Mad Scientists and The Big Bang Panic


Dear Concerned Citizen,

You may have noticed recently, if you’ve been reading popular science magazines, that scientists are going increasingly mad.

What is the source of their madness? That the advance of science over the last half century points ever more clearly to the inescapable conclusion that the universe had a beginning, and second, that the universe is fine-tuned in the very finest detail for life, specifically life on Earth. The first is concluded from Big Bang cosmology, the second from the discovery of a multitude of instances of cosmic fine-tuning that scientists call “anthropic coincidences” (anthropic from the Greek anthropos, human being).

In short, the cosmic landscape looks frighteningly familiar—a sudden creation out of nothing, but one that is governed by intricate laws, precisely balanced forces, and a delicate interplay of matter and energy that culminates in the appearance of human beings.

It is this frightening familiarity that apparently maddens (at least some) scientists. As a recent article (2/2004) in the popular science magazine Discoverremarks, “many astrophysicists are still uncomfortable with the implication that the Big Bang marked the beginning of time itself.” An even greater cause for discomfort, is that the advent of a beginning implies the necessity of an outside cause: “What made the Big Bang go bang?”

In short, it appears that Big Bang cosmology is driving science to theological conclusions. In the oft-quoted words of astronomer Robert Jastrow, the mysterious abruptness of the universe’s beginning means that “science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”

Add on top of that, that the “bang” was unimaginably, ingeniously fine-tuned, down to the smallest detail, and the discomfort level rises even further. As astronomer Fred Hoyle famously stated, “a commonsense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super intellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature.”

For scientists who refuse to follow the flow of cosmological evidence, the only way out of embracing this reality, so it seems, is to chase after insanity and throw themselves into the arms of cosmological madness.

Witness the following from the above-mentioned article in Discover entitled “Before the Big Bang.” It describes the theoretical work of a pair of “maverick” cosmologists, Paul Steinhardt and Neil Turok, who “have a radical idea that could wipe away these mysteries.” How do they propose to tear away the “curtain on the mystery of creation”?

By spinning a cosmology out of wholly imaginative cloth, a cosmology that cannot be tested because it is conveniently tucked away where it can provide no evidence. They assert (according to the author of the article, Michael Lemonick) that “the cosmos was never compacted into a single point” as the Big Bang implies. Rather, “the universe as we know it is a small cross section of a much grander universe whose true magnitude is hidden in dimensions we cannot perceive.”

As the reader suspects, it is rather difficult to test a theory that depends on evidence “hidden in dimensions we cannot perceive.” Such dimensions do, however, provide a good intellectual hiding place for those scientists uncomfortable with the theological implications of the Big Bang.

But there’s more. “What we think of as the Big Bang,” argue the pair, “was the result of a collision between our three-dimensional world and another three-dimensional world less than the width of a proton away from ours—right next to us, and yet displaced in a way that renders it invisible.”

We needn’t be bothered by the Big Bang because “the Big Bang is just the latest in a cycle of cosmic collisions stretching infinitely into the past and into the future. Each collision creates the universe anew.” Thus, we escape from the confines of a worrisome beginning, into a beginning-less, endless cycle of eternal cosmic collisions. Steinhardt and Turok call this “the ekpyrotic universe,” from the Greek for “conflagration,” a name that “refers to an ancient Stoic cosmological model in which the universe is caught in an eternal cycle of fiery birth, cooling, and rebirth.”

Ekpyroticism solves another problem. Since our universe is just one of a multitude of universes, we needn’t be worried that it appears so finely-tuned that it leads one to the conclusion that “a super intellect has monkeyed with physics.” In an endless cycle of cosmic collisions of an infinite number of universes at least one or two of the universes, by chance alone, would turn out with the right combinations of fundamental forces, energy, matter, and so on. We happened to have won the cosmic lottery, so to speak.

The evidence for all of this? Again, there isn’t any. The most one could say is that Steinhardt and Turok are tracing out one possible mathematical skein spun from superstring theory, a horrifyingly complex mathematical web in theoretical physics that attempts to bind together matter, energy, space-time, and the basic forces of nature into one unified tapestry.

But a mathematical theory is only illuminating if it fits neatly upon reality, and sheds light upon actual evidence. Alas, the maverick theory of Steinhardt and Turok fails on both counts. Their theory does not fit upon reality, but only upon realms “we cannot perceive.” And furthermore, their theory of endless cosmic collisions of infinite universes is not grounded in any evidence. Rather, the aim of the theory is simply to do away with the embarrassing evidence of the Big Bang.

Theoretical mathematical models often lead to great advances in science. In fact, the Big Bang theory was the result of following out the implications of the mathematical equations, known as the field equations, in Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity. But mathematics leads to madness when it is used to lay aside reality and sweep aside evidence. Such madness may avoid theological conclusions, but only at the expense of destroying science.

And so, the mystery of the universe’s abrupt beginning remains, despite the attempts of some scientists to avoid it. What is truly mysterious, is that it wasn’t a band of theologians that scientists met on top of the mountain, but even stranger, a tribe of ragtag nomadic Semitic sheepherders who had been there, not merely a few centuries, but for several millennia.