Thoughts on ‘The Future of Theoretical Physics and Cosmology’

Jeremy Dunning-Davies

Jeremy Dunning-Davies

Recently there seems to have been increased activity on the internet amongst supporters of the general ideas of plasma cosmology and the electric universe discussing ways and means of furthering the claims of these two areas – two areas which are, incidentally, irrevocably interconnected. From reading much of the discussion and from thinking about the problem myself, I have come to the conclusion that it is definitely not a problem with an easy, straightforward answer. However, it does seem that, as a first step, it is crucial to not only know ‘your enemy’ but also to understand and appreciate his strengths, weaknesses and, possibly, his general attitude. In attempting to gain more understanding of these final points, I recently purchased – I hasten to point out that this was in a sale so as not to put too much in royalties into the pockets of those with whom I strongly disagree – the book with the title alluded to above: ‘The Future of Theoretical Physics and Cosmology’. This book is a collection of some forty-four articles, the first of which is an introduction which amounts to a general overview of the entire publication, which arose out of a conference held in Cambridge, UK, in honour of the sixtieth birthday of Stephen Hawking. As you will immediately realise, the personnel involved represent a collection of almost all the ‘great and good’ of the current astrophysical/cosmological hierarchy and so, it seemed to me it could provide an excellent insight into the state of the accepted ‘game’ and also the mindset of the ‘opposition players’. On reading it, I was not disappointed, even though the material dates from 2002.

Before considering the actual contents of the various articles in this book, it seems an initial examination into the affiliations of the contributors might yield highly useful insights into some of the reasons fuelling the motivation for their work and, possibly more importantly, their approach to that work. The vast majority of the contributors come from purely theoretical science departments; for example, of the naturally large Cambridge (UK) contingent, all but one come from the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, the exception being Martin Rees who is associated with the Institute of Astronomy. The other contributors come from a variety of departments, both in Britain and abroad, but most are well-known names on the theoretical side of things. No-one is overtly an experimenter or observer in the sense of Halton Arp for example. Also, it might be remembered that, as far as Cambridge (UK) is concerned, there is a long tradition, going back to Eddington, if not even earlier, of those working research-wise in astronomy and astrophysics originating as undergraduates in the mathematics department. Hence, the background of most, as with so many other supporters of the status quo in astrophysics and cosmology, is totally unlike that of so many advocating the claims of plasma cosmology and the electric universe. As far as these alternative ideas are concerned, many would probably think of the true beginning being with Kristian Birkeland and his experiments and observations; this an approach continued by such as Hannes Alfvén, Anthony Peratt, and so many others. These brief observations do, I believe, indicate very forcibly one of the problems facing this general field; one group of people, represented very well by the contributors to this book, seems to start from a pure theory and attempt to interpret observations and experimental results in such a way as to support the theoretical starting point, while the second group, represented by those who support plasma cosmology and the electric universe ideas, tends to start from observations and experiments and attempts to build a theory to explain these. In some ways this may be an overly simplistic way of looking at the situation presently facing us but does, I think, give a fairly accurate overall picture and does highlight one huge difference between the two approaches.

Of the forty-four separate articles in the volume, the first is, as mentioned earlier, an overview of the remainder and is written by two of the editors. This article alone gives an excellent indication of what is to follow. Hence, it begins by considering the first five articles which are grouped together under the general heading of ‘Popular Symposium’. Of course, it goes almost without saying that there is massive glorification of both ‘A Brief History of Time’ and ‘The Universe in a Nutshell’. Having read both books, there is no way either could be described as books which furthered the popularisation of science, at least not in any conventional way; although the second does, in my view, achieve more as far as popularisation is concerned than the first. The first was the subject of a review essay which appeared in the journal, Public Understanding of Science (M. Rodgers, 1992, Public Understand, Sci. 1, 231-234), under the heading ‘The Hawking Phenomenon’. However, the writer probably correctly summed up this book by noting that:

… those who finished reading the book doubtless had little difficulty in believing reports that there were many more buyers than readers.

The writer also pointed out that:

… a good popular science book should be stretching, but the trouble with this one is that a number of tough concepts which are vital for following the argument are explained at a pace which must bewilder general readers who lack a background in physics.

However, the title of this piece referred simply to the book as a publishing phenomenon which it undoubtedly was but, as was commented on in a subsequent issue of the same journal (J. Dunning-Davies, 1993, Public Understand. Sci. 2, 85-86):

… the Hawking phenomenon goes far beyond the actual book to the man himself.

It was pointed out how even then, some twenty years before this current book was produced, the power of Hawking’s name was such as to ensure that many articles which challenged his work on purely scientific grounds were not successful in finding a place for publication. It seemed, even then, that in some sense his reputation had progressed beyond the purely scientific.

This point was strengthened further on the appearance of the second book referred to earlier, ‘The Universe in a Nutshell’ in which Hawking expressed the wish that his expression for the entropy of a black hole should be engraved on his gravestone. A suggestion here of a comparison with Boltzmann perhaps? There was absolutely no mention in this book of the fact that the said expression was originally proposed by Bekenstein and, as explained in detail in ‘A Brief History of Time’, Hawking initially rejected the expression as incorrect but graciously agreed to it some two years later. This is just one small point that has been overlooked ever since.

Of the other contributors in this section, though, it would seem that only Martin Rees writes in a way clearly accessible to the ‘man in the street’ and I would have felt this the object of the exercise in writing popular science books. It is not without interest, however, to draw attention to the article by Kip Thorne which is devoted to ‘Warping Spacetime’. It is of particular interest because there is a picture on the third page of Karl Schwarzschild with a heading explaining that he “discovered the solution to Einstein’s equations which describes a non-spinning black hole”. On the first page is the said solution in the form:

Black Hole equation

the form which appears in most textbooks. It might be noted that nowhere does Thorne define r and it is not unreasonable to assume that most would take r, θ, φ to represent the usual polar coordinates. Of course, as Stephen Crothers and I have pointed out on numerous occasions, this is not the form of Schwarzschild’s solution that appears in his original article; in fact, in that article, there is no singularity when r = 2M, such as appears here. Since that mathematical singularity might be deemed the ‘origin’ of the notion of a black hole in general relativity, an obvious problem exists here for the proponents of the status quo but the point is never raised. Hence, once again, we’re faced with the query over the real origin of black holes. However, one thing can be certain, they are, in some way at least, a result of some theory, some mathematical manipulation, but not of observation or experiment.

All the way through the articles in this section, as well as those in subsequent sections, there seems to be conveyed a sense of almost arrogant superiority. I don’t think this intentional and possibly I am reading something into the writing which is not intended but this was an abiding impression gained by me that all these people are totally convinced their model is absolutely correct and their position inviolable. This feeling is strengthened enormously by what followed in later chapters. Also, the later chapters reinforce the realisation of the power of mathematics in all this. Mathematics comes across as being central to all. As someone initially trained as a mathematician, I can truly appreciate the power and beauty of mathematics but, early in my days as a research student, I realised that, when you’re dealing with a physical problem, you must be able to state the physical meaning of any mathematical result you obtain and this must be in terms of realistic physics, not by drifting off into a land of make believe or science fiction. It is always important to realise as well that any result so obtained is dependent on the actual mathematical model from which you started. I would tentatively suggest that no scientist truly searching for the truth of a situation can afford any degree of smug self-satisfaction – however small.

The actual articles in this section are entitled:

    • ‘Our complex cosmos and its future’ by Martin Rees,
    • ‘Theories of everything and Hawking’s wave function of the universe’ by James Hartle,
    • ‘The problem of spacetime singularities: implications for quantum gravity?’ by Roger Penrose,
    • ‘Warping spacetime’ by Kip Thorne,
    • ‘Sixty years in a nutshell’ by Stephen Hawking,

and, even though I may harbour reservations over the actual physical validity of some of the content, they are all worth perusing as they do much to give answers to the questions I raised at the beginning of this piece.

Returning specifically to the book though, of the remaining articles, the next four are devoted to spacetime singularities:

    • ‘Cosmological perturbations and singularities’ by George Ellis,
    • ‘The quantum physics of chronology protection’ by Matt Visser,
    • ‘Energy dominance and the Hawking-Ellis vacuum conservation theorem’ by Brandon Carter,
    • ‘On the instability of extra space dimensions’ by Roger Penrose;

then five to black holes:

    • ‘Black hole uniqueness and the inner horizon stability problem’ by Werner Israel,
    • ‘Black holes in the real universe and their prospects as probes of relativistic gravity’ by Martin Rees,
    • ‘Primordial black holes’ by Bernard Carr,
    • ‘Black hole pair creation’ by Simon Ross,
    • ‘Black holes at accelerators’ by Steve Giddings;

four to Hawking radiation:

    • ‘Black holes and string theory’ by Malcolm Perry,
    • ‘M theory and black hole quantum mechanics’ by Joe Polchinski,
    • ‘Playing with black strings’ by Gary Horowitz,
    • ‘Twenty years of debate with Stephen’ by Leonard Susskind;

five to quantum gravity:

    • ‘Euclidean quantum gravity: the view from 2002’ by Gary Gibbons,
    • ‘Zeta functions, anomalies and stable branes’ by Ian Moss,
    • ‘Some reflections on the status of conventional quantum theory when applied to quantum gravity’ by Chris Isham,
    • ‘Quantum geometry and its ramifications’ by Abhat Ashtekar,
    • ‘Topology change in quantum gravity’ by Fay Dowker;

six to M-theory and beyond:

    • ‘The past and future of string theory’ by Edward Witten,
    • ‘String theory’ by David Gross,
    • ‘A brief description of string theory’ by Michael Green,
    • ‘The story of M’ by Paul Townsend,
    • ‘Gauged supergravity and holographic field theory’ by Nick Warner,
    • ’57 varieties in a nutshell’ by Chris Pope;

three to De Sitter space:

    • ‘Adventures in De Sitter space’ by Raphael Bousso,
    • ‘De Sitter space in non-critical string theory’ by Andrew Strominger with Alexander Moloney and Eva Silverstein,
    • ‘Supergravity, M theory and cosmology’ by Renata Kallosh;

six to quantum cosmology:

    • ‘The state of the universe’ by James Hartle,
    • ‘Quantum cosmology’ by Don page,
    • ‘Quantum cosmology and eternal inflation’ by Alexander Vilenkin,
    • ‘Probability in the deterministic theory known as quantum mechanics’ by Bryce De Witt,
    • ‘The interpretation of quantum cosmology and the problem of time’ by Jonathan Halliwell,
    • ‘What local supersymmetry can do for quantum cosmology’ by Peter D’Eath;

and finally five to cosmology:

    • ‘Inflation and cosmological perturbations’ by Alan Guth,
    • ‘The future of cosmology: observational and computational prospects’ by Paul Shellard,
    • ‘The ekpyrotic universe and its cyclic extension’ by Neil Turok,
    • ‘Inflationary theory versus the ekpyrotic/cyclic scenario’ by Andrei Linde,
    • ‘Brane (new) worlds’ by Pierre Binétruy.

All are areas to which Hawking is said to have made seminal contributions. However, given his horrendous physical problems, it is difficult to understand how he has managed to communicate these ideas, if indeed they are all his in origin, to fellow scientists and co-workers effectively. This point is brought home quite forcibly when it is mentioned that he apparently communicated with some via research students. This also came out in a television documentary in which it was claimed that Hawking communicated with a research student in pictures and the research student translated these pictures into mathematics. All this could, of course, be totally true but, given the highly abstract mathematical nature of the material being considered, it might well raise some quite serious questions in people’s minds. The abstract mathematical nature could not be more clearly apparent than in the section on spacetime singularities. Here singularities are discussed as seemingly almost physically realisable entities before the discussion progresses to happenings in higher dimensions; there is no hint of the possibility that such singularities might just indicate a breakdown of the model, an interpretation that occurs in so many other areas. This sort of discussion is, to my mind, beautiful for a pure mathematician but raises severe problems when it comes to discussing genuine physical reality. Of course, the whole thing becomes more abstract when string theory is introduced and even more so when the discussion of M theory – where the M refers to membrane – begins. However, it might be remembered that the vast body of researchers throughout the world engrossed in studying string theory and, no doubt, M theory, is composed of a wide variety of people with a wide variety of interests. I actually discussed string theory with a young researcher in that field and his view was interesting. He regarded himself as a pure mathematician and viewed strings from that viewpoint and had absolutely no interest in whether or not his work had any relevance to physics. I confess I regard this as a legitimate standpoint. If, of course, his work turned out at some future date to have a physical relevance, I would regard that as a bonus but, if the mathematics is regarded – as it should be in my view – as a worthwhile intellectual exercise, that relevance should be regarded as no more than an unexpected bonus. Possibly one problem facing researchers nowadays is the constant demand by universities to attract money by way of research grants. This is an understandable stance in experimental disciplines where the cost of equipment and technical support can be enormous, but the situation is definitely not clearly understandable where purely theoretical disciplines are concerned – after all, a mathematician or theoretical physicist may only require a pencil and paper to proceed with some work!

As might be expected, the section on black holes almost takes the existence of such objects as accepted and proceeds to discuss them as possible probes of relativistic gravity, before considering so-called primordial black holes and even black hole pair creation. The section closes with a discussion of black holes at accelerators – an article which could cause no end of problems for non-scientists and is basically a discussion of the ideas which caused so much panic with some people at the switching on of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). It is interesting to note that this particular article begins by quoting a letter to Hawking from the Director General at Cern in which he talks of researchers at the LHC having witnessed numerous events which are:

… consistent with TEV-scale black hole production and, in particular, with extrapolations of your predictions for black hole radiance to higher dimensions.

One wonders if this letter is the source of all those unfounded worries when the LHC was switched on because some people were convinced at the time that it could produce a black hole which might swallow up our world! However, I would contend that most of these ideas are somewhat fanciful and still better confined to the pages of science fiction books rather than true science.

The theme continues in the subsequent sections and one is able to see just from the list of article titles the sort of message being conveyed and that may be summed up by noting that that message is essentially mathematical or, at the very least, mathematically led. Personally, I have the greatest respect for the intellect of those concerned here and also for their combined and individual intellectual achievements but, even a glance at the above list causes me to ask:

Is it really physics? Are these people really close to an explanation of all we see around us and of all that puzzles us about the cosmos?

I have to answer “No” and, therefore, feel the title of this book totally misleading. The book may represent the future of theoretical physics and cosmology to some, or all, of the contributors but it may be thought by others a somewhat arrogant title in that it ignores so much physical knowledge which could, and should, be relevant to that future. Here one thinks immediately of the lack of reference to anything magnetic or electrical, of anything pertaining to the ideas and experimentally verified facts of plasma cosmology and/or the electric universe. The entire volume is dedicated to a theory based solely around the force of gravity; the much stronger electromagnetic force makes absolutely no contribution in any of this. As one brought up being led to believe the various gravity-based theories held all the answers, I can say in all honesty that finding out about the possible effects of the electromagnetic force in our universe has awakened a completely new outlook on matters. I am now in a position where I can only express amazement that these ideas are not more widely known and accepted. It follows, therefore, that it seems those who continue to advocate gravity-only explanations for cosmological phenomena are adopting a highly blinkered view of things and, in particular, of the vast quantity of physical knowledge backed up by much accurate observing and laboratory experimenting. This then sums up part of the answer to the question posed at the beginning – one of our ‘enemy’s’ great strengths is an almost unshakeable belief in the absolute truth of the stance he is adopting but that, together with a degree of perceived arrogance, might also be seen as a possible weakness for, once a slight chink is perceived in his armour, the whole edifice could come crumbling down like a pack of cards. Before this even begins to come about, however, it is necessary to consider another great strength which is difficult to quantify and, in a sense, identify but is seen through an example in the introduction to one of the above-listed articles.

It is revealed in one of the articles that the author first met Hawking at a conference in Moscow at a time when that person was simply not allowed to travel abroad. However, Hawking did invite the person to Cambridge for a supergravity workshop and evidently his word carried so much weight that that person was allowed to attend the said workshop. In reality, whether the visit was allowed because Hawking’s name carried sufficient weight or for some other reason possibly no-one will ever know but it does appear that his name was a factor and that in itself is a manifestation of one of the strengths of this group. Others, who support the ideas of the Big Bang, black holes, dark matter, dark energy and all the other physically strange notions born to support a mathematical framework which is becoming more and more abstruse, have names which are extremely well-known to the general public as of scientists who are at the true forefront of scientific advance. They too could probably have had an influence on whether or not a person was allowed to travel from the USSR for a scientific meeting in those days when such travel was rare. The power of this group is possibly founded, at least in part, on having the ear of people in positions of real power and by having manipulated so as to become the scientific darlings of the media. This latter point has meant, on several occasions, that the media in general simply doesn’t reply to invitations to attend scientific events which might be deemed anti-establishment.

The above might be seen as painting a fairly bleak picture if any real change is desired in the immediate future. Virtually all the emphasis seems to have been on strengths rather than identifying weaknesses which could be exploited. However, as I have hinted, many of the articles in this book – especially the introductory sections which are often devoted to eulogising Hawking – offer a clue to what may be a major weakness and that is the appearance of absolute belief in their current position and their approach to all the problems. If a mistake, however small, is proved in this position, that would spell disaster and what never seems to concern anyone is that their stance is based purely on a mathematical model to which have had to be made numerous additions already to allow its continued existence. Even though more and more observations are indicating a more prominent role for electromagnetism, this standard model has no place for it. There is talk of plasmas but none is central to the explanations offered for phenomena and neither can it be in the current model. So, what is the suggested way forward?

The opposition camp is firmly entrenched and is going to be extremely difficult to dislodge. The articles in this book make this point very clearly by implication. The problem of how to accommodate electromagnetic and plasma ideas into their framework remains, though, and it is difficult to imagine how this may be achieved successfully. As has been indicated already, more and more results obtained by satellites and probes are indicating the correctness of many aspects of the plasma cosmology/electric universe ideas. For example, some of Birkeland’s early results derived from observation and experiment which were discounted in favour of Chapman’s mathematical model have recently proved to be absolutely correct. Needless to say, the true relevance of this has been allowed to pass almost unnoticed but this in itself is undoubtedly a first inroad into the realms of accepted cosmological theories. It seems likely that, if the present trend continues where more and more observations indicate an electromagnetic input into explanations of observed phenomena, more erosion of the present standard position will occur until, eventually, a total reassessment will have to occur. The conventional school cannot continue ad infinitum adding more and more way-out concepts to their model in order to ensure its continued existence. So far, in very recent times, we have been treated to the invention of dark matter, dark energy and even dark flow so that some might suspect the conventional theorists had turned to the ‘dark side’. This cannot continue. However, possibly the biggest problem which could affect this scenario is results which might appear from the Large Hadron Collider. An enormous amount of public money has been invested here so that some sceptics might feel the researchers simply have to produce the results expected; for example, if the Higgs’ boson isn’t discovered how will future expenditure on this project be justified? The next few months could be crucial for physics and could well determine whether the subject develops and progresses or becomes even more embedded in the mire created at the beginning of the last century.

One final thought. Several years ago the English comedian Frankie Howard delivered a truly brilliant satirical monologue at the now defunct Establishment Club in London. In it he referred to a well-known theatre critic of the time who was prone to give the impression that he almost thought he was God. Frankie Howard opined “It’s so silly. There are so many of us”. There is a story, which is apparently confirmed in the book Music to Move the Stars by Hawking’s first wife Jane that she claimed ‘her biggest problem, when married to Stephen, was convincing him he wasn’t God.’ To paraphrase Frankie Howard, ‘It’s so silly. There are so many of them.’ Yes; we all love to think we’re right but, as I said earlier and as this little story illustrates, this perceived arrogance is a huge potential weakness which should be exploited whenever possible. Surely it’s about time these self-appointed Gods were toppled from their own manmade Mount Olympus?

Jeremy Dunning-Davies.

In the interview below, as part of the new Thunderbolts podcast, Dr. Dunning-Davies discusses many of the issues outlined in this article:

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