Big Bang and other prejudices

I once heard the following anecdote from a senior scientific colleague.
Once God applied for a research grant from the National Science Funding Agency, in order to do further research on creation. He cited in his CV his earlier work of creating the universe. After due deliberation his application was turned down by a peer review committee for three reasons. Firstly, he had not worked in this field for a long time and so was out of touch with the latest developments. Secondly, nobody had been able to duplicate his work, and so scientifically it was suspect. Thirdly, an account of his work had not appeared in a refereed scientific journal but was published only in a book.
The story highlights the present state of science funding. A committee of experts in the field examines an application for funds by looking at the previous work of the candidate, where it was published, how long ago and whether it was duly tested by repeated experiments. This modus operandi creates safeguards to filter out any cranks or incompetent workers. Known as the peer review system, it relies on the collective judgment of a body of like-minded experts in the field.
Some selection process like this is needed because the applications for funds inevitably exceed the capacity of the funding agency to satisfy them all. Also, everyone would like the process to select high quality applications, eliminating the bad and the mediocre. As responsible citizens, the jury of peers wants to ensure that funds are not wasted. Their selection process therefore leans towards “safe” ideas, that is, ideas that are not too outlandish with respect to what is already known and accepted. While this seems reasonable on the whole, the danger is that this system may sometimes miss the really exceptional proposal. Alt­hough the above anecdote about God highlights the weaknesses of the present system, history tells us of several such instances.
Take the example of Copernicus and Galileo. The deeply ingrained Aristotelian geocentric paradigm meant that anyone stating that the earth is not stationary would be branded as an unbeliever or a crank. The establishment, consisting of intellectuals dominated by Aristotle’s ideas, not only banned alternative ideas, but by making Galileo subject to the dreaded inquisition, saw to it that a free thinker like him recanted. Nevertheless, slowly but surely the heliocentric theory of Copernicus became acceptable. In the late 20th century even the Vatican conceded that Galileo was right after all and the inquisition set up by the Church was wrong.
Even the great scientist Isaac Newton was not beyond personal prejudices about scientific ideas. He was a firm believer in the corpuscular theory of light; that is, he believed that light was communicated by tiny particles. There were experiments that suggested that light travels as a wave, but this concept had to take a back seat while Newton was alive. Thus, research on subjects like interference, diffraction and polarisation was delayed by several decades.
Science, by nature, flourishes in an objective atmosphere. It ru­­ns under the maxim: Trust no the­ory unless it is backed by experiment. So if there are two theories, A and B, in the field, let exp­eriments and observations decide which one, if any, is right. Theory A, howsoever popular, mu­st be abandoned if it fails an experimental test. If Theory B meets the experimental requirements, it survives. But, as the philosopher of science Karl Popper said, a theory is always on probation until it fails some experimental test in which eventuality it has to be abandoned. This is what objectivity in science demands.
With such historical examples to guide us, is the present era more conducive to objectivity? In the 1950s, the Cambridge astrophysicist Fred Hoyle proposed the idea that the interstellar space, that is, the empty region between stars, may contain molecules. He suggested that giant molecular clouds exist in our galaxy. The majority of astronomers believed that nothing more complicated than the hydrogen atom could survive in this space and so attempts by Hoyle to get his ideas published in a reputed scientific journal failed. He finally wrote a science fiction novel around this idea. The novel called The Black Cloud was an immense success. In the following decade, new antennas receiving millimetre wavelength radiation from interstellar space confirmed the existence of organic as well as inorganic molecules distributed in vast clouds in such regions.
Today, objectivity is under threat because of huge funds that frontier level science requires to test its theories. A classic example is the Big Bang theory which states that the universe originated in a big explosion. This theory is currently believed and a lot of money is being spent in research furthering this doctrine. The original version of the theory proposed that after its explosive creation, the expansion of the universe slows down because of its own gravitational attraction. It also predicted how its present rate of expansion is related to its present density of matter. However, observations showed that the expansion is accelerating instead of slowing down, that the density of matter it needs to have is several times the density of matter actually observed, and this extra unseen (dark) matter cannot be the “normal” form of matter that we see around us. With these major discrepancies, the model should have been abandoned. Instead, it is argued that there is a dark energy that repels rather than attracts and that the universe is predominantly made of some abnormal form of matter the li­k­es of which has not been found in the terrestrial laboratory or in the cosmos. There is no independent evidence for these beliefs and their sole objective is to keep the Big Bang model alive.
Back in 1970, Fred Hoyle had ca­utioned that the physics of the un­iverse may be much more co­m­plex than what the human br­a­in can understand. He made this statement in a conference where the Big Bang supporters were ma­king strong claims that the problem of the universe was so­l­v­ed. Now 40 years on, the Big Bang model has to be considera­b­ly modified but similar claims are being made today. Perhaps a little humility and objectivity is called for?

Jayant V. Narlikar is a professor emiritus at Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Pune University Campus, and a renowned astrophysicist

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