Sunday, October 25, 2009

Sean M Carroll Re-writes The Big Bang Theory

(Sean M Carroll is a senior research associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology.)

When I began to research this article I had no idea the originator of the Big Bang Theory, Georges Lemaître was a Roman Catholic priest...

Cosmology is the science of telling the story of the history of the universe. Unlike regular story telling where facts and characters are created to fit a story arch intended to reveal a truth, cosmology takes all the known facts and characteristics we understand of the universe and attempts to write it's history, to reveal truths that we can build on.

Cosmological understanding is a foundation stone of the world we build, a 'house of science' that results in new technology that will make our lives better (hopefully). The cosmological story also helps us to define ourselves in the world we build. It gives us place in time, it puts our for-bearers in context and it lights the path ahead. Our understanding of the cosmological order has a great deal to do with our identity; past, present and future.

Without a scientifically based story opportunists, snake oil salesmen, and the fear-mongers of the ultra-conservative right begin to gain traction amongst young people the ill-informed and addle-minded. Intelligent Design is an example of this - it is essentially disguised racism and attempts to obfuscate Natural Selection which when understood, remains a progressive idea when applied to issues of equality.

(NOTE: A fundamental miss-understanding of Darwin persists in popular America thought; the phrase, 'survival of the fittest' is used out of context in discussions about class and economics - and misrepresents On the Origin of Species. That, for another article.)

The truths scientists reveal that describe the universe have always been a product of a symbiosis of fiction and science. The paths we choose to investigate are in part determined by the stories we write. H.G. Wells's science fiction of the 1800-1900's - itself a product of the leading edge science of his time - showed a path forward. Wells's book The First Men in the Moon (1901) inspired us such that when J.F. Kennedy proposed we go there in 1961 the idea resonated with people. Rather than being ridiculed it was embraced by the globe as a way forward to a future we had already collectively envisioned.

When the Big Bang Theory was proposed by Georges Lemaître in 1927 it fit the current scientific understanding and a theocratic mythos as well;

Wikipedia reports,
(my high-light)

In 1930, Eddington published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society a long commentary on Lemaître's 1927 article, in which he described the latter as a "brilliant solution" to the outstanding problems of cosmology.[5] The original paper was published in an abbreviated English translation in 1931, along with a sequel by Lemaître responding to Eddington's comments.[6] Lemaître was then invited to London in order to take part in a meeting of the British Association on the relation between the physical Universe and spirituality. There he proposed that the Universe expanded from an initial point, which he called the "Primeval Atom" and developed in a report published in Nature[7]. Lemaître himself also described his theory as "the Cosmic Egg exploding at the moment of the creation"; it became better known as the "Big Bang theory," the term having originally been a sarcastic remark of Fred Hoyle's.

Lemaître's 'Primeval Atom' or singularity, the starting point of the big bang theory - the time before which is not addressed by the theory - is not unlike the first lines of the bible, in Genesis:


First God made heaven and earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. And God said, "Let there be light"

And Poof!(bang) there was light.

When I began to research this article I had no idea the originator of the Big Bang Theory, Georges Lemaître was a Roman Catholic priest. I assumed the Christian creation myth was ubiquitous enough in western culture that the mythos had sneaked into cosmological thinking inadvertently. Nope, it was front and centre in Lemaître thinking - any theory that challenged the creation myth would have to allow for a meshing of the two ideas, a theocratic way out for Lemaître's higher ups.

The similarity between the two stories became apparent to me several months ago, but it was not until I listened to Sean Carroll's talk to the American Association of Science's 212th Meeting: Session 94: The Origin of The Universe and the Arrow of Time (courtesy Google Video) - where he broke down the Big Bang Theory as part of a reconsideration of the standard model - that I felt I could write on the idea. Sean Carroll leaves it alone, the similarities between the Big Bang Theory and the creation story in the bible are never mentioned in his talk, probably on purpose. Sean M Carroll turns the big bang inside out, upside down and backwards to show how flawed it is, but also to show a way forward. He asks, "What happened before the big bang?" Pointedly he tells the story of the big bang backwards to show how many question are left un-asked and, unanswered.

By dismissing the magical starting point and asking what happened before the poof!, Carroll takes us back in the history of science to Sadi Carnot who in 1824 laid out the properties of thermodynamics, the foundations of which began with an understanding of the Laws of Motion quantified by Sir Issac Newton in 1687!

Never mind brushing up on your understanding of Einstein's General Relativity or Edward Witten's "Matrix" or "Magical Mystery" String Theory with its eleven dimensions, we're headed back to Newton for a refresher coarse.

Sean Carroll's talk revolves around the idea of entropy; the central construct of the second and third law of thermodynamics. Scientists through experimental results in many disciplines of science have found that matter tries to find it's simplest, stable state. The degree to which matter is away from this ultimate stable state is described as it's degree of entropy. The highest state of entropy is a Singularity - for example the "Primeval Atom", the moment in time when all the matter in the universe became packed into a single infinitely dense ball with an infinite gravitational pull; the moment of the beginning of the universe according to the Big Bang Theory. A state where all elements have an infinite potential for change. The universe, now some 14 billion years later, is at a relatively lower state of entropy, with-in the Big Bang model.

Carroll points out that here on earth we have plenty of evidence that the functioning of entropy is not so simple. We see that the universe has a changing "potential for disorder" at certain places and time; like the birth of a star, the event horizon of a black hole or the extremely high state of entropy we observe in the earth's biosphere.

Carroll predicts that over the next ten years out of this reconsideration may come a Grand Unified Theory. I think this re-dux is long past due. Sean Carroll has challenged us with a new creation myth. Or as Northrop Frye postulates, a new 'Great Code'; a new way of telling stories.

( this is a re-write of a piece entitled: "Sean Carroll's Re-writing of The Great Code aka: The Big Bang Theory." mh)

Photo of Sean M Carroll World Science Festival.



  1. I wrote that, "The highest state of entropy is a Singularity".

    Well, on a re-listen and with some more reading, the singularity is considered by physicists to be a low state of entropy - a stable state.

    Which begs the question in my mind, so why then did it go bang? Sean Carroll doesn't say I'm wrong in thinking that the beginning point of the universe should be considered a high entropy point, just that the whole thing doesn't ring with the data either way around.

    I like mine right now so I think I will continue down this path.

    I've listened to the talk 3 times now with varying degrees of attentiveness, gleaning more each time.

    I really like how so close to English the talk is, an indication, in my mind, of how close to the truth it is.


  2. Dear Michael,
    This is an interesting blog. You may be interested in the following: