Thursday, April 22, 2010
The Revolution for the Rest of Us
Opening Remarks in a Talk Presented by George Musser at MENSA:
In the time-honored tradition of essayists and papergivers
everywhere, I’d like to question the premise of
my own title. Is the revolution in cosmology really a
revolution? There are good reasons for thinking it isn’t.
By “revolution,” people generally refer to two broad
developments since the late 1990s: (1) a new level of
precision in measurements of cosmic expansion, the
cosmic microwave background radiation, and largescale
structures, and (2) a “concordance” model that
accounts for all these observations. It is a strange
revolution that endorses the status quo, but this one
did: the model was already cosmologists’ favorite, and
even its strangest aspect, dark energy, had been
mulled for decades. So it isn’t a paradigm shift like the
discovery of the expanding universe in the 1920s.
Moreover, the supposed revolution hasn’t had the
broad cultural ramifications of, say, the Copernican
revolution. Cosmology these days is likelier to be
ignored than put on trial.
I think these developments have the potential to be
revolutionary in scientific and cultural senses.
Cosmology has become part and parcel of efforts by
fundamental physicists to unify quantum mechanics
and Einstein’s general theory of relativity into a single
theory. The universe is both a testing ground for
theoretical ideas & a source of new research questions.
The unified theory, in turn, could reveal whole new
principles on which the natural world is based. We
might glean some hints of these principles from the
remarkable properties of the universe revealed by
modern cosmology: the way order has emerged from
randomness, the hierarchy of scales, the possibility of
multiple universes, the special role played by
information. In short, the revolution in cosmology may
not strictly be one, but could herald the start of one.