Archive for the ‘cosmology’ Category

I’ve been a bit quiet around here, lately. Travel is my excuse. I’m currently in Cambridge, collaborating with a few colleagues on a project. I’ll be back in Sydney next week, so if you’re near Epping on Friday 4th July 2014, why not come along to hear me speak at the Astronomical Society of NSW:

“What Happened at the Big Bang?”

Friday 4th July 2014 – 8:00pm
Topic: What happened at the Big Bang?
Speaker: Dr Luke Barnes, University of Sydney
Venue: Epping Creative Centre – 26 Stanley Road, Epping

Was the big bang the beginning of the universe? Does the big bang represent the beginning of time itself? This is an age-old question, and has been remarkably informed by modern cosmology.

I will answer this question once and for all.

I will follow the theorems, evidence and hints that lead us back in time. In particular, I will discuss the expansion of the space, the physics of the very early universe, the recent BICEP2 results and cosmic inflation, the effect of quantum physics, and the reason (or one of them) why Stephen Hawking is famous.

Dr Luke A. Barnes is a postdoctoral researcher at the Sydney Institute for Astronomy. After undergraduate studies at the University of Sydney, Dr. Barnes earned a scholarship to complete a PhD at the University of Cambridge. He worked as a researcher at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), before returning to Sydney in 2011. He has published papers on galaxy formation and cosmology, and recently has taken an interest in the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life. He blogs at letterstonature.wordpress.com.

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The Conversation has published an article of mine, co-authored with Geraint Lewis, titled “Have cosmologists lost their minds in the multiverse?“. It’s a quick introduction to the multiverse in light of the recent BICEP2 results. Comments welcome!

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Front Cover of Australian PhysicsMy article “Cosmology Q & A” has been published! It appeared in the magazine Australian Physics, 51 (2014) 42-6 and is reproduced here with permission. After a brief overview of modern cosmology, it (tries to) answer the following questions:

  1. Is space expanding, or are galaxies just moving away from us?
  2. Is everything getting bigger?
  3. Ordinary matter and radiation cause the expansion of the universe to decelerate. But our universe is accelerating! How? What is the universe made of?
  4. Dark Energy? Is that like Dark Matter?
  5. How big is the universe?
  6. How big is the universe really?
  7. If the universe were finite, could I see the back of my own head?
  8. Is space expanding faster than the speed of light?
  9. Are there galaxies moving away from us at more than the speed of light?
  10. Light from distant galaxies is observed to be redshifted. Is this because the expansion of space stretches the wavelength, or because is it a Doppler shift due to the recession of the galaxy?
  11. Does the universe have zero total energy?
  12. Energy is not conserved!? Shouldn’t that send shivers up the spine of any physicist?
  13. The very universe, we are told, began in thermal equilibrium. How did equilibrium establish itself so quickly?
  14. How does the initially smooth universe we see in the CMB become today’s universe of stars and galaxies?

As before, further questions in the comments are always welcome.

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More on the upcoming Carroll vs. Craig dialogue (previously, one, two, three). I have some leftover business from my previous post on the contingency argument for the existence of God. It concerns the question why is there something something rather than nothing?, a question I’ve discussed on a few previous occasions.

The Question

The question “why is there something something rather than nothing?” is not an argument, obviously. It’s a question. It’s relationship to the cosmological argument for the existence for God is as an entree, a taster. It’s supposed to get you thinking about existence.

Imagine two parties. At one is everything that actually exists (or has existed) – the “actual” party. At the other, everything that could exist – the “possible” party. Horses are at both parties, unicorns only the possible party. Why? Because of something at the actual party, in this case the evolutionary ancestors of the horse. When something moves from possible to actual, it’s because of an invitation from the actual party. Those in the possible party can’t crash the actual party. They don’t exist, and so don’t have any causal powers, so can’t make anything actually happen.

So this actual party – did everyone get their invitation off someone else? Is there an infinite regress of inviters? It can’t form a loop – I invite you and you invite me – because that’s just crashing the party. Could there be a party where everyone must be invited by someone who’s already there? Why is anyone at the party? Why does anything exist?

Not the Question

Aside: The question is not: “something came from nothing. How could that happen?”, to which the answer is supposedly: because God can make something out of nothing. That confuses the contingency argument with the Kalam argument. The question is “Why is there something rather than nothing?”. The answer is: God is a necessary being, so it is not possible for there to be nothing. God must exist.

Nothing, Naturally

Carroll discusses the question “why is there something rather than nothing?” in this blog post. Amongst other things, he discusses the claim that “nothingness is uniquely natural”, so that we need some special reason why something exists. He argues that we have no basis for such a conclusion, as our intuitions for naturalness and simplicity are based on our experience in this world, and so don’t automatically apply to the universe itself.

However, most versions of the cosmological argument don’t explicitly appeal to the naturalness of nothing. Carroll, following Grunbaum, discusses Swinburne. In Grunbaum’s paper “Why is There a World AT ALL, Rather Than Just Nothing?”, he quotes Swinburne: “It remains to me, as to so many who have thought about the matter, a source of extreme puzzlement that there should exist anything at all” (pg. 336). I think, however, they’ve missed the point of what Swinburne is saying. (I say this with some trepidation. Grunbaum is a professional philosopher, and something of a legend. Fools rush in …) (more…)

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I don’t know who Rob Sheldon is, but he doesn’t know much about cosmology. He recently was quoted in this post at uncommondescent.com regarding the geometry of the universe. If I lecture cosmology this year, I’ll set this passage as an assignment: find all the mistakes. It gets more wrong than right. I have an article for “Australian Physics” on common questions about cosmology that I’ll post here once it’s out (a fortnight, maybe). In the meantime, I’ll try to clear up a few things.

The discussion of the mathematics of curvature (flat, positive, negative) is about right. It’s when he discusses the universe that things go wrong.

It takes a lot of effort to find any curvature at all, and certainly it is difficult to get good agreement between different types of measurement.

Nope. That’s why it’s called the “concordance model of cosmology” – because the different measurements converge on the same set of cosmological parameters. For example, this plot.

… a “closed” universe that collapses back down to itself …

A common error. In a matter and radiation-only universe, closed implies collapsing. A cosmological constant and/or dark energy changes this: closed vs. open no longer divides collapse vs. expand forever. Here is the plot you’ll need, from John Peacock’s marvellous Cosmological Physics.

… one would like it to have positive curvature to avoid infinities …

Flat and negatively curved universes can be finite. A flat 3-torus, for example, is finite, unbounded and has a flat geometry. Einstein’s general relativity constrains the geometry of the universe but not its topology. (more…)

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On February 21-22 (2014), Sean Carroll and William Lane Craig will debate at the Greer-Heard Forum, at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. The topic is “God and Cosmology: The Existence of God in Light of Contemporary Cosmology”. For a number of reasons, I have high hopes for this one. Here’s why.

I (mostly) like the format

We start with a dialogue between the two parties, for 1.5 hours. As a spectator, I prefer the debate format. While a dialogue sounds like a friendly chat rather than a confrontation, in practice it unfairly unfavors the rude and the loud. We are at the mercy of the disciplinary skill of the moderator. However, this one shouldn’t be too bad. Craig will let his opponent talk, and I get the same impression from Carroll.

Given the list of things I’d like them to discuss, as I’ll discuss in future posts, I’m hoping that each party gets an opening statement of at least 20 minutes. They both have a lot to say about this topic, and need the time to present their case thoroughly.

The next day we’re back with 4 speakers, each with an hour that includes responses from Carroll and Craig. That’s a very interesting arrangement and I’m keen to see how it works in practice. The day rounds out with concluding comments from the two debaters.

Good choice of debaters

I’ve listened to a number of William Lane Craig’s debates and the best ones are usually against other philosophers, for this reason. The topic is God, or at least something closely related to the almighty. In any argument for or against the existence of God, at least one of the premises must be metaphysical. So against, say, a scientist, Craig can absorb a lot of the scientific expertise of his opponent and focus on the (often unstated) philosophical assumptions behind their remarks. The debate moves to matters philosophical, which gives Craig the home advantage. Some of Craig’s opponents know less than nothing about philosophy; what they think they know about philosophy is wrong. On the other hand, Craig knows enough of the science that is relevant to his arguments to be able to defend the scientific premises against a philosopher.

Carroll has an undergraduate philosophy minor and as a grad student in astrophysics at Harvard, sat in on courses with John Rawls and Robert Nozick. His blog posts and articles show a familiarity with and respect for philosophical issues. Carroll is close to the ideal opponent for this debate, as he should be able to hold his own on matters philosophical, whilst holding a substantial advantage on matters cosmological.

Good Choice of Respondents

I’m guessing that Craig will defend three of his usual five arguments – the Kalam cosmological argument from the beginning of the universe, the contingency argument, and the design argument from the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life. The contingency argument doesn’t rely on any particular scientific theories, so Craig doesn’t need any particular backup on that front. For the Kalam cosmological argument, his scientific case for the premise “the universe has a beginning” has been provided in recent times by James Sinclair. In particular, Craig’s most sophisticated defence of the argument in recent times is in the The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, which was co-written with Sinclair. Sinclair is a Warfare Analyst with a masters in cosmology, so his credentials are slightly unorthodox.

Also writing in the The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology is Robin Collins, a philosopher with a background in physics. He has specialised in the argument from the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life. So that gives Craig his backup for his third argument.

Carroll has two philosophers in tow. Alex Rosenberg is a philosopher at Duke University who Craig has debated before, and whose book “The Atheist’s Guide to Reality” was praised by both sides of the debate as seeing rather clearly the consequences of atheism. Tim Maudlin is a philosopher of science at New York University. His book “Philosophy of Physics: Space and Time” is marvellous. He also seems to have taken an interest in the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life. (I have a few reservations about his opinions on that topic.)

That’s an interesting line up. I’d gladly hear any of them speak on the topic at hand; all four of them in a row with responses from Carroll and Craig is very promising.

My advice

I think this debate could be uniquely insightful on this important topic. Craig has said an awful lot about cosmology in recent years, and no one has really pressed him on the details. They’ve mostly (though not unreasonably) appealed to cosmological authorities. (For the love of Pete, nobody read out an email from Alex Vilenkin. More on that soon.) Carroll has said a lot about the implications of cosmology for theism, and there are some philosophical niceties to be examined there as well. Stay tuned for parts two, three, and four.

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It’s always a nervous moment when, as a scientist, you discover that a documentary has been made on one of your favourite topics. Science journalism is rather hit and miss. So it was when the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), our public TV network, aired a documentary about the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life as part of their Catalyst science series. (I’ve mentioned my fine-tuning review paper enough, haven’t I?).

The program can be watched on ABC iView. (International readers – does this work for you?). It was hosted by Dr Graham Phillips, who has a PhD in Astrophysics. The preview I saw last week was promising. All the right people’s heads were appearing – Sean Carroll, Brian Greene, Paul Davies, Leonard Susskind, Lawrence Krauss, Charley Lineweaver. John Wheeler even got a mention.

Overall – surprisingly OK. They got the basic science of fine-tuning correct. Phillips summarises fine-tuning as:

When scientists look far into the heavens or deeply down into the forces of nature, they see something deeply mysterious. If some of the laws that govern our cosmos were only slightly different, intelligent life simply couldn’t exist. It appears that the universe has been fine-tuned so that intelligent beings like you and me could be here.

Not bad, though I’m not sure why it needed to be accompanied by such ominous music. There is a possibility for misunderstanding, however. Fine-tuning is a technical term in physics that roughly means extreme sensitivity of some “output” to the “input”. For example, if some theory requires an unexplained coincidence between two free parameters, then the “fine-tuning” of the theory required to explain the data counts against that theory. “Fine-tuned” does not mean “chosen by an intelligent being” or “designed”. It’s a metaphor.

Ten minutes in, the only actual case of fine-tuning that had been mentioned was the existence of inhomogeneities in the early universe. Sean Carroll:

If the big bang had been completely smooth, it would just stay completely smooth and the history of the universe would be very, very boring. It would just get more and more dilute but you would never make stars, you would never make galaxies or clusters of galaxies. So the potential for interesting complex creatures like you and me would be there, but it would never actually come to pass. So we’re very glad that there was at least some fluctuation in the early universe.

Paul Davies then discussed the fact that there not only need to be such fluctuations, but they need to be not-too-big and not-too-small. Here’s the scientific paper, if you’re interested.

The documentary also has a cogent discussion of the cosmological constant problem – the “mother of all fine-tunings” – and the fine-tuning of the Higgs field, which is related to the hierarchy problem. Unfortunately, Phillips calls it “The God Particle” because “it gives substance to all nature’s other particles”. Groan.

Once we move beyond the science of fine-tuning, however, things get a bit more sketchy.

The Multiverse

Leonard Susskind opens the section on the multiverse by stating that the multiverse is, in his opinion, the only explanation available for the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life. At this point, both the defence and the prosecution could have done more.

Possibilities are cheap. Sean Carroll appears on screen to say “Aliens could have created our universe” and then is cut off. We are told that if we just suppose there is a multiverse, the problems of fine-tuning are solved. This isn’t the full story on two counts – the multiverse isn’t a mere possibility, and it doesn’t automatically solve the fine-tuning problem. (more…)

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The ABC’s opinion pages has posted my introduction to the debate between Lawrence Krauss and William Lane Craig, happening this evening at the Sydney Town Hall. The debate topic is “Why is there something rather than nothing?”. Can science answer the question? Can God? Can anyone? Read on.


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I’m going to jump back on one of my favourite high horses. I’ve previously blogged about Lawrence Krauss and his views on the question “why is there something rather than nothing?”. I’ve just finished his book, and he appeared last night on an Australian TV show called Q&A. It was a good panel discussion, but as usual the show invites too many people and tries to discuss too much so there is always too little time. Krauss’ discussions with John Dickson were quite interesting.

I’ll be discussing the book in more detail in future, but listening to Krauss crystallised in my mind why I believe that science in principle cannot explain why anything exists.

Let me clear about one thing before I start. I say all of this as a professional scientist, as a cosmologist. I am in the same field as Krauss. This is not an antiscience rant. I am commenting on my own field.

Firstly, the question “why is there something rather than nothing?” is equivalent to the question “why does anything at all exist?”. However, Krauss et al have decided to creatively redefine nothing (with no mandate from science – more on that in a later post) so that the question becomes more like “why is there a universe rather than a quantum space time foam?”. So I’ll focus on the second formulation, since it is immune to such equivocations.

Here is my argument.
A: The state of physics at any time can be (roughly) summarised by three things.

1. A statement about what the fundamental constituents of physical reality are and what their properties are.
2. A set of mathematical equations describing how these entities change, move, interact and rearrange.
3. A compilation of experimental and observational data.

In short, the stuff, the laws and the data.

B: None of these, and no combination of these, can answer the question “why does anything at all exist?”.

C: Thus physics cannot answer the question “why does anything at all exist?”.

Let’s have a closer look at the premises. I’m echoing here the argument of David Albert in his review of Krauss’ book, which I thoroughly recommend. Albert says,

[W]hat the fundamental laws of nature are about, and all the fundamental laws of nature are about, and all there is for the fundamental laws of nature to be about, insofar as physics has ever been able to imagine, is how that elementary stuff is arranged. (more…)

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Got a cosmology question?

I’m thinking of setting my 3rd year cosmology students questions from the general public to see how well they’ve been listening, and to prepare them for unexpected cosmology questions at dinner parties. So I need all your questions about the universe!


  • What is the universe expanding into?
  • Using powerful telescopes we can look ‘back’ at light from very early on in the universe. But how did we beat it ‘here’? It has been traveling at the speed of light and yet we are already here waiting for its arrival.
  • If everything is expanding, how would we know about it, since all our rulers are twice as big as well?
  • I heard an Australian guy won the Nobel prize for his work in cosmology. What did he actually do?
  • Where did the big bang happen?
  • What is redshift? How do we know what wavelength the light left the galaxy with?

Ask away!

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