the ongoing search for a simpler, neater universe

While many physicists are trying to dive deeper and deeper into the complexities of space and time, others are looking for a much simpler explanation of the universe's mysteries.

low poly universe

Astrophysics is not only a complicated discipline, but it’s becoming more and more esoteric, so much so that there seems to be an entire genre of deriving “groundbreaking papers” from obscure numerology, and the scientific community took a while to catch up with the Bogdanov brothers’ papers and show them to be just the sort of buzzword-filled word salad science for which physicists are often criticized by cranks and laypeople who like to debate the Big Bang theory. Having read my fair share of physics papers for this blog, I found my head spinning many a time when confronted with entire pages of dense, cryptic calculus equations, and vast swaths of impenetrable, exotic jargon which is supposed to justify the twists and turns of all these derivations and mathematical leaps into pure abstraction. Given that this level of complexity is quickly becoming the norm nowadays, I can certainly understand why there are physicists looking for a simpler, cleaner cosmology.

From the numerous attempts to dethrone the concepts of dark energy and dark matter, to using statistics for a straight-line estimate of the cosmos’ age, to awkwardly recycling the retired Big Crunch hypothesis, there’s a real drive to get rid of any potential excess in theoretical physics. And the latest salvo on this front is going even further back in time in our conception of the cosmos, resurrecting the static, infinite universe with no beginning or end, adding only a few tweaks to the notion to account for general relativity. According to an Australian physicist, a universe filled with high energy plasma can explain pretty much every anomaly we see today, casting redshift observations supporting dark energy, dark matter, and the Big Bang as the end results of photon interactions in a curved space-time which end up giving us a warped view of the cosmos. He’s also proposing that the X-ray background radiation we know permeates the cosmos is evidence of this plasma in action, so none of the aforementioned concepts that have now become standard features of all cosmology as we know it, are even necessary. We can look at the universe as just one, vast, eternal collection of matter and energy shaped by gravity. It’s a simple enough idea, but it comes with a big catch.

To assume that everything we see around us is distorted would pose major challenges to general relativity, a theory that’s supposed to help explain why we’re seeing warped redshifts. If everything is tainted by an aether- like plasma, how can we explain gravitational lensing? Wouldn’t all the numbers predicting the motion of big stellar bodies be off and the theories behind them incomplete? And to what degree do all those omnipresent clouds of plasma bend light anyway? The paper is very vague on details, saying that the distortion is testable under laboratory conditions. All right, so why didn’t the author run some tests with the densities he proposes are floating in interstellar and intergalactic space, and apply these concrete findings to the universe at large? Knowing exactly how much light is being warped by the medium he says should be filling the cosmos and at what distances should give him a better indication of how likely his hypothesis may be, and make for a more compelling paper than yet another blizzard of math, followed by a vague nod towards the applied sciences to do the necessary testing and measurement. Before overturning over a century of astronomy and physics, we need to see some very elaborate and well thought out proof, ideally the tangible and falsifiable kind.

Again, I understand the very real problems with too many esoteric papers and buzzwords floating around any discipline or area of scientific inquiry. And I can sympathize with the drive to purge a field of meaningless and unnecessary jargon, or irrelevant, abstract complexity where it’s not needed. But at the same time, we should keep in mind that nature really doesn’t care for elegant explanations and we do have solid proof for things like black holes and the dynamics of the fabric of space-time. If these bizarre constructs exist in the universe we can observe and measure, we can’t simply toss them aside in an effort to make a simpler proposal about the structure of the cosmos. Simplicity and elegance are not nature’s big concerns, and all the phenomena noted above aren’t going to go away because we build elaborate algebraic frameworks to basically ignore them.

See: Crawford, D. (2010). Observational evidence favours a static universe, arXiv: 1009.0953v1

# space // astrophysics / big bang / cosmology / universe

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