Featured in the newest Dialogue Magazine »
Pretty Bubbles

Pretty Bubbles


According to astronomer/author Timothy Ferris in his new book The Whole Shebang: A State of the Universe(s) Report, cosmologist Andrei Linde considers speculation on ultimate origins an excitingly “dangerous” subject. (1997 published by Simon and Schuster see p. 260) Apparently Dr. Linde sometimes wakes up wracked by doubt. Maybe all the speculations in cosmology are simply myths, with no foundation in reality at all. Author Ferris quotes Linde as remarking “Maybe actually the solution is quite aside from what we’re thinking about. It is a very dangerous feeling, this feeling that you’re not totally secure in what you’re doing.” It is one thing to have tentative views, but why should this scientist consider his to be dangerous? What or whom does he fear? Certainly fellow cosmologists have no similar scruples. A review of Dr. Ferris’ book in Astronomy magazine July 1997 p. 108 claims “His work is a tour de force, a spiral galaxy of thoughts recounted in eloquent and vibrant prose.” We are advised to “Relish its prose, ponder its implications.” Well then let’s do it. Let’s see what the implications of cosmology are for us today.

When Dr. Ferris wrote an earlier book The Red Limit (1977) he was concerned about particular bodies in space, about distances and structure in the universe. Now however he and fellow physicists have moved way past all that. They have moved on to bigger things, like the over-all shape of the universe and the possible existence of an infinite number of other universes. The general public might well wonder what possible relevance such speculations can claim. The whole idea, as Dr. Ferris points out, is to get away from any “special pleading”, any conclusions which might suggest the existence or work of an omnipotent, omniscient being — or God, in other words.

Cosmologists are very interested in the overall density of matter in space. According to general relativity theory, the shape of space is determined by this value which they call omega. If omega is greater than one, (a relatively dense universe), then the shape of space is spherical. If it is less than one, it is like a hyperbola. However if omega equals one, a value called critical density, then the universe is said to be flat. The implications of these boring sounding geometries are that a spherical (closed) universe will someday contract into a disastrous crunch, a hyperbolic (open) universe will continue to disperse until nothing is left nearby, but a flat universe (omega equals one) will expand at a slower and slower rate so that it will always exist.

Considering these three choices for the universe, cosmologists vastly prefer the last one. The other scenarios are bleak to the point of futility. If the universe is going to end, why is it even here now? Thus scientists prefer omega equals one. Now the scientists look into the sky to estimate the amount of matter in a given volume of space. Does the universe really exhibit a value of one for omega? Actually not. The matter we see seems at most only ten percent or less of what it should be if omega were equal to one. Nevertheless cosmologists choose to believe that omega actually equals one. They choose to believe this not because of the data, but in order to make their theories work.

It appears that the most recent and popular explanations about the universe (called inflationary theories) predict that omega equals one. This idea involves a sudden brief but tremendous inflation of the universe during early stages of events after the “Big Bang”. This scenario has been devised to avoid some big problems with the standard Big Bang theory. According to the standard model (Big Bang), omega with a value near one would be a very surprising condition. As Dr. Ferris tells us “the fact that the geometry of cosmic space is anywhere near flat (i.e., the value of omega is approximately one) was inexplicable in the classical big bang model. To make cosmic geometry come out that way would have required extraordinary fine-tuning of the initial conditions: the primordial value of omega had to be set to within one part in 10 to the sixtieth power. God might have been up to it, but why should he have gone to the trouble?” (p. 231)

Alternatively it might be that we just happened along at a special time, as omega approaches one. But cosmologists don’t like that idea either. As Dr. Ferris remarks: “So if omega is not one, then we today live in an exceptional epoch when omega just happens to be close to critical while evolving toward some other value. It might be only coincidence …. but cosmologists are highly skeptical of arguments that put us in a special time or place, since they open the door to many sorts of special pleading.” (p. 132 italics his) Special conditions, so Dr. Ferris emphasizes, beg the question who or what determined the specific value in question. Cosmologists are most anxious to avoid special conditions, an idea “repugnant” to them (p. 258). Scientists never allow themselves to forget the controversy between Copernicus and the Church about the place of Earth in the solar system. The outcome of that contest is extrapolated to the present extremes. As Dr. Ferris tells us “The Copernican revolution bred the cosmological principle, which rules out theories that place humankind in the center of the universe or any special location.” (p. 291 italics his) Scientists have a bias or expectations about what they will see before they even look at any data. This principle is used to rule out any explanations other than those involving random processes.

Getting back to omega, inflation theory provides a “natural” (no special conditions) explanation why omega should be close to or equal one. Unfortunately the first versions of inflation theory also involved some very specific conditions which naturally most theorists regarded as “implausible” (p. 239) since they do not like fine tuning. Then Dr. Andrei Linde entered the picture with his suggestions of chaos rather than fine tuning, and numerous universes rather than one special one. And Linde’s suggest ions are certainly attractive to cosmologists. As Dr. Ferris points out “one begins to realize that inflation need not have produced our universe alone. Instead it seems more ‘natural’ …. that many different domains gave birth to inflationary bubbles, each a universe in itself.” (p. 244) Ferris exults that Linde’s “magnificent multiverse removes the question of cosmic origins to the extremities of the ponderable, and perhaps beyond.” (264) The question of a creator has been banished to never, never land.

Inflation theory therefore is useful to cosmologists to avoid “special pleading” or special explanations such as the work of God. Inflation theory presently predicts that the universe should be nearly flat (omega equals one). But what if new data were to suggest that the universe is open (omega less than one)? Would this discredit inflation theory? Not any more says Andrei Linde (Scientific American Presents, Spring Quarterly 1998 p. 102). According to him, new models which involve an open universe are also possible. In fact numerous other versions of the inflation model are possible. “The inflationary theory itself changes as particle physics theory rapidly evolves. The list of new models includes extended inflation, natural inflation, hybrid inflation and many others.” (p. 102) The most interesting part of the story, Dr. Linde says is the idea of “an eternally existing, self-reproducing inflationary universe.” There certainly would not be any room for God in such a scenario.

Dr. Linde’s concerns about an omega value less than one, seem to have come true. The February 27, 1998 issue of the journal Science included an article which suggests that expansion of the universe is speeding up, not slowing down. Nor was this the first study to suggest that omega might be less than one. If these calculations are supported by further studies, we can expect wholesale changes to cosmological theories. Indeed an article in the New York Times (March 8, 1998) called the present Big Bang scenario “more and more like kludge — programmers’ jargon for a piece of buggy software, with one patch slapped on top of another in a desperate attempt to keep it from crashing.” Some cynics now call cosmology “cosmetology” because “there always seems to be another blemish to cover up.” But as there is no other “natural” theory, some version or other of the Big Bang with inflation will no doubt survive, says the Times article.

And what are we to think of all these speculations? Values of omega, while interesting, are less important in a young created universe. These calculations only assume significance when long age cosmological theories hang on a particular value. The purpose of these theories, as Dr. Ferris so clearly tells us, is to provide explanations which avoid special conditions and special pleading. The only problem is these explanations are not very convincing since they do not fit observational evidence. Besides the observers exhibit a strong bias. That is why cosmology continues to change. Stay tuned…

Margaret Helder
July 1998

Subscribe to Dialogue