Theory and Observation

We continue our series of excerpts (and discussion) from the outstanding survey paper by George F. R. Ellis, Issues in the Philosophy of Cosmology.

Thesis F1: Philosophical choices necessarily underly cosmological theory.
Some cosmologists tend to ignore the philosophical choices underlying their theories; but simplistic or unexamined philosophical standpoints are still philosophical standpoints!

Cosmology, and indeed all human inquiry, is based on (at least) two unproven (though certainly reasonable) assumptions:

  1. The Universe exists.
  2. The human mind is at least to some degree capable of perceiving and understanding the Universe.

Any cosmological theory will have additional foundational unproven assumptions.  These are called axioms.  Ellis admonishes us to at least be aware of them, and to admit to them.

8.1 Criteria for theories
As regards criteria for a good scientific theory, typical would be the following four areas of assessment: (1) Satisfactory structure: (a) internal consistency, (b) simplicity (Ockham’s razor), and (c) aesthetic appeal (‘beauty’ or ‘elegance’); (2) Intrinsic explanatory power: (a) logical tightness, (b) scope of the theory—the ability to unify otherwise separate phenomena, and (c) probability of the theory or model with respect to some well-defined measure; (3) Extrinsic explanatory power, or relatedness: (a) connectedness to the rest of science, (b) extendability—providing a basis for further development; (4) Observational and experimental support, in terms of (a) testability: the ability to make quantitative as well as qualitative predications that can be tested; and (b) confirmation: the extent to which the theory is supported by such tests as have been made.

As you can see, a theory is not an opinion.  It must be well-supported by facts.  It must be internally consistent.  It must have explanatory power.  The Russian physicist A. I. Kitaĭgorodskiĭ (1914-1985) put it succinctly: “A first-rate theory predicts; a second-rate theory forbids, and a
third-rate theory explains after the event.”  Einstein’s special and general relativity are spectacular examples of first-rate theories.  In over 100 years of increasingly rigorous and sophisticated experiments and observations, relativity has never been proven to be incorrect.

Ellis emphasizes the importance of observational and experimental support in any scientific theory.

It is particularly the latter that characterizes a scientific theory, in contrast to other types of theories claiming to explain features of the universe and why things happen as they do.  It should be noted that these criteria are philosophical in nature in that they themselves cannot be proven to be correct by any experiment.  Rather their choice is based on past experience combined with philosophical reflection.  One could attempt to formulate criteria for good criteria for scientific theories, but of course these too would need to be philosophically justified.  The enterprise will end in infinite regress unless it is ended at some stage by a simple acceptance of a specific set of criteria.

So, even our criteria about what makes a good scientific theory rest upon axioms that cannot be proven.  But unlike religion, scientific theories never posit the existence of any supernatural entity.

Thesis F3: Conflicts will inevitably arise in applying criteria for satisfactory cosmological theories.
The thrust of much recent development has been away from observational tests toward strongly theoretically based proposals, indeed sometimes almost discounting observational tests.  At present this is being corrected by a healthy move to detailed observational analysis of the consequences of the proposed theories, marking a maturity of the subject.  However because of all the limitations in terms of observations and testing, in the cosmological context we still have to rely heavily on other criteria, and some criteria that are important in most of science may not really make sense.

String theory? Cosmic inflation?  Multiverse? If a theory is currently neither testable nor directly supported by observations, is it science, or something else?

Ellis, G. F. R. 2006, Issues in the Philosophy of Cosmology, Philosophy of Physics (Handbook of the Philosophy of Science), Ed. J. Butterfield and J. Earman (Elsevier, 2006), 1183-1285.

Emergence of Complexity

We continue our series of excerpts (and discussion) from the outstanding survey paper by George F. R. Ellis, Issues in the Philosophy of Cosmology.

7.3 Emergence of complexity
As the universe evolves an increase of complexity takes place in local systems as new kinds of objects come into being that did not exist before—nuclei, atoms, stars and galaxies, planets, life, consciousness, and products of the mind such as books and computers.  New kinds of physical states come into being at late times such as Bose-Einstein condensates, that plausibly cannot exist without the intervention of intelligent beings.

The first atoms formed about 400 thousand years after the Big Bang.  The first stars, at about 100 million years.  The emergence of atoms, stars, planets, life, intelligence, humans, morality, a Brahms symphony, etc. are a natural consequence of all the physical laws that existed at the moment of the Big Bang, 13.8 billion years ago.  There is nothing supernatural about the unfolding of the universe, remarkable as it is.  It is a completely natural process.  The only possibility of anything supernatural, I believe, is the cause of the Big Bang itself.  And, without scientific evidence…

We may never know or be able to understand the Big Bang, but the parturient possibilities contained in that creative moment are truly mind boggling: all that we see around us, all that was and is yet to be, existed then in a nascent state.  The universe as it evolves is not merely moving the furniture around, but it is creating entirely new structures and entities that never existed before.

Through the emergence of intelligence across billions of years, the universe has, at last, become self-aware.  Our consciousness is its consciousness.

Ellis, G. F. R. 2006, Issues in the Philosophy of Cosmology, Philosophy of Physics (Handbook of the Philosophy of Science), Ed. J. Butterfield and J. Earman (Elsevier, 2006), 1183-1285.

What Is and What Might Have Been

We continue our series of excerpts (and discussion) from the outstanding survey paper by George F. R. Ellis, Issues in the Philosophy of Cosmology.

Thesis E2: We cannot take the nature of the laws of physics for granted.
One cannot take the existence and nature of the laws of physics (and hence of chemistry) as unquestionable in cosmology—which seems to be the usual habit in biological discussions on the origin and evolution of life.  This is in stark contrast to the rest of science, where we are content to take the existence and nature of the laws describing the fundamental behaviour of matter as given and unchangeable.  Cosmological investigation is interested in the properties of hypothetical universes with different physical behaviour.  Consideration of ‘what might have been’ is a useful cosmological speculation that may help throw light on what actually is; this is a statement of the usefulness of ‘Gedanken experiments‘ in cosmology.

Practical science, engineering, and technology are prescriptive.  If we do a, we know from experience that b will occur.  Using the laws of physics, we can predict the location of the Moon as a function of time, put a spacecraft in orbit around Saturn, or build a light bulb that will illuminate.  Though we may be curious, we are not required to know why or how these laws exist—or how they might have been different—only that they do work, time and time again.

Cosmology, though firmly rooted in science, is different.  We are passive observers in a very large and very old universe, and there is no absolute guarantee that the laws of physics that work for us so well in the here and now apply to all places and at all times.  We must attempt to understand the laws of physics in a larger context that does involve some well-reasoned and reasonable speculation.

“Not only does God … play dice, but He sometimes confuses us by throwing them where they can’t be seen.” – Stephen Hawking

“Sometimes attaining the deepest familiarity with a question is our best substitute for actually having the answer.” – Brian Greene

In politics, governance, sociology, and philosophy, too, I would submit to you that consideration of “what might have been” is useful in helping us to understand what actually is.  Such reflection, en masse, might even lead to substantive change.

“Why is it that here in the United States we have such difficulty even imagining a different sort of society from the one whose dysfunctions and inequalities trouble us so?  We appear to have lost the capacity to question the present, much less offer alternatives to it.  Why is it so beyond us to conceive of a different set of arrangements to our common advantage?” – Tony Judt

Getting back to cosmology, however, for the moment…

Indeed if one wants to investigate issues such as why life exists in the universe, consideration of this larger framework—in essence, a hypothetical ensemble of universes with many varied properties—is essential (this is of course not the same as assuming an ensemble of such universes actually exists).  However, we need to be very cautious about using any claimed statistics of universes in such a hypothetical ensemble of all possible or all conceivable universes.  This is usually not well defined, and in any case is only relevant to physical processes if either the ensemble actually exists, rather than being a hypothetical one, or if it is the outcome of processes that produce well-defined probabilities—an untestable proposal.  We can learn from such considerations the nature of possible alternatives, but not necessarily the probability with which they might occur (if that concept has any real meaning).

It is easy to imagine a universe without life.  But we obviously do not live in such a universe.  There may be other universes devoid of life.

For the more thoughtful among us, it is easy to imagine a civilization without war, guns, violence, extrinsic suffering1 caused by others, or deprivation.  Obviously, we do not live in such a society.  But how can we say it is impossible, or even improbable?  It would be easy to find many millions of people in the world even today that would never fight in a war, would never own or use a gun, who would never resort to violence, who would never cause others to suffer, and who would make eliminating deprivation and poverty a top priority.  The question for the scientists is: what is wrong with the rest of us?

1Extrinsic suffering is suffering caused by others or circumstances completely outside of one’s control.  Intrinsic suffering, on the other hand, is self-inflicted—through our own failings, poor judgement, or mistakes that we make.

Growing Older

As we grow older,
That which is older grows upon us.
Time accelerates,
And the world seems a smaller place.

The years go by like months,
The months go by like weeks,
The weeks go by like days,
The days go by like hours,
And the hours go by like minutes.

And our world which in our youth was all that we knew
Slowly reveals itself to be a surprisingly alien place,
Full of centuries of hard work, unlikely events, and compromise:
The world could be a very different (and better) place,
Even within the confines of human nature.

Taken to its natural conclusion
Were we each to live for millennia, perhaps longer
We would find eternity in an instant
And infinity at the door.

David Oesper

Ellis, G. F. R. 2006, Issues in the Philosophy of Cosmology, Philosophy of Physics (Handbook of the Philosophy of Science), Ed. J. Butterfield and J. Earman (Elsevier, 2006), 1183-1285.

Constants of Nature

We continue our series of excerpts (and discussion) from the outstanding survey paper by George F. R. Ellis, Issues in the Philosophy of Cosmology.

The constants of nature are indeed invariant, with one possible exception: the fine structure constant, where there is claimed to be evidence of a very small change over astronomical timescales.  That issue is still under investigation.  Testing such invariance is fundamentally important, precisely because cosmology usually assumes as a ground rule that physics is the same everywhere in the universe.  If this were not true, local physics would not guide us adequately as to the behaviour of matter elsewhere or at other times, and cosmology would become an arbitrary guessing game.

The fine structure constant (α) is a unitless number, approximately equal to 1/137, that characterizes the strength of the electromagnetic force between electrons.  Its value is the same no matter what system of measurement one chooses.  If the value of α were just a little smaller, molecular bonds would be less stable.  If the value of α were just a little larger, carbon—which is essential to life—could no longer be produced inside of stars.

Do constants of nature, specifically dimensionless physical constants such as α, the fine structure constant, and μ, the proton-to-electron mass ratio1, vary with time?  This is an active topic of investigation.  If constants of nature change at all, they change so slowly that it presents a formidable challenge to measure that change.  But if they do indeed change, it would have profound implications for our understanding of the universe.  A lot can happen in 13.8 billion years that might not be at all obvious in the infinitesimal interval of a human life or even human civilization.

“Despite the incessant change and dynamic of the visible world, there are aspects of the fabric of the universe which are mysterious in their unshakeable constancy.  It is these mysterious unchanging things that make our universe what it is and distinguish it from other worlds we might imagine.” – J.D. Barrow, The Constants of Nature. (Vintage, 2003).

I’d like to conclude this discussion of constancy and change with a poem I wrote about the possibility of sentient life having a very different sense of time than we humans do.

Life On a Cold, Slow World

Life on a cold, slow world
On Europa, perhaps, or even Mars
On distant moons and planets of other stars.

A minute of time for some anti-freeze being
Might span a year for us human folk
(A greeting could take a week, if spoke.)

How fast our busy lives would seem to pass
Through watchful eyes we cannot see
Curious about our amative celerity.

The heartbeat of the universe runs slow and deep
We know only violent change, the sudden leap
But that which is most alive appears to sleep.

David Oesper

1μ = mp / me ≅ 1836

Barrow, J.D., Webb, J.K., 2005, Scientific American, 292, 6, 56-63

Ellis, G. F. R. 2006, Issues in the Philosophy of Cosmology, Philosophy of Physics (Handbook of the Philosophy of Science), Ed. J. Butterfield and J. Earman (Elsevier, 2006), 1183-1285.

The Beginning

We continue our series of excerpts (and discussion) from the outstanding survey paper by George F. R. Ellis, Issues in the Philosophy of Cosmology.

Thesis D1: An initial singularity may or may not have occurred.
A start to the universe may have occurred a finite time ago, but a variety of alternatives are conceivable: eternal universes, or universes where time as we know it came into existence in one or another way.  We do not know which actually happened, although quantum gravity ideas suggest a singularity might be avoided.

If we imagine, for a moment, running the clock of the universe backwards to earlier and earlier times, its size gets smaller and its density gets larger until we reach a moment—even earlier than the putative inflationary era—when classical physics at the macroscopic level no longer applies and some (as yet unknown) quantum physics must apply to everything—even gravity.  Therein lies the problem, because if you run the clock backwards just 5.39 x 10-44 second from this time, you reach the purported moment of the Big Bang—the initial singularity.  But whoa (or perhaps woe)!  How can we say anything about the Big Bang—or even if it occurred at all—since the laws of known physics completely break down 5.39 x 10-44 second (the Planck time) after the Big Bang!  See the problem?

Perhaps the universe came into existence through a process analogous to radioactive decay where an alpha particle leaves a nucleus through quantum tunneling.  Perhaps our universe “tunneled” into existence from somewhere else, and thus our beginning isn’t really the beginning.  This is just one of many possibilities.

This is a key issue in terms of the nature of the universe: a space-time singularity is a dramatic affair, where the universe (space, time, matter) has a beginning and all of physics breaks down and so the ability to understand what happens on a scientific basis comes to an end. However eternal existence is also problematic, leading for instance to the idea of Poincaré’s eternal return: everything that ever happened will recur an infinite number of times in the future and has already occurred an infinite number of times in the past.  This is typical of the problems associated with the idea of infinity.  It is not clear in the end which is philosophically preferable: a singularity or eternal existence.  That decision will depend on what criteria of desirability one uses.

While infinity is a highly useful mathematical device, one can make a strong argument that infinities do not exist in the physical universe (or even multiverse).  Quantum physics already gives us a possible clue about the infinitely small: we appear not to be able to subdivide space or time any further than the Planck length (1.616 x 10-35 meter) or the Planck time (5.39 x 10-44 second).  We would not be able to distinguish between two points less than a Planck length apart, nor two moments in time less than a Planck time apart.  While harder to envision, might not there also be an upper limit to size?  And time?

Thesis D2: Testable physics cannot explain the initial state and hence specific nature of the universe.
A choice between different contingent possibilities has somehow occurred; the fundamental issue is what underlies this choice.  Why does the universe have one specific form rather than another, when other forms consistent with physical laws seem perfectly possible?  The reasons underlying the choice between different contingent possibilities for the universe (why one occurred rather than another) cannot be explored scientifically.  It is an issue to be examined through philosophy or metaphysics.

Metaphysics is the part of philosophy that deals with existence, space, time, cause and effect, and the like.  Metaphysics begins where physics necessarily ends due to observational limitations.

Did anything exist before the Big Bang?

Was there a Big Bang?

What are the physical properties of the very early universe, when energy densities existed that are far beyond our ability to recreate in the laboratory?

What lies beyond our particle horizon?

Are there other universes?

Why does anything exist at all?

Ellis, G. F. R. 2006, Issues in the Philosophy of Cosmology, Philosophy of Physics (Handbook of the Philosophy of Science), Ed. J. Butterfield and J. Earman (Elsevier, 2006), 1183-1285.

Liddle, A.R. 2015, An Introduction to Modern Cosmology, 3rd ed., Wiley, ISBN: 978-1-118-50214-3.

Windows to the Earliest: Neutrinos and Gravitational Waves

We continue our series of excerpts (and discussion) from the outstanding survey paper by George F. R. Ellis, Issues in the Philosophy of Cosmology.

Thesis B7…
Neutrinos and gravitational waves will in principle allow us to peer back to much earlier times (the time of neutrino decoupling and the quantum gravity era respectively), but are much harder to observe at all, let alone in useful directional detail.  Nevertheless the latter has the potential to open up to us access to eras quite unobservable in any other way.  Maybe they will give us unexpected information on processes in the very early universe which would count as new features of physical cosmology.

The cosmic microwave background (CMB, T = 2.73 K) points us to a time 380,000 years after the Big Bang when the average temperature of the universe was around 3000 K.  But there must also exist abundant low-energy neutrinos (cosmic neutrino background, CNB, CνB, relic neutrinos) that provide a window to our universe just one second after the Big Bang during the radiation dominated era.  That’s when neutrinos decoupled from normal baryonic matter.

As the universe expanded, these relic neutrinos cooled from a temperature of 1010 K down to about 1.95 K in our present era, but such low-energy neutrinos almost never interact with normal matter.  Even though the density of these relic neutrinos should be at least 340 neutrinos per cm3 (including 56 electron neutrinos per cm3 which will presumably be easier to detect), detecting them at all will be exceedingly difficult.

Neutrinos interact with matter only through the weak nuclear force (which has a very short range), and low-energy neutrinos are much more difficult to detect than higher-energy neutrinos—if they can be detected at all.  If neutrinos have mass, then they will also interact gravitationally with other particles having mass, but this interaction is no doubt unmeasurable due to the neutrino’s tiny mass and the weakness of the gravitational force between subatomic particles.

The cosmic gravitational background (CGB) points us to the time of the Big Bang itself.  Faessler, et al. (2016) state

The inflationary expansion of the Universe by about a factor 1026 between roughly 10-35 to 10-33 seconds after the BB couples according to General Relativity to gravitational waves, which decouple after this time and their fluctuations are the seed for Galaxy Clusters and even Galaxies. These decoupled gravitational waves run since then with only very minor distortions through the Universe and contain a memory to the BB.

Ellis, G. F. R. 2006, Issues in the Philosophy of Cosmology, Philosophy of Physics (Handbook of the Philosophy of Science), Ed. J. Butterfield and J. Earman (Elsevier, 2006), 1183-1285.

Faessler, A., Hodák, R., Kovalenko, S., and Šimkovic, F. 2016

Small Universe

We continue our series of excerpts (and discussion) from the outstanding survey paper by George F. R. Ellis, Issues in the Philosophy of Cosmology.

4.3.1 Small universes
A Small Universe: a universe which closes up on itself spatially for topological reasons, and does so on such a small scale that we have seen right round the universe since the time of decoupling.  Then we can see all the matter that exists, with multiple images of many objects occurring.  This possibility is observationally testable by examining source statistics, by observation of low power in the large angle CBR anisotropies, and by detecting identical temperature variation on various circles in the CBR sky.  There are weak hints in the observed CBR anisotropies (the lack of power on large angular scales) that this could actually be the case, but this is not solidly confirmed.  Checking if the universe is a small universe or not is an important task; the nature of our observational relationship to the universe is fundamentally different if it is true.

In 1900, Karl Schwarzschild (1873-1916) was perhaps the first to suggest the idea of a small universe topology that would lead to multiple images of the same object at different points in the past.  Though most cosmologists favor the idea of a very large universe with a simple topology, the possibility of a more complex small universe topology is still not out of the question.  The universe might be measurably finite in some or all directions.

The smaller a finite topological region of space, the easier it should be to discover multiple images of the same object at different ages (except for CMB features which will all be the same age).  The distribution of distant sources might show “patterns” that are related to more nearby sources.  A comprehensive survey of sources at redshifts between about z=2 to z=6 is still needed before any conclusions can be drawn.

Another approach, of course, is to look at patterns in the CMB temperature (intensity) and polarization.  Analyses of the most recent release of Planck satellite data, however, shows no evidence of a compact topology smaller than our visual horizon.

Ellis, G. F. R. 2006, Issues in the Philosophy of Cosmology, Philosophy of Physics (Handbook of the Philosophy of Science), Ed. J. Butterfield and J. Earman (Elsevier, 2006), 1183-1285.

Luminet, J.-P. 2016,  arXiv:1601.03884v2 [astro-ph.CO]

The Hidden Universe

We continue our series of excerpts (and discussion) from the outstanding survey paper by George F. R. Ellis, Issues in the Philosophy of Cosmology.

Thesis B6: Observational horizons limit our ability to observationally determine the very large scale geometry of the universe.
We can only see back to the time of decoupling of matter and radiation, and so have no direct information about earlier times; and unless we live in a “small universe”, most of the matter in the universe is hidden behind the visual horizon.  Conjectures as to its geometry on larger scales cannot be observationally tested.  The situation is completely different in the small universe case: then we can see everything there is in the universe, including our own galaxy at earlier times.

What an intriguing idea.  If the entire universe (or the self-contained section we find ourselves in) is substantially smaller than the distance light has traveled since the universe became transparent to radiation (“decoupling”, about 380,000 years after the Big Bang), we might be able to see our Milky Way galaxy (and other galaxies) at various points in the past.

The key point here is that unless we live in a small universe, the universe itself is much bigger than the observable universe.  There are many galaxies—perhaps an infinite number—at a greater distance than the horizon, that we cannot observe by any electromagnetic radiation.  Furthermore, no causal influence can reach us from matter more distant than our particle horizon—the distance light can have travelled since the creation of the universe, so this is the furthest matter with which we can have had any causal connection.  We can hope to obtain information on matter lying between the visual horizon and the particle horizon by neutrino or gravitational radiation observatories; but we can obtain no reliable information whatever about what lies beyond the particle horizon.  We can in principle feel the gravitational effect of matter beyond the horizon because of the force it exerts (for example, matter beyond the horizon may influence velocities of matter within the horizon, even though we cannot see it).  This is possible because of the constraint equations of general relativity theory, which are in effect instantaneous equations valid on spacelike surfaces.  However we cannot uniquely decode that signal to determine what matter distribution outside the horizon caused it: a particular velocity field might be caused by a relatively small mass near the horizon, or a much larger mass much further away.  Claims about what conditions are like on very large scales—that is, much bigger than the Hubble scale—are unverifiable, for we have no observational evidence as to what conditions are like far beyond the visual horizon.  The situation is like that of an ant surveying the world from the top of a sand dune in the Sahara desert.  Her world model will be a world composed only of sand dunes—despite the existence of cities, oceans, forests, tundra, mountains, and so on beyond her horizon.

Let us now define some terms that Ellis uses above.

visual horizon – the distance beyond which the universe was still opaque to photons due to high temperature and density

particle horizon – the distance beyond which light has not yet had time to reach us in all the time since the Big Bang; our particle horizon is, therefore, farther away than our visual horizon

spacelike surface – a three-dimensional surface in four-dimensional space-time where no event on the surface lies in the past or future of any other event on that surface; every point on the surface as it exists at one instant of time

Hubble scale – a cosmological distance unit equal to the reciprocal of the Hubble constant times the speed of light; see derivation below

A reasonable value for the Hubble constant H0 is 70 km/s/Mpc.  A galaxy one megaparsec distant has a cosmological recession velocity of 70 km/s, two megaparsecs distant 140 km/s, and so on.

You may notice that there are two units of distance in H0: kilometers and megaparsecs.  We can thus rewrite H0 in units of s-1 (reciprocal seconds of time) as follows:

The Hubble time is defined as the inverse of the Hubble constant:

Converting this into more convenient units of years, we get

The Hubble scale is now simply the Hubble time multiplied by the speed of light.

Converting this into more convenient distance units of light years, and then parsecs, we get

As Ellis says, we are like ants in the Sahara desert that cannot see their Earth-universe beyond the sand dunes.  Like the ant, is there a limit to our intellect as well?

Ellis, G. F. R. 2006, Issues in the Philosophy of Cosmology, Philosophy of Physics (Handbook of the Philosophy of Science), Ed. J. Butterfield and J. Earman (Elsevier, 2006), 1183-1285.

Homogeneity and Isotropy

We continue our series of excerpts (and discussion) from the outstanding survey paper by George F. R. Ellis, Issues in the Philosophy of Cosmology.

4.2.2 Indirect determination: justifying a Friedmann-Lemaître geometry
Considered on a large enough angular scale, astronomical observations are very nearly isotropic about us, both as regards source observations and background radiation; indeed the latter is spectacularly isotropic, better than one part in 104 after a dipole anisotropy, understood as resulting from our motion relative to the rest frame of the universe, has been removed.

No matter what direction we look, the universe looks statistically the same at a scale of hundreds of millions of light years.  We call this property isotropy.  Case in point: when compared one to the other, the Hubble Deep Fields look remarkably similar, even though they are about 135° apart in the sky.

Hubble eXtreme Deep Field in the constellation Fornax
Hubble Deep Field in the constellation Ursa Major

Taken individually, both of these deep fields also exhibit homogeneity, that is, they generally show a fairly uniform distribution of galaxies across the field.

Does the dipole anisotropy in the cosmic background radiation (CBR), due to our motion with respect the rest frame of the universe, indicate an absolute frame of reference?  Not at all.  Though the rest frame of the universe is the preferred frame for cosmology, it is not a particularly good frame of reference to use, for example, in describing the motion of the planets in our solar system.  The laws of physics are the same in all inertial (unaccelerated) reference frames, so none of them can be “special”—or absolute.  An absolute frame of reference would be one in which the laws of physics would be different—indeed simpler—but no such reference frame exists.  And any non-inertial (accelerated) reference frame indicates there is an external force outside the system acting on the system, so it can never be used as an absolute frame of reference.

We’re moving toward Leo and away from Aquarius, relative to the cosmic background radiation
Top: CBR with nothing subtracted; Middle: CBR with dipole anisotropy subtracted; Bottom: CBR with both dipole anisotropy and galactic emission subtracted
Cosmic Background Radiation from the Planck spacecraft with anisotropies removed

If all observers see an isotropic universe, then spatial homogeneity follows; indeed homogeneity follows if only three spatially separated observers see isotropy.  Now we cannot observe the universe from any other point, so we cannot observationally establish that far distant observers see an isotropic universe.  Hence the standard argument is to assume a Copernican Principle: that we are not privileged observers.  This is plausible in that all observable regions of the universe look alike: we see no major changes in conditions anywhere we look.  Combined with the isotropy we see about ourselves, this implies that all observers see an isotropic universe.

The Copernican principle states that we are not privileged observers of the universe.  Any observer elsewhere in the universe will see the same universe that we do.  The laws of physics, chemistry, and biology are truly universal.  The Copernican principle is a good example of the application of Occam’s razor: unless there is evidence to the contrary, the simplest explanation that fits all the known facts is probably the correct one.

Ellis, G. F. R. 2006, Issues in the Philosophy of Cosmology, Philosophy of Physics (Handbook of the Philosophy of Science), Ed. J. Butterfield and J. Earman (Elsevier, 2006), 1183-1285.

Knowledge Limited: Deep Time, Deep Space

We continue our series of excerpts (and discussion) from the outstanding survey paper by George F. R. Ellis, Issues in the Philosophy of Cosmology.

Thesis A4: The concept of probability is problematic in the context of existence of only one object.
It is useful to distinguish between the experimental sciences—physics, chemistry, microbiology for example—on the one hand, and the historical and geographical sciences—astronomy, geology, evolutionary theory for example, on the other.

In the experimental sciences, one is usually free to both observe and experiment.  For example, we can observe at what temperature water freezes with different concentrations of various salts such as sodium chloride.  But in the historical and geographical sciences, one can observe but we are seldom, if ever, able to experiment.  We can observe the properties of the Sun and other stars, but we cannot create a star nor modify its properties to see how that alters its development.  We must infer how individual stars or classes of stars change with time by observing many stars of different masses at various points along their continuum of existence.  And what of objects that are unique or that happened only once?  The evolution of life on Earth, the Grand Canyon, and the Universe itself?  The greatest challenge in the historical and geographical sciences besides not being able to run experiments is the enormous amount of time it takes for measurable changes to occur.  How can we humans—who seldom live more than a century—begin to comprehend changes that occur over a million, let alone a billion, years?

Thesis B1: Astronomical observations are confined to the past null cone, fading with distance.
Uncertainty grows with distance and time.  The vast scale of the universe implies we can effectively only view it from one spacetime event (“here and now”).

Cosmology is both a geographic and a historical science combined into one: we see distant sources at an earlier epoch, when their properties may have been different.  As we are looking back in the past, source evolution must be taken into account; their properties at the time they emitted the light may be quite different from their properties now.  We can only determine the distances of objects if we understand this evolution; but in practice it is one of the unknowns we have to try to determine.

Distant sources appear very small and very faint, both because of their physical distance, and because their light is highly redshifted (due to the expansion of the universe).  Simply detecting them, let alone determining their characteristics, becomes rapidly more difficult with distance.  Furthermore absorption by intervening matter can interfere with light from distant objects.  The further back we look, the worse these problems become; thus our reliable knowledge of the universe decreases rapidly with distance.

Another name for the “null cone” Ellis mentions above is light cone.  A light cone is a two-dimensional model of our three spatial dimensions, plus time.  We build up the cone using a series of circles along the time dimension.

First, let’s consider that you, the observer, as experimenter, produce an isotropic flash of light sometime this year at a particular location.  The flash of light will move outward in all directions at the speed of light.  The concentric circles below show the location of the wavefront from your flash in the year 2027, 2037, and 2047 when it is 10 light years, 20 light years, and 30 light years from Earth, respectively, and so on.  If we add a time axis that is perpendicular to the plane of our two-dimensional “Flatland” and points away from you, we see that we can build up a cone from the ever-expanding circular wavefront at every instant of time.  This is the future light cone.

Similarly, when you look out into the depths of space on a clear night you are also inexorably looking back in time.  Light from a star 10 light years away left on its journey to Earth in 2007.  If the star is 20 light years away, the light began its journey in 1997.  If 30 light years away, in 1987, and so on.  Again, if we add a time axis perpendicular to our two spatial dimensions, now pointing towards you (coming from the past), we see that we can build up a cone from the incoming wavefront’s location at each moment of time in the past.  This is the past light cone.

Now, if we put the past and future light cones together we get the full view of our location in spacetime, as shown below.  The two cones meet at the “here and now”.  Keep in mind that the diagram below is a two-dimensional representation of a 3D object (two spatial dimensions and one time dimension), but in reality, this should be a four-dimensional object (three spatial dimensions and one time dimension).

So, our view from the “here and now” is small and provincial.  Instead of obtaining a panoramic snapshot of our universe as it currently exists today, we are being served up old photos instead.  But quite useful, nonetheless.

Ellis, G. F. R. 2006, Issues in the Philosophy of Cosmology, Philosophy of Physics (Handbook of the Philosophy of Science), Ed. J. Butterfield and J. Earman (Elsevier, 2006), 1183-1285.