Are We Alone?

Universe Today summarizes a study that concludes that we are probably the only “advanced” civilization in our galaxy.

The result is reached under assumptions of materialism: intelligence is an emergent quality of large brains. Large brains arise from biological evolution, which requires certain chemical conditions on the host planet (water, minerals and carbon in narrow proportions) and stability of the star about which it revolves.

Of course, what I propose here is that intelligence is the play of ideas between souls, and the brain is only an interface. On vastly larger scales, galaxies are civilizations. They just evolve new forms more slowly than we do – which makes us incredibly dangerous.

But galaxies “think”, and store experience. I trust that we’ll know whether we’re alone when we’re mature enough to receive the answer.

Quantum Inversion

In modeling large-scale systems, wave equations are often useful approximations. So, while water at the quantum scale is made up of molecules that bounce around like billiard balls, in our swimming pool waves look perfectly smooth, and we can predict their behavior using wave theory.

A researcher at Cal Tech has applied this approximation to the modeling of very large astronomical objects: super-massive black holes and their entourage of stars and planetoids. In pursuing the mathematics, he discovered that the system behaves according to a wave equation that looks just like the equation that governs slowly-moving subatomic particles: Schrödinger’s equation.

But the equation alone does not generate “quantum” behavior in the objects described by the equation. That is generated by Fermi’s “exclusion” rules. In Fermi’s rules, the particles that make up stable matter all obey this rule: all particles of any one type (such as an electron) are indistinguishable, and therefore the equation describing the behavior of the system must be the same if any two particles are exchanged, with one exception: the amplitude of the wave changes sign.

Going back to our swimming pool, this is like saying that if we exchanged any two water molecules, the wave would turn into its mirror image: where there were peaks in the wave, now there would be troughs (and visce-versa).

I am absolutely certain that this makes as little sense in describing the behavior of supermassive black holes as it does in describing the behavior of pools of water.

That a working physicist could so casually misrepresent the nature of the system reflects the subtlety of quantum concepts, and the tempting ease with which those concepts are used to manipulate public fascination.

Rock of Egos

NASA’s New Horizons probe is flying through the Kuiper Belt (home of the Solar System’s comets) and about to survey a large rock. The rock is named “(486958) 2014 MU69“, which would sound nice when tweeted from R2D2, but is a terror for newscasters.

So NASA is running a contest to select a name to attach to the rock for their PR campaign. Recommendations include “Mjolnir” (Thor’s hammer) and certain mythical cities in the heavens.

My suggestion is “Ziggy Froid.”

The rationale? In honor of David Bowie, of “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.” Because “Ziggy” is a diminutive of “Siegfried” and “Sigmund” which ties in to the Norse mythology of the Arctic Circle through Wagner’s series of Ring operas. And because “Froid” – French for “cold” – is a near-homonym of “Freud,” evoking my sense that it’s crazy to attach names of power to the first rock that we happen to encounter in the Kuiper Belt.

Though there’s no purpose served, you can visit the contest site and vote for my entry.

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.

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!


From the Earth to the Sun and Back Again

One of the hazards of engaging in epistemological debate is that they almost always become religious. We look back through the haze of history, trying to understand the practices by which knowledge is revealed to us, hoping to glean insights that help us heal divisive intellectual conflicts in the present.

Currently, these discussions become religious because our era suffers from an extreme bifurcation in our pursuit of knowledge. In no other era of human history have the two great pursuits of understanding – religion and science – been perceived as diametrically opposed. The linear causality of Einstein stands in contradiction of the gift of prophesy, and the power and predictability of dumb matter seduces us into believing that we can achieve all of our desires right here on Earth. Conversely, science denies us the comfort of meaning, to the extent that some denounce the search for meaning, or go even further to propose that this reality is evidence of a malefic creator.

Given this modern myopia, in looking back at the great episodes of resistance to truth, we tend to focus on the conflict between science and religion. Consider, for example, the succession from geocentric models of the solar system to the heliocentric models. The oppression of Brahe and Galileo is characterized as resistance by a religious elite threatened by the destruction of a Platonic universe whose geometrical perfection (circles moving within circles) was advanced as proof of the existence of the Christian God.

In fact, the history was rather more subtle, and its consideration brings a great deal of insight into the intellectual resistance to the program of this blog, declared on the title bar: “Unifying Science and Spirituality.”

The Greeks advanced both the geocentric and heliocentric models. If the ancients had been capable of building the instruments used by Galileo, they would certainly have settled on the latter. They resolved on the former for entirely practical reasons: they were concerned with using the positions of the stars to calculate the calendar date and the position of objects on the Earth’s surface. Culturally, their needs were absolutely geocentric. To solve this problem, they correlated geographical position with stellar observations and the progression of the seasons. Next, they sought methods for compacting this large body of data in a form that could be used by voyagers. The technology most adaptable to that purpose was the mathematics of circular revolution. Not only was the mathematics of circular revolution relatively simple, it was easy to translate to mechanical form as instruments containing rotating dials.

The “geocentric” model of the heavens was not in essence a philosophical proposition, but a proposition of practical technology. The principle motivation for upending the model was that over the centuries, the circular approximations began to fail. Designs specified in the first century produced the wrong answers in the eleventh century. A more reliable model was necessary, and the application of the new mathematics of elliptical analysis revealed that the heliocentric model fit the data more reliably than did the geocentric model of circular revolution.

As for the resistance of the Church, Galileo insisted on publishing an insulting parody of the Pope with his observations. He made his science a political issue. This was not an idle matter: the Church used the feudal compact to constrain the rapaciousness of those with a monopoly on the instruments of war. Those scientists were well accepted that chose to engage with the Church with the aim of minimizing the social disruption that always comes with new knowledge.

In my own intellectual adventures here on this blog, I find myself confronted by those that tout modern cosmology as proof that the universe is a machine unfolding without purpose from its initial conditions. The foremost intellectual challenge to that conclusion has been “fine tuning” – the delicate balance of the fundamental constants of nature (specifically the relative strengths of the four forces) that must be preserved if life is to survive. The solution to this conundrum has been the “multiverse” variant of the Big Bang theory (the name itself is a mischaracterization). The multiverse proposition holds that universes exist with and without life – we just happen to occupy one in which life is possible.

The random generation of universes in the Big Bang, however, results from the proposition that we can explain all of nature by using two branches of mathematics: group theory and Fourier analysis. Both of these methods are relatively susceptible to hand calculation. What is little understood by the public is that the theorists trumpet their successes and ignore their failures. The application of current theory to study of the hydrogen nucleus is summarized here, and the results are incredibly ugly.

Why is the theory not abandoned? For the same reason that the geocentric theory was not abandoned: physicists and astronomers have used the current theory to justify the construction of multi-billion dollar observatories. As the Church did, they oppose any idea that might destabilize the social order that pays their salaries.

What is scandalous is that the interstellar navel-gazing saps money from problems here on Earth that desperately call for the full commitment of our best and brightest minds. The scientists need to get the heads out of the stars and back onto the Earth.

My Background in Particle Physics

I earned my B.A. in Physics from UC Berkeley in 1982. That spring, I was asked by the undergraduate adviser where I had been accepted for graduate studies. I told him that Princeton had rejected me, and that Harvard expected me to find $10,000 a year. Face paling, he excused himself to go talk to the department head. When he came back, he said, “Here’s an application for graduate school at Berkeley. Fill this out. I’ll walk it down to the admissions office. If you don’t get accepted, don’t worry: you won’t have to pay the application fee.”

So I did my graduate work at UC Berkeley as well, receiving a Ph.D. in particle physics in 1987. There were two significant things about this era. First, it was when the fundamental ideas of particle physics and cosmology (the study of the early universe) were assembled.

Particle physics had been pursuing the use of group theory as a framework for unifying our understanding of the four forces (electromagnetic, weak, strong and gravitational). The theory had some really ugly problems. It did not account for particle masses, it produced infinities in its calculations that had to be “renormalized” away, and it had no satisfying explanation for the mathematical structure of the four forces. With the exception of the first, these problems were resolved by bringing gravity into the framework (through a Grand Unified Theory that was finally refined as superstring theory).

With regards to cosmology, the Big Bang had become dogma back in the 30s when Hubble discovered the red shift. The only available explanation for the result was the relativistic Doppler shift. The problem was that the universe was far too smooth to have been created in an explosion involving normal matter. The contribution of Alan Guth was a model of the early universe with ten spatial dimensions heated to the Planck scale, followed by an “inflation” driven by a Higgs-like particle with extremely large mass. Normal three-space and matter would only appear after the universe had cooled enormously, and light would slow down tremendously in the process. However, it turned out that there were tens of millions of possible configurations of the laws of physics in that cooling. Again, there was no way of explaining the mathematical structure of the four forces. This was addressed by assuming that our universe was only one of an infinite number of universes spawned from the original super-heated Plank plasma.

The second significant aspect of this era was the rise of Big Science in these fields. I was lucky to work on a team of eight, and turned my Ph.D. around in five years. Most of my peers worked on far larger projects, anywhere from one hundred to (at the end) a thousand researchers. The projects involved hundreds of millions or billions of dollars. Because the work had absolutely no practical utility, the arguments for funding became more and more abstract (often invoking science as a fundamental moral imperative), and then became simply political. To illustrate: the organizational success of the particle physics community, in alliance with the Department of Energy, was scandalous to the material science community, whose funding was drained to support the construction of large and larger particle colliders. The rebuttal came in the form of a proposed designer for a linear collider to study particle zoology at the Plank scale (10^40 electron volts, as opposed the the 10^15 electron volts at CERN). The sarcastic concept drawing showed a linear collider superimposed on the galaxy.

I was offered a job at BellCore (the telephone systems research lab) after graduating, but decided to give Particle Physics one more chance by joining a neutrino mass project at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The woman that taught me particle theory, Mary Gaillard, was despondent. I had the feeling that she felt that I was joining the evil empire. Indeed, the nuclear weapons facilities were a vortex that absorbed a lot of talented particle physicists (I guess that DoD was worried that we’d go off and invent something even more destructive than the hydrogen bomb). So the ten years that I spent there were amidst a vital community of theorists, and I was able to keep abreast of developments in particle physics and cosmology.

I chose my position at LLNL because I knew that if particle physics didn’t appeal to me, I would be able to change careers. I did so after three years, entering Environmental Science. Unfortunately, I became married in 1994 to a trauma victim of the Soviet secret police. That trauma made it impossible for my peers to sustain their relationships with me. I was encouraged to leave the Laboratory for industry.

When I made a decision to restructure my personal life in 2000, I went through a period of enormous volatility in my career. My peers at LLNL (some of who had intervened in my personal life with disastrous effect) decided to throw me a lifeline, and I was back there in 2004 and 2005. The latter was the centenary of Einstein’s “anno mirabilus”, when he published his papers on the photoelectric effect, Brownian motion, and special relativity. The speaking schedule that year was dominated by cosmologists and particle theorists. I was able, in that venue, to come up to date on current developments in the field. What I came away with was confirmation that nothing had changed, and that theorists were simply adding parameters in order to match data that they couldn’t explain, often with unsatisfactory results. It was so dire that the NSF head of fundamental physics declared that the field needed “revolutionary” ideas.

I had begun to assemble the thoughts presented here in 2000 (see the “New Physics” tab), and offered them to some of my peers. It was then that I ran into political restrictions. I was told “wait ten years,” which was the foreseeable duration of the CERN research program. Well, that ten years is up.

I did receive some recognition while I was there. During a budget cutting exercise, funding of the National Ignition Facility was threatened. I ate lunch frequently at the NIF cafeteria, and one day found myself looking at the promotional poster on the wall, wondering how to make the program work. As I sat there, I had the sense of having a conversation with researchers from a number of disciplines. When I published that analysis (several months later), the budget discussions were resolved with an increase to support new research directions, and I was invited by the Associate Director’s office for a program participant’s tour of the facility. It was the only concrete evidence I received of the political contributions I had made to the laboratory in the eighteen months that I was able to remain there.