that separates science from superstition is that for every effect there is a natural cause. Obviously, the big bang is an effect without a cause. This is one of the reasons why there is so much unfortunate interaction between religion and cosmology. Today’s cosmology totally opens the door for a supernatural cause such as God. There are efforts to get around this in some way. George Gamow, one of the pioneers of what I would call the second version of the big bang, looked for ways to demonstrate that the universe did not have an origin at the big bang but was essentially like a bouncing ball.
DC The “big squeeze”?
EL Yes, the universe went through a big squeeze and then bounced out of it, never going through a true singularity—a mathematical point of zero dimensions. Of course, one of the problems with this idea is formulating it into a testable hypothesis. We certainly know there is evolution in the universe and that objects in the universe have a finite age just as we all do. That is very different than saying the universe as a whole, everything that could exist, has a finite age, which implies or even begs for a supernatural cause. If the universe as a whole has a finite age, then whatever puts the universe into motion would have to be outside the universe, supernatural.
DC Gamow wrote in his book The Creation of the Universe that “creation is making something shapely out of shapelessness.” When you suggest plasma cosmology as an alternative to big bang cosmology, aren’t you saying the same thing? Are you creating effect without cause?
EL Plasma cosmology is not creation without cause. It is a description of the creation of structure in the universe through natural processes, which we can in fact study to a large extent in the laboratory. It basically says the evolving universe has always been evolving; there is no reason to assume that it has not always been evolving, just as there is no reason to assume that it had an origin in time. Something has always existed, but what that something is changes with the passage of time.
In other words, as Hannes Alfvén says, science is the effort to replace ignorance by knowledge in wider and wider regions of space and time. We start here on earth, and as our knowledge increases, we are able to go out farther and farther in space and backwards into greater distances in time. At any stage of our knowledge the story has a beginning—meaning that this is the earliest we can understand the universe. But that does not mean the universe had a beginning at that point. As we know more, we can push farther back into the depths of time and understand the state that precedes what we previously understood.
For example, we have developed theories—quite preliminary theories, because the total resources to develop them have not been great—that show how the interaction of electromagnetic forces working on plasma and gravitation can move from a state of the universe that was basically a fairly homogenous hydrogen plasma to something closely resembling the present state, in which there is structure from the level of stars and planets to galaxies and superclusters of galaxies. The production of light elements, as we observe them, and the production of the cosmic microwave background are also explained. Now, that has a starting point of a hydrogen plasma. If you ask where that came from, the answer is “Right now, we don’t know.” But that does not necessarily mean the universe had an origin in time as a fully formed hydrogen plasma. There could well be, and in fact we assume that there is, an earlier state that we simply do not know enough to talk about. In plasma cosmology, that primordial state is much earlier than the big bang. The time we see to form these superclusters is at least five to ten times more than the time frame the big bang proposes. We’re talking about a hundred billion, even several hundred billion years ago. These are minimums.
DC So plasma cosmology considers the universe to be a much more electromagnetically activated and defined place than big bang cosmology considers it to be.
EL Right. Big bang cosmology also assumes that, on large scales, gravitation is the only force worth looking at. Observationally that is simply not the case. In our part of the universe, if you go out 10 megaparsecs (30 million light-years) in a sphere around our region of the local supercluster, you actually find by measurement that the strength of the magnetic field exceeds the strength of the gravitational field. This means that the motion of clouds of plasma and the galaxies associated with them may well be more governed by magnetic forces than by gravitational forces. They are certainly governed by a combination of the two. If you ignore electromagnetic forces, you run the risk of getting the wrong answer.
DC And big bang time frames, which point to an origin 15 billion years ago, are all off?
EL Not only off, there simply is not any reason to believe that there is an ultimate beginning. Even if we could peer back trillions of years as our scientific knowledge increases, there would always be a previous state that you have to go back to. It is essentially an infinite chain of cause and effect into the past and into the future.
DC Do you believe the links in this chain of cause and effect can be physically tested?
EL Yes, and that is also a methodological difference between the approach of plasma cosmology and the approach of conventional big bang cosmology. Ever since the scientific revolution—the breakthroughs of Galileo, Newton, Kepler—there has been a breaking down of the divisions of medieval cosmology. That cosmology was based in an unbridgeable difference between the celestial and earthly spheres: the earthly being inferior and subject to decay, the celestial being changeless and perfect. The pioneers of the scientific revolution explained that what happens in the sky is governed by the same laws that operate here on earth. In the history of ideas it is an easy connection to see that these changes in cosmology were closely linked with the political and social developments of the period, with the struggle against the hierarchical society of feudalism and the development of a more egalitarian society.
Conventional cosmology today is a very big step back toward that medieval conception. Now big bang cosmology is talking about things like dark energy, dark matter, inflation. These are phenomena that cannot be observed or, in the case of dark matter, it could be but never has been in the laboratory and only exists in the celestial sphere. This makes these hypotheses much more difficult to test. Plasma cosmology says that as much as possible we should base our theories on phenomena that either have been tested in the lab or at worst can be tested in the lab. And we have a bigger laboratory today because we have spacecraft traveling all over our solar system. We can do tests not only here on earth but virtually anywhere in the solar system. That is a big methodological difference.
DC So are you suggesting that inflation, dark matter, dark energy, and quintessence have been substituted for forces that have been ignored?
EL Yes. In most fields of science, if you have a clear contradiction between observation and experiment, you have to reject the theory. But the history of the big bang theory is that they’ve introduced new hypothetical entities that have no backing evidence except that they preserve the underlying theory. Twenty-five years ago the concept of inflation, which involves a completely unknown field and energy, was introduced to save the big bang from many very grave contradictions of observation. Soon afterward was the addition of nonbaryonic “dark” matter and, in the last 10 years, dark energy. That’s just not a valid way to do science. It is very similar to the epicycles that Ptolomy’s worldview was afflicted with over the centuries that it predominated.
DC If plasma cosmology is really the better hypothesis, what are the social and psychological consequences of hanging on to the big bang? Why should this debate matter to the average person?
EL In my mind the biggest pernicious impact of big bang cosmology, to quote my mentor Alfvén again, is that “it blurs the line between science and science fiction.” If you have a conception of cosmology in which the universe is not really comprehensible, in which you have entities simply being conjured into existence like fairy dust, such as dark energy and dark matter, and the justification is that “you have to understand the very complicated mathematical structure,” the average person can’t understand. It conveys the message that scientific knowledge is to be left only to the experts. That is very different than the 19th- and early-20th-century conception that scientific knowledge can be made to become the common sense of the average person.
What you are doing is devaluing science and making it seem very much like a faith-based system. You “believe” science because this is what the expert says, not because you can be convinced in a general way that this makes sense and corresponds to the way you see the universe working. It is a real devaluation of the scientific method, which says “Test the theory against intense observations.” If the observation contradicts it, throw the theory out. On that basis the big bang should have been thrown out decades ago. That abandonment of the scientific method and the reestablishment of the idea of relying on the experts for knowledge is very pernicious.
To my mind the universe of the big bang to a large extent mimics the medieval universe, in the sense that it is decaying and on an inevitable path toward destruction. The universe of plasma cosmology is much more open-ended: new phenomena come into existence and have come into existence, so we can’t really say what the state of the universe is going to be.
DC Do you mean that plasma cosmology is more hopeful, whereas big bang cosmology dooms the world to a downhill slide?
EL I certainly think that cosmology, as it exists today, is consistent with a medieval worldview: the universe was created by God in a more or less perfect state and has been going downhill ever since. That is very coherent with what the big bang says. And it certainly has an effect on intellectual and philosophical ideas in academia. Conceptions in science are not immune to what’s going on in society. It is no coincidence that there has been an enormous rise in the popularity of the big bang over the last 30 years, precisely the period in which the world economy has entered a long-term crisis. Here on earth things clearly have been going downhill, and have been for quite some time—more than a generation.
The other problem, of course, is that the big bang has become totally self-perpetuating. All funding for cosmology is controlled by a handful of committees. These are dominated by big bang theorists who have devoted their entire scientific careers to the big bang. While I have heard from people that there would be nothing more exciting than to get rid of the big bang and have a new paradigm, that’s probably not true. For observers, that change could be very exciting, but for theoreticians it means having wasted your entire career. As scientists are human beings, that can’t be considered desirable. There is an enormous mass of researchers, probably about 3,000, who have a tremendous vested interest in the perpetuation of the big bang model. And they enforce this by denying funding not only to any kind of alternatives but also to research that questions the big bang and looks at possible contradictions in observations.
Our work has somewhat changed the atmosphere by exposing this in the open letter we wrote to New Scientist a few years ago. But people in the field are still fearful of speaking out against the big bang, because they feel that it would have adverse consequences on their careers.
The ideas of plasma cosmology are tested against observations, tested in the laboratory, and linked to technology. Plasma physics is advanced by a very close link to technology, and obviously my own work is an example of this. My company is involved in the development of thermonuclear fusion energy through a plasma focus device. The theories I use to understand cosmic phenomena like quasars are also finding application in the very practical question of how to develop new energy sources. So if there was a paradigm shift to plasma cosmology, it would also open up enormous new fields of technological development. We would be having, as happened in the 16th through 19th centuries, a cross-fertilization of research into cosmic phenomena and research that could be used in technology. That link has really been broken with the present state of cosmology. One of the things we must do is reestablish this link between what we are doing technologically and what we are doing in the study of the cosmos. The plasma approach certainly opens that up.
Return to Getting Past the Big Bang, Part 2: Alternative Views