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Sir Roger Penrose: Scientific Heretic

A great article on the Big Bang and the Large Hadron Collider.

The big bounce vs. the big bang

Joseph Brean, National Post
Published: Friday, October 03, 2008

WATERLOO, Ont.. — Among the crushing throng of physics enthusiasts who gathered this week for a lecture by Sir Roger Penrose, who is to the University of Oxford what Stephen Hawking is to Cambridge, the very mention of the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland elicited a resounding throaty chuckle.

Everyone knew that when the world’s biggest particle accelerator was switched on last month, its computers were promptly hacked and its superconducting magnets accidentally melted. And provided one is skeptical of all the press reports about how this “Big Bang machine” might create an apocalyptic black hole somewhere beneath Geneva, this is all pretty hilarious, just a few broken eggs for the omelette of discovery.

The capacity crowd of several hundred had a similarly blasé reaction to the nub of the lecture.

“The universe seems to go through cycles of some kind … Our universe is what I call an aeon in an endless sequence of aeons,” Prof. Penrose said in an address enlivened by his breezy Oxbridge banter (10 to the power of 64 years is, for example, “a jolly long time”), and illustrated by overhead transparencies so artful in their multi-coloured, hand-drawn penmanship that they would not have been out of place alongside a baking-soda volcano at a grade school science fair.

But this was top level, cutting-edge physics, hosted by the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. He described data he received just this week that appears to show traces of the previous aeon in the microwave background radiation that fills the universe and is regarded as the lingering “flash” of the Big Bang. If it actually does, a lot of science will have to be reconsidered.

But no one gasped in awe. There were no hoots of surprise, no muttering about this seeming heresy, this contradiction of everything the general public thinks they know about the creation of the universe — that it happened just the once, about 14 billion years ago, when space and time exploded together out of a single point, infinitely hot and dense, called a singularity. There is not supposed to be any such thing as before the Big Bang. Eternal cycles, Sir Roger? What are you, Hindu?

As it happens, he holds to no religious doctrine. But in an interview, he said his theory of aeons, in which the universe endlessly expands and collapses, from big bang to big crunch and over again, is “a bit more like Hindu philosophy” than the standard Big Bang story, which itself fit so perfectly with the Judeo-Christian account of God spontaneously creating the universe ex nihilo, out of nothing.

Sir Roger was quick to point out that such theological coincidences do not figure in his research. They are no more than pleasing curiosities. For theologians interested in God’s place in the cosmos, however, it is a different story.

Among the far-reaching and unexpected effects of Prof. Penrose’s new cosmology is the problem it poses for theology, especially the Catholic sort, which has for decades now enjoyed a curiously intimate and comfortable relationship with theoretical physics.

Dennis Patrick O’Hara, director of the Elliott Allen Institute for Theology and Ecology at the University of Toronto, says he puts the Big Bang “front and centre” in his courses on ecological ethics and spirituality. It is a good case study for a God who “creates the universe that creates itself,” as the prominent American Catholic eco-theologian Fr. Thomas Berry described it.

“Theology was always written in terms of a cosmology,” Prof. O’Hara said, and that changes through history. The cosmology of the Book of Genesis was essentially Babylonian. Saint Paul’s was different still because of the Greco-Roman influence. In 1215, The Catholic Church made it an article of faith that the universe had a beginning, and soon after, Thomas Aquinas argued that this proved God’s existence as the “uncaused first cause.” Since then, cosmology has gone through the revolutions of Isaac Newton, who believed the universe eternal, and Albert Einstein, who did too but changed his mind, without upsetting the creed of a singular beginning, until now.

Prof. O’Hara said theologians are still “waiting to see how [the notion of a cyclical universe] plays out before even concluding that it’s undermining the foundations. But it will shift our thinking.”

Sir (for services to science) Roger Penrose, 77, Emeritus Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics at Oxford, spent six years of his childhood in London, Ont., where his father ran a psychiatric hospital, and he still recalls the Canadian joys of skating and tobogganing.

In 1988, he shared with Stephen Hawking the prestigious Wolf Prize in Physics, “for their brilliant development of the theory of general relativity, in which they have shown the necessity for cosmological singularities and have elucidated the physics of black holes. In this work they have greatly enlarged our understanding of the origin and possible fate of the Universe.” Since then, his popular books, especially The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe, have earned him flattering comparisons to the well-loved American physicist Richard Feynman.

This week, a Thomson Reuters effort to “to quantitatively determine the most influential researchers in the Nobel categories” in advance of this month’s announcements, pegged Penrose as one of five likely physics winners of “the Swedish prize,” as the Nobel is known among superstitious contenders, much as Macbeth, backstage, is “the Scottish play.”

So his theory of aeons is no amateur flight of fancy, nor is he the first to propose it. There were earlier versions as far back as the 1920s by the Russian cosmologist Alexander Friedmann, and in the 30s by the American Richard Tolman.

Even today, Perimeter Institute researcher Lee Smolin has advanced a related theory about the birth of universes, known as cosmological natural selection.

And John W. Moffat, another Perimeter physicist best known for the theory that the speed of light is variable, has just published a book Reinventing Gravity: A Physicist Goes Beyond Einstein, in which he describes a new theory of gravity, and writes “In contrast to the Big Bang scenario, [my theory of the] universe is an eternal, dynamically evolving universe — which may have implications for philosophy and religion as well as astrophysics and cosmology.”

They all seem to be describing something very close to the account in the Hindu Rig Veda of a universe that is cyclically born and dies, each lasting a little over four million years, and representing a day in the life of the deity Brahma, or Buddhism’s mahakalpa, the “great eon” between destruction and rebirth.

It is perhaps understandable that the metaphors of Eastern mysticism would spring more readily to mind among theoretical physicists. The staggering infinitudes of the trade, both large and small, seem to demand a contemplative Eastern sensibility to achieve the blissed-out satori of actual comprehension. Examples litter the record, from J. Robert Oppenheimer’s chilling declaration after testing the atomic bomb, quoting the Hindu Bhagavad Gita, “Now I have become Death, destroyer of worlds,” through to his famous protege Richard Feynman’s flirtation with various quasi-Buddhist (and fully Californian) mysticisms.

But the links with Catholicism are different, less casual, more doctrinal.

Prof. O’Hara prides himself on resisting the temptation to grasp at science to bolster his faith.

“I never go around looking for proof for scripture,” he said. “As soon as you say [about the Big Bang], ‘That’s God,’ then you’ve got a god of the gaps, which is basically [the idea that] every time I get a gap in my understanding, oh, that’s god. The problem with that is that when science expands and starts to fill the gaps, then what happens to god? You eventually get a shrinking god until you get no god. Or the god that you’ve created — not the god that’s revealed itself to you — has proven to be a false god. So for many of us, when it came to this primal singularity, [we wondered] how’d you get that? It was, like, I don’t know. We’ll just wait and see. Anyone in theology who has to have absolute certitude shouldn’t be in theology. We’re about faith.”

Prof. O’Hara likes to tell an anecdote to illustrate the difficulties of pegging supposedly eternal theology to ever-shifting physics. When he started his PhD, the universe was thought to be 20 billion years old. By the time he finished his course work the estimate had dropped to 15 billion. A bit of teaching, and it was 12.5 billion. As he started his thesis, there was talk it may only be 8.5 billion.”Of course, my comment then was that if I don’t hurry up and finish, I’m going to run out of time,” he said. “My point is that we shouldn’t approach the science with certitude.”

If it seems ironic that a theologian should urge skepticism about science, it is. But consider what happens when they do not.

In 1951, as the implications of Einstein’s theory of general relativity were emerging into public consciousness, Pope Pius VII welcomed the idea of the Big Bang by announcing that science had “succeeded in bearing witness to the august instant of the primordial Fiat Lux [Let there be Light], when along with matter, there burst forth from nothing a sea of light and radiation, and the elements split and churned and formed into millions of galaxies… Hence, creation took place. We say: therefore, there is a Creator. Therefore, God exists!”

The problem with this idea — a version of Aquinas’ cosmological proof for God’s existence — is that the Big Bang theory is no more a proof for God than any of the other purported logical proofs, and it is even less so now that it has become scientifically out-dated.

Prof. Penrose’s theory of aeons is troubling to theologians, but alluring at the same time, maybe as much as the Big Bang once was. At a stroke, it erases some of philosophy’s oldest contradictions by allowing a universe that is both finite and infinite, with both an Eastern eternity and a Western creation ex nihilo.

Of course, this is all just theory. Dapper and decorated as Sir Roger may be, physics still awaits the breakthrough of the next Newton, most likely a quantum theory of gravity. And as the general public struggles to keep pace with what it all means, work piles up for the next Aquinas.

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6 Responses to Sir Roger Penrose: Scientific Heretic

  1. The Large what Collider?

  2. Seems like Freud was right, tragicmishap.

  3. One question, if anyone is familiar with Penrose’s theory. It sounds like his theory is such that there was a ‘big bang’/start to the universe, but that since then it may have been “bouncing”. Not an eternal (at least, not past-eternal), cyclic universe.

    Can anyone more informed explain?

  4. How about Godel’s theory that the universe is cyclical and spiraling – that is that the beginning is actually just a continuation of the end. In Godel’s universe there is not time and any physical event if possible including going back in time and killing your ancestor and still living.

    I think the only event that couldn’t happen in Godel’s universe would be for a physical object like a person to travel backwards and see itself at an “earlier” time- That is there are no paradoxes- just a universe where any conceivable “physical” event could happen- that is you could time travel forward to the past but you would not exist in the past except in your current state. This would be a spiraling universe of sorts.

    I sure wish Dembski would weigh in on Godel and time travel. I would LOVE to hear his thoughts.

  5. If the Big Bang as a cosmological origins theory is false, why does this pose a problem for the traditional alignment of the theory with creation ex nihilo, as per Genesis?

    I think it’s because we all tend to think of creation as linear. What if creation is nonlinear? Sure, Genesis has it in stages (“days”), wherein God did such and such or made so and so, but what if we’re completely misinterpreting it?

    Could creation be something like this: instead of a linear sequence of events, the sequence doesn’t really exist? I’m drawing this idea from Peter Lynds’ stunning 2003 paper, “Time and Classical and Quantum Mechanics: Indeterminacy vs. Discontinuity” (http://arxiv.org/abs/physics/0310055). Hopefully I’m making sense. Who says creation has to be linear?

  6. “The universe seems to go through cycles of some kind … Our universe is what I call an aeon in an endless sequence of aeons,” Prof. Penrose said…

    This is pure Greek or Hindu philosophy pretending to be science…I hope to publish something soon that exposes the pagan religious influence in naturalistic science.

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