Not a Crackpot

2 August 2014

There’s a new article at Nautilus that asks “Do We Have the Big Bang Theory All Wrong?” It outlines a “radical” new idea that the cosmic microwave background isn’t due to cosmic inflation, but rather to virtual particles in vast emptiness of space. There’s an old saying that if the title of your article is a question, and the answer is no, then you probably shouldn’t write the article. This one was written anyway.

In the article the author chose to portray Hans-Jörg Fahr, the proponent of the idea, as a lone genius who questions the established model of cosmology, and who is definitely not a crackpot. Fahr is compared to Halton Arp, Sir Fred Hoyle, and even Hannes Alfvén (who won a Nobel prize for his work on magnetohydrodynamics, which is central to modern astrophysics). These scientists were all clearly brilliant, and they were definitely not crackpots. They were just wrong.

Everyone loves the story of the brilliant loner who disproves the old ideas clung to by the establishment. Galileo, Newton and Einstein are all portrayed in this way, as if their insight and their’s alone moved science forward, while the “establishment” clung to the status quo. It is how “crackpot” scientists usually portray themselves. Their genius is clear, if only those in their ivory towers would stop opposing them. Of course we know that crackpot theories are crazy and wrong. So if a brilliant scientist stands in opposition to the established model, and isn’t a crackpot, then they must surely be on to something as revolutionary as Galileo, Newton or Einstein.

But it is much more likely that they stand in the same circle as Arp, Hoyle and Alfvén. Halton Arp proposed that quasars were not redshifted due to their great distance, but instead because quasars are objects ejected from galaxies at very high speeds. He was wrong. Fred Hoyle proposed a steady-state model of the universe, where some process of slow continuous creation of matter created the positive pressure necessary to cause cosmic expansion. He was also wrong. Hannes Alfvén proposed that the early universe contained equal parts matter and antimatter in a plasma known as an ambiplasma. Over time, the matter and antimatter would naturally clump into pockets of matter and antimatter, which then formed into the stars and galaxies we see today. Alfvén, too, was wrong.

It is unfortunate that this new article presents Fahr’s idea as a real alternative to standard cosmology, as if the validity of the big bang is seriously debated in astrophysics. This simply isn’t true.

Fahr’s idea isn’t seen as a challenge to standard cosmology because there are several fatal problems with his idea. One of the arguments Fahr makes is that the CMB is too smooth to cause the level of galaxy clumping we see today, but this isn’t the case. Computer simulations starting with observed CMB produce galactic clumping at observed levels. Those simulations include dark matter and dark energy, and one of the things the article doesn’t mention is that Fahr assumes neither exists (despite strong evidence for both). Fahr’s approach ignores the three pillars of big bang cosmology, which are well established. Then there is the aspect of the virtual electron-positron sea that Fahr invokes in his model. It is based upon an incorrect assumption that virtual particles appear and disappear in real time, which is a common misconception about virtual particles.

Overall, the model doesn’t resolve any difficulties in standard cosmology, and it fails to explain cosmic expansion, dark matter, dark energy, elemental abundances and a host of other phenomena that are well explained by LCDM cosmology. Fahr’s idea simply isn’t workable, which is why it isn’t taken very seriously. This doesn’t make Fahr a crackpot, it just makes him wrong in this case.

Which is nothing to be ashamed of. It happens to the best of us.