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A Few Black Holes in Brian Greene’s Logic

I’ve been reading Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos. For those of you who don’t know Brian Greene, he wrote The Elegant Universe about string theory. He is very good at breaking complex scientific concepts into understandable parts. He is like a modern-day Carl Sagan, taking on the challenges of explaining scientific concepts that were far more difficult than the ones in Sagan’s day.

The Fabric of the Cosmos has left me wondering about two concepts Greene brought up. One he mentioned in passing, never really pursuing its ramifications, while the other was a concept that was interwoven throughout the book. On the surface, my questions about these two concepts are unrelated. On a deeper level, I think there might be a relationship.

What Does The Universe Look Like?

The first statement that I wonder about comes from the Hubble Telescope’s findings. From the Hubble’s readings it seems as though the universe is expanding away from earth and that the earth is at the center of the Big Bang.

Greene says:
“By the same reasoning, since the view from earth—as attested to by Hubble’s and subsequent observations—shows that galaxies are rushing outward, you might think our position in space was the location of an ancient explosion that uniformly spewed out the raw material of stars and galaxies. The problem with this theory, though, is that it singles out one region of space—our region—as unique by making it the universe’s birthplace. And were that the case, it would entail a deep-seated asymmetry: the physical conditions in regions from the primordial explosion—far from us—would be very different from here. As there is no evidence for such asymmetry in astronomical data, and furthermore, as we are highly suspect of anthropocentric explanations laced with pre-Copernican thinking, a more sophisticated interpretation of Hubble’s discovery is called for, one in which our location does not occupy some special place in the cosmic order.”

I’ll try to explain this concept in more “for dummy” words. Scientific readings through the Hubble telescope, out in space orbiting the earth, show that everything in the universe is traveling away from the earth. The farther away stars and galaxies are, the faster they travel away from the earth, uniformly in every direction. Since we have discovered that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate, this finding seems to be consistent with the earth’s being at the center of that expansion. In the above paragraph Greene says that no other scientific data suggests that the earth was at the center of the Big Bang. At one time the Christian religion had placed the earth at the center of the universe, and we certainly don’t want to go backwards into that anthropocentric thinking. “The earth does not occupy some special place in the cosmic order,” Greene says. What are the chances, anyway, that we would be at the very center of the universe’s expansion?

The way Brian Greene explains this phenomena is by using the analogy of a balloon. If the earth, as well as all other celestial bodies, were pennies pasted on a balloon, as the balloon was blown up and began to expand, from each penny’s perspective it would seem as though that penny was at the center of the expansion. In other words, there would be no center to the universe’s expansion; or to look at it another way, everywhere would be the center.

This is where I begin to wonder, because the balloon analogy employs a two-dimensional object (we are only considering the surface of the balloon in this analogy) representing a three-dimensional world. Greene shifts to another analogy to show the same concept in three spatial dimensions. He uses an expanding muffin with seeds in it. Each seed would see itself as the center of the expansion, with other seeds expanding away from it.

However, there is a problem with rectifying these two analogies. A scientist as smart as one of ours, sitting on a seed in the expanding muffin, would be able to figure out exactly where she or he was located within the muffin. If the seed that scientist was sitting on were on the edge of the muffin, with proper telescopes and other modern scientific tools, that scientist would be able to figure out that she or he were toward the edge of the expansion.

Although the balloon works as a two-dimensional analogy to explain how a particular position can appear to be at the center of the universe’s expansion, and the rising muffin expresses in a three-dimensional analogy how a particular seed will experience all the other seeds expanding away from it, neither explains how the earth or any other position in space can appear to be at the dead center of a three-dimensional expanding universe.

Why is this important? First of all, I don’t think our human minds are capable of pictorially conceiving of the shape of the universe. It eludes our thinking. What would an expanding universe look like in three dimensions where everywhere were its center? Where would the expansion be taking place? We normally think of expansion taking place on the periphery of something. And that is my next question: if everywhere in the universe is its center, where exactly is its periphery? An expanding muffin has a periphery, as does an inflating balloon, even though we’re only using its peripheral surface for our analogy.

In other parts of the book, Greene does talk about the universe as if it has a periphery. He explains that stars and galaxies on the edge of space are being dragged at an accelerating rate by expanding space. If other scientists were to be sitting on those stars and galaxies, would their equivalent of the Hubble Telescope make it appear to them as if they were at the center of the universe’s expansion? Would our Milky Way seem as though it were being dragged at an accelerating rate toward the edge of the universe? It would seem so, if everyplace in the universe saw itself as the center of the universe’s accelerating expansion.

As we explore the ramifications of that one statement, that the earth appears to be at the center of the universe’s expansion, the universe becomes a more and more difficult place to try to visualize. I think it is beyond the human mind to even begin to picture our universe, and it is best not to even try. That allows us to be free to follow logical ramifications without having to try to “imagine” them.

I would like to think about the concept of the center of the universe and the periphery of the universe a bit more. If everyplace in the universe is the center, as it was on Brian Greene’s inflating balloon, is everyplace also the periphery? Are these concepts relative, and if so, to what? If we were to shoot a rocket ship to the moon, would it be heading in a peripheral direction in relation to the earth? Yet in that case, wouldn’t everything that is moving be moving in a peripheral direction, in relation to the place it came from, since everyplace it came from could be considered the center of the universe? Or would the rocket ship be traveling toward the center of the universe, as well as toward the periphery?

For me it is much easier to imagine all these distant stars and galaxies, and in fact the earth itself, residing in peripheral positions in the universe. It is difficult to imagine what traveling toward the center of the universe would even entail. Let’s assume for a moment that the earth is at the center of the universe’s expansion. In order to travel toward that center we would have to travel to the center of the earth and keep going until we found its central atom, and then keep traveling into that atom down to its quark level and if you believe in strings as Brian Greene does, down to the string level, perhaps even into the central vibration of that string: Om!

This would be true of anywhere in the universe, since everywhere is at the center of the universe. In other words, to approach the center of the universe, we would have to get down to the quantum level. Perhaps these extra dimensions that string theory has discovered, “folded up” and “hidden,” are really at the center of the universe? If that were true, I would immediately get rid of the concept of “folded up,” since it appeals to our “imaginative” minds that try to picture things, and I would guess that those dimensions would be as far beyond our mind’s grasp as the three spatial dimensions we can actually see.
I have elsewhere explored this same topic, discussing the possibility of an anti-universe, which perhaps could be equated to string theories folded up dimensions. If you are interested in reading it: The Shape of the Universe @ http://www.daviddelbourgo.com/blog/?p=27.

What Is Oder and Disorder?

Throughout the Fabric of the Cosmos, Green talks about entropy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which basically states that all matter and energy throughout the entire universe will evolve from an ordered state to a disordered state. In other words, the universe, following the arrow of time from past to future, will always have less order from future moment to future moment.

One very good analogy he uses is a bottle of carbonated soda. When you open the top, gas escapes into the atmosphere. It was in a more ordered state capped inside the bottle and it moved into a less ordered state when it escaped and spread out into the atmosphere. He also used the analogy of the book War and Peace, probably because it’s such a large book. If you were to take the loose manuscript with each of its pages in numbered order and throw it into the air, each time you did so, the pages would become more out of numbered order when reassembled.

Yet there is an obstacle in Greene’s way. How does he explain all of the order in today’s universe? The galaxies, planets, and life on the planet earth? The only explanation that makes sense, given the Second Law of Thermodynamics, is that the universe began in a more ordered state than it is now. I will fast forward through his whole section on universal inflation, and merely state his conclusion. During something called hyper-inflation, the universe expanded exceedingly fast, like a balloon being blown up with air, and like the rubber on a balloon, the fabric of the universe became entirely uniform, with wrinkles in its fabric so minor they were statistically off the charts. To Greene, this smooth state of the universe’s fabric was in a higher state of order than the universe we see around us with galaxies, suns, planets and life on earth.

He does not explain exactly how he comes to this conclusion, except that the Second Law of Thermodynamics cannot be contradicted. Yet in my mind if the entire universe became utterly wrinkled like a deflated balloon, but contained one snail’s shell, it would be in a higher state of order than a smoothly spread out universe. There is no question in my mind that our universe with all of its galaxies, stars, planets and especially with life on earth, is in a higher state of order than a smoothly spread out universe with no shapes or forms of any kind. I would have appreciated seeing the scale with which Greene weighed his states of order and disorder.

In short, from my point of view, the universe has gone from disorder to order. Now I am sure that some physicist and/or mathematician has proved this to be untrue, and proved that the universe when it was first inflated was in a higher state of order than it is today. They could write formulas up one side of the Empire State building and down the other and I still wouldn’t believe them. (And that’s not simply because I can’t read math.) I think here is where the two issues of the Second Law of Thermodynamics and the earth being the center of the universe are related.

Scientists were controlled by the church for so many hundreds of years, and since it is only relatively recently that they have gotten out from under the yoke of the church (although now they have industrialists to contend with), they are gun-shy of anything that smacks of deism. The earth being the center of the universe, as Aquinas and other Christian philosophers argued, was of course concocted by a religion that believed we needed a special place in God’s plan. If one were to assert that the universe is more ordered today than it was when it was created, the elephant in the room would be the question: where did that order come from? We have no natural phenomenon to explain it. And anything in regards to order that scientists can’t explain suggests a scientifically seditious hidden force that plans and orders things.
Therefore, it is my belief, that even though Descartes supposedly began a blank slate with the premise I think therefore I am, because Descartes was a certain kind of person with basic deistic beliefs, that premise had to lead to the proof of God’s existence. Because Brian Greene is a physicist in today’s world, he could no more leave a dangling string that might lead to a proof of god’s existence, then Descartes could do the opposite. As far as I can see, without having any math skills (which, however, clearly leads many astray as they use complex math to prove things that are later disproved by somebody else using other complex math, or by another scientist discovering some untoward particle, etc.), it seems to me that the Second Law of Thermodynamics works on a local scale, but is far too complex a concept to prove on a universal scale. And if that means that the possibility is left open for some sort of plan or program or hidden ontological force, so be it.

Or, I would challenge Brian Greene to explain to us exactly what scale he uses to prove that a smooth, empty universe has more order than one with people who can argue the topic of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. And while he’s at it, I would appreciate it if he would also explain why a flat three-brane universe evolves until it is entirely smooth and then bumps into its three-brane universal partner, they explode and start the three-braned partnership cycle all over again. How is it that the Second Law of Thermodynamic seems to work differently in a three-brane universe? If Greene insists that a smooth universe is a higher order (called lower entropy) than a lumpy one with our universe’s planets and people, how did the three-brane universe go from higher entropy to lower entropy?

I truly think that scientists, especially physicists, are more than a bit flummoxed by all the order in the universe that cannot be explained and whose explanation isn’t even on their radar. It leaves too big an opening for some sort of god. And I’m not particularly arguing that there is a god. I just think that scientists shouldn’t twist themselves in pretzel logic to avoid the possibility that there might be mysterious ordering forces we don’t have a clue about.

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