The Big Bang Collapses

Yet again.

One of the challenges confronting astrophysicists is figuring out how galaxies form. The problem arises in kind of a round-about way.

The space the fills our universe is remarkably uniform. That’s surprising, because it formed from an extremely violent context. We would expect it to be warped, in the mode of Einstein’s general relativity, causing light to “bend” as it traveled the great distances between galaxies. In addition, until a couple of years ago it was believed that the universe was coasting to a stop. In other words, the mass of the universe appeared to be just enough to keep the galaxies from flying apart forever, but not so much that they would turn around and collide together in a “big crunch.”

These two questions were reconciled with Alan Guth’s “inflationary universe” hypothesis. This holds that the universe was created with an invisible, uniform background energy that dissipated very early, creating most of the matter that we see around us.

One consequence of this model is that matter should be distributed uniformly in the universe. This is a problem for galaxy formation, because if matter is distributed uniformly, there’s no reason for it to start clumping together. There have to be little pockets of higher density for galaxies to form. When only normal matter is included in the simulations of the early universe, galaxies form way to slowly, and don’t exhibit the large-scale structures that we observe in the deep sky surveys.

Worse, when we look around the universe, we can’t actually see enough visible matter to account for the gravitational braking that slows down the rushing apart of the galaxies.

One way of solving these conundrums is “dark matter.” The proposed properties of dark matter are that it does not emit light (it’s dark) and that it has a different kind of mass that causes it to clump together to seed the formation of galaxies.

Today we have a negative result from an experiment designed to detect dark matter. This won’t deter the theorists for long – they’ll just come up with new forms of dark matter that are invisible to the detector (this is an old trick, which caught out my thesis adviser back in the ’80s).¬† But it does seem to make Occam’s razor cut more in the direction of the generative orders proposal for the formation of the early universe. That model doesn’t need inflation or dark matter or a multiverse to work. It anticipates just the universe that we see around us.

*sigh* Just saying.

Super Massive Black Holes

New study indicates that super massive black holes did not form through slow accretion from normal black holes, but rather early in the evolution of the universe in some unknown, cataclysmic process.

This contradicts the “Big Bang” theory, but is expected in a physics of Generative Orders (see points 7 and 8 of the “Reference Model”).

Gravity Waves ‘Goodbye’ to Einstein

I was out at the Skeptics Society science talk on Sunday. The speaker was Stephon Alexander, a theoretical astrophysicist at Brown University, who talked about the relationship between string theory and music. Dr. Alexander also plays the tenor sax, and has released his first jazz album. His new book, The Jazz of Physics, describes the relationship between his two passions.

The format was a discussion with Michael Shermer, the head of the Skeptics Society. Michael rounded out the conversation with the “big questions.” Regarding the future of physics, Alexander predicted that we would have a theory that reconciled gravity and quantum mechanics in the next fifty years. As for the ultimate origin of the universe, Alexander observed that the possibility of creating carbon, which is the basis for life on earth, is tightly coupled to the relative strengths of two fundamental forces: the first binds quarks together to form a proton, and the second binds electrons to protons to form hydrogen atoms. Even a 10% change in strengths would prevent the formation of carbon in stars. This is the kind of “fine-tuning” often exclaimed by theists, but Alexander allowed Shermer to lead the conversation into a discussion of the multiverse hypothesis.

As you might imagine, I ended up having to apologize to Dr. Alexander for the question that I raised.

The question was motivated by the history of physics, which has again and again used the equations of oscillating waves to describe complex phenomena. This is the technology of Fourier analysis, and its power lies in fact that waves can be composed to produce very complex patterns. (Just consider the surface of a swimming pool, for example.) But Fourier analysis has its weaknesses, and I am particularly concerned regarding two of them.

The lesser of the weaknesses is that close to the source of a wave, other mathematical methods may give a more concise description of the disturbance. For example, the surface of a beaten drum deforms with Bessel waves. This is also how the air moves in the vicinity of the drum. It is only far from the source that the pressure waves that we hear as sound are described efficiently by Fourier notation. So when applied inappropriately, Fourier analysis may make it difficult to understand the things that create the waves.

The second weakness is that the media in which waves propagate are not smooth – they are actually composed of particles. We have seen this again and again in physics. Sound waves can be described as waves, but until we accept that gases are composed of little atoms there are certain effects that we can’t explain – such as why our voice squeaks after we inhale the helium from a balloon. Considering water waves, Einstein himself was awarded the Nobel prize in part for explaining the motion of small impurities in water with the insight that the water was composed of atoms that bashed the impurities around, causing them to jitter and wander rather than flowing smoothly from place to place. More abstractly, James Clerk Maxwell predicting the existence of electromagnetic waves by combining the equations that describe the generation of electric and magnetic fields. Einstein’s Nobel award also recognized his explanation of the photoelectric effect with the idea that electromagnetic waves were actually composed of particles called photons.

Considering this history, it seems natural to wonder whether the theories that Alexander describes in his book – theories that hold that the cosmos is composed of quantum-mechanical waves – are going to be replaced by theories that posit structures inside those waves. In response to the question, he offered that there had been some ideas proposed of that type, but they hadn’t been developed because they were “unfashionable.”

I had the sense that I rained a little on Dr. Alexander’s parade, which upset me. There were a number of young Hispanic high-school students in attendance, and he made a powerful representation to them that anyone can aspire to be a scientist – the most important steps were to try, to keep your eye out for mentors, and to recognize whether it was truly your passion. That is an important message, and in casting doubt on his picture, I may have undermined the inspiration that he offered.

But I just couldn’t help myself. It was those questions asked by Shermer, to which I believe I have been granted such powerful answers. This I was able to communicate to Stephon when I stopped to have my book signed. During his talk, he enthusiastically related the vision that the universe of waves sings to itself, a vision not dissimilar to his experience of jazz improvisation.

While the specifics are different, the passion is common to us both. I offered to him that, not being an academic, I don’t often have the opportunity to share my ideas, and because I have been led by them into a view of the universe that contains such wholeness and beauty, I tend to become a little bit passionate when conveying them. However, I do intend them as gifts, and hope that they help people to escape fear that has no foundation.

And maybe, just maybe, one of those young people will be inspired by the analogy I offered. We know that the gravitational waves exist – they were recently detected by the LIGO collaboration. And we know what they propagate in: dark energy. It only takes the courage to break from what Alexander called “fashion” to cast down Einstein and offer a new view of the universe – a view that I am fairly certain explains spirituality, and makes evident the existence of God.

And, given Einstein’s views on quantum mechanics, famously stated as “God does not play dice with the universe,” I believe that the great man himself might forgive me the ambition to see him overthrown.

Then What are 1000 Pictures Worth?

Reports of the dimming of the star KIC 8462852 have been debunked, causing SETI to revise its claims to have proven the existence of extra-terrestrial intelligence. The news also caused a crash in Appalachian coal futures, as CO2 sequestration speculators cancelled orders.

One insider, speaking anonymously to avoid being labelled as a “Koch-head,” revealed “when my employers were convinced that no earthly engineering team could dig an ocean through the Rockies, they were hoping that the ETs would do the work in the course of removing the sub-surface CO2 stockpiles they were hoping to establish in New Mexico and Arizona. No ETs, no CO2 sequestration, no last-grasp strip-mining in Appalachia. Oh well, there’s always that land trade for the Panama Canal!”

More seriously: it turns out that the original study of KIC 8462852, drawing upon analysis of old photographic plates, had failed to account for differences in the equipment used to capture the pictures. By comparing the apparent brightness of KIC 8462852 to that of other stars in the plates, it was determined that the the relative brightness had not changed.

Systematic effects (related to the design of the experimental system) were also a large factor in fueling the “cold-fusion” hype that I got involved in debunking back in the ’80s.

Galactic Asymmetry and the Big Bang

The reigning model of cosmology (the history of the universe) holds that it formed as a cooling bubble in a super-heated stew. It proposes that a lot of energy was stored in the fabric of space (whatever that means), and what we recognize as matter was created as that energy was released. That matter slowly coalesced to form concentrated seeds that eventually grew into galaxies. It’s a model not too different from the model we have for the formation of the solar system.

The model is notoriously called the “Big Bang” theory, but it’s not really a bang, nor is the universe really big in absolute terms. In fact, in that super-heated stew our universe is just a little tiny bubble that only looks big to us because as energy is released from the fabric of space signals travel more slowly through it, much as a violin string vibrates more slowly when it is loosened. In my book Love Works I coin another term for the process: the “Expansive Cool.”

The problem is that this model of gradual accretion is very difficult to reconcile with the structure and sub-structure  of the universe. This was first apparent in the distribution of galaxies, which is non-uniform. A more recent study of the age of stars in the Milky Way also shows some surprising structure.

It will be interesting to see if the cosmologists can come up with an explanation. I have to hand it to the astronomers, though: they sure know how to use pretty pictures to make a point!

 

The Physicist Contemplates Life

After I finished my graduate course in Quantum Mechanics, I came to realize that even in a blade of grass there is enough going on to humble the grasp of the human mind. The miracle of life’s operations, manifested in subtle chemical variation, constantly unfolding into new expression – we are embraced by a diversity of wonders far more magnificent than the rigid panoply of the cosmos!

Our Extraterrestrial Saviors

Astronomers tout a “high-frequency” (every couple of years) flickering in the light emanating from the star KIC 8462852 as possible proof of extraterrestrial intelligence. The extent and frequency of the flickering rule out the normal cause of such variation: temporary occlusion of the star by a planet in its orbit. This leaves open the possibility that the occlusion is due to a planetary-scale artificial structure.

The possibility of such structures was first popularized by Larry Niven’s “Ringworld” novels. However, the stresses on a ring encircling a star are inconceivably large – no material imaginable would be able to sustain the strain.

Exotechnologists thus turned their attention to another possibility: the spread of huge tree-like lifeforms rooted in Jupiter-size planets. Natural seasonal cycles would cause the density of the canopy to vary over time, thus explaining the flickering.

Given the huge quantities of carbon dioxide transferred to the stellar wind from such growth, CO2 sequestration, long pooh-poohed as prohibitively expensive, now appears to have long-term market potential. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization is leading commercialization efforts, beginning with leasing of the world’s largest radio telescopes in the hope that CO2 deliveries can be arranged before global warming exterminates life on Earth.

The SETI program, in reaction to this plan, reasons that “extraterrestrial intelligence must exist, because it is impossible that intelligence not exist somewhere in the universe.”