A Lopsided Universe?

In 2005, Kate Land and João Magueijo at Imperial College London discovered a mysterious pattern in the radiation left over from the Big Bang. In analysing the cosmic background radiation, widely considered to constitute the remnants of the Big Bang, they discovered that instead of hot and cold spots being randomly scattered across the sky, as expected, the spots appeared to be aligned in one particular direction through space. The two cosmologists named this the Axis of Evil. Why evil? Because it undermines one of the most fundamental assumptions of cosmologists about the early universe. Modern cosmology is built on the belief that the universe is isotropic i.e. roughly the same in whatever direction you look. If cosmic radiation has a preferred direction, the assumption of isotropy – and the best theories about cosmic history – may need to be jettisoned.

In an April 2007 article, New Scientist revisited the Axis of Evil.[1] It pointed out that evidence is growing for the fact that the axis may be real, “posing a threat to standard cosmology.” The article explains that the threat arises from the fact that “According to the standard model, the universe is isotropic, or much the same everywhere.” The magazine reported that “two independent studies seem to confirm that it [i.e. the Axis of Evil] does exist.” Damien Hutsemékers of the University of Liège in Belgium analysed the polarisation of light from 355 quasars and found that as the quasars get near the axis, the polarisation becomes more ordered than expected. Taken together, the polarisation angles from the quasars seem to corkscrew around the axis. This was supported by another study. Michael Longo of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor analysed 1660 spiral galaxies from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and found that the axes of rotation of most galaxies appear to line up with the Axis of Evil. According to Longo, the probability of this happening by chance is less than 0.4 per cent. “This suggests the axis is real, and not simply an error in the WMAP data,” he says.

Now a report in TIME gives an update on the situation, and even more reason for informed consumers of science to treat with scepticism some of the central claims of modern cosmology.[2] TIME reports on a brand-new image of the early universe released by the Planck satellite mission which “poses a mystery that could shake the foundations of cosmology.” For the uninitiated, TIME explains that “For decades, scientists have operated on the assumption that the universe should look the same, on average, in all directions—same number of galaxies, sprinkled about the sky in the same general pattern, no matter where you look. It’s a homogeneity which is in keeping with a birth blast that radiated out uniformly and at once [i.e. the Big Bang].” But this newest snapshot of the universe confounds this expectation. TIME:

The ancient, leftover light from the Big Bang, however, seems lopsided, with a huge swath of sky at a slightly cooler temperature than the rest. It could simply be a fluke, like getting 50 heads in a row in a coin toss. Or it could mean that the age-old assumption about cosmic uniformity is wrong. The chance is maybe one in a few hundred that this asymmetry could happen randomly, says [Rachel] Bean [a Cornell astrophysicist].

TIME then refers to the research I cited in Genesis and Genes in connection with the Axis of Evil. It points out that “this [the Planck satellite data] isn’t an entirely new finding: it was reported a decade ago by NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) satellite. There was always a chance, though, that it was some sort of mistake—but not anymore.”

At this point, the speculation begins regarding the anomalous data. For example, some scientists suggest that the universe is rotating. But the report acknowledges that these conjectures are “inconsistent with other data.” Of course, the future may bring new explanations of the WMAP and Planck data that will be consistent with standard Big Bang cosmology. Then again, there is also the distinct possibility that one of the most important pillars on which contemporary cosmology stands is, in fact, illusory.

As I pointed out in the post Missing Mass[3], most members of the public simply have no idea of the number of assumptions made in modern cosmology, and the extent to which the definitive statements of cosmologists about the age and nature of the universe are dependent on these assumptions. So often in the past, as I showed in Genesis and Genes, assumptions of this kind were accepted uncritically by one generation of scientists, only to be shown by a later generation to have been wholly unrealistic. The result was a paradigm shift. One should be parsimonious in one’s use of terms like proof or demonstration in the context of cosmology.

References:

[1] New Scientist, 14th April 2007, Vol. 194 Issue 2599, page 10.

[2] http://science.time.com/2013/03/28/look-close-somethings-strange-in-the-photo-of-the-universe/.

Retrieved 3rd April 2013.

[3] https://torahexplorer.com/2013/03/07/missing-mass/

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2 Responses to “A Lopsided Universe?”

  1. Matt Says:

    Hey Yoram,

    “Modern cosmology is built on the belief that the universe is isotropic i.e. roughly the same in whatever direction you look. If cosmic radiation has a preferred direction, the assumption of isotropy – and the best theories about cosmic history – may need to be jettisoned.”

    Do you know how big the effect is? Can you put a number to the lopsidedness? I would hope that, as an informed consumer of science, you would have this number on hand…I’ll give you a hint: the lopsidedness of the Universe is on a very small fraction of a percent level. This is not to understate the significance of the finding (it’s very exciting!), but we want to be accurate and precise.

    “and the best theories about cosmic history – may need to be jettisoned.”

    This is a rather vague and speculative statement. If you are going to draw broad, sweeping conclusions about a general field of study on the basis of a specific finding, you need to provide more detail and more background.

    “So often in the past…assumptions of this kind were accepted uncritically by one generation of scientists, only to be shown by a later generation to have been wholly unrealistic.”

    The isotropy of the Universe is an approximation that has been tested with every new measurement of the microwave background, since the birth of the field in the 1960s. It is incorrect and unfair to imply that astrophysicists now or in the past had “uncritically” accepted the assumption that the Universe was isotropic. I can back that up with historic references.

    “Most members of the public simply have no idea of the number of assumptions made in modern cosmology, and the extent to which the definitive statements of cosmologists about the age and nature of the universe are dependent on these assumptions.”

    Do you yourself understand what assumptions are made in modern cosmology and what bearings these assumptions have on particular measurements? You keep trying to bring the age of the Universe into the conversation, but you have yet to clearly articulate (1) how the age is calculated and (2) what bearing various cosmological assumptions have on those calculations.

    Scientists do not place heavy weight on results unless they can be reliably corroborated using very different methods, and relying on different assumptions. The Age of the Universe is known, not only from the Cosmic Microwave Background, but from radiometric techniques, and multiple stellar life-cycle techniques (eg, http://astro.berkeley.edu/~dperley/univage/univage.html). These different techniques all give answers clustered around 13 billion years and they do not depend on assumptions about the lopsidedness of the Universe. Furthermore, even if you reject all of these astrophysical techniques for establishing the absolute Age of the Universe, one can still place a strong lower limit -that the Universe is no less than billions of years old- on the basis of hundreds of completely different techniques in physics, biology, geology, astronomy, climatology, and chemistry.

    It is easy to make strongly supported scientific propositions look bad by stringing together laundry lists of anomalies, without providing context. But, the context is where the meat of the discussion is. And, it is on the basis of the full context that scientists skeptically evaluate and ultimately accept these findings.

  2. Jason Says:

    Matt,

    As far as I understand, Yoram *knows* a literal interpretation of Genesis *must* be correct. He also correctly shows how there is no absolute proof for for an old universe. So the conclusion is obvious: the universe is young and doesn’t contradict a literal interpretation of the Torah.

    Now why scientific interpretations made by religious authority are immune to doubt is yet to be fully explained. The debate is far more theological than scientific in nature.

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