Tag Archives: cosmology

Dear Me, the Sky is Falling

A few days ago, I went online. The first news popup I saw was an image of our sister galaxy, Andromeda. I’m a fan of cosmology, so I clicked the popup for details. The heading for the article was designed to be sensational: Hubble shows Milky Way destined for head-on collision with Andromeda Galaxy.

In its first sentence the article states:

NASA astronomers announced Thursday [May 31] they can now predict with certainty the next major cosmic event to affect our galaxy, Sun, and solar system: the titanic collision of our Milky Way galaxy with the neighboring Andromeda galaxy.

As though to disclaim the opening hyperbole, the article quickly goes on to assure the reader that:

…our Earth and solar system are in no danger of being destroyed.

True. But, writing with the urgency assigned to breaking news, the author neglects to put the galactic event into cosmological perspective. Further, written in a style held in reserve for climactic narratives, the article contains terms that are similes to violent collisions, e.g., head-on collision, [it will take four billion years] before the strike, and Previously it was unknown whether the far-future encounter will be a miss, glancing blow, or head-on smashup.

The tone of the article implies a catastrophic event. Television news broadcasts explicitly defined the merging of galaxies as a catastrophic event. That is a disservice to readers who are not familiar with elementary cosmology. We all know that every synonym for catastrophe has a severe negative connotation.

I have two friends who do not share my interest in cosmology. They both send me articles on cosmology that happen to appear online. Each of them sent the article to me with humorous references to the remoteness of the event in terms of our lives. They understandably interpreted the article as a portent of doom that is not at the top of our lists for concern. But they were basically misinformed despite mention that stars are so widely spaced that they do not collide. So, exactly what is catastrophic about merging galaxies! You can’t have it both ways.

Colliding galaxies are common. Although the word, ‘colliding,’ is technically correct, merging is a far more accurate description of galactic interaction. You may be interested to know that in addition to the Andromeda galaxy, there are two other galaxies that show signs of merging with our Milky Way galaxy: the Large Magellanic and Small Magellanic Clouds.

Quoting myself from a book I wrote on elementary cosmology, I hope the following will provide you with a better perspective of galactic merging:

The Sagittarius Dwarf galaxy is too close for its own good. It is prey to our galaxy. Cosmologists tell us that The Milky Way galaxy is in the process of ingesting the dwarf galaxy. It is already nibbling on some of the dwarf galaxy’s stars…Galactic cannibalism (if we must call it by that ugly word) is a very slow process. Galactic snacks neither give the larger galaxy indigestion nor do damage to the captured stars of the smaller galaxy. The stars of the smaller galaxy merely assimilate into the larger galaxy. There is plenty of space for stars to blend without violence.

Like so many lovers of cosmology, I discuss the universe whimsically, but not with misleading hyperbole. Cosmology doesn’t need anyone’s help to be sensational.  

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Et tu, Brian

I’ve lived as long as it takes Uranus to complete one of its revolutions around the sun. Its run is equal to eighty-four of mine.  When I was an infant, Uranus was known as the seventh planet from the sun in the solar system within our galaxy, then thought to be the universe.

In 1927, the year of my birth, Georges Lemaitre proposed the Big Bang theory.  Hubble elevated the theory of ‘island universes’ to the reality of multiple galaxies.  Einstein had proved that space and time are not absolute.  Despite his somewhat rattling discovery of a fourth dimension and the prospect of a universe that came out of ‘nothing,’ classic science was at its peak.  Modern cosmology was born.

When, in my birth-year, the Copenhagen convention convened with the principles of ‘uncertainty’ and ‘complimentarity,’ classic science was severely jolted.  The universe below the atomic level was found to differ radically from the macrocosmic world.  When physicists probed as deep into the microcosmic world as cosmologists had probed into the cosmos, it became increasingly clear that there is an incompatible conceptual split between Classical and Quantum Physics-at least, for now, perhaps forever.

Even so, the macrocosmic and sub-atomic domains, each in their own way, are well within the parameters of valid scientific disciplines. However, by the time Uranus and I were almost halfway around our respective orbs, many scientists proposed ‘theories’ that resembled flights of fancy rather than plausible hypotheses.  That trend is growing  exponentially.

During the final lap of my journey with Uranus, I’ve found myself skipping article after article in issue after issue of Discover magazine, now packed with speculative cosmology that has no chance of being proved-ever.

In the June, 2011 edition of Discover magazine, there is an excerpt from Brian Greene’s The Hidden Reality, apparently a plug for his latest book.  As I read it, I heard echoes of Plato’s ‘ideal abstract forms.’  Referring to a host of ‘unknowable realities,’ Greene writes:

With its hegemony diminished, universe has given way to other terms that capture the wider canvas on which the totality of reality may be painted. Parallel worlds of parallel universes or multiple universes or alternative universes or the metaverse, megaverse or multiverse-they’re all synonymous, and they’re all among the words used to embrace not just our universe but a spectrum of others that may be out there.

He legitimizes those concepts by enlisting the established major developments in thermo dynamics, general relativity, quantum mechanics, string theory, and black hole research as portals to a hidden reality of which the universe is a ‘holographic movie.’ His premise appears to be generated by the theories about black holes posited by the physicists, Beckenstein and Hawking.  He synthesizes the proposed hidden realities as ‘Holographic Parallel Universes.‘

Plato’s cosmic description and a holographic universe share the same fatal flaw: they are abstractions that by definition can never be proved, i.e., they are ‘unknowable.’ Making no distinction between valid hypotheses and pure speculation is not science.

Because of my exceptional respect for Brian Greene, brilliant author of The Elegant Universe, I should mention that the excerpt quoted above refers to trends in current cosmology and does not necessarily mirror his own cosmological concepts.  Not having read all of The Hidden Reality, I’ve cited the promotional magazine article only because it contains so many of today’s typical buzz concepts whirling around in popular cosmology. So far, what I’ve read in The Hidden Reality is not ambivalent.  Long before reading the Discover magazine article, I intended to protest the ubiquitous blurring of speculation with scientific hypotheses. Counterintuitive hypotheses are meaningless when it’s impossible to ever prove them.

Having briefly described the theory of black holes posited by Beckenstein and Hawking, Greene goes on to say:

 If this line of reasoning [about black holes] is correct… Holographic Parallel Universes…would be as connected as me and my shadow.

His Platonic allusion is exalted prose, but speculation is not a substitute for vision.  I am not a hologram-neither is the universe.

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