Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Searching for the Next Big Bang 

I recently finished an interesting book (The Big Bang) that, at a very high level, provided a summary of cosmological theory from the Ptolemaic earth-centered model to the 1992 COBE survey that measured the variations in cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation predicted by the Big Bang model. A recurring theme in the book, and one that has been oft-reflected in all areas of scientific advance, is the contention between the established conventional wisdom and the new emerging paradigm. Another interesting pattern in this case was the frequency with which religion took sides in the scientific discussion.

While Galileo and Copernicus had to very gently couch their advocacy of the non-Church endorsed theory due to the immense power and influence of religion on both the personal and political, by the time the Big Bang and the Steady State model were contending for dominance in the middle of the last century the societal pendulum had swung wide in the other direction. In fact, Pope Pius XII's enthusiastic support of the Big Bang as scientific confirmation of the creation story told in Genesis was often explicitly used by Steady Staters to denigrate their opposition. This was potentially such a problem that Big Bang proponents, including George Lemâitre, who in addition to being a world-class cosmology theorist just happened to be a Roman Catholic priest, personally petitioned the Pope to leave science to the scientists, a request he thankfully considered as being with merit. It is instructive to note that since the Church's silence on the matter scientific data has further supported the Big Bang model with complete disregard for how conveniently the theory may dovetail with the apocryphal pronouncement "Let there be light."

In many ways I read this as an example of another case of how some people may let their personal bias against religion unduly affect their evaluation of ideas or data simply due to the support that may be lent to those ideas by religious individuals. That a scientific theory supporting a single instance of creation is seen by the religiously minded as a proof of God should never have been unexpected. Such support, however, should not, in itself, lead one to believe the theory invalid or without merit. To use an admittedly extreme example, it does not make sense for one to be opposed to the criminalization of murder simply because the Bible says "Thou shalt not kill." Yet it sometimes seems this is precisely the basis for some people's expressed opposition to any number of ideas, both scientific and sociological.

As I read how some Steady Staters deriding the "Big Bang" as non-science, I could not help but be struck by the similarity to opposition often heard in today's discussions of the concept of intelligent design as a theory. (As an ironic side note, the name "Big Bang" was actually coined by one of the most brilliant Steady State model supporters and architects, Fred Hoyle, as a cynical assessment of the opposing cosmological theory) While I am not saying that I have seen any ID theory that approaches in scientific rigor that which was evident in the Big Bang model, I do feel that a heavy anti-religious motivation is often behind the most ardent (and antagonistic) support of the established dogma of Evolution as an explanation for the origin of life and development of the Earth's biodiversity. As emphasized repeated in The Big Bang, a hallmark of a good scientific theory is not only that it accurately explains known phenomena but that it also accurately predicts currently unobserved phenomena. While one must admit that capacity is conspicuously lacking in what passes for ID theory today, in all fairness it should also be recognized that unobserved phenomena predicted by the theory of Evolution (e.g. the "missing link") have, to date, successfully managed to remain unobserved.

In the face of known problems with Evolution it is only natural that a competing theory should arise. Likewise, based upon historical precedence, any such contending theory would be fought tooth and nail by the establishment. Is ID that competing theory? Owing to the problems of verification noted above it may not be. But it may be the beginning of a competing paradigm that will eventually lead to a more complete, even if radically different, understanding. Life and the existence of the known universe itself balances on such a thin edge of probability that it almost defies belief. For example, the mathematical constants that describe our understanding of the gravitational, electromagnetic and strong nuclear forces are so precariously balanced that slight variations to any one will result in a wildly unstable universe in which matter never has the opportunity to combine into larger masses or a universe that rapidly collapses upon itself long before conditions would support life or any of an infinite number of other non-viable scenarios. While the anthropic principle assures us that the universe developed in such a way that supports our existence to consider its development, that speaks only to the "how" and not "why". While many support the idea of an infinite multiverse, relegating our existence to sheer statistical variation and relying upon that army of chimps to deliver another Macbeth, one need not be a Holy Roller to consider the possibility that even if we were not specifically planned at least the chain of circumstances that gave rise to us may have been intentionally set in motion.

I'm not sure what sort of scientific evidence short of a submicroscopic trademark or serial number would be acceptable to bolster ID or bring it into greater conventional acceptance, or if such evidence will ever be found. I do, however, agree with Winston Churchill, who essentially said that men are stumbling upon the truth every day but most promptly pick themselves up and merrily continue on their way. The CBM radiation that was essential for many in cementing the Big Bang as the more sound cosmological model had been detected by every single radio telescope ever build, but it was in the recognition of the meaning of that background noise that the genius lay. Perhaps ID, or its successor, one day will have its "Eureka" moment when some scientist stops ignoring a basic truth that had always been there and recognizes it for what it really means. In the meantime, though, off-handedly dismissing any conjecture of design to the questions of life, the universe and everything only seems to be standard fair for the conservative scientific position.

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