The recently celebrated discovery of the Higgs boson has captivated the public's imagination with the promise that it can explain the origins of everything in the universe. It's no wonder that the media refers to it grandly as the "God particle." Yet behind closed doors, physicists are admitting that there is much more to this story, and even years of gunning the Large Hadron Collider and herculean number crunching may still not lead to a deep understanding of the laws of nature. In this fascinating and eye-opening account, theoretical physicist Alexander Unzicker and science writer Sheilla Jones offer a polemic. They question whether the large-scale, multinational enterprises actually lead us to the promised land of understanding the universe. The two scientists take us on a tour of contemporary physics and show how a series of highly publicized theories met a dead end. Unzicker and Jones systematically unpack the recent hot theories such as "parallel universes," "string theory," and "inflationary cosmology," and provide an accessible explanation of each. They argue that physics has abandoned its evidence-based roots and shifted to untestable mathematical theories, and they issue a clarion call for the science to return to its experimental foundation.
About the Author
Alexander Unzicker is a German theoretical physicist and neuroscientist.
Sheilla Jones is the author of The Quantum Ten and an award-winning Canadian journalist and a science contributor to CBC. She reviews science books for The Globe and Mail and the Literary Review of Canada.
Alexander Unzicker is a German theoretical physicist and neuroscientist. He is the co-author of Bankrupting Physics.
Read an Excerpt
How Today's Top Scientists are Gambling Away Their Credibility
By Alexander Unzicker, Sheilla Jones
Palgrave MacmillanCopyright © 2013 Alexander Unzicker and Sheilla Jones
All rights reserved.
NOT TOO BAD, HOMO SAPIENS, BUT ...
REASONS FOR DOUBT: SOMETHING IS ROTTEN IN THE STATE OF PHYSICS
Enthusiastic applause rang through a crowded conference room in a Virginia hotel. Everybody gazed at a screen, where nothing but a simple diagram with a curve going through a couple of points could be seen. Only strange people could get carried away with emotion from something like this — like physicists at the annual meeting of the Astronomical Society, who continued to clap for several minutes.
What had happened? The plotted data confirmed with unprecedented accuracy a fundamental law of Nature: the emission of radiation from hot bodies. Discovered in 1900 by Max Planck, it was now lighting up the astronomy community with mathematical clarity. Even more spectacular was the origin of the data: microwave signals of different frequencies that did not come from a laboratory on Earth, but from a hot primordial state of the universe! A fireball of hydrogen and helium — without the molecular structure that would, in the distant future, make life possible — had released its light. More than 10 billion years later, it was picked up by the detectors of the man-made COBE satellite that had transferred the data just a few days earlier.
Replaying this story gives me the chills, as if I can actually feel the extremely cold temperature of cosmic radiation. It has a uniform distribution in space, which tells us that we should not delude ourselves that we live in a special place in the universe. Intelligent aliens could have come into existence everywhere! If they happen to look over our shoulders from time to time — an unlikely case — they would certainly have nodded their big heads appreciatively that afternoon of January 13, 1990.
SEEING THE LIGHT, OR ENLIGHTENMENT YET?
But Homo sapiens is not the most humble of creatures. During a NASA press conference, George Smoot, the project leader of the COBE satellite, called a picture of the cosmic microwave background radiation "the face of God," taking quite a faith-based tone. "Oh man, come back down to Earth," might have thought John Mather, his more modest co-laureate of the Nobel Prize. Surprisingly, however, such exaggerated language has spread in recent years, in particular among theoretical physicists. "The mystery of creation," as the famous cosmologist Alan Guth puts it, "is not such an unsolvable riddle any more. We now know what happened 10-35 seconds after the Big Bang." He appears to know it precisely.
Not only out in the cosmos, but also in the microcosmos of elementary particles, physicists are feverishly excited over such prospects. "No one could have imagined in his wildest dreams that we would get where we are now," says the theorist Brian Greene, in all seriousness. "Astronomers Are Deciphering the Book of Creation," "Physicists Close in on the Theory of Everything," and similar headlines appear in the newspapers. Such optimism appears even in distinguished scientific journals. But have our technological achievements really come at the same time that we have begun to understand the whole universe? That would be a strange coincidence. Do the theories that we are so vocal about really reflect what our eyes perceive?
It seems that today, almost 15 billion years after the Big Bang, we are about to solve the key questions about our universe. But this is a book of doubts ... doubts as to whether the current theories in physics are actually close to the ultimate truth. We believe we know almost everything, but only one thing is certain: we currently live in an age that provides the best opportunity ever to look at the universe in marvelous detail.
The cosmic microwave background data is only one part of a revolution that has taken place in astronomy in the last few decades. Satellite telescopes are the cataract surgery that took away the murky and flickering atmosphere that constrained what astronomers could see. But a still more dramatic improvement came from digital image processing. This was a revolutionary innovation, like the discovery of photography, or even the invention of the telescope itself. How would Galileo, Kepler, Newton, and Einstein have enjoyed the present day! They surely wouldn't simply look up the most fashionable contemporary theories. Rather, they would look up to the skies to test their own. We have taken a giant leap out of our own solar system, out of our own galaxy, and deep into the universe through the use of precision telescopes.
THE NEW AND THE OLD
King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia once teased his royal astronomer: "Well, Argelander, anything new happening in the sky?"Argelander responded, "Does Your Majesty already know the old things?"
While you read this book, I would like to invite you to enjoy a few old tricks of observation that will help you appreciate the spectacular results of astrophysics and understand its riddles. The color of the light that hits your retina, for example, tells you something about the motion of stars and galaxies. The color of an object in space that is shifted toward blue light — with its higher frequency — indicates an object moving toward you, just as the sound of an approaching ambulance's siren appears to have a higher tone. If the original color is shifted toward the red end of the spectrum instead, it can be concluded that there is a receding motion. This phenomenon is called the "Doppler shift," and it applies similarly to both sound and light waves.
The Doppler shift in moving galaxies reveals that only a small fraction of the matter in the universe is visible through our telescopes. This was first noted as early as 1933 by Fritz Zwicky, a pioneer in galaxy research. He had a particular fondness for the Coma cluster, an impressive conglomeration of galaxies 300 million light years away. He measured the color of the objects in the cluster, and accordingly wondered about their high speeds. Their velocity, as shown by the Doppler shift in their emitted light, should have allowed them to overcome the gravitational attraction of the mass in the cluster, much like rockets escaping the gravity of the Earth. Therefore, in such clusters, additional mass had to be hidden, which, though invisible, prevented the galaxies from escaping the iron hand of gravity. Nowadays, we call this important discovery "dark matter," and it is a cornerstone of our current view of the cosmos.
Zwicky deserved the Nobel Prize for his discovery, but he tended to be unpopular with his colleagues because he was blunt and bullheaded. However, he really shot himself in the foot by arguing against the cosmological discovery of the 1930s, made by his great rival, Edwin Hubble. While measuring the redshift of the light of the galaxies, Hubble observed that almost all of them appear to be moving away from us. The more distant they were, the faster they receded.
Redshifted galaxies were the first piece of evidence that showed we live in an expanding universe, which we now attribute to an explosion-like process in the early universe ... the Big Bang.
WHY THE EYES OF ASTRONOMERS TWINKLE
The applause in that crowded conference room in Virginia in January 1990 was a celebration of the Big Bang model, too. The cosmic background radiation data, which echoed the early phase of the universe, confirmed that the universe was hot and dense back then. This favored the idea of a continuous expansion since the Big Bang, which was born with Hubble's observation of redshifts. Later, the formation age of the cosmic microwave background radiation was determined to be 380,000 years after the Big Bang. In comparison with the next 14 billion years, that's quite a short period of time. Science has never been that close to the eye of the storm! Thus, the Big Bang is now generally believed to be the beginning of the universe.
There would be more applause to come. In 1998, two research groups caused further excitement about the expansion of the universe after analyzing images of supernovae, very bright star explosions. Their findings were worthy of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics. In short, the modern version of Edwin Hubble's measurements showed that the universe is not just expanding, but that the expansion is accelerating, thereby contradicting all reasonable expectations. The whole paradigm of cosmology was turned upside down, and the data seemed to require the existence of an entirely new concept — a "dark energy." This is essentially a force that has repulsive gravity, pushing all the masses in the universe farther away from each other and at an ever-increasing pace.
Isaac Newton famously said in 1687, "Gravity is the natural phenomenon by which physical bodies appear to attract each other." This now appears to be superseded by the discovery of dark energy. Does the new concept now deliver the complete picture of the cosmos? The precise data has undoubtedly led to new insights, but it has raised more questions than answers.
THE ALLURE OF GEOMETRY
While contemplating the parabolic shape of Sugarloaf Mountain at the Praia Vermelha in Rio de Janeiro, I noticed street hawkers offering fresh coconut milk right from the nut. Artfully, they made a triangular cut on top of the nuts. The slightly curved edges opened the way to the inside of the fruit, but due to the round shape of the coconut, they were almost at right angles to each other. I didn't hesitate to get one, as it was the perfect prop for my upcoming presentation. At big physics conferences, sometimes you have to resort to unusual things in order to get attention. I was attending the Marcel Grossmann meeting, named after a Hungarian mathematician and friend of Einstein, which took place in Rio in 2003. Gravitational physicists and astronomers had come together from all over the world to exchange their ideas.
Unfortunately, my talk was scheduled for the late afternoon. The physical and mental presence of the audience declines greatly at this time of day. So I was glad to have the coconut and the straw, which I used to illustrate an important concept of the theory of general relativity. The angles of a flat triangle must always add up to 180 degrees, but triangles on a curved surface can easily have angles with a sum exceeding 180 degrees. The coconut hawker had cut three right angles, making a triangle with 270 degrees. No matter how you may shift the straw along the edges (mathematicians used to analyze curved surfaces by doing this), the angles won't change.
Such problems sometimes incite heated discussions, maybe because general relativity, with its geometrical abstractions, touches the deep emotions of physicists. The idea that everyday objects can demonstrate space-time curvature is utterly fascinating. The Russian Nobel laureate Lev Landau, the author of a brilliant ten-volume series on theoretical physics, commented on this fact. He wrote that Einstein's great achievement of 1915, the subtle geometric refinement of Newton's law of gravitation, is "the most beautiful physical theory." At the time I was in Rio, I was blissfully unaware that general relativity would be called into question by new observations. I was part of the majority of physicists who rather suspected the skeptics to be ignorant of the second volume of Landau's book series, where the theory was explained in a short but concise way.
FROM THEORY TO OBSERVATION
Fortunately, not only theoreticians but also many observational astronomers had descended upon Rio. During my flight from Madrid, I sat next to a PhD student from Naples named Sante Carloni, and for the entirety of the nine-hour flight we geeked out over physics. Maybe it was the flight above the clouds that led us to the subject of slight deviations of the trajectories of the Pioneer spacecraft, on which a detailed study had been published in 2001 by NASA. Sante told me that the researchers had determined a slightly larger value for the spacecraft's acceleration toward the Sun than was to be expected according to Newton's law. This subsequently drew a lot of attention to low-acceleration tests of gravity.
During the conference, Sante and I became fast friends. He still held an untenured position, and didn't look down his nose upon seeing the badge I was sporting, which showed a Munich high school as my institutional address. Rather, it reminded him of his own schoolboy pranks. The Rio conference took place at a military academy, and straight-laced, tough-looking guards were ensuring that everybody showed the appropriate discipline. Next to the main entrance of the academy, Sante and I were discussing a coincidence between the Pioneer acceleration and dark matter at the edges of galaxies, when we were rudely interrupted by a uniformed guard. We were not supposed to be sitting on the wall surrounding the flower beds. A suitable quote by Einstein about those who joyfully march to music in rank and file came to our minds. However, we considered it more prudent to continue our discussion elsewhere.
If dark matter was indeed related to the low accelerations felt by stars in the outer parts of galaxies, something had to be wrong with the whole concept of dark matter. We agreed on that, and Sante suggested we attend a session that would be presenting the most recent measurements. One speaker reported the percentages of the three components of the universe — dark energy, dark matter, and ordinary matter — to be 72, 25, and 3, respectively. I already felt some unease with the concept of dark matter and dark energy, and the claimed accuracy seemed exaggerated to me. Since my freshman years in college, astronomers with their huge inaccuracies were considered the grubby kids of physics. Due to their cryptic corrections and missing error budgets, they could only dream of reaching the precision shown in fields like quantum optics.
I teased Sante, "You astronomers of all people! Some ten years ago, you didn't know whether the universe is 10 or 20 billion years old, and now you are measuring accurately to one percent!" He defended himself with some southern Italian swear words about theorists, but then agreed frankly. "Well, dark energy," he said, "or call it quintessence, that's just naming something we haven't the faintest idea about." During my flight back to Germany, thoughts on dark substances continued to tickle my brain.
A COSMOLOGY OF COLLECTING DATA
Shortly after returning to Munich I found myself at a very different meeting — one of the regular assemblies of teachers at my high school. Unfortunately, the inevitable bureaucratic issues sapped my attention span, but I kept wondering about the nature of dark matter and dark energy. Quite a lot of things seemed questionable, if not contradictory. Even the students in my astronomy course often remained dissatisfied with the superficial explanations. They were asking the right questions. What could those dark substances consist of? Why the hell did Nature invent them in the first place?
Excerpted from Bankrupting Physics by Alexander Unzicker, Sheilla Jones. Copyright © 2013 Alexander Unzicker and Sheilla Jones. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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Table of Contents
Relaxing, Exciting, and Overstrung Physics,
Part I Shortcut,
Chapter 1. Not too Bad, Homo sapiens, But ... Reasons for Doubt: Something Is Rotten in the State of Physics,
Chapter 2. Galileo Would Freak Out! A Quantum Leap in Measuring Devices: Why We Live in Fantastic Times,
Chapter 3. A Speedy Revolution Why Cosmology Is Going the Wrong Way,
Part II Crossroads,
Chapter 4. The Basic Story What Einstein Told Us about Gravity and Space-Time,
Chapter 5. Still a Mystery Newton's Gravitational Constant: From England to the Edge of the Universe,
Chapter 6. The Riddle of Small Accelerations Are Galaxies Really Just Big Planetary Systems?,
Chapter 7. Lost in the Dark Dark Matter and Dark Energy: Invisible or All in Your Mind?,
Chapter 8. Precision in the Tea Leaves Message from the Cosmic Microwave Background: How Much Is Just Noise?,
Part III Dead End,
Chapter 9. Muddy Water The Cosmology of Dark Pixels in the First Dark Age: Giving Work to Supercomputers,
Chapter 10. Speculation Bubbles Rise Expansion, Imagination, Inflation: Do We Know There Was a First Second?,
Chapter 11. Blacking Out Black Holes, the Big Bang, and Quantum Gravity: Ecological Niches for Theorists,
Chapter 12. The Fiancée You Won't Marry The Standard Model of Particle Physics: How Playing with Mathematical Beauty Took Over Real Life,
Chapter 13. Chronicle of a Surprise Foretold How Higgsteria Delayed the Bankruptcy of Particle Physics,
Chapter 14. New Dimensions in Nonsense Branes, Multiverses, and Other Supersicknesses: Physics Goes Nuts,
Chapter 15. Goodbye Science, Hello Religion String Theory: How the Elite Became a Sect and a Mafia,
Part IV Backing Up,
Chapter 16. Clear Water Reason vs. Circular Logic: How Science Should Work,
Chapter 17. Welcome to Byzantium Complications on Complications: How Physics Became a Junk Drawer,
Chapter 18. The First Wrong Turn Deviation Decades Ago: Calculating Replaces Thinking,
Chapter 19. The Math Fallout How Theoretical Fashions Impede Reflection,
Chapter 20. Big Science, Big Money, Big Bubbles What's Wrong with the Physics Business,
Chapter 21. Outlook Get Prepared for the Crash,