Saturday, September 13, 2008

Across the Universe: Concerns about the Big Bang Theory

The CERN experiment launched last week brought out a few concerns about the Big Bang Theory that I've been quietly nursing over the last several years. Since my day-to-day life at work or at play does not in any way deal with such things, I've had no option but to toss around my thoughts on the subject in the private silence of my open mind when "in vacant or in pensive mood". Now that the CERN thing happened and now that I have a blog, it gives me a window to vent and a place to vent at. But before I go any further, I need you to forgive me the weak pun on CERN / concern - it was unintentional, believe me (and if you missed it in the first place, please excuse my having pointed it out). Also, before I go further - this is not about how the $10 billion or so spent on building the Large Hadron Collider could have been spent instead on more deserving causes (e.g., hunger, healthcare, education ... the list is quite long). I am not saying there is no merit in that discussion: on the contrary, there needs to be some debate on the matter of prioritising the expenditure of globally available funds. However, this blog post is not about that. This is about the methodology of science and scientific research as currently practised, and issues about the integrity of the scientific community. So, for the moment, let's say it is worth $10 billion to find out whatever it is that we are trying to find out through the CERN experiment. (Like most research projects, the expected outcome is not known / not clear - they want to create a set of conditions, which they believe prevailed at the instant the universe was 'born', and then sit back and see what happens.)

First, let me deal with the issue of the veracity of the Big Bang Theory (BBT for short). From what I have understood so far, the BBT is still a theory. It has not been proven beyond doubt to be a 'fact' (benchmark: it is a 'fact' that the Earth is round, not flat). Over the last several decades, numerous scientists and scholars have attempted numerous other explanations and proposed them as coherent and credible alternatives. Most notable of these is Sir Fred Hoyle who together with his student Jayant Narlikar and others, authored the Steady State Theory (SST) and who, right till the time he died in 2001 did not accept the BBT (though most of the scientific community considered it a done deal by then). Over the years, the BBT has found an incredible amount of traction with the scientific community, which keeps finding more and more evidence that suggests that the BBT provides a reasonably robust set of explanations to questions on the origin of the Universe. And sadly, there does not seem to be adequate encouragement to upholders of SST and other theories - by way of resources, for instance, or even a platform of credibility, to prove or disprove theirs. For more on this, please read "An Open Letter to the Scientific Community", especially the last few paragraphs. It almost looks like the BBT meme is bullying all other competing memes out of existence. (To know more about the concept of 'meme', wiki it here .)

So what's the problem? Well - quite simply, the scientific temper does not tolerate bullying. When it comes to the quest for knowledge, if there is a doctrine I have learned to uphold above and beyond all else, it is this - let ideas be developed and be heard for what they are worth (even if nothing) and let them stand up (or not) to the strictest scrutiny of the sharpest and finest minds available at the time, before we accept them as valid (or not). For a theory to be accepted as fact, over alternative and competing hypotheses (e.g., heliocentricity vs. geocentricity), it must be proven to be true beyond all doubt; it is not enough to say "we have sufficient observed data that points to X being true". Finding "adequate" or "sufficient" evidence to "believe" that X must be true does not mean that X "is" true. It only means that there's a more than fair chance that it is true. Until, of course, it is proven to be false. The BBT is an instance in point: it stands on about 2 or 3 key premises which are backed up by observed data (e.g., Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation, Hubble Red-shift / Expansion, etc.). Now, if those same phenomena could be explained in some other way (e.g., click here), that would take a substantial quantum of wind out of the BBT sail. In legal terms such observations may be termed 'circumstantial evidence' - stuff that is highly suggestive but doesn't prove anything conclusively.

Second, let me deal with the possibility that some 'secret influences' just might have made the BBT a far more compelling proposition to the minds of key influential scientists, than pure scientific investigation could ever do on its own. The history of intelligent inquiry into the nature and origin of the world around us is full of theories that were taken to be true till someone found evidence shattering those beliefs. Scientific inquiry is just one of many methods that human civilisation has used to understand our world and the worlds around us, and over the last couple of centuries Science has established itself to the rational mind to be the only credible and meaningful way to really know or understand something. It thus has its own sets of believers - good people who have faith in the premises and methods of Science - and its own agnostics and doubters. The same is the case with all other ways to knowledge including various schools of astrology, various religions, spiritualistic paths and other belief systems and practices. To the credit of Science, it has maintained the ability to question and correct itself when faced with irrefutable contradictions. But does this always happen? I am not so sure. Is there a sub-conscious belief system - religiously and/or politically motivated - underlying the process of scientific investigation that might have, at least in a few cases, sacrificed the unflinching search for Truth at the altar of Belief? Quite possibly so. We are all human and we all have our own predilections that might secretly influence what we consider to be our rational thought. It is perhaps as important to understand our minds, as it is to use those minds to understand the Universe. Let me elaborate on that a bit ...

One of the things the BBT does is to assert that the Universe had a finite beginning. In other words, the BBT says that in the beginning there was nothing and then suddenly there was the Universe. This sounds a lot like the first few lines in Genesis 1! At the very least, it suggests that there was a spontaneous prime cause (which has no cause that preceded it) - and raises the question of the 'metaphysical why'. Let me take a quick moment to go on a side-bar to explain what I mean ... there's the physical / mechanical why, which is answered by cause and effect relationships (e.g., why did the ship sink? because it struck an iceberg that tore a hole in its hull) and there is the metaphysical why, the answer to which involves something that may be understood to be an intention or purpose or a will, which only a sentient being could possibly have (e.g., why am I writing this blog post? because I want to express my thoughts on this subject ... or whatever other reason YOU, dear reader, think I may be writing it for). If the Big Bang were spontaneous (i.e. there is no prior physical or mechanical cause which effected it), then the only 'cause' could be will (God's?) or intent or purpose. The concept of a Universe that was spontaneously created (space, time, forces, fields, energy, matter, momentum) from nothing resonates really well with the Creationistic view of many religions that, one way or other believe that God created the Universe, and that too for a Purpose. Perhaps then, the teachings of these religions have taken such deep roots in the minds of some scientists that they lean in favour of the BBT without even realising their own predilections? On the other hand, the SST does not involve the proposition that the Universe had a finite beginning - to know why something happened, you needed to go further back up the causal chain, and to know that, go further back ... look for the mechanical 'why' ad infinitum. With the SST all you have is the mechanical why - no suggestion of purpose or intention, just continuous creation / evolution.

Lastly, there's the question of symmetry / balance / harmony of opposites. The human mind is trained to look for symmetry and when presented with the concept of a beginning, it tends to believe that there should also be the concept of an end. Similarly if there is no beginning then there may be no end. I am not sure what believers in the BBT have to say about the end of the Universe, or even if they have any clear thoughts on that part of it and if they do, how many of them are in agreement. Speaking for myself, I would be more comfortable with a BBT that also explained how the Universe would end, and found adequate evidence to back that up as well. The SST on the other hand, is more symmetrical. But let me hasten to add that I am not saying that this makes the SST 'better' or - Heaven forbid - makes it 'right' or 'true'. Just that it does have more appeal (to me) probably because of my Taoistic outlook on things. (See? I know where that comes from!) Of what use is a Universe that has a finite beginning, of which nothing can be said about its end (even whether it is finite and closed or infinite and unbound)?

I have no idea, but I am not going to pay 10 billion bucks (in any currency) to find out. Over the years, I've pondered a lot about the origin of the Universe and the fascinating workings of Nature with awe and wonder. And today, when I come across something I just don't get, despite hard attempts over a prolonged period, I smile quietly to myself and hum "... she moves in mysterious ways".