Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Big Bang, Gravity Waves, and Shoehorning Jesus into Physics

A couple of days ago, I noticed a piece on CNN's Belief Blog starting to make the rounds, the title asking the question "Does the Big Bang Breakthrough Offer Proof of God?". Being busy--I leave for China in a few days--I assumed that the author of the piece was a scientist (in which I was correct) who was dispelling this truly absurd claim (about which I was apparently incorrect).

The scientist behind this stunning piece of confusion is Leslie Wickman, the director of the Center of Research in Science at Azusa Pacific University. Wickman's bio indicates that she was formerly an engineer for Lockheed Martin Missiles & Space, where she worked on the Hubble Space Telescope and the International Space Station programs. Incidentally, the last sentence in her bio disclaims her views as her own and not necessarily reflective of CNN or the Belief blog it maintains (which raises a fascinating, if ultimately dour and cynical, question about why editors are so eager to publish these kinds of things).

Impressive though her credentials may be, Wickman's case completely defies credulity in them.
Touted as evidence for inflation (a faster-than-the-speed-of-light expansion of our universe), the new discovery of traces of gravity waves affirms scientific concepts in the fields of cosmology, general relativity, and particle physics.
The new discovery also has significant implications for the Judeo-Christian worldview, offering strong support for biblical beliefs.
I still would have raised an eyebrow at a more cautious last clause: "...offering strong support for biblical beliefs," but to call this "strong support" nearly incapacitates my ability to accept that Wickman is, indeed, a scientist. Surely, as a scientist, she knows what strong support for a hypothesis, claim, or notion looks like? (Hint: Not like science shoehorned into a mythological narrative in a very unconvincing way that never would have arisen from the myth as a prediction.)

Of course, Wickman isn't so glib as to just assert her conclusion. She asserts it and then uses other assertions to give it a false air of support, all under the banner of a matter-of-fact two-word sentence that stands as its own paragraph: "Here's how."
The prevalent theory of cosmic origins prior to the Big Bang theory was the “Steady State,” which argued that the universe has always existed, without a beginning that necessitated a cause.
However, this new evidence strongly suggests that there was a beginning to our universe.
Not to sound wishy-washy postmodern, but that depends on what we mean by "beginning to our universe." If we mean a time when the cosmos inflated into what we call the observable universe of which we are a part, then, yes, probably so. To suggest the kind of ex nihilo creation that tends to inspire a "God did it!" cry as a matter of "metaphysical necessity" from theologians, et al., probably not. In short, there is a meaningful case to be made that the Inflation marks something that can be called "the beginning of the universe" but not at all in a way that should be conflated with an ultimate beginning, or worse, outright act of creation.

Here's where it's worth taking stock of what Alan Guth says about his own idea, the one that appears to have been given a significant amount of empirical corroboration (peer review pending, confirmation by other observations also pending) by astronomer John M. Kovac's BICEP2 team. Dennis Overbye, summarizing for the New York Times, included this statement.
Confirming inflation would mean that the universe we see, extending 14 billion light-years in space with its hundreds of billions of galaxies, is only an infinitesimal patch in a larger cosmos whose extent, architecture and fate are unknowable.
Notice that there is no implication here of a "beginning to our universe" that can be taken to be the entirety of the cosmos in the "Judeo-Christian" (read: grandly solipsistic) sense. Indeed, compare the above with something Wickman offers to set the context of this discovery.
The creation message in Genesis tells us that God created a special place for humans to live and thrive and be in communion with him; that God wants a relationship with us, and makes provisions for us to have fellowship with him, even after we turn away from him.
Later, she doubles down on her Judeo-Christian solipsism by pretending to know that
These physical laws established by God to govern interactions between matter and energy result in a finely tuned universe that provides the ideal conditions for life on our planet.

And now look at something Guth himself likes to say, "It’s often said that there is no such thing as a free lunch, but the universe might be the ultimate free lunch." What he means by this is exactly the opposite of what Wickman derives from the discovery regarding his theory of Inflation. Though his explanation is long, even in simplified form, I'll provide all of it. Guth, as in an interview with MIT, writes,
Modern particle theories strongly suggest that at very high energies, there should exist forms of matter that create repulsive gravity. Inflation, in turn, proposes that at least a very small patch of the early universe was filled with this repulsive-gravity material. The initial patch could have been incredibly small, perhaps as small as 10-24 centimeter, about 100 billion times smaller than a single proton. The small patch would then start to exponentially expand under the influence of the repulsive gravity, doubling in size approximately every 10-37 second. To successfully describe our visible universe, the region would need to undergo at least 80 doublings, increasing its size to about 1 centimeter. It could have undergone significantly more doublings, but at least this number is needed.

During the period of exponential expansion, any ordinary material would thin out, with the density diminishing to almost nothing. The behavior in this case, however, is very different: The repulsive-gravity material actually maintains a constant density as it expands, no matter how much it expands! While this appears to be a blatant violation of the principle of the conservation of energy, it is actually perfectly consistent.

This loophole hinges on a peculiar feature of gravity: The energy of a gravitational field is negative. As the patch expands at constant density, more and more energy, in the form of matter, is created. But at the same time, more and more negative energy appears in the form of the gravitational field that is filling the region. The total energy remains constant, as it must, and therefore remains very small.

It is possible that the total energy of the entire universe is exactly zero, with the positive energy of matter completely canceled by the negative energy of gravity. I often say that the universe is the ultimate free lunch, since it actually requires no energy to produce a universe.

At some point the inflation ends because the repulsive-gravity material becomes metastable. The repulsive-gravity material decays into ordinary particles, producing a very hot soup of particles that form the starting point of the conventional Big Bang. At this point the repulsive gravity turns off, but the region continues to expand in a coasting pattern for billions of years to come. Thus, inflation is a prequel to the era that cosmologists call the Big Bang, although it of course occurred after the origin of the universe, which is often also called the Big Bang. (Bold mine)
Overbye summarizes how this might have worked by analogy,
Under some circumstances, a glass of water can stay liquid as the temperature falls below 32 degrees, until it is disturbed, at which point it will rapidly freeze, releasing latent heat.
Similarly, the universe could “supercool” and stay in a unified state too long. In that case, space itself would become imbued with a mysterious latent energy.
Inserted into Einstein’s equations, the latent energy would act as a kind of antigravity, and the universe would blow itself up. Since it was space itself supplying the repulsive force, the more space was created, the harder it pushed apart.

What might have disturbed the pre-Inflationary universe? Quantum fluctuations are one candidate, as amply described by cosmologist Lawrence Krauss in his book A Universe from Nothing. Strictly speaking, here, we need not be talking about nothingness but rather the pre-Inflationary state, about which we may not be able to know anything. Overbye summarizes again,
We might never know what happened before inflation, at the very beginning, because inflation erases everything that came before it. All the chaos and randomness of the primordial moment are swept away, forever out of our view.

Note, by the bye, that even Overbye's use of the term "beginning," which gets used quite often in this context (and is hard to avoid using while speaking colloquially) overreaches, though. If everything that came before Inflation is erased by Inflation, we don't actually know that there is a "beginning" before it. This short video by Henry Reich of minutephysics helps make it clear (hang with it until the end). If the pre-Inflationary state were not so jumbled up to have destroyed our notion of time, our necessary ignorance about that time fails to provide any information about how long it lasted or what came before it.

As should be clear now, Wickman's claim that "this new evidence strongly suggests that our universe had a beginning" is only meaningful if we interpret "beginning" to mean "Inflationary Period," which is exactly not what she needs to make her case and only compatible with Genesis via the most generous potential reading of that text. And from that mistake, Wickman's piece is almost entirely the standard apologetic gobbledegook, the chief difference being that her pretentious confusion is poured out from a mind that has apparently had considerable formal scientific training. To borrow from Peter Boghossian, to reach the conclusion she does, Wickman is simply pretending to know things she doesn't know.

To give a sense of what I'm talking about with this claim, let's analyze a bit more of Wickman's piece. First, of course, consider that she's pretending to know that the evidence for an Inflationary Period implies "the universe had a beginning." She doesn't--can't--know that, whatever colloquial speech does to confuse us on this matter. She makes this particular point worse, though, with a cubic zirconium that could have been lifted from William Lane Craig's hoard,
If the universe did indeed have a beginning, by the simple logic of cause and effect, there had to be an agent – separate and apart from the effect – that caused it.
The simple logic of cause and effect might suggest that the universe had to have a cause here--supposing "the universe" is itself a thing like all of the things we see in the universe, a contention we have no good reason to accept--but it definitely does not automatically suggest an agent cause. Wickman pretends to know that there must have been a cause of the universe and that the cause is an agent. This is definitely not an auspicious start to her case, and she makes it worse by continuing: "That sounds a lot like Genesis 1:1 to me: 'In the beginning God created the heavens and the Earth.'" (I'm not kidding. She really wrote that! And CNN actually published it!)

The next portion of her piece turns to straight apologetics of the kind that only stands a chance of convincing those who are seeking to be convinced.
We also need to remember that God reveals himself both through scripture and creation. The challenge is in seeing how they fit together. A better understanding of each can inform our understanding of the other.
It’s not just about cracking open the Bible and reading whatever we find there from a 21st-century American perspective. We have to study the context, the culture, the genre, the authorship and the original audience to understand the intent.
This is the kind of thing that sounds good on paper so long as you can keep your attention diverted from considering essentially everything else in the Bible, starting somewhere a bit further down on the same page. But, Wickman enlightens us, "So, we know that Genesis was never intended to be a detailed scientific handbook, describing how God created the universe. It imparts a theological, not a scientific, message. (Imagine how confusing messages about gravity waves and dark matter might be to ancient Hebrew readers.)" I'll note that, technically, if her Judeo-Christian beliefs are true, she's pretending to know this as well--not knowing the mind of her God or his intent in writing the most important book ever--while also pretending to know that ancient Hebrew readers are so silly and uninformed that their all-powerful God couldn't make them understand the universe in a 21st century context.

In terms of pretending to know things she doesn't, let's linger briefly on "it imparts a theological, not a scientific, message." What exactly is a theological message? More importantly, how does one distinguish a "theological message" from an idle, but grand and usually solipsistic, speculation reinforced by pretending to know things about it that you definitely do not? In short, since all of theology is a semi-polished turd of pretending to know what people don't know, to admit that Genesis imparts a "theological message" is to illustrate that she's pretending to know things she doesn't.

I don't wish to quote the brief remainder of Wickman's theological rambling, punctuated with brief reminders that she is, indeed, a scientist who loves the intricacy of the natural world and how it all works so "synergistically." It is, of course, ripe with the standard Christ-confused pretense to knowledge known more widely by the term (Judeo)-Christian "faith." Instead, I'll just comment upon her conclusion,
If God is truly the creator, then he will reveal himself through what he’s created, and science is a tool we can use to uncover those wonders.
Here we have yet another desperate effort on the part of the hopeless conciliatory brigade that likes to pretend that science and theology are in some way compatible endeavors. That entire effort balances upon the idea that certain speculations (theological ones) can be effectively taken as supertruths, and then those can be shoehorned into whatever science allows us to determine is actually the case about the universe. This is to say that given a set of facts, mythological narratives can be written and re-written around them. Of course, this entire effort must willfully ignore the fact that the role of science in enlightening theology has in total been one that slashes and burns the entire theological lot where it has even the least to do with the functioning of the universe.

I cannot urge Leslie Wickman strongly enough to apply to herself the intellectual honesty and rigor required by her scientific training and to stop pretending to know things she does not know, repudiating Christianity as nonsense and retracting this ridiculous Belief Blog post from CNN's website.

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