Critical comment on Crisis in Cosmology

We recently published an article on the Crisis in Cosmology by Harry Nielsen, which has provoked some comment from readers. Here we publish a letter which, in criticising the article, defends the main theories dominant in contemporary physics. This is followed by a reply which points out that the latest observations should at least lead scientists to question the validity of the Big Bang theory, a theory that dominates the thinking of mainstream physicists in spite of the all evidence.

We recently published an article on the Crisis in Cosmology by Harry Nielsen, which has provoked some comment from readers. Here we publish a letter which, in criticising the article, defends the main theories dominant in contemporary physics. This is followed by a reply which points out that the latest observations should at least lead scientists to question the validity of the Big Bang theory, a theory that dominates the thinking of mainstream physicists in spite of the all evidence.


Nowhere in Harry Nielsen’s article, in “The Crisis in Cosmology”, Nov 24th 2005, does he seriously consider modern theories of inflationary cosmology with anything more than superficial misrepresentations.

In one passage Nielsen observes “Big Bang theorists have at several times in the history of the theory been forced to adjust their ideas when they have conflicted with new evidence”; isn’t this precisely what anyone using scientific methodology would be forced to do?

By comparison, Lerner and Co. have no coherent theory for the experimental observations. Whereas Gamow and others predicted the CMB 20 years before it was discovered by Penzias and Wilson, Lerner’s theories have not led to any serious predictions that have been experimentally verified.

Since Lerner assumes that the universe is infinitely old, but still evolving, he seems to be saying that the CMB radiation is a product of the endless scattering of electromagnetic radiation over infinite timescales. A simple question would be the one asked by Heinrich Olbers nearly two centuries ago: If this is so, why is the sky dark at night? Wouldn’t the effect of this endless scattering of light, x-rays and infra-red radiation be a much higher background temperature than is evident in the CMB today?

One very satisfying answer to Olbers’ paradox is of course, that we live in an expanding universe. The other is that distant light sources are too far away for their light to have reached us. Neither of these explanations is met if one assumes that stars and galaxies have existed for an infinite period of time. (Simply stretching the timescales is an evasion of the issue).

Similarly, the proportion of helium4 and deuterium observed in the universe agree very strongly with the model of a rapidly expanding and cooling cosmos. The figure of 25% for helium4 is closely in agreement with the predictions of Big Bang nucleosynthesis. The observed proportion of deuterium also strongly suggests that the universe is not infinitely old.

It’s certainly true that there are numerous things to be explained in the current inflationary model, such as dark matter and energy. You use the fact that they remained unexplained as evidence of “mysticism” and a stick to beat the theory with. A similar argument could be deployed against Einstein on the question of the cosmological constant!  Does this invalidate Relativity?

The broad model of an inflationary universe agrees much more strongly with the evidence of observations than anything Lerner or his supporters have come up with. In fact, it is Lerner and Co. who are forced to take up arms against the laws of physics, by resorting vague and confusing statements like the following: -

“The data clearly show that the universe is not expanding, and that the redshift of light must be due to some other cause, perhaps in the properties of light itself.”

Think about this carefully. The proponents of the “standard model” of cosmology are attacked for introducing concepts which have yet to be fully explained, but agree with the experimental evidence. Lerner’s “explanation” would require a total re-write of the accepted laws of electromagnetism!

Mystifying matters even further, your article argues that: “One of the predictions from the inflationary theory is that the background radiation should be smooth apart from small random fluctuations. This prediction has been written into the textbooks, and has support from all the major proponents of the theory. Careful analysis of the WMAP results shows, however, that the radiation is not smooth.”

In fact, the theory predicts that the CMB is homogenous in all directions in space and behaves like a black body, which is borne out by the WMAP results. However, it also states that the fluctuations evident today reflect the effects of inflation on the tiny irregularities which existed in the earliest phase of the universe. These are generally explained by quantum effects occurring during the initial stages of inflation. Contrary to your claims, the WMAP observations don’t show anything which significantly conflicts with this model.

While it may be true that Big Bang theory has been used by some theorists to propose a metaphysical Creation “ex-nihilo” this is not a necessary feature of inflationary models since, as you must be well aware, but choose to ignore, many physicists working in the field of String Theory have developed models which do not require such a one-off event.  In fact, String Theory could be described as a form of radical atomism, which defines matter and energy in a much more precise way than Quantum theory or General Relativity.

In some of the models developed by String theorists, a Big-Bang event can be the result of a sudden topological transition from an existing state of matter. This doesn’t necessarily require a singularity to be formed and thus avoids the infinities produced when trying to reconcile the Quantum theory and General Relativity. It implies that the “Constants of Nature” and the observable behaviour of the universe are determined for the current state of the universe by this event, but not necessarily that there was no preceding state.

You suggest that the lack of alternative theories to inflation is due to some academic conspiracy rather than the inherent weakness of alternatives, such as “Steady state” and Lerner & Alphen’s Plasma Astrophysics. It may be that electromagnetic plasmas play a role in the evolution of stars and galaxies which has been ignored in “conventional” cosmology, but nothing I have seen in all of their writings offers the explanatory power of inflationary theories synthesised with string theory, nor the possibility it offers of unifying sub-atomic physics with cosmology.

You choose to ride alongside them if you like, but I’m afraid this hobby horse is going up a dead-end on one wheel. I’m afraid it will all end in tears in the fabric of space-time!

November 27, 2005


Reply to comments on the article “Crisis in Cosmology”

By Harry Nielsen

It has been said many times that the method of Marxism is to first study the facts of a subject, and then to draw out its processes and its connections. This describes not only the method of Marxism but also the method of science (and Marxism is a science) - not to impose an arbitrary idea, but to study a subject from all angles and to find and generalise the underlying processes that are taking place. Then to use that theoretical insight as a guide to action, to learn from further experience, and to refine and develop the theory as a guide to further action.

This underlying reality of how human knowledge develops is today almost completely ignored in the theoretical physics and applied mathematics departments of the universities. The emphasis in modern physics is on deduction from axioms and on the development of ideas through mathematical logic. Ideas are placed ahead of observations and elegance in mathematical arguments is considered more important than evidence. Scientists pay lip-service to the idea that scientific “paradigms” – axioms and their associated concepts - are changed when contradicted by evidence. Yet the scientific hierarchy in the universities and the research funding bodies cling to the ideas that they have built their careers on long after those ideas have in reality been falsified.

The reply that we received to the recent article “Crisis in Cosmology” is a perfect example of the approach and attitudes that are prevalent amongst mainstream cosmologists and theoretical physicists. The most noticeable thing about the reply in fact is not what it says but what it doesn’t say. The writer simply ignores the evidence presented in the article – the recent observations which contradict the Big Bang:

  1. The observed surface brightnesses of distant galaxies are several hundred times greater than predicted by the Big Bang expanding universe model.

  2. The relative brightnesses of supernovae and the brightest galaxies in clusters of galaxies also contradict the expanding universe model.

  3. The high-resolution map of the microwave background from the orbiting Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) shows a local component to the cosmic microwave background radiation, again in contradiction to the predictions of Big Bang theory.

  4. Large-scale structures seen in clusters of distant galaxies would require three to six times longer to form than the time since the Big Bang.

  5. Distant galaxies have been seen that predate the Big Bang by as much as one billion years.

  6. Recent infra-red studies of the mass of the stars in galaxies and in clusters of galaxies show that visible matter can account for most of the observed gravitational effects, without the need for “dark matter”. (Dark matter, together with its counterpart “dark energy”, still remains undetected in any laboratory experiments).

The one topic in this list that he chooses to mention – the cosmic microwave background – he misrepresents by quoting only one paragraph of what was said in the article. Yes, the current Big Bang theory predicts random fluctuations in the microwave background. But the recent observations show variations that are far from random; there is a component of the radiation that is aligned with structures in the nearby universe such as the local supercluster of galaxies and perhaps even with the plane of the solar system, in clear contradiction to the predictions of the Big Bang.

A topic that was mentioned in passing in the article, and which the writer refers to in his reply, is the question of whether the Big Bang correctly predicts the proportions of various forms of helium and hydrogen and other light elements that are believed to exist in the universe. The writer repeats the usual assertion of Big Bang supporters that the observed ratios of these elements fit the Big Bang model. Again, the writer unfortunately didn’t pause to check the evidence before writing. If he had followed the reference given in the article to the proceedings of the Crisis in Cosmology conference he would have found that one of the presentations at the conference, from Tom van Flandern, was titled “The top problems with the Big Bang: the case of light elements”. (1) That paper raises again the serious discrepancies that exist between the predictions of the Big Bang and the actual observed ratios. Eric Lerner has also written on this topic and come to a similar conclusion – see the material on his website “The Big Bang Never Happened”. (2)

The writer adds one piece of evidence supposedly in support of the Big Bang: if the cosmic background radiation was caused by scattering, as the plasma physicists suggest, the sky would not be dark at night. This is an old conundrum, known as Olbers’ paradox, and which Big Bang supporters say shows the universe must be finite in time: the sky is dark because in some directions light from distant stars has not yet had the time to reach us since the beginning of the universe. Yet this is not the only possibility; a fractal distribution of material in the universe would also resolve the paradox. Complex scattering problems of this sort are just beginning to be looked at by physicists, in fields such as solid-state physics or geophysics, where wave energy is similarly scattered by random or fractal irregularities. They are an example of the non-linear type of processes that physics is only just beginning to understand and explore. This is an area which clearly needs more scientific work, as the writer almost certainly knows.

Much of the rest of the writer’s reply to the article consists of a plea for consideration of the “inflationary model” of the universe, which, with some variations, is the current version of the Big Bang theory. The writer believes that this theory has great predictive power, but the main point of the original article was to show that the predictions of the theory are increasingly being shown to be false. The theory has only survived either by ignoring the evidence (as the writer does) or by making arbitrary adjustments to its predictions as it has encountered new contradictions.

That ideas should change on the basis of new evidence, as the writer points out, is perfectly normal. But the process of arbitrary fix-ups, the addition of new variables, the invention of new physics (the inflaton, dark matter, dark energy, etc, etc) which has been used to allow the Big Bang theory to survive is something quite different. As Eric Lerner said last year in his letter to the New Scientist:

In no other field of physics would this continual recourse to new hypothetical objects be accepted as a way of bridging the gap between theory and observation. It would, at the least, raise serious questions about the validity of the underlying theory.” (3)

It’s become acceptable in cosmology and in theoretical physics to make the most outlandish assertions (“many-sheeted space-time”; “the inflation-mediating inflaton”, “the many-world interpretation of wave-particle duality”, to mention a few) without the slightest piece of evidence. (They are axioms!) Often these ideas and their related mathematics contain so many arbitrarily adjustable variables that it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that for these researchers the evidence is merely an unavoidable nuisance, simply something to fit the theory to as an afterthought. This is not an exaggeration – Mike Disney’s presentation at the “Crisis in Cosmology” conference pointed out the worryingly small number of independent observations that are used to support current cosmological theory compared to the number of free variables.1 (“Fudge-factors” is the usual term used by researchers in those fields to describe the situation; anyone working in those areas who is honest with themselves will know that this is a perfectly accurate description of the prevailing method.) This may help to fill some chapters in a student’s PhD thesis, or perhaps provide the student’s supervisor with an idea for a popular science title, but it is not the method by which genuine scientific ideas are developed.

The writer feigns horror at Lerner’s suggestion that we may need to look for another explanation for the red-shift than the Doppler effect – saying that this would need “a total re-write of the accepted laws of electromagnetism”. (Maybe not a complete re-write – a couple of adjustable variables would do it.) But he should look at Lerner’s paper, which is available on his web-site, and see the way in which this experienced scientist reaches this conclusion after a thorough and careful examination of the data and the exclusion of other possibilities. There is a world of difference between this approach, with its respect for the data and its care at every step of the analysis, and the arbitrary mathematical constructions of the Big Bangers.

It is typical of the outlook of mainstream cosmologists that the plasma physicists and others from the alternative cosmology group are accused of having “no coherent theory for the experimental observations”. It’s to their credit in fact that some cosmologists at least have resisted the urge to make the type of sweeping statements that are so common in mainstream cosmology and instead have concentrated on a careful appraisal of the evidence and a cautious approach to theorising. When attempting to understand objects at such great distances for which there is in reality such a limited amount of information (primarily observations from different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum and little else), an attention to observational detail is the first requirement for genuine scientific work. Yet in Hannes Alfven’s work there are also many examples of explanation and insight into observed phenomena. These are based on physics that is known rather than physics that has been invented, and physics which it has been possible to investigate in the computer, as in the figure here, or in the laboratory.

Image
Computer simulations of galaxy formation generated by Anthony Peratt, (a former graduate student of Hannes Alfven). The simulations model the forces generated by electrical and electromagnetic fields applied to a large group of charged particles. (4)

Image
NGC 1365: A Nearby Barred Spiral Galaxy. Credit: FORS Team, 8.2 meter VLT Antu, ESO

Modern theoretical physics overwhelmingly emphasises deduction as the way to develop ideas about the universe, deriving predictions from more general ideas. But there is also another approach, philosophical induction, in which ideas and generalisations are derived from observations. Scientists, and Marxists, in reality use both approaches to learn about the world, from data to ideas and from ideas to data, working in both directions, simultaneously. First data (but according to an idea, a hypothesis to test, a direction to look), from which more ideas, then more tests, more ideas, and so on. This is induction and deduction, simultaneously, in parallel and in sequence – a union and interpenetration of opposites, out of which comes the growth and development of scientific ideas.

The fundamental problem with the Big Bang theory is its assumption of a beginning of time and an initial impulse. No amount of wriggling around – string theory, quantum fluctuations – can avoid this fundamental contradiction at the base of the theory. It’s inevitable that a theory based on false premises – that time has a beginning, that energy and matter can emerge from nothing – will fail experimental test. It is to Ted Grant and Alan Wood’s great credit that, more than 10 years ago now, they were able to identify and point to the errors and inconsistencies in the idea of the Big Bang. As time has gone by and more and more evidence has accumulated they have been shown to be absolutely correct in their analysis. This is a brilliant example of the power of dialectical materialism, which is not only a guide to political action but a general method of understanding nature and science. That the physicists in their ivory towers have on the other hand retreated into the clouds of mysticism and idealism is just a small example of the ideological decay of capitalist society, a symptom of impending revolution, not only in this part of science but in society as a whole.

December 4, 2005


1) Abstracts of all the papers presented at the conference are available at www.cosmology.info

2) See www.bigbangneverhappened.org

3) The full statement is at www.cosmologystatement.org

4) Extensive information on plasma cosmology is available from Peratt’s website The Plasma Universe