“A man is now.” Immanuel Kant
The Universe. We’re all entitled to make assumptions. It’s part of our basic belief system. That doesn’t mean that they are true, it just means that we declare the foundation of our idea of reality. We develop a particular idea of what reality is, and tend to stick to it. Sometimes we support it with logic, and sometimes it’s just gut-level instinct. My late father (a gifted physicist) gave me this advice: “Beware the man with a theory.” Had he lived long enough to experience this tragic era of theological terrorism, he might have put it another way: Don’t try to negotiate with a suicide bomber.
Let’s look at the Universe without prejudice; what do we see? Let’s try to explain that, as simply as possible. It won’t do to reject the notion that it is expanding, neither is it wise to assume it. The late Geoffrey Burbidge once said, “People find it very hard to believe in an observation if they don’t have a theory to explain it.” Therefore, we will find only what we are looking for, and will (even subliminally) avoid surprises. Fred Hoyle put it this way: “Every time we point a telescope at the sky these days, we are only going to find what we already know is there.”
The infinite Universe (in time and space) is not the result of empirical observation, it is a logical assumption. We see a cosmos continuing before us, and we see no end or edge. We therefore conclude that the Universe is apparently endless. To assume an end to things is as baseless as assuming that there is any other kind of critical, significant change to what had up to then been normally the case. We have no reason to assume a finite Universe other than to allow our preferred theoretical model to fit. If we predict a finite Universe, then we should take up the challenge of finding observational evidence to support the idea. None has been found.
Whatever the result of our thinking, whichever explanations we may prefer, it is reassuring to note that even the most troubled physical process mooted to explain energy loss of light waves over time is more reasonable, and more scientifically grounded, than the idea that spacetime between redshifted objects is being spontaneously and continuously created. Such a process is devoid of any empirical basis, and is quite impossible to test in the laboratory.
My compatriot George Ellis at the University of Cape Town, having danced the dance of mathematical sophistry with Stephen Hawking, Roger Penrose, Neil Turok, and others, came to an illuminating conclusion: Looking at the arrangement of material structures hierarchically with many small objects near the bottom of the tree, and fewer, larger creatures near the top, we find that we cannot fully deduce the properties of lower order structures from the characteristics of those higher up the ladder. This is clearly illustrated in chemistry. We can extract an array of properties from our study of a compound, but that will not give us the properties of the constituent atoms. The properties of compounds are always quite different, sometimes diametrically so, from those of the atomic elements from which they are formed. This fact should temper our scientific approach.
The famous Armenian astronomer Victor Ambartsumian suggested that galaxies are coming apart. Active galaxies eject objects. Conventional astronomy doesn’t like things to come apart, and invokes dark matter to stick it together.
Something constrains the shape of the spiral arms, and it could be the galaxy’s extreme magnetic field. If a quasar (very dense, only about one LY in diameter) is ejected from the nucleus of an active galaxy at greater than escape velocity, it would follow the field and eventually escape along a spiral arm, dragging matter with it. This is what we see.
In addition, we also see alignment along the path of least resistance, the polar axis. Jets of material at high speed, certainly greater than escape velocity, are seen to be emanating from galaxian poles. Aligned with those jets are quasars.
Where we cannot observe the object of our investigation, because, for example, it is too small or too far (the same thing in effect), then we may have no choice but to model it mathematically: Witness quantum mechanics and Big Bang theory. Some may call it intellectual cowardice, but nonetheless investigators like me prefer to confine their field of study to things they can locate and measure, even if we cannot always see it optically. I think of it as scientific pragmatism.
The danger of models conjured up from pure theory is that they proceed from arbitrary initial assumptions. Unless these assumptions are themselves soundly tested and verified, the conclusions that follow are a house of cards. Consider this: The cosmology of General Relativity assumes that the Universe started from dust particles and grew from there. Maybe it did, but there are in my view compelling arguments that it did not. There is strong observational evidence of emergence, that is to say, larger creatures giving birth to smaller ones, in the work of Hoyle, Narlikar, Arp, the Burbidges, and others. The Universe may likely propagate in a top-down manner rather than the bottom-up style of GRT and BBT. Consider also the case that GRT and its progeny BBT assume in their formalism the Cosmological Principle of isotropy and homogeneity at a scale of >30kpc (at which distance, let it be said, we may still find objects within our home galaxy). The entire Standard Model of cosmology is founded upon this assumption, despite the fact that every single deep sky survey shows structure and intervening voids for as far as we can see. And so on.
The further weakness of theoretically derived models is the necessary consequence of having to ‘find’ observational data to support them. The imperative to reinforce one’s sense of right-ness is so great in man that he will stoop to dubious practice to achieve the prestige he earnestly seeks. The Hubble galactic redshift relationship is explained by the unverifiable and untestable phenomenon of space itself expanding. The notion cannot be empirically tested because it is forever unseen and does not occur within gravitationally bound systems like our galaxy, which of course is where our laboratory is. Another example is the CMBR, data massaged by horrendous mathematical surgery to contrive a fit. Yet another is the sudden appearance of neutrino flavour-changing, invoked to explain the measured deficit in solar neutrino flux, and thus sustain belief in the standard gas-fusion solar model. And so on, ad nauseum.
It’s all about method. The sophisticated (and abstract) mathematics that seem to have developed around the time of C. F. Gauss gave us a world to play in that was enticing, seductive, mesmerising. Gauss was both a brilliant mathematician and an accomplished astronomer. The systems he developed were responses to real-world problems, and in practice he found solutions that pushed the progress of applied mathematics beyond belief.
Meta-mathematics produces models that can and have given us predictions, sometimes quantified, that we can test. Do our measurements of the world out there match the predictions? This was a vexing question for me. It seemed that theories were indeed producing predictions that were empirically supported, and if I had an ounce of integrity in my body, I’d have to admit defeat. Illogical but mathematically sound models had been verified by the tests I had laid out for them. Not for the first time in my life, I had been proven wrong. It was time for me to stop fighting and join the party. It looked like a whole lot of fun after all.
I did what I always do: Followed my dad’s advice. I sat down to a cup of tea with my great friend Tony Bray. “Tony,” I said to him, wiping away the crumbs of Madge’s cream scone, “the time has come for me to face facts. I laid out the rules, and by those very rules, my whole thesis crumbles. I thought I was making a real contribution to science, but I must have been sadly mistaken. Tell, me, is it time for me to stand on the city hall steps, hat in hand, and sue for peace?”
Tony, bless him, was a great deal softer and more diplomatic than my father, who had learnt his particular brand of psychoanalysis as a Regimental Sergeant Major during World War II. Dad would have said, over a brow-furrowing glare, “For heaven’s sake man, stop feeling so damned sorry for yourself and just get on with it!”
Tony, at least in his dealings with me, was significantly more accommodating to my aberrant feelings. Tony said, “Hilton, stop. You’re running away with yourself again. Let’s look at this thing carefully. My experience tells me that the overwhelming probability is that you are wrong, and the right thing to do would be to own up to that. It seems unlikely that so much effort by so many talented scientists after centuries of intense effort and cross-checking could be completely and utterly wrong. But it’s happened before, my boy, and if history is, after all, a wise owl, then it’s quite possible that it’s happening again. We must examine your thesis carefully for a hidden Copernican Principle before we flush it down the drain.”
Well that’s what I wanted to hear and what I didn’t want to hear. I have in my life done a fair bit of outdoor activity that required fortitude and tenacity (the motto of Greytown High School, where I matriculated, is “Fortiter et Tenaciter”, and I took it to heart). In running ultra-marathons or climbing mountain peaks, I had often enough “hit the wall”, a frame of mind where weariness and pain seemed to be telling me that there was no point in going on. Surrender was a far more attractive option, and in the haze of that moment, the goal I had set myself appeared supremely idiotic. Half of me wanted to give up.
But the other half didn’t! Pain is nothing compared with what it feels like to give in!
The blinding flash that obscures the fracture between baryonic reality and the mathematical models said to explain it is in fact deeply insidious. The abstract phrasing producing predictions also produces the answers. The chosen language can in fact magically produce the evidence that supports its axioms, without the need for independent logic or every-day reality checks. In fact, and you might not believe this but it’s true, it works by re-defining reality in such a way that the theory becomes self-sufficient. It meets all its own needs, independently of our conscious experience of the world, in ways that are often blatantly and unashamedly irrational. Conceptually, both the Relativity theories of Einstein and Dirac’s Quantum Mechanics are illogical. Nevertheless, they incorporate quantifiable and ostensibly verifiable predictions that appear to have been tested with resounding success. How can one argue with that? The sheer volume of the applause should have given us a hint that things were not quite what they seemed.
The tricky matter of consensus needs to be dealt with. We all know that consensus is not science, and Michael Crichton expressed that so beautifully. I’m not suggesting it is. But we need to be careful of the naivety that ignores the political element in the world of science, and the need for political will to emerge alongside our purely scientific work if we are going to make significant changes to the structure that obstruct the progress of science into new and novel fields. To this end, we need a minimum consensus. We need some sort of political charter that constitutes our collective opinion on issues peripheral to pure science, but nevertheless crucial to the process going forward, in the manner of a catalyst in a chemical reaction. The reaction won’t happen without it, or at least, not with the anticipated results.