More Options

Getting It Right, or Brooklyn Is Not Expanding

Forum

Ralph Estling

Volume 31.4, July / August 2007

I notice that people tend to go to extremes. This is most likely to occur when they don’t understand something.

Now, the point I’d like to make is this: the fact that we don’t comprehend something doesn’t necessarily mean that the thing is absurd. Or profound. Our mere lack of comprehension should not cause us either to dismiss it out of hand or to think that it must be wonderfully brilliant. This is a somewhat obvious cautionary reminder, but people have a tendency to view ideas and other things they don’t quite understand as being at one of these two extremes. For example, an awful lot of total nonsense has been written by cultural relativists about there being no such thing as objective truth, that truth is nothing but a mere cultural artifact, a social creation and convention, and that goes for science and all other values of all descriptions about everything. Postmodern philosophers write incredible rubbish about science, about art, about literature, about anything that comes to mind, and the intellectually chic and with-it lap it up, because they’ve decided it must be very profound stuff if they can’t fathom it. (Of course they don’t say they can’t fathom it.) And if our pretensions go the other way, if our intellectual posturings respond in the alternative direction, we decide that if we, in all our glorious and majestic wisdom, can’t understand something, it must, ipso facto and slam dunk, not be worth our time and effort to try. Both attitudes, both posturings, are self-destructive of intellect. Both should be avoided like the plague.

It’s not easy to do this, to keep our minds open and at the same time know when to slam them shut, to know what is very possible, what is vaguely plausible, and what is total crap. Naturally, the more we know about the subject, the more likely it is that we won’t come to ridiculous conclusions about it. But there’s no ironclad guarantee about that. Very knowledgeable people have come to very wrong and even stupid conclusions about all manner of things throughout human history, even before Aristotle, one of the most intelligent human beings who ever lived and who came to all kinds of wrong conclusions. And then there was his teacher, Plato, who has confused more people about more things over more time than anyone else who ever lived. So it isn’t that the experts are necessarily stupid (not necessarily) as much as it is that they lack enough detailed knowledge and therefore the ability (often through no fault of their own—Newton would have profited by having knowledge of special and general relativity but can hardly be blamed for this failure) to use that knowledge properly, to work out, interpret what facts they do have in the right way, because the facts they don’t have and maybe can’t possibly have preclude this. Added to this is the likelihood that they can’t possibly know precisely what facts they are lacking. Generally, no one can be blamed, but that shouldn’t prevent us from bearing this problem in mind the next time an expert tells us something based on his expertise. More worryingly, there are many occasions when the experts can be and should be blamed, even scientific ones. Witness the Bogdanov brothers, proclaimed as geniuses by one set of physics experts and as makers of absolute rubbish by another set of physics experts.

And then there is the case of an undisputed genius.

While working on the mathematics of his general theory, Einstein discovered to his surprise that, according to his calculations, the universe wasn’t static but must be expanding or contracting. But all the experts knew the universe was static, and so Einstein, who was no expert in astronomy, bowed to their superior expertise and forced himself to invent a get-out clause, the Cosmological Constant, an ad hoc, arbitrary force by which the universe stayed the same size forever by counteracting gravity. A few years later, when Friedmann in Russia and Hubble in California showed that the universe was expanding, Einstein sighed oy veh and called his Constant the biggest blunder in his life: he had discovered that the universe was increasing in volume and threw this immensely important discovery away in order to, as the saying goes, “save the appearances” rather than have faith in what his equations told him, whatever the experts said.1

And just to show that there is irony within irony, over the last twenty years or so, several cosmologists have re-thought the Cosmological Constant and decided that it, or something very much like it, may well be required after all, and they call it “dark energy,” “vacuum energy,” “lambda,” “quintessence,” and one or two other things that I can’t recall at the moment. I guess it shows that we shouldn’t be too quick to jump. And it also shows that we shouldn’t be too slow to jump. This is the celebrated Goldilocks Principle, finding Baby Bear’s chair, porridge, and bed not too hard, not too soft, not too hot, not too cold, but just right. Easy to talk about, not so easy to put into effect, especially when you don’t know everything, which is always the case, even with experts. For example, a slight problem still remains with vacuum energy, the “dark energy” of so-called empty space. According to the arithmetic, the amount of this energy exceeds the amount that has been actually observed by a factor of 10123—that is to say, 1 followed by 123 noughts, a noticeable discrepancy. (To be fair to the physicists, I’ve come across other, lower estimates, the lowest discrepancy being merely 1056.)

It gets worse. Some physicists have begun challenging long-held shibboleths about the “constants” of nature, like gravity’s strength, light’s velocity, the ratio between the proton’s mass and that of the electron, and the “fine-structure constant,” which governs the interaction of light and electrons. These soi-distant constants vary over time, they proclaim. Other physicists hotly reject this blasphemy, this shattering of physics’ holy-of-holies.

So, what is the point of all this? The point is that a balance must be struck so that nonestablishment science ideas are given a public outing, while nonscientific ideas masquerading as science are not allowed to get away with calling themselves science, or at least not get away with it without a big rumpus. Of course, the problem involves separating the sheep from the goats. Don’t ask me for the magic formula of how you do this. All I know is that some funny scientific ideas are worth thinking about and worth going out looking for evidence for and against and some aren’t. You work it out. I’m just the idea man. All I can say is that it involves balance.

Balancing things, one against the other, is always a good idea; it keeps us from being too credulous or too cock-sure, believing whatever nonsense the experts dish out, just because we don’t understand, or sneering an idea out of our contemptuous consideration, just because we don’t understand.

And so, now I read that someone at the University of Ulm has decided that the universe is shaped like a trumpet— not the modern sort that curls around and has valves but like the old-fashioned kind that blew fanfares and flourishes, and has a straight tube that flares out into negative curvature, like a Pringle potato chip, at one end and, at the other, just tapers down to a point—no mouthpiece, just a point—and beyond the point, nothing. I’m writing this well after breakfast but I’m still not able to believe in six impossible things. And then I think: is this just the wise old skepticism of a wise old man who has heard it all before? Or is it just the arrogance of ignorance? I’m not sure. But I feel vaguely worried. And then I ask a God I don’t believe in to let me learn a whole lot more than I know now, or think I know now. So that I won’t run the risk of being too clever by half, or too stupid by a hundredfold.

Because, when you stop to think about it, this is an utterly incredible, marvelous universe we inhabit. We shouldn’t worship it, but we should, I think, be awestruck by it and learn as much as we can about it, as a sort of tribute to it. And be grateful that we have had the opportunity to become, if only for a little while, acquainted with some small part of it. And what a rare and extraordinary privilege to be part of it. Think (as well as you can) of all the possible beings, all the life-forms, conscious or not, that might have existed since the dawn of time (if time had a dawn) but never got the opportunity to exist because, as bad luck and circumstance dictated, Darwinian natural selection and accident ruled them out, through no fault of their own. Yet, somehow, for reasons we cannot begin to understand, we have existed, we have occupied time and space. And, what’s more, been granted brains to use, if we choose to. Incredible. Wondrous. Miraculous.

And so you wonder why on earth—or anywhere—beings supplied with a brain need gods and their miracles and the whole shebang, the whose paraphernalia of the paranormal and the supernatural and all the rest of that malarkey, in order to feel amazed with the way things are.

You got to laugh, you really got to laugh.

Notes

  1. Woody Allen vividly describes his trauma when, as a teenager, he first learned that the universe was expanding. He thought this meant that everything else, including Brooklyn, was expanding, too. His mother had to inform him firmly that Brooklyn was not expanding and he should eat his supper. Like all Jewish mothers, she was right: Brooklyn is not expanding.

Ralph Estling

The late Ralph Estling (1930–2007) was a prolific writer, with many articles published in the British magazine New Scientist and the Skeptical Inquirer.