Tuesday, November 4, 2008

"When I say it, it's science, when he says it, it's religion!"

I’ve been neglecting this blog for a while, mainly due to other work, and certainly not because there aren’t universes in collision out there!

Recently, Oxford's acclaimed physicist Roger Penrose, speaking at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, advanced the notion of cyclical universes as more satisfactory than the now conventional Big Bang theory.

In "The big bounce vs. the big bang" National Post (October 3, 2008), Joseph Brean reports,

"The universe seems to go through cycles of some kind ... Our universe is what I call an aeon in an endless sequence of aeons," ...

He described data he received just this week that appears to show traces of the previous aeon in the microwave background radiation that fills the universe and is regarded as the lingering "flash" of the Big Bang. If it actually does, a lot of science will have to be reconsidered.

But no one gasped in awe. There were no hoots of surprise, no muttering about this seeming heresy, this contradiction of everything the general public thinks they know about the creation of the universe -- that it happened just the once, about 14 billion years ago, when space and time exploded together out of a single point, infinitely hot and dense, called a singularity. There is not supposed to be any such thing as before the Big Bang. Eternal cycles, Sir Roger? What are you, Hindu?

Penrose is not Hindu, but the idea is Hindu (and Buddhist), and it is a very old one. As Brean explains,

They all seem to be describing something very close to the account in the Hindu Rig Veda of a universe that is cyclically born and dies, each lasting a little over four million years, and representing a day in the life of the deity Brahma, or Buddhism's mahakalpa, the "great eon" between destruction and rebirth.
Brean wonders whether the aeons idea might undermine the Catholic Church’s comfortable relationship with physics. The Church, after all, teaches that the universe did have a beginning, and - not surprisingly, perhaps - it was Belgian priest Georges LeMaitre (1894-1966), pictured above, who originated the Big Bang theory, which is now the dominant one.

By contrast, the Dalai Lama acknowledges that a beginning to the universe is a problem for Eastern faiths:

From the Buddhist perspective, the idea that there is a single definite beginning is highly problematic. If there were such an absolute beginning, logically speaking, this leaves only two options. One is theism, which proposes that the universe is created by an intelligence that is totally transcendent, and therefore outside the laws of cause and effect. The second option is that the universe came into being from no cause at all. Buddhism rejects both these options. (The Universe in a Single Atom P. 82)

Penrose apparently disclaimed any theological interest to Brean,

Sir Roger was quick to point out that such theological coincidences do not figure in his research. They are no more than pleasing curiosities.

With due respect to Sir Roger, I do not believe that. Such disclaimers belong in the same category as journalists' claims to be "objective": they never have been true and never could be.

Discomfort with the Big Bang theory - for essentially theological/philosophical reasons goes back right to its origin:

Lemaître’s theory was revolutionary. It overturned a century and a half of science.
Initially, many scientists did not like the theory much, and some, like Arthur Eddington (1882–1944), said so. His comment was: “Philosophically, the notion of a beginning to the present order is repugnant to me. I should like to find a genuine loophole.” To most scientists of the day, it sounded too much like religion. Thus, Lemaître, a priest, was in the unusual position of trying to focus attention on the science that supported his idea, while many atheists were more concerned with the religious implications. This odd turnabout continues to the present day, as we will see. (Pp. 2-3 By Design or by Chance?)

The Large Hadron Collider broke some magnets and is out till mid next year, so it will b e some months whether we know if Penrose's "traces of the previous aeon" are vital evidence or faces in the clouds.

See also:

Like clouds in our coffee ... all these other universes

The Big Bang exploded; seriously, is there room for reasonable skepticism about the Big Bang?