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Quasi-Scientific Cosmic Theory Fails, Again, to Get Nobel Nod

As soon as my radio announced this morning that John Mather and George Smoot won the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics, my first thought was, Will the Nobel press release say anything positive about inflation, one of the quasi-scientific “theories” that has undermined the credibility of modern cosmology?

Mather and Smoot led the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) satellite project, which in the early 1990s carried out extraordinarily precise measurements of the low intensity microwaves thought to be the faint afterglow of the big bang. After the COBE results were announced in 1992 (with Smoot saying, famously, that COBE’s map of the cosmic radiation was “like looking at God”), some cosmologists proclaimed that COBE had confirmed not only the big bang theory but the controversial hypothesis called inflation.

The invention of inflation (the term discovery is not appropriate here) is generally credited to Alan Guth of MIT. In the early 1980s, he proposed that during the big bang gravity briefly became a repulsive rather than attractive force. As a result, the universe underwent a tremendous, exponential growth spurt before settling down to its current, much more leisurely rate of expansion.

Cosmologists fell in love with inflation, because it could explain some nagging problems raised by the standard big bang model. First, why does the universe appear more or less the same in all directions? The answer is that just as blowing up a balloon smoothes out its wrinkles, so would the exponential expansion of the universe render it relatively smooth. Conversely, inflation also explained why the universe is not a completely homogeneous consomme of radiation but exhibits lumps of matter in the form of stars and galaxies. According to inflation, minute quantum fluctuations in the distribution of energy in the infant universe could have become large enough, after being inflated, to serve as the gravitational "seeds" from which stars and galaxies would grow.

Inflation has some startling implications, one of which is that everything we can see through our telescopes represents an infinitessimal fraction of the vastly larger realm created during inflation. Even that prodigious cosmos may be one of a vast number of universes spawned by other instances of inflation. Andrei Linde of Stanford, the chief proponent of this model, calls it the chaotic, fractal, eternally self-reproducing, inflationary universe.

Unfortunately, inflation is based on untested--and probably untestable--unified theories of particle physics. Moreover, like string theory, inflation is so flexible that it can account for virtually any observations. That is why in 1994 I bet Michael Riordan, a Stanford physicist and author, a case of wine that Alan Guth would not win a Nobel Prize for inflation by the year 2000.

I won the bet with Riordan, of course (although he sent me not an entire case but only a single bottle of Santa Cruz Mountain Vinyard chardonnay, which I proudly display in my office). I was confident that I’d win because Nobel committees have always been sticklers for empirical evidence. They like big ideas, but only if they’re experimentally validated. But that could change. That’s why I wondered what I wondered when I heard the Nobel announcement this morning. But the official Nobel press release does not even mention inflation. Bless the Nobel Foundation for upholding scientific standards!

I wonder if Mike Riordan would like to renew our bet? No Nobel Prize for inflation by 2010, double or nothing?

Comments

alex mathy

Yes, the Nobel Committee is admirably sober-minded. (We'll overlook the prize given for lobotomy).

In my experience, scientists involved in a particular branch of science are the worst people to predict what's going to win a Nobel, since they tend to magnify the importance of the discoveries in their area.

Actually, I think both the physics and medicine prizes are well deserved this year. I wish you would cover the medicine prize since RNA interference really represents a paradigm shift and a significant discovery of the kind you claim don't happen anymore, as well as being a tremendous tool for biologists.

Bourgeois Nerd

So what's the alternative to inflation?

Andrei Kirilyuk

Nobel Deflation

Let's hope that somebody somewhere is still trying indeed to maintain scientific standards, as asserted by incorrigible scientific optimist John Horgan, but the problem is that those standards inevitably shrink today due to real science development, and it is objectively impossible to maintain something naturally disappearing. Scientific standards cannot be separated from scientific discoveries (because they ARE the standards of discovery), and if there is practically no big, “genuine” discoveries any more, then no “superior” committee or source of money can be able to “raise”, or even uphold, thus deflating structure properties.

The sad evolution of Nobel-Prize works is a well-known and well established tendency today, with the very last Prize in physics providing indeed a characteristic case of “technically strong”, but scientifically, conceptually “neutral” (at best) result. This is not the first Prize of that kind directly violating the letter and spirit of Alfred Nobel's will and appearing as but the “least possible loss” in the absence of “true” discoveries Nobel was fascinated with at the beginning of 20th century. Indeed, giving a Nobel Prize to such a work as COBE satellite project is the same as giving it to NASA (and other participating institutions) whose many engineers did realise the vehicles and devices used for obtaining the detailed microwave radiation data. This kind of achievement, while being prominent by itself, is quite different from what is meant in the Nobel Prize idea. But in the established total absence of desired “conceptual” discoveries, the Nobel Committee making such a choice (actually guided by the whole “world scientific elite”) is not risking at least to appear later totally wrong as it could well be the case with any pseudo-scientific, purely abstract guess of official, “mathematical” physics, such as inflation theory. John Horgan is right, it is here, at the moment of that singular, closely watched decision on the Nobel Prize that the top priests of modern science show that in reality they know very well that all their “inflations”, “M-theories”, and “spin networks” is a complete rubbish, if not evident fraud, while the same people do not miss superior definitions when they describe the same “theories” in “ordinary”, professional or public presentations, in order to get financial support, maintain their “status”, etc.

Scientifically, there is a big problem with the outcome of the decorated measurements. It is related to the fact that today not only particularly “spooky” inflation theory but the whole conventional cosmology, with its major underlying dogma of physically expanding universe (Big Bang), quickly collapses as a house of cards (see e.g. http://cosmology.info/ ). It becomes evident, in particular, that a microwave background is not specific to the Big Bang cosmology, but is a general, inevitable, “thermodynamic” filling of “empty” space in a universe containing interacting matter and radiation. Attributing very small fluctuations of that generic radiation field to very special details of very special (and now apparently wrong) cosmological “model” is at least a very risky enterprise (of a billion-order cost!). Fortunately, however, the measurement results themselves will remain correct as such (with the hope that there were no technical mistakes), and that is the evident idea of this year Nobel Prize in physics. But their value, even potential one, appears to be far from any genuine DIScovery (like disclosure): there should always be some radiation background in any matter-filled universe with “reasonable” parameters and reasonable fluctuations, there is nothing so special or revealing in those details. By contrast, the necessity to stick to such kind of results even at THAT level of science ambitions reveals just another manifestation of the End of Science. In fact, THIS is the greatest discovery of our time, especially evident in physics, with the naturally emerging proposition to give the next Nobel Prize in physics to John Horgan, for the discovery (this time indeed a real, exciting, unexpected to many, though maybe “sad” discovery!) of the end of current scientific paradigm in the whole. And if ever they do, John, I count on a box of good Californian wine from you!

And if somebody thinks it's an exotic proposition, then you'll find much more exotics in practically all, really awarded last-time Nobel Prizes in physics. For example, one of them went to a guy who during many years multiply and explicitly stated, using his theory, that anything like high-temperature superconductivity can never be realised, unless by a virtually impossible and unpredictable “miracle”. After which high-temperature superconductivity was, of course, safely discovered as if to prove that everything is possible in this world (“never say never”!), but the discovery was done in a purely empirical way (by cooling down and measuring electric resistance of “intuitively” tried substances) and soon recognised by a (relatively merited) Nobel Prize. After that truly astronomic sums of money have been spent in order to achieve a SCIENTIFIC understanding of that impossible miracle, but WITHOUT ANY SUCCESS until now. And after that – guess what – the guy that always stated that what happened was virtually impossible gets the Nobel Prize in physics for works on superconductivity (and other similar effects), i.e. essentially for his “life's achievements”! Or let's recall the Nobel Prize attributed to the late Ilya Prigogine for his major works around “dissipative systems”, while everyone knows that nothing special was discovered by him, including complete failure of his major quest on the origin of time (suggesting a truly “new paradigm” opposed to the whole “Newtonian reductionism”, etc.). He just made a reasonable “popularisation” of general ideas about “reduced” nature of usual science (essentially initiated much earlier by the philosopher Henri Bergson), but was the Nobel Prize really meant for such kind of results? (This story is elucidated as a particular chaoplexity case in the “End of Science” book.) And of course, there is a whole series of “engineering” physics Prizes indirectly confirming the absolute modern domination of empirical technology over explicative science (see also my previous comment at http://discovermagazine.typepad.com/horganism/2006/09/scientific_regr_1.html#comment-23288504 ). So finally John Horgan may even be “overqualified” for the Prize: he really discovered the real end of science!

The modern deflation of real size of Nobel results is evident (especially in physics), as well as the accompanying inflation of vain ambitions and empty promises. It's hard to imagine that Alfred Nobel himself could be satisfied with such situation, but maybe partially he is to be blamed for it himself: even apart from the underlying naive belief that the top rate of “genuine” discoveries of the beginning of the 20th century can continue indefinitely, there seems to be something deeply wrong in the very idea to attribute a really big money prize as a very personal gift to a scientist for his results (as opposed to research work support), simply because money and the essence (purpose) of genuine scientific work do not go well together. It's not about jumping to the opposite extreme of miserable scientists (unfortunately too real for some of us!), but about a fundamental contradiction between “financial” and “intellectual” success and motivations. Returning to today's Nobel tendency, is it really a good practice to increase even more the well-being of typically already relatively rich colleagues for their scientifically mediocre (if not absent or wrong) results when other, provably much more promising results and approaches, which are just able to transform the current “end of science” into its development at a new level, are practically “dying from hunger”, at the same time, on the same, “globalised” planet apparently overfilled with good intentions of various “wise leaders of humanity”?

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