Friday, October 22, 2010

BBC Horizon: What happened before the big bang?

If you have 55 minutes, here is a new program about cosmology that the BBC aired a week ago or so:

The playlist has 6 parts

Well, yes: I hate it. It has nothing to do with the scientific discipline that I could recognize. This program is about a chaotic mixture of largely unsubstantiated ideas about quantum cosmology - but not only about quantum cosmology.

The program doesn't make any distinction between cosmological insights and hypotheses that only depend on classical physics and those that depend on quantum gravity; it doesn't distinguish weird quasi-religious speculations from theories backed by the scientific evidence (and the number of insights that belong to the latter category and that are shown in the program is very limited, indeed).

It's a huge degeneration from programs such as What Einstein never knew (PBS 1985). The new program is a typical example of the postmodern "science" - or consensus "science". In this framework, everyone can offer his speculations, no checks are ever made (or imposed) to eliminate the wrong ideas, and the conclusion is whatever the majority of these people (which is inevitably dominated by cranks) happen to agree about. This is the kind of stuff I have always fought against.

This attitude to science is realistically represented by the "referendum" that Lee Smolin organizes at the Perimeter Institute. "How many of you think that there was something before the Big Bang?" Everyone raises his hand. Who doesn't, is quickly detonated. You know, how many silly people at an institute controlled by cranks raise their hand is absolutely irrelevant. What matters is that there's no proper scientific evidence of a pre-Big-Bang evolution of the Universe.

If I return to the appraisal of the program: any program that shows Lee Smolin but fails to explain why he is a full-fledged crackpot is simply a piece of anti-scientific propaganda. Any program that discusses the cyclic Universes but fails to explain that the technically rooted people have very good reasons to think that unlike inflation, the cyclic models are not backed by any real evidence, is a commercial for nonsense.

It's bad if a program discusses ideas of Roger Penrose but fails to explain that they have nothing to do with proper quantum gravity - primarily because Roger Penrose doesn't understand quantum mechanics. A program that doesn't explain that pre-Big-Bang models only make a scientific sense if the hypothetical prehistory allows us to calculate something about our Universe - and this still seems pretty hard - is deliberately misleading the viewers. And a program that displays a Laura Houghton whom I have never heard of as the representative of string cosmology is a politically correct propaganda display. And who is Param Singh?

But the key reason why I dislike the program is not the excess of the worthless gibberish - nonsensical theories and overly speculative hypotheses about questions that simply can't be reliably answered yet; the key reason is the absence of the actual valuable and solid insights. There have been many - even in the most recent years - but the popular programs and the media in general haven't yet noticed. And they can't distinguish science from conveniently vague babbling, anyway.

Programs like this one inevitably contribute to the dropping trust in science among the laymen. As Randy at the viXra blog correctly said, the viewer will conclude that any idea - perhaps Genesis - makes as much sense. In science, if (as far as) you can't produce evidence supporting a statement XY, you should shut up about XY, otherwise you're not doing science. The blinding "diversity" of assorted and incommensurable ideas presented by the program simply cannot occur in science if it is done properly.

Hat tip: Phil Gibbs

A music video about some serious recent scientific stuff. Don Garbutt has composed music for Juan Maldacena's 2005 popular article called "The Illusion of Gravity".

By the way, I hate what the other people say on the program, too. Michio Kaku discusses many kinds of "nothing". Fine except that these comments are redundant - and he didn't invent them. People have known for decades (or centuries) that the equations were always there and that the vacuum is just the absence of matter but it virtually contains all kinds of matter that can be created for a little while.

Andrei Linde is a completely serious physicist and he talks about inflation which is great. But he is led to say that the Big Bang is dead - because of inflation. Is that really necessary? Inflation is just another stage in the expansion of the Universe. The story conflates the evidence for inflation with the evidence against the Big Bang. These are completely different things and only the former exists. And when it comes to the bizarre anti-Big-Bang popular assertions, I honestly wouldn't recognize that they were meant to explain ordinary eternal inflation. Well, it surely wasn't.

Linde claims to have proved the relevance of the number 10^{10^{10^{10^7}}} or something like that from a silly recent paper of theirs. Holy cow, can't he really distinguish the things he co-discovered and that make sense from those that don't? If he can't, we should conclude that he co-discovered inflation just by accident.

Neil Turok is shown as criticizing Linde's models as going against the "tradition" - but this criticism is just a path to discuss even sillier models. Param Singh, an unknown name, says some OK yet uninspiring philosophical comments. But then he shows his own model - a trivial classical equation meant to support an ordinary "Big Bounce" scenario that "took several years to derive". Holy cow. What is it supposed to mean?

To make things worse, Mr Singh conclusion is that "the beginning was certainly not Big Bang." Why? "Because it is impossible, I don't believe it at all." What a remarkable argument. The program then switches to Lee Smolin. They mention that he is usually absent from his office - but give a positive spin about it.

Smolin says that the singularity "screams" that I am not the end. Well, it surely doesn't scream. There exists no logical argument of this kind. If he hears the singularity "screaming" in this way, he should buy some anti-hallucination drugs. Smolin may share the corridor with Singh or Linde but he's closer to Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein, we hear. Wow. :-)

The usual story about the sex between Universes that are screwing the black holes of each other is presented. The TV folks repeatedly emphasize that the crackpot is a "professor".

Ten years ago, the pre-Big-Bang theories would only be discussed by "radicals", they say. But today it's nearly mainstream. Well, if you define "mainstream" by being backed by many people paid as physicists, and if you pay dozens or hundreds of crackpots as physicists in order to change physics, then the crackpot ideas will become "mainstream", indeed. But that doesn't mean that there is anything scientifically meaningful about them.

Neil Turok promotes some brane collisions in cosmology. They're bad models but they still used to be better than the garbage from others. Andrei Linde correctly says that the lifetime of those models is about 1 years and they keep on mutating them - so it's not a science that is converging to the truth. He's totally right but the same is true for many of his 10^10^10^7-like papers, too.

In this sense, I totally prefer the approach of Alan Guth who just doesn't add much nonsense to his publication record - not sure whether the Guth-Vanchurin "paradox" will be added. If you have nothing coherent to say, it's often better to be silent.

Neil Turok attacks inflation in a completely crazy new way. He claims that there are lots of puzzles and paradoxes etc. - nonsense - and that they can't explain what was before the inflationary era. Well, that's because inflation is not a theory of everything. Inflation is just an effective theory relevant for a particular time scale after the Big Bang. The same is true for the conventional Big Bang cosmology. The power laws that govern the expansion have only been valid from a moment in the past.

Turok praises himself for producing an alternative that may become better than inflation - something that is supported by nothing but aside from wishful thinking. Linde correctly said that their models survive at most for a year - which undermines their very basic ideas.

The narrator says that the very creators of the Big Bang start to abandon it. This reminds me of the creationist comments that a very old Charles Darwin denounced evolution. Yes, no, what of it? This clearly has no scientific value unless it comes with the genuine evidence. The TV people misunderstand the causal relationship in the sociology of science: people such as Einstein are famous because they have discovered something true and important. The TV people think that the causation goes in the opposite way: if someone is famous, what is says is true and important. ;-)

Roger Penrose offers some no-scale version of a cyclic model that makes no sense. The TV people call him a "recent pre-Big-Bang denier". Wow. This analogy probably works: they're creating a program to support the largely nonsensical idea of pre-Big-Bang cosmology with the same blinded prejudices as if they created another propaganda display about the "global climate disruption". It also shows who is the good guy and who is the "denier".

But such propaganda displays don't belong to science reporting - and surely not to science itself. (By the way, the "deniers" of the pre-Big-Bang cosmology are almost certainly still a majority, but the BBC folks have decided that they shouldn't be.)

The program continues with some pictures of astronomers - while they admit that the alternative theories have nothing to do with these observations. LIGO is mixed with some observations of non-randomness in the skies. These experiments are testing theories at completely different levels but they just mix them up. To fix this inconsistencies, they present LIGO as a detector of the Big Bang. Jesus Christ. The TV employee can't possibly understand what "10^{-18} meters" could mean. ;-)

Laura Mersini-Houghton is presented as the representative of all of string theory in quantum cosmology, with an infantile model of a Universe as a "wave" surrounded by "neighboring universes". The paper rightfully has about 10 citations only. It's just completely preposterous to include this nonsense into a BBC program - and to make things worse, as the only representative of string theory. Political correctness and her gender were clearly at play here. Needless to say, her work is both meaningless and unrelated to string theory, too.

At the end, Michio Kaku talks about the synthesis of Buddhism and Christianity. yes, there was a "let there be light moment", as in Genesis, and it happens all the time like in Buddhism, too. Holy cattle.

As a kid, I was never excessively influenced by the science reporting in the media. But many kids are heavily influenced. And I am sure that the people whose thinking is otherwise similar to mine would be totally repelled from science by similar programs.


  1. Hey Lubos, a powerful polemic today on the crackpots- but the study of cosmology as philosophy is certainly not a dead but a new field- as philosophy it makes sense to me only I would call that universe a blackberry with black holes also. After the people of the book we will have to show clearly where Buddhist ideas fit in for they were here long before relativity and quantum uncertainty. One needs to explain why physics cannot go back and one hopes we do not get stuck forever on some idea that does not move forward, especially if this is not science but a quasi religious undertaking.

    Thanks for the post and perspective. In the Escher illustrated video (some of us have found independently such original ideas so we just have to sort them out better is all) I add to the end statement- but the coin has four sides!


  2. True this does not do much for the reputation of science, when you see physicists peddling notions of a gruyere-like universe endlessly bloating itself, where another one sees a yo-yo like universe happily coiling and uncoiling itself, or parallel “branes” rubbing each other, or the different types of “nothingness” from which something can arise. Most people watching this will only snicker. Big bang cosmology sounds good to me, to the extent it satisfies most physicists (I think) and it also satisfies those who see in it a slightly refined version of Genesis where everything pops up out of nothing.
    I don’t know, at the frontiers where physics turns into metaphysics, things might be best left to theologians or something.

    Still, none of this is nearly as bad as climate science.


  3. Programs like this one inevitably contribute to the dropping trust in science among the laymen.

    Most people’s experience of science and math is mediated by engineering. That is to say, they experience these disciplines through their applications. And for many, those applications have had negative or at most neutral outcomes. An example is flying; anyone who flew decades ago (perhaps even before the U.S. inaugurated jet air travel in the early 1960s) will be struck by the enormous deterioration in the experience of being a passenger, notwithstanding advances in metallurgy, avionics, and other scientific applications (now including full-body scanners ;-) )...

    A friend of mine died of cancer early this year, twenty-two years after Richard Feynman died of his at about the same age. Twenty-two years of constantly being hit-up for money to ‘fight cancer,’ untold millions of dollars for so-called ‘research.’ Twenty-two years, but the outcome is the same: if they can cut it out you’ve got a chance, otherwise you’re toast; maybe they can give you a couple more months of misery if you think you can stand it. Meantime they’ve all got their grant money, they’ve all got their little PhD’s, they all publish their piddling little papers in Nature or Cell, the diploma mills get richer and richer...

    There are many, many other examples like this one. Many! What I’m saying is, if you want us to trust science, quit messsing with us and give us something we can use. Not Facebook or the iPhone or Nintendo. Something that correlates with our lives getting better instead of worse.

  4. Even though much of this stuff sounds rather silly, at least it is totally harmless, and you could even say it’s slightly endearing: what can you expect when the object of inquiry turns to things that are probably beyond our understanding? The fact that they are trying to look at it from the perspective of scientists is kind of charming in a way. Simply put, the human mind is most likely incapable of understanding how something comes out of nothing (I mean really Nothing), or how something may not need to come out of anything, which seem to be the only two possibilities. One of the guys kept saying that he distinguishes between a Nothingness that doesn’t even contain “equations” from a nothingness that does contain them. Do these guys really think that equations have a real existence outside the human mind? Why on earth should nothingness contain equations?? What does this even mean? It’s kind of charming.

    On the other hand, things like climate science are not only silly, but potentially very very harmful to humans. If climate had not been artificially turned into the “cutting edge” of science by throwing billions of dollars at it, then all research about greenhouse gases would have remained what it should be: a minor, specialized, and rather obscure field among a few academics. Interesting, kind of cute, but not the avalanche of nonsense it has become.