Last Friday night, on my way from the Old Kent Road to a meeting of advanced, pragmatic sceptics of the dominant worldview (chaos magicians), I took my seat on the bus and picked up the copy of the Metro that came with it. Among the news and celeb gossip was an article saying that science is entering a crisis in its way of viewing the entire universe.
Unless you practise or at least keep up with science, you probably haven't been following the woes of the Standard Model of cosmology. Let me take you on a brief flight over the territory.
In 1929 Edwin Hubble interpreted the redshift in the light from disant galaxies as a sign that the universe is expanding. In 1931 Georges Lemaitre proposed that the universe originated in a 'primeval atom', which idea led to the Big Bang theory. The idea was a contentious one until 1965, when the discovery of the cosmic background microwave radiation convinced nearly all cosmologists that the universe originated from a hot, dense starting moment.
By 1980, the theory had already accumulated an oddity: inflation. It seems that the universe was, or is, expanding much faster than was predicted from the mechanics of the Big Bang, and an extra factor had to be brought in to make sense of these new observations.
Elsewhere in cosmology, other weirdness was gathering. In 1934 Zwicky proposed 'dark matter' to explain the rotational peculiarities observed in galaxies. Dark matter has never been observed, and is thought not to consist of atoms and not to interact electromagnetically with 'regular' matter like the observable universe. What's more, there seems to be far more dark matter than observable matter in the universe - around five times as much.
In 1998 new observations suggested that the expansion of the universe is speeding up. To account for this, there had to be much more mass or energy than we'd ever observed; even taking into account the extra mass dark matter supplied, there was still a massive shortage, so 'dark energy' was postulated. As if it wasn't bad enough that 80% of the solid stuff of the universe is invisible, there has to be about three times as much dark energy as all the matter put together, dark or otherwise. In other words, only about 4% of the total mass-energy of the universe is directly observable.
An attempt has been made to pull together the ideas of dark matter and dark energy into a single concept of 'dark fluid', which is something like a fluid mechanics of space. And it gets weirder still: recently, bits of matter have been observed to move very fast and in a way that suggests they are being pulled about by matter outside the known universe. This has been given the name 'dark flow'.
Is there a pattern discernable here? These are what an old physics lecturer of mine* used to call fiddle factors, arbitrary quantities or constants you put in to make the equations work. Applied physics and engineering are full of them, but when they appear in the deep, fudamental theories they are something of an embarrassment.
This is not the first time this has happened. The neat theory of planetary motion that insisted the earth was at the centre of the universe, and that planets had to move in circular orbits (because mathematics is the language of the mind of God, and the universe is meant to be comprehended by humans - the same faith that still drives science) had to add in little curly bits to account for apparently retrograde motions of Venus and Mercury. These were called epicycles. The epicycles grew more epicycles, and the theory lurched along for another few centuries before Kepler risked his life at the hands of the church and declared a heliocentric model which fit the facts much better and tidied away all those messy epicycles.
At the moment cosmology seems to be stumbling along fine under its weight of fiddle-factors, but how much longer has a major theory got when the tocsin of its imminent demise is being rung in a paper you pick up free on buses ? (Metro, Fri June 18th)
The writer, one Ben Gilliland, (a man who clealrly knows his physics and presents it well) is pretty fresh about it all, with subheads like 'Bang goes the theory' and 'Part of our universe is missing'.
So the cosmological world awaits a new paradigm. Will we have to give up the Big Bang? If it seems intuitively reasonable that it all started with a big bang, maybe that's because we're weaned on creation myths with a definite beginning. After all, Georges Lemaitre. the original proponent of the theory was a Belgian Catholic priest. Mythic continuity or just coincidence?
Some writers have sought a new theory which would allow a special connection between special states of human consciousness and action at a distance in the material world. In other words, that would allow magic. One such theorist, with more knowledge of physics than most authors who try to connect the two areas, is Peter J. Carroll. His 6-dimensional spacetime theory (http://www.specularium.org/ ) is not easy to understand and will not be to everyone's taste, but it may be an example of what the human mind can come up with when fashioning a theory to account for our experience of this weird universe. Maybe this time we don't have to leave out the magic.
* If you ever read this, Dr Crane-Robinson, I never thanked you for your gedankenexperiment about trying to boil an egg on top of a mountain, which resulted for me in a state of gnosis. So thank you, I finally 'got' the Boltzmann statistics.