• Bjørn Ekeberg

What lies behind the Physics of the Universe?

Updated: Apr 7, 2019

Metaphysical Experiments, a new work in philosophy of science, casts a critical light on the historical and logical basis for our scientific understanding of the cosmos.

A “world-object,” according to the French philosopher Michel Serres, is a tool commensurable with one of the dimensions of the world—for example, “a satellite for speed, an atomic bomb for energy, the internet for space, and nuclear waste for time.”

By this definition, the new James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), soon to be launched into space as the most advanced and costly experiment in the history of cosmology, certainly expands world-dimensions. Designed to measure the limits of the universe as we know it, the JWST will probe deep into the history of our cosmic creation since the event known colloquially as the big bang, the dawn of time according to the prevailing scientific theory.

Besides the highly specialized technical and astrophysical parameters that define its specific range of operation, this pioneering world-object is in a deeper sense also designed to interrogate a fundamental metaphysical question. What is the universe?

Insofar as this experiment is expected to provide authoritative answers about our cosmos and our own cosmic history, its impending launch in turn raises the question of how this object comes to know its own object.

What understanding of the universe determines its design, its questions, its parameters? What lies behind the physics of this world-object?

Metaphysical Experiments tells the story of how our current idea of the universe came about and how this idea came to determine the scope of mega-scientific experiments such as the JWST.

The question of the nature of the universe is metaphysical in the sense that it lies at the very limit of scientific inquiry, where what we really know is not so easily distinguished from what we think we know, believe we know, and would like to believe.

Investigating and treading along this treacherous fault line of the knowable, Metaphysical Experiments is a study of invisible dimensions of historical world-objects in physics that, each in its own way, set key conditions for this latest space telescope. And it is a philosophical critique of the science behind this mission, of our prevailing understanding of the cosmos today.

When the JWST is finally thrust into orbit (at the time of writing, it is scheduled for 2021), after three decades of planning, enormous cost overruns, and a long string of project delays, the hopes and ambitions of cosmologists around the world ride along with it.

The giant telescope comes with astronomical risks. When the Hubble Space Telescope was first launched into low orbit around Earth in 1990, it failed to produce workable data, and it took a costly repair mission many extra years to make it operational. But the James Webb will have to operate perfectly on the first try, because its destination—the so-called L2 point, 1.5 million kilometers from Earth, four times farther than the Moon—lies far beyond the reach of rescuing astronauts.

The 6.5-meter primary mirror-like surface, nearly three times the diameter of Hubble’s, is the largest ever launched into space, and the telescope will rely on many previously untried technologies, such as sensitive light-detecting instrumentation and a new cooling system to keep the spacecraft below the critical threshold of 50 degrees Kelvin—not to mention the risks inherent in the rocket launch itself.

A UNIVERSAL WORLD-OBJECT. Mirrors being installed on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

For the professional astronomers and cosmologists watching from the ground, the risks extend to the future of the discipline itself. Originally budgeted at under $1 billion, the telescope’s price tag has continued to grow. Still two years from launch, it is now estimated at $10 billion, meaning that “the JWST has devoured resources meant for other major projects, none of which can begin serious development until the binge is over.”

By 2010 the telescope’s share of the total astrophysics budget in the United States had reached 50 percent, a proportion that was set to grow further amid a general federal funding squeeze.

To make matters even more volatile, all the space telescopes currently operated by NASA and the European Space Agency, such as the Herschel Space Observatory, which has been positioned at the same L2 point, have reached the end of their lifetimes, thus perhaps generating a feeling of foreboding among some cosmologists that they have placed all their eggs in one basket. If the experiment fails, there will be a dearth of new data to support the future work of astrophysicists and cosmologists.

However, despite the many obvious physical risk factors involved, there is also a less tangible dimension that my book is concerned with, a risk that will persist even if all the technical variables of the mega-project work according to plan. For what is also at stake with the JWST, I would argue, is the risk of paradigm failure, that is, that the current theory of cosmology, which informed every aspect of the experiment design, turns out to have been misguided, if not quite simply wrong. How could that be?

From the outset, an important thing to realize about the James Webb Space Telescope is that it is not really a telescope. In fact, the giant contraptions that today “observe” the outer galaxies do not observe in any optical sense, as they do not photograph the universe directly. Rather, these experimental devices are designed to produce data based on preset detection variables and field delimitations, data that can be reconstructed into advanced imagery.

Insofar as the JWST can be called a telescope, it is only as an analogy to the classical instruments that first opened human eyes to the distant universe. The images it creates are fundamentally shaped by preprogrammed search criteria and theoretical parameters, on the basis of complicated predictions derived from the theoretical framework itself.

Scientists do not see “through” a telescope, they see “with” it. In the book, I go into much historical detail about the different ways scientists come to understand the universe, and some historical inventions that have come to determine their operation. The picture that emerges historically, philosophically and logically from investigating the metaphysical underpinnings of this science suggest a different analogy.

Rather than seeing through a looking glass, cosmologists working with data from astronomical experiments such as the JWST are more akin to drivers on an unlit highway at night in a car with broken headlights; all they have to maneuver through the dark, unknown landscape is a GPS map.

In lieu of clear vision, the scientists must put their faith in the map provided by a system they themselves designed, a system that is now, in the course of driving, being put to the test.

So even if they manage to avoid crashing into a ditch or another vehicle, the question remains, what is it they claim to see, and how do they know it is really there?

The current theoretical framework for cosmology is built on Einstein’s general relativity theory. Moderately well demonstrated as valid for conditions within our own galaxy (which in Einstein’s time was more or less what was known of the universe), both the theory and its scope have since been transformed exponentially.

As I discuss in my book, Einstein’s mathematical framework was married to the hypothesis that the universe developed from a definitive event similar to a nuclear explosion and can be described according to the models of particle physics.

The reliance on theories of nuclear physics is significant, because cosmology is based on remarkably few bedrocks of astronomical observation, and the ostensible conceptual unity of the universe has been pushed to extreme scales, with the framework supposed to be valid for galaxies billions of light-years away. And soon the JWST is set to extend the scale further.

Planned to launch in 2021, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is the most expensive physics experiment yet.

Quantitatively, scale makes little difference, as it in theory can be as infinite as the mathematical limits of the universe itself. But qualitatively, scale matters insofar as vast distances mean that vast implications follow from even the slightest of discrepancies. Tiny fluctuations in observations and measurement of the Hubble constant, for instance, have caused the calculated age of the universe to change by billions of years.

Moreover, beyond the accuracy of calculation lies a more problematic claim of the theory: that the universe is composed largely of unknown “dark matter” and determined by “dark energy.” Along with several other cosmological concepts, these are theoretical inventions whose principal function is to uphold the coherence of the mathematical framework itself.

The crux of today's cosmology is that in order to maintain a mathematically unified theory of the universe, we must accept that 95 percent of our cosmos is furnished by completely unknown elements and forces for which we have no empirical evidence whatsoever.

A reasonable observer might think it's possible to question this overarching imperative of mathematical unification, but as I show in the book, physics is deeply, historically, and metaphysically dedicated to maintaining theoretical unification. This is, after all, the only science in which theoretical and mathematical laws are treated as more fundamental than empirical or phenomenological ones and where the quest for an all-encompassing theory of everything attracts the greatest interest and prestige.

In the 20th century, the objective of physics research increasingly became to find evidence for what the theoretical framework predicts, in a logic that upon closer inspection appears curiously circular and circumspect.

What if this mathematical unification was precisely the founding science fiction of physics that instead of enabling a better understanding has rather led it astray?

The astronomer and physicist Michael J. Disney is among a few notable critics from within the field itself who have dared to ask this heretical question: Is the framework of modern cosmology in fact scientific or a glorified kind of mythology of numbers? Disney argues that the current set of theories that constrain and guide the activity of researchers is a shaky edifice based on far fewer actual observations than the number of specially hypothesized parameters used to explain them. This would be an alarming sign for any science, and in this regard cosmology seems to be exceptional.

In 2017 a huge controversy in the field erupted when a key aspect of big bang theory, called “inflation theory,” was attacked by three senior cosmologists, including one of the original theorists of inflation, questioning its scientific merit along similar lines.

My book attempts to place these debates within a broader context, but from the outset it should be noted that even astrophysicists wonder if they are indeed conducting “science or folktale.” Based on his review of the evidence provided by the field thus far, Disney concludes emphatically that “modern cosmology has at best very flimsy observational support.” He argues that the principal reason for maintaining the big bang theory appears to be that it is presently the only alternative.

Because the JWST was designed according to the same theoretical framework, we cannot expect this experiment to change much of the fundamentals. In my driving-at-night analogy, the sudden observation of an unknown passing light is referred back to the GPS screen—that light there must be this thing on the screen here—and if it appears off from the calculations, we can only recalculate the same map. A new sighting inconsistent with the map is not in itself a crisis; on the contrary, for cosmologists it’s a problem that becomes an exciting opportunity to recalibrate their variables.

But can we question the logic of the map itself without being truly lost in the dark? Without the mathematical framework to guide its operation, in other words, the JWST can make no meaningful “observation.”

Thus, the situation for scientific cosmology today resembles the notion from technology studies of “path-dependency,” in which current design decisions are so limited by past decisions and old structures that they overdetermine what can actually be made. This is akin to how most institutions over time tend to become more concerned with perpetuating their own existence than serving their original purpose.

Eventually, the cracks in the edifice will give in, threatening the entire current cosmological paradigm with failure...

...and along with it would tumble the basis for mysterious notions etched into the popular imagination as scientific truths, such as cosmic inflation, dark matter and dark energy, and even the singularity of the big bang itself.

This is an edited excerpt from the introduction to

Metaphysical Experiments: Physics and the Invention of the Universe.

To read more, order your copy of the book.

Learn more about the book from the University of Minnesota Press catalog.

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