Editor’s Note (10/9/19): Cosmologist James Peebles won a 2019 Nobel Prize in Physics for his contributions to theories of how our universe began and evolved. He describes the latest ideas in cosmology in this article he wrote for Scientific American in 2001.
This is an exciting time for cosmologists: findings are pouring in, ideas are bubbling up, and research to test those ideas is simmering away. But it is also a confusing time. All the ideas under discussion cannot possibly be right; they are not even consistent with one another. How is one to judge the progress? Here is how I go about it.
For all the talk of overturned theories, cosmologists have firmly established the foundations of our field. Over the past 70 years we have gathered abundant evidence that our universe is expanding and cooling. First, the light from distant galaxies is shifted toward the red, as it should be if space is expanding and galaxies are pulled away from one another. Second, a sea of thermal radiation fills space, as it should if space used to be denser and hotter. Third, the universe contains large amounts of deuterium and helium, as it should if temperatures were once much higher. Fourth, galaxies billions of years ago look distinctly younger, as they should if they are closer to the time when no galaxies existed. Finally, the curvature of spacetime seems to be related to the material content of the universe, as it should be if the universe is expanding according to the predictions of Einstein’s gravity theory, the general theory of relativity.
That the universe is expanding and cooling is the essence of the big bang theory. You will notice I have said nothing about an “explosion”—the big bang theory describes how our universe is evolving, not how it began.
I compare the process of establishing such compelling results, in cosmology or any other science, to the assembly of a framework. We seek to reinforce each piece of evidence by adding cross bracing from diverse measurements. Our framework for the expansion of the universe is braced tightly enough to be solid. The big bang theory is no longer seriously questioned; it fits together too well. Even the most radical alternative—the latest incarnation of the steady state theory—does not dispute that the universe is expanding and cooling. You still hear differences of opinion in cosmology, to be sure, but they concern additions to the solid part.
For example, we do not know what the universe was doing before it was expanding. A leading theory, inflation, is an attractive addition to the framework, but it lacks cross bracing. That is precisely what cosmologists are now seeking. If measurements in progress agree with the unique signatures of inflation, then we will count them as a persuasive argument for this theory. But until that time, I would not settle any bets on whether inflation really happened. I am not criticizing the theory; I simply mean that this is brave, pioneering work still to be tested.
More solid is the evidence that most of the mass of the universe consists of dark matter clumped around the outer parts of galaxies. We also have a reasonable case for Einstein’s infamous cosmological constant or something similar; it would be the agent of the acceleration that the universe now seems to be undergoing. A decade ago cosmologists generally welcomed dark matter as an elegant way to account for the motions of stars and gas within galaxies. Most researchers, however, had a real distaste for the cosmological constant. Now the majority accept it, or its allied concept, quintessence. Particle physicists have come to welcome the challenge that the cosmological constant poses for quantum theory. This shift in opinion is not a reflection of some inherent weakness; rather it shows the subject in a healthy state of chaos around a slowly growing fixed framework. We are students of nature, and we adjust our concepts as the lessons continue.
The lessons, in this case, include the signs that cosmic expansion is accelerating: the brightness of supernovae near and far; the ages of the oldest stars; the bending of light around distant masses; and the fluctuations of the temperature of the thermal radiation across the sky. The evidence is impressive, but I am still uneasy about details of the case for the cosmological constant, including possible contradictions with the evolution of galaxies and their spatial distribution. The theory of the accelerating universe is a work in progress. I admire the architecture, but I would not want to move in just yet.
How might one judge reports in the media on the progress of cosmology? I feel uneasy about articles based on an interview with just one person. Research is a complex and messy business. Even the most experienced scientist finds it hard to keep everything in perspective. How do I know that this individual has managed it well? An entire community of scientists can head off in the wrong direction, too, but it happens less often. That is why I feel better when I can see that the journalist has consulted a cross section of the community and has found agreement that a certain result is worth considering. The result becomes more interesting when others reproduce it. It starts to become convincing when independent lines of evidence point to the same conclusion. To my mind, the best media reports on science describe not only the latest discoveries and ideas but also the essential, if sometimes tedious, process of testing and installing the cross bracing.
Over time, inflation, quintessence and other concepts now under debate either will be solidly integrated into the central framework or will be abandoned and replaced by something better. In a sense, we are working ourselves out of a job. But the universe is a complicated place, to put it mildly, and it is silly to think we will run out of productive lines of research anytime soon. Confusion is a sign that we are doing something right: it is the fertile commotion of a construction site.