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## Fine-Tuning on the TV: A Review of ABC’s Catalyst

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…)

## A universe from nothing? What you should know before you hear the Krauss-Craig debate

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.

## Why science cannot explain why anything at all exists

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…)

## 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!

Examples:

• 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?

## The Traps of WAP and SAP

Let’s begin by quoting from Radford Neal:

There is a large literature on the Anthropic Principle, much of it too confused to address.

I’ve previously quoted John Leslie:

The ways in which ‘anthropic’ reasoning can be misunderstood form a long and dreary list.

My goal in this post is to go back to the original sources to try to understand the anthropic principle.

### Carter’s WAP

Let’s start with the definitions given by Brandon Carter in the original anthropic principle paper:

Weak Anthropic Principle (WAP): We must be prepared to take account of the fact that our location in the universe is necessarily privileged to the extent of being compatible with our existence as observers.

Carter’s illustration of WAP is the key to understanding what he means. Carter considers the following coincidence: (more…)

## In Defence of The Fine-Tuning of the Universe for Intelligent Life

I recently posted on Arxiv a paper titled “The Fine-Tuning of the Universe for Intelligent Life”. A slightly shortened version has been accepted for publication in Publications of the Astronomical Society of Australia. The paper is primarily a review of the scientific literature, but uses as a foil Victor Stenger’s recent book “The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: Why the Universe Is Not Designed for Us” (FoFT). Stenger has since replied to my criticisms. The following is my reply to his reply to my article criticising his book which criticises fine-tuning. Everybody got that?

A few points before I get into details:

• There isn’t much in this post that wasn’t in my original article. I write this to summarise the important bits.
• “Barnes does not challenge my basic conclusions.” Not even close. Re-read.
• “Barnes seems to want me to reduce this to maybe 1-5 percent.” Nope. I didn’t say or imply such a figure anywhere in my article. On the contrary, the cosmological constant alone gives $10^{-120}$. The Higgs vev is fine-tuned to $10^{-17}$. The triple alpha process plausibly puts constraints of order $10^{-5}$ on the fine-structure constant. The “famous fine-tuning problem” of inflation is $10^{-11}$ (Turok, 2002). The fine-tuning implied by entropy is 1 in $10^{10^{123}}$ according to Penrose. For more examples, see my article. Or just pull a number out of nowhere and attribute it to me.
• “He fails to explain why my simplifications are inadequate for my purposes.” Red herring. My issue is not oversimplification. I do not criticise the level of sophistication of Stenger’s arguments (with one exception – see my discussion of entropy in cosmology below). Stenger’s arguments do not fail for a lack of technical precision. Neither does the technical level of my arguments render them “irrelevant”.

### Point of View Invariance (PoVI)

A major claim of my response (Section 4.1) to FoFT is that Stenger equivocates on the terms symmetry and PoVI. They are not synonymous. For example, in Lagrangian dynamics, PoVI is a feature of the entire Lagrangian formalism and holds for any Lagrangian and any (sufficiently smooth) coordinate transformation. A symmetry is a property of a particular Lagrangian, and is associated with a particular (family of) coordinate transformation. All Lagrangians are POVI, but only certain, special Lagrangians – and thus only certain, special physical systems – are symmetric. Stenger replies:

“PoVI is a necessary principle, but it does not by itself determine all the laws of physics. There are choices of what transformations are considered and any models developed must be tested against the data. However, it is well established, and certainly not my creation, that conservation principles and much more follow from symmetry principles.”

Note how a discussion of PoVI segues into a discussion of symmetry with no attempt to justify treating the two as synonymous, or giving an argument for why one follows from the other.

Of course conservation principles follow from symmetry principles – that’s Noether’s theorem. It’s perfectly true that “if [physicists] are to maintain the notion that there is no special point in space, then they can’t suggest a model that violates momentum conservation”. The issue is not the truth of the conditional, but the necessary truth of the antecedent. Physicists are not free to propose a model which is time-translation invariant and fails to conserve energy1. But we are free to propose a model that isn’t time-translation invariant without fear of subjectivity.

And we have! Stenger says: “But no physicist is going to propose a model that depends on his location and his point of view.” This is precisely what cosmologists have been doing since 1922. The Lagrangian that best describes the observable universe as a whole is not time-translation invariant. It’s right there in the Robertson-Walker metric: a(t). The predictions of the model depend on the time at which the universe is observed, and thus the universe does not conserve energy. Neither does it wallow in subjectivity.

Watch closely as Stenger gives the whole game away: (more…)

## James Jeans and our finite universe(?)

“Leave only three wasps alive in the whole of Europe and the air of Europe will still be more crowded with wasps than space is with stars, at any rate in those parts of the universe with which we are acquainted.”

I love a good illustration.

For whatever reason, I’m drawn to old popular-level science books. I just finished reading “The Stars in Their Courses” by James Jeans, first published in 1931. Jeans is best known in my field for the “Jeans length”. Suppose a cloud of gas is trying to collapse under its own gravity, but is being held back by gas pressure. Jeans showed that there is a critical length scale, such that if the object is smaller than the Jeans length then pressure wins and the cloud is stable, but if it is larger then gravity wins and collapse ensues.

Jeans gives an overview of all of the astronomy of his day. It’s mostly familiar material, of course; the interesting bit is the glimpse inside the mind of the great scientist. Here’s a neat illustration:

“If we could take an ordinary shilling out of our pocket, and heat it up to the temperature of the sun’s centre [40 million kelvin], its heat would shrivel up every living thing within thousands of miles of it.”

Repeating this calculation, I think Jeans is reasoning as follows. A shilling is about 5 grams of copper (specific heat capacity 0.385 J/gram/kelvin), and so at 40,000,000 K we have about $8 \times 10^7$ J of energy. This is ‘only’ 20 kg of TNT – most bombs are at least a tonne of TNT equivalent, and they don’t do miles of damage. That much energy could raise the temperature of the surrounding air to boiling point for about a 10 metre radius. Not too promising. However, the coin will be emitting thermal radiation at x-ray wavelengths. A lethal dose of x-rays is about 5 J/kg, so our coin has enough energy to kill about 100,000 people. One must factor in the fraction of energy emitted horizontally, the fraction absorbed by biological material, the cooling of the coin, etc, but certainly it’s a very dangerous coin.

Jeans’ views on cosmology are very revealing. He is writing within 5 years of the discovery of the expansion of the universe by Lemaitre (first!) and Hubble. Jeans says: (more…)

## Book Review: The Cosmic Landscape by Leonard Susskind (Part 1)

I’m a great fan a popular science books, particularly when the topic is cosmology or fundamental physics. Susskind’s “The Cosmic Landscape” was particularly enjoyable, though I will take issue with a few things in later posts. For now, here are a few highlights:

I love a good illustration:

A rocket-propelled lemon moving away from you might have the color of an orange or even a tomato if it were going fast enough. While its moving toward you, you might mistake it for a lime.

This is simply the Doppler effect, which we’ve all observed for sound as an ambulance drives past. It works for light as well, but you have to be going close to the speed of light. Using the right formula from Einstein’s special relativity, we find that you must fire a lemon at a tenth of the speed of light to make it look red. About the same speed, but moving toward you, will make it look green.

Susskind gives an excellent account of the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life.

[T]he Laws of Physics may not only be variable but are almost always deadly. In a sense the laws of nature are like East Coast weather: tremendously variable, almost always awful, but on rare occasions, perfectly lovely. … One theme has threaded its way through our long and winding tour from Feynman diagrams to bubbling universes: our own universe is an extraordinary place that appears to be fantastically well designed for our own existence. This specialness is not something that we can attribute to lucky accidents, which is far too unlikely. The apparent coincidences cry out for an explanation.

In particular, he takes the discussion to the cutting edge of particle physics, discussing the gauge hierarchy problem:

Physicists puzzled for some time about why the top-quark is so heavy, but recently we have come to understand that it’s not the top-quark that is abnormal: it’s the up- and down-quarks that are absurdly light. The fact that they are roughly twenty thousand times lighter than particles like the Z-boson and the W-boson is what needs an explanation. The Standard Model has not provided one. Thus, we can ask what the world would be like is the up- and down-quarks were much heavier than they are. Once again – disaster!

… the cosmological constant problem:

Throughout the years many people, including some of the illustrious names in physics, have tried to explain why the cosmological constant is small or zero. The overwhelming consensus is that these attempts have not been successful.

… fine-tuning of cosmic inflation needed to give the universe the right amount of lumpiness:

A lumpiness of about 10^-5 is essential for life to get a start. But is it easy to arrange this amount of density contrast? The answer is most decidedly no! The various parameters governing the inflating universe must be chosen with great care in order to get the desired result.

… and even supersymmetry:

The biggest threat to life in an exactly supersymmetric universe [has to do] with chemistry. In a supersymmetric universe every fermion has a boson partner with exactly the same mass, and therein lies the trouble. The culprits are the supersymmetric partners of the electron and the photon. These two particles, called the selectron (ugh!) and the photino, conspire to destroy all ordinary atoms. … in a supersymmetric world, an outer electron can emit a photino and turn into a selectron. … That’s a big problem: the selectron, being a boson, is not blocked (by the Pauli exclusion principle) from dropping down to lower energy orbits near the nucleus. … Goodbye to the chemical properties of carbon – and every other molecule needed by life.

Susskind is also clear to distinguish between the landscape of string theory and a multiverse (or megaverse):

The two concepts – Landscape and megaverse [a.k.a. multiverse] – should not be confused. The Landscape is not a real place. Think of it as a list of all the possible designs of hypothetical universes. Each valley represents one such design. … The megaverse, by contrast, is quite real. The pocket universes that fill it are actual existing places, not hypothetical possibilities.

All in all, the Susskind’s book is highly recommended.

Part 2 of my review is here.

## Dear Peter Coles …

I was just re-reading this post over at Cosmic Variance about a paper by Sean Carroll, which he summarises as:

Our observed universe is highly non-generic, and in the past it was even more non-generic, or “finely tuned.” One way of describing this state of affairs is to say that the early universe had a very low entropy. … The basic argument is an old one, going back to Roger Penrose in the late 1970′s. The advent of inflation in the early 1980′s seemed to change things — it showed how to get a universe just like ours starting from a tiny region of space dominated by “false vacuum energy.” But a more careful analysis shows that inflation doesn’t really change the underlying problem — sure, you can get our universe if you start in the right state, but that state is even more finely-tuned than the conventional Big Bang beginning. We find that inflation is very unlikely, in the sense that a negligibly small fraction of possible universes experience a period of inflation. On the other hand, our universe is unlikely, by exactly the same criterion. So the observable universe didn’t “just happen”; it is either picked out by some general principle, perhaps something to do with the wave function of the universe, or it’s generated dynamically by some process within a larger multiverse. And inflation might end up playing a crucial role in the story. We don’t know yet, but it’s important to lay out the options to help us find our way.

It’s a very nice paper and Sean’s post is also worth a read. What I didn’t notice before was this comment from Peter Coles:

I remember having a lot of discussions with George Ellis way back in the 90s about this issue. I strongly agree that what inflation does is merely to push the fine-tuning problems back to an earlier epoch where they are effectively under the carpet (or beyond the horizon, if you prefer a different metaphor). In fact we were planning to write a sort of spoof of Galileo’s “Dialogue concerning the Two Chief World Systems” featuring characters with names like “Inflatio” and “Anthropicus” …. but never got around to it.

Dear Peter Coles, Please write that paper!!! I’ve been looking through the inflation literature lately and there seems to be an uncomfortably large portion of it devoted to propaganda, arguing that inflation is inevitable and the only possible solution to the problems of the standard hot big bang. A good example is this exchange of papers (one, two and three), where Hollands and Wald face off against Kofman, Linde, and Mukhanov on the issue of whether inflation can explain the low entropy of our universe. The question of whether inflation can be the last word in cosmology (and initial conditions) is in need of clarification.

## Internet Finds of the “Week”

A few quick things from around the internet.

1. Our favourite Welsh astrophysicist and supervisor, Geraint Lewis, has been keeping himself busy. He’s appeared on Wikipedia, and even has his own blog: Cosmic Horizons. And he’s presented a lecture titled “The Life of Galaxies on ABC Radio National as part of their Music and the Cosmos event, which manages the most depressing end to a public lecture ever:

They have fuel in their cores which is slowly being used up, and eventually stars will start to turn off. Once they’ve used up all their fuel, they can’t burn any more, they will turn off, they will become black, they will emit no light. At some point in the very dim and distant future there will be one remaining star in our Milky Way galaxy, and at some point that too will run out of fuel and it will become dark and the Milky Way will enter into a night and the night will go on forever.

Well worth a listen.

2. A set of three excellent lectures on gravitational waves from Kip Thorne were delivered as the Pauli Lectures at ETH. Video and audio are available here. The first lecture was for the general public and shows some wonderful recent simulations of colliding black holes. Later lectures were more technical but no less fascinating. I’d almost forgotten how much I like General Relativity.

3. I was recently sent this and I loved it. From herePlan of the City is a new animated film, conceived and directed by Joshua Frankel, about the architecture of New York City blasting off into outer space and resettling on Mars. The film’s visuals are an animated collage combining live action footage, animated elements, illustrations and treated photographs, including photos taken by the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity made available to the public domain by the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Plan of the City was created in collaboration with composer Judd Greensteinand NOW Ensemble, an acclaimed “indie classical” chamber ensemble; the ensemble, including Greenstein, feature prominently in the film as live actors set inside the animated framework.

4. If you’re a sucker for punishment … I was recently invited to give four lectures on the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life at the St. Thomas Summer Seminar in Philosophy of Religion in Minnesota. The first and second lectures attempt to cover all of modern physics, astrophysics and cosmology in 2 hours, from the structure of atoms and molecules to planet, star and galaxy formation. The third lecture considers what would happen if we changed the laws of nature. In particular, we find that in many cases, the universe would not be able to evolve and sustain complex, intelligent life. The fourth lecture discusses the multiverse – the idea that the universe that we observe is just one of many, each different. I discuss the most popular multiverse today – the inflationary multiverse – and the challenges that the multiverse faces. The talks are on youtube.

5. Aesop himself couldn’t have invented a fable as obvious as this.

6. If you can get a hold of it, Andy Fabian has written an excellent article titled The Impact of Astronomy, which ”assesses the variety and scope of the impact astronomy has on science, technology and society – and why it is so hard to measure”. It describes a number of cases in which astronomy has lead to important advances in other areas, including the development of WiFi and digital cameras.

7. Look at this! And also, a wonderful bit of Fry & Laurie.