Jonathan Tennenbaum: In our last discussion, you said that the Big Bang theory, despite its widespread support in the cosmology community, is like Swiss cheese, full of holes. You and other scientists point to a long list of predictions of this theory, that are contradicted by astronomical observations.

In some cases, wrong by orders of magnitude. But instead of questioning the validity of the Big Bang, its supporters again and again invent new, ad hoc hypotheses to explain the discrepancies. This seems to go against one of the basic principles of science, that a theory has to be refutable or falsifiable. It cannot be like a piece of rubber, that you can stretch any way you want.

Eric Lerner: The fact is that people have to earn a living. And cosmology is actually a fairly narrow field. There probably are several thousand researchers in cosmology. But almost all of their funding comes from a handful of governmental sources.

So in the United States, if you want to get funding for cosmology research or if you are a professor and you want your graduate student funded, you’re going to apply to a committee. But the National Science Foundation’s and other committees are dominated by people whose entire careers have been based on developing theories about the Big Bang.

Nobody likes to be proven wrong, and it is a well-known fact that if you apply for a grant based on your saying, “I want to test whether the Big Bang Theory or the expansion is valid or not, or I want to examine evidence that seems to indicate that these theories are not valid,” then you’re not going to get funded.

JT: Well, let me just raise two points. The funding issue is referred to prominently in the Open Letter from 2014. A natural reaction would be to say, sure, but in every area of research you have committees,  and if this kind of orthodoxy existed everywhere, then nothing would be happening in science at all. But in fact, lots of science is being done, despite problems with committees. What is special about cosmology?

EL: For one thing, cosmology has always been vulnerable to orthodoxy. We all learned in school about the relationship of the geocentric hypothesis to the Catholic Church, which in alliance with Catholic states actually imposed horrendous civil penalties for people who doubted this theory.

Galileo facing the Roman Inquisition, painting by Cristiano Banti. Source: Wikimedia

But nowadays orthodoxy in cosmology is mainly connected with the issue of funding. The problem is – and to a lesser extent we have the same problem in fusion – that when two conditions exist, you get orthodoxy. The two conditions for orthodoxy are, first, when the funds are too limited relative to the number of researchers desiring them and second, when there is not a sufficient variety of sources for the funds.

This is before my time, but I’ve heard on high authority from many people who were working physicists in the 1960s that it took them about on average two grant applications to get a grant. So that meant you could be pretty confident that whatever you submitted if you had a decent reputation you’d get funded.

Nowadays, the last time I checked, in most fields of physics you need something like 10 to 20 applications to get funded. If you have a very small chance of getting funded on any given grant, you’re going to play it safe. You are not going to propose something controversial.

In the field of cosmology, you have both very few sources of funding and very limited funding. That makes for orthodoxy. If either of these problems were not there, you would tend to get a much larger variety of hypotheses.

JT: That makes sense.

EL: The field of cosmology has also suffered from the way it is covered in the press. Starting in the early part of the 20th century with the first observations that gave evidence in favor of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, journalists discovered that cosmology makes for hot headlines.

Not only does the general topic make for hot headlines; but the more outrageous and extreme it is, the hotter the headlines. I call it the “gee whizz” effect.  Einstein himself was rather annoyed by this phenomenon. Journalists discovered that if they could describe something as really weird, it got far more play in the press, than if they simply said, this is what scientists have discovered and here is how to understand it. 

JT: I suppose there is also a motivation to play up the idea that we cosmologists are solving the deepest secrets of the universe, and in that way to create a public atmosphere for governments and funding agencies to provide more money.

EL: That’s certainly part of it. But another big part – and this is basically a phenomenon especially of the past half-century – is the complete apparent isolation of cosmology from any practical application.

In most fields of science, the way to break up an orthodoxy, or what some theoreticians call a paradigm, is to develop a technology based on another hypothesis – to prove in technology that something else works. The ultimate test of validity of science is its application.

I’ve talked to people who say, oh, well, science is just another way of looking at the universe. Well, that’s not true. If you get on an airplane, you’re getting on trusting that in 99.99 percent of cases the airplane is going to stay up in the air until you land. This is owing to the science of aerodynamics, which is not just a nice way to look at the world, but provides a basis for building airplanes that can actually take us from New York to Los Angeles.

In past decades, it was expected that there would be a strong link between what we discover about the universe and science that we can apply on Earth.

Take fusion, for example. In the 1930s Hans Bethe and other scientists solved the mystery of what makes the sun shine. They traced this back to the nuclear fusion reaction, which had never been observed on Earth. That, obviously, has tremendous potential to change the world today. My company and many other companies are working exactly on that problem.

So we had this big link between scientific research and applications. Roughly from the 1960s on, however, cosmology became taken over by a dominant ideology that said, “The only important things you need to understand in cosmology are gravitation and general relativity.”

General relativity basically has only very minor effects unless you have extremely strong gravitational fields which don’t occur on Earth. So the basic attitude became, “We can hypothesize theories without any expectation that they will eventually be either used or tested here on Earth.” In fact, many of the cosmologists started to say that the real test of a theory is how beautiful it is, how exciting the theory is.

And that became part of a very pernicious, symbiotic interaction between the Big Bang cosmologists and the journalists. The journalists wanted an exciting story and the cosmologists, who succeeded in separating cosmology from practical applications, were perfectly willing to give them the most exciting story.

If you want to get to from New York to Los Angeles, is it more exciting to get on a commercial airplane, or to fly on the back of a dragon?

Clearly, it’s more exciting to fly on the back of a dragon. So that is what most journalists like to write about.