Hubble Trouble

For some years now I’ve been poking at some basic questions. There might seem to be little connection between the theory of evolution and the twin disciplines of physics and cosmology, but I’m fascinated by both. The physiology of the brain, too, and maybe a side order of history and anthropology. What ties these fields together is that they all address questions like, “What’s going on here?” “What is this world that we’re living in?” “What’s real?”

Today I’ve been re-reading a book by Bjørn Ekeberg called Metaphysical Experiments. Truth be told, it’s not a very good book, but it’s a useful exploration of a basic question, which we might articulate as, “Why is modern cosmology such an absurd mess?” It would have been a better book if he had chopped out most of the long digressions into the history of philosophy, which quite aside from being only marginally related to his central thesis are so freighted with esoteric terminology as to be all but unreadable.

To make matters worse, on page 150 he gets one of the basic points about cosmology wrong. He asserts that the too-fast rotation of spiral galaxies is what inspired the notion of dark energy — but no, those observations lead to the hypothesis of dark matter, not dark energy.

All that aside, his thesis is that modern physics and cosmology are, at root, a set of self-fulfilling prophecies — a sort of math-bedazzled folk-tale. He makes a pretty good case for this. He points out, I think correctly, that physicists and cosmologists start with a theoretical framework that is entirely abstract, and then convince governments to spend billions on experiments such as the Large Hadron Collider, which are explicitly designed to find evidence that will support the existing theories. Evidence that doesn’t support the theories is simply jettisoned. The data is massively cherry-picked.

Physicists and cosmologists are wedded to what is essentially an article of faith, namely that the universe can ultimately be explained using a single set of mathematical principles, a set of equations that absolutely dictates the structure of the world that we observe. When the observations don’t coincide with the theory, various fudge factors are introduced. By now we’ve reached a point where the whole structure is more than a bit jerry-rigged. The fudge factors are welded together using equations that are certainly far beyond my comprehension, yet the structure continues to creak and groan.

The philosophical point, which Ekeberg nods at but doesn’t dig into, is this: Why should the universe be constrained to operate in a mathematically consistent way? What exactly would force even a single proton to behave in the manner predicted by an equation?

For that matter, why should the universe even be logical? The rules of logic were laid down by the ancient Greeks 2,500 years ago, and without the benefit of even a single scientific experiment. Logic works very nicely at the level of ordinary human affairs: Either the goat is up in the tree, or the goat isn’t up in the tree. There’s no logical way for the goat to be both up in the tree and not up in the tree. But a proton is not a goat, and neither is a galaxy.

I wouldn’t want this to be read as a dismissal of all scientific discoveries! I’m not indulging in crystal-gazing here. Molecular biology is a lovely thing; right now it’s giving me some protection from a nasty virus, and I’m very grateful for that. The dynamics governing global warming are not a fantasy. But these fields of research are a whole lot closer to home than those sheets of red-shifted galaxies that Edwin Hubble’s theory assures us are billions of light-years away and receding at a rapid clip. Ekeberg’s thesis, which I’m inclined to agree with, is that the people who think they have a handle on what’s going on in those galaxies — they’re the ones who are crystal-gazing.

I’d like to know a lot more about this stuff. Without being forced to learn the math, I would hope. My own view is that dark matter is the new phlogiston. Phlogiston, for those of you who haven’t been following the history of science, was a substance that was thought at one time to explain combustion. It was observed that after something burned, it was lighter than before. The theory was that this was because the phlogiston had flown off into the air. Eventually it was discovered that a few types of material actually got heavier when they burned, which raised the terrible possibility that some phlogiston had a negative weight. Eventually the whole theory was abandoned. But that’s kind of what we have now with dark matter. It has never yet been observed to exist, and there’s no theory about what it could possibly be. It’s a wild guess that is inserted into cosmology in order to explain some observations while allowing the existing theory of gravitation to be kept intact.

Eventually, I predict, dark matter will go the way of phlogiston. Unfortunately, I probably won’t live long enough to be able to say, “I told you so.”

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