Whither science? A thought provoking essay by a nuclear engineer .
By Regis Nicoll
One year after scientists flipped the switch on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), physicist Lawrence Krauss fretted, “I worry whether we’ve come to the limits of empirical science.” His worry was not unfounded—in the last eleven years and at a cost of over $13B, the sole accomplishment of the LHC has been the confirmation of the Higgs boson, the elusive particle thought to give rise to the property of mass in the universe.
It is an important discovery to be sure, but one that points to an ever-receding black hole of inquiry as to where the Higgs comes from, and why it has the properties it has, along with some other unsolved mysteries that keep researchers scratching their heads well into the wee hours of the morning:
What is dark energy and dark matter?In 1929, Edwin Hubble discovered redshifts in the light emissions from stars, indicating that the universe was not static, but expanding. Nearly seventy years later, light spectra measurements of supernovae indicated that the universe is not only expanding, but accelerating in its expansion! Mystified by this unknown cosmic power source, physicists dubbed it “dark energy.” Subsequent measurements revealed that dark energy accounts for 70 percent of all the stuff in the universe.
What’s more, gravitational anomalies observed in stellar objects indicated a sizeable source of invisible (“dark”) matter affecting their movements. When “dark matter” is added to dark energy, it turns out that dark stuff makes up 95 percent of the cosmos. But what it is, no one knows; and the answer is as elusive as ever. For that reason, a number of leading physicists, including Krauss, have called it the biggest mystery in physics.
What is the nature of the vacuum? The “vacuum”—that is, the quantum vacuum (or “field” or “potential,” as it is alternately called)—is a gossamer fabric of reality comprised of neither matter nor energy, but “potentiality.” As quantum theory pioneer Werner Heisenberg once wrote, it is a realm “of potentialities or possibilities rather than one of things and facts.” And yet, this mysteriously numinous essence is a wellspring of limitless power from which the entire universe materializes. As to how this happens, the reigning scientific narrative goes something like this:
Before time and space, there was only the quantum vacuum. Then, some thirteen or so billion years ago, a succession of extraordinary events occurred.
Out of the ineffable nothingness, a colossal amount of energy suddenly appeared in a space much smaller than that of an atom. Instantly, the subatomic nugget exploded, spewing forth all the matter and energy of our soon-to-be universe.
But before the cosmic newborn was overcome by gravitational collapse, another strange thing happened: inflation. Inexplicably, something akin to anti-gravity kicked in to take this cosmic expansion into hyperdrive. The expansion was so rapid that if the tiny nugget had been a piece of sand, it would have grown to the size of the known universe within a trillionth of a second.
At the same time, the rate and strength of inflation were in that perfect pitch which kept the Big Bang from becoming either a Big Crunch or a runaway explosion. By this exceptional process, the universe was placed delicately on the razor’s edge between immediate annihilation and unending expansion, allowing it to become the birthing center of quarks, electrons, and muons—seeds of what would become stars, planets, and galaxies.
In short, the universe was created by something that consisted of nothing—instantly. Think of a rabbit being pulled out of a hat … without the hat or a magician, and you get the hang of it.
It is not hard to imagine that scientists are a bit uneasy with this “Creator”—one who is omnipresent and omnipotent, yet immaterial and non-physical, except by definition. These features infer something or Someone that is disqualified in their strictly, and unapologetically, materialistic discipline.
Why is the universe so exquisitely balanced, such that life can exist?It is commonly, if uncomfortably, acknowledged in scientific precincts that our universe is a very special place—an “against-all-odds” place, really—whose existence depends on a host of delicately-balanced parameters. Newton’s gravitational constant, the mass and charge of the electron, and the strengths of the weak and strong nuclear forces are just a few of the factors that, if varied but a smidgeon, would make our cosmic home quite different—perhaps one in which apples fall up!
Fidgeting over the apparent “decking-stacking,” scientists have been scratching around for something—anything—to explain our cosmos as the inevitable product of natural, unintelligent processes. Today, a favorite construct is the “multiverse”: a vast menagerie of universes where every imaginable (and unimaginable!) combination of parameters is realized somewhere. Despite its growing popularity, the multiverse hinges on propositions that far overreach what has been, or even can be, demonstrated.
For example, according to the “many worlds” scenario advanced in the 1950s, at the quantum level, every slice of the cosmos splits off in every moment of time to form a parallel universe. This mind-numbing production of worlds, contingent upon a controversial reading of quantum mechanics, has provoked many researchers to look elsewhere for answers to our Goldilocks existence— specifically, to black holes and “inflation.”
In black hole theory, universes are birthed from the digested contents of black holes—those invisible, massive objects gobbling up everything, including light, falling into their gravitational web. However, calculations on mass and energy conservation indicate that whatever enters a black hole’s digestive tract remains in this universe, rather than becoming the seeds of a new one.
According to inflation theory, the Big Bang turned into a Big Fizz, creating an initial burst of energy that quickly fizzled into a constellation of bubbles—much like that created when popping the top on a well-shaken can of soda—with each bubble ballooning into a new, unique universe. It is a tale of cosmic proportions, held together by a string of mathematical abstractions and the will to believe.
All three of these theories share a couple of fundamental difficulties: 1) If another world did exist with its own unique set of physical parameters, it would be undetectable with instruments constrained by the distinctive parameters of our universe; and 2) instead of explanations, they are assertions that our world must exist because, in an infinite number of universes, all configurations are possible and we’re here, so that proves it! Understandably, such contrived reasoning leaves some researchers cold. For a theory in which anything is possible, is a theory that explains nothing.
What will be the fate of our universe?One theory is that cosmic expansion will continue until galaxies are rent asunder, sending everything into darkness and deep freeze. The other is that gravitation will eventually overcome expansion and the universe will implode in a Big Crunch. Either way, cosmic doom is billions of years in the future.
Like the companion question concerning the origin of the universe, cosmic fate is more appropriately a matter for metaphysics than physics. That is because they are questions not amenable to empirical science. Although theories can be floated, theories on the fate of the universe cannot be tested, falsified, or replicated.
The same goes for its origin. Whether the universe is the result of the Void of Buddhism, the Vacuum of scientism, or the God of theism, it is a question that can’t be settled by science, except by fiat. In fact, these are not questions at all; they are presuppositions upon which our search for purpose and meaning are founded.
Lawrence Krauss was right to imagine that science has run its course, for each of the questions above hinges on the ultimate question: What is Ultimate Reality, the thing that is self-existent and non-contingent, preceding all that exists? Is it matter, energy, the vacuum, or God?
Ultimate Reality is the fountain from which all knowledge springs, yet it is beyond the “limits of empirical science”—whether by studying light spectra captured by the Hubble, exotic particles detected by the Large Hadron Collider, or cellular structures unraveled by the electron microscope—to define it. It is something or Someone that must be revealed and, in fact, has been revealed: “In the beginning, was the Logos.”
Regis Nicoll is a retired nuclear engineer and a fellow of the Colson Center who writes commentary on faith and culture. His new book is titled Why There Is a God: And Why It Matters.