Conformal Cyclic Cosmology

27 November 2010

Saturday


I was very pleased to see a new paper by V. G. Gurzadyan and Roger Penrose giving an exposition of their conformal cyclic cosmology model, Concentric circles in WMAP data may provide evidence of violent pre-Big-Bang activity. It’s a long title, like many contemporary scientific papers, but the important thing here is that theoretical cosmologists are beginning to find scientifically rigorous ways of talking about the universe prior to the Big Bang.

There have always been cosmological theories that simply denied the Big Bang, the most famous being the steady state cosmology of Fred Hoyle, Thomas Gold, and Hermann Bondi. Important theories of stellar evolution emerged from the steady state theory, but the theory on the whole was a dead end (though it will no doubt be resurrected at some point in the future). Several decades of cosmology focused on the Big Bang model have produced an enormous amount of evidence that it would be foolish to deny. But that doesn’t mean that the Big Bang model is the whole story.

As a philosopher, I have always been deeply disturbed when I hear and read physicists theorizing as though time had an absolute beginning with the Big Bang. I have never agreed with this, but, like biologists before Darwin, no one else had a better idea that fit the facts, and so the Big Bang model was the only game in town. This is no longer true.

In several of my posts on cosmology I have called attention to the ingenious methods employed by astronomers to find and to learn about exoplanets, i.e., planets outside our solar system, orbiting other stars. Most recently this ingenuity has even revealed a planet of extra-galactic origin, which is an exciting development. If you read science fiction novels or watch science fiction films, the idea was always that we would never know anything about exoplanets until we could eventually go there, either ourselves or with a probe. But astronomers have found ways to see things far beyond our solar system, and we can only expect this knowledge to increase with time. By the time we make it out among the stars, we will know well in advance what is out there.

Similarly, it has been thought that, even if there is or was anything beyond the initial singularity that was the source of the Big Bang, we couldn’t know anything beyond it. There may be universes beyond, but there could be no science beyond the Big Bang, because it stood like a menacing gatekeeper at the beginning of our universe. Like an especially threatening bouncer at the door of a popular club, there was no way around the singularity. And similarly again, black holes within our universe have been seen as a one way ticket to no where: once something disappears into a black hole, it is gone for good, and we will never know anything more about it, even if it has a history once past the event horizon.

To make a science of what lies before and beyond the initial singularity of the Big Bang requires the possibility of observation and evidence, which assumes that the Big Bang did not utterly extirpate everything that came before it. Gurzadyan and Penrose are employing their scientific ingenuity to just such observation and evidence, and are producing a cosmology that could be the setting of a world in which time is recognized to be infinite, as has been the position of many if not most philosophers since antiquity. All those ancients Greeks who wrote of the infinity of worlds may now take a bow.

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Note added 25 December 2010: A story on the BBC, Bangs big and small in cosmic origins debate, relates the controversy that has ensued regarding the above-mentioned paper.

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