by Eric J. Lerner
Reviewed by Michael J. Mehl
The "Big Bang" theory of the creation of the universe is in trouble. If you doubt this, get the March, 1995 issue of Discover magazine, and read its cover story, "Crisis in the Cosmos." The problems are many: The Universe is too young: the latest values of the Hubble constant say that the Big Bang must have happened no more than 12 billion years ago, while current theories of stellar formation say that some stars in globular clusters surrounding the Milky Way are at least 14 billion years old. The Universe is too lumpy: despite the highly uniform distribution of the 3K microwave background indicating a highly isotropic explosion, galaxies are distributed in a very non-uniform way, forming clusters, and super clusters, all arranged around gigantic "soap bubble" like voids, with a "Great Attractor" thrown in for good measure. The Universe is too light: theory says that the average mass density of the Universe should be very near the "critical density", the maximum density allowed for the the Universe to keep expanding forever. In fact, the estimated mass of all the galaxies in the Universe keeps accounts for only about one-tenth of the required mass. The rest of the mass, if it exists, must be some uniformly distributed exotic matter so far unmeasured experimentally and unpredicted by theory.
Given all of these problems, it's fair to start looking at different theories. This book presents one such theory. Actually, there are three different books here: a fairly straightforward presentation of a theory which isn't, on the face of it, too nutty; a rant against the development of theory purely because of its mathematical "beauty" without any experimental evidence; and a wild, marxist (small "m" deliberate) view of the future of the universe which begins by throwing away the second law of thermodynamics and trying to shoot down the first law, all without one scintilla of experimental evidence. The contradiction between the last two parts is, of course, never noted by the author.
The theory, "The Plasma Universe" is based on work by the Nobel-winning plasma physicist Hannes Alfven. As I said, it's fairly straight-forward: start with an infinite universal plasma composed of regions of matter and anti-matter. Occasionally the matter and anti-matter collide, causing a series of "mini-bangs" which separate matter from anti-matter, cause compression waves which start galaxy formation, and separate the galaxies in the observed Hubble manner. The "missing mass" of the universe is explained away by a simple assumption: it's not there. Lerner esimates the average density of the universe as 0.02 times the critical value. This is probably about right for the luminous matter of the universe. Galatic rotations curves (which indicate a much greater mass, spread over entire galaxies, but no where near the amount needed to get to the critical density) are explained by magnetic interactions between the galactic magnetic field and the interstellar plasma. This works fine for the gas in the galaxy, but what about the stars? Stars in a galaxy have about the same speed as the surrounding gas. I seriously doubt that the galactic magnetic field is so large as to hold the stars in their courses. (Any astronomers want to comment?) However, this part of the discussion isn't really relevant to the main argument. A more serious difficulty is that Lerner gives the time since the "mini-bang" as about 14 billion years ago. How the older stars form not mentioned. All of this could be worked on, though, and if it weren't for the rest of the book I'd recommend this part for your consideration.
The second part of the book is interwoven with the first. It consists of Lerner's complaint that current cosmological and partical physicists are spending too much time searching for "beautiful" mathematical equations and not enough time looking at experiments and observations. He makes some valid points -- for example, historically, the presence and effect of magnetic fields has always been underestimated by theorists, possibly because it is easier to solve the equations if you only have to worry about gravity and can neglect electromagnetic forces. He also takes shots at the quark theory, neglecting the fact that it wasn't really accepted until experimentalists found the "psi/J" particle (which is a charm-anti-charm pair of quarks). Ironically, I read this book a couple of weeks after the long-awaited announcement of the discovery of the top quark. The search for a "Theory of Everything" is also derided, for how can we keep progressing once we know everything?
This second part of the book is annoying, but acceptable as a scientific rant. Sometimes theorists do become too enamored with their theories, and need a stiff shot of reality. (Cosmologists may be getting now.) It's the third part of the book that goes over the top. Go back to the "plasma universe" theory. Why must the Universe be infinite? Is there any experimental indication that it is so? No. It can't be proven either way. However, some scientists in "progressive" times (the Ionian scientific revolution in Greece, the early Renaissance, and the later Newtonian revolution) have believed in an infinite universe. In "turbulent" or "stagnent" times (post-Aristotle Greece, the late Roman Empire, the Middle Ages) some scientists believe in a finite universe, often one created from nothing. (You may guess the times Lerner thinks we're living in.) These theories of the universe affect the way people think about themselves, too. Thus in "finite universe" times, people believe in an ordered, heirarchical structure to society, while in "infinite universe" times they believe in the power and ability of the individual.
OK, the universe must be infinite both in space and in time. (Ignore that man Olber standing behind the curtain.) Then what? Hoyle's steady-state theory would seem to be a logical one, with its postulate that the universe looks the same at all times and over all space. But Lerner doesn't like that: it denys "progress". (Here's the promised "marxist" part.) Yes, indeed, the universe isn't running down, as predicted by the Second Law of Thermodynamics, it's winding up. How, you ask? Well, isn't it obvious? Look at the planet around you. Isn't it obvious that life is moving to "higher" and more ordered structures? (For a competing view, see Stephan Jay Gould's "Eight Little Piggies", which I hope to write a review about shortly.) But if this is so, then the Second Law must be trashed. To believe anything else is to deny progress and condemn ourselves to living in a meaningless universe. (In fact, when you include the Sun in your calculations, entropy in the Solar System is increasing at a rapid rate, even if humans are improving themselves.) But how is this order to keep growing, when stars are manifestly running out of energy? Well, maybe the first law doesn't hold, either. Maybe we'll find new sources of energy, to build bigger and better structures in the Universe, and so keep progressing. At least, we need a theory which propounds this. Otherwise, how will people throw off their capitalist and post-Soviet oppressors and take over production for themselves?
If I had paid money for this book, it would have sailed across the room at this point. Unfortunately, I borrowed it from the library and so was denied the satisfaction. Remember, after the rant concerning experimental evidence in the second part of the book, there is no evidence whatever for any of the points in the last part of the book. In particular, there are no (count 'em, none) known violations of either the first or second laws of thermodynamics. All in all, a very uneven book. The scientific part is much better than I expected, constructing a plausible, if not very believable, theory of the universe. The remainder is about what I expected from a book promising a "Startling Refutation".
Recommended only if you have your blood pressure pills handy, or if you believe that Marx was right, but Lenin and Stalin messed things up.
Note: Several of the points raised by Lerner are answered by UCLA Professor Nate Wright on his Cosmological Fads and Fallacies page.
Author: Eric J. Lerner Title: The Big Bang Never Happened Publisher: Times Books (aka Random House) (1990)
Random House Home Page
© 1996 by Michael J. Mehl
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