A Fractal Distribution of Matter in the Universe May Topple the Big Bang. If So, What's Next?
The Big Bang currently rules supreme in the sciences. But for how long can this flight of fancy survive in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary? A recent discovery threatens to overturn the tables in the temple of the queen of the sciences.
A recent article published in New Scientist brings controversy and a sense of impending doom to astronomers and cosmologists. One wouldn't think that something as superficially simple as fractals could scare them so.
But, when those fractals are on universal scales it tells astronomers that their pet theory may be in serious trouble.
[A] fractal matter distribution out to such huge scales undermines the standard model of cosmology. According to the accepted story of cosmic evolution, there simply hasn't been enough time since the big bang nearly 14 billion years ago for gravity to build up such large structures.
This issue has been a looming threat to the Big Bang since at least as early as 1999.
The standard models for describing the big bang and the evolution of the Universe are called Friedmann-Robertson-Walker (FRW) models. Their starting point was general relativity, the theory of gravity published by Einstein in 1915.
It was Einstein and Friedmann who first made the assumption that the Universe is both homogeneous-the same in all places-and isotropic-the same in all directions. This is known as the Cosmological Principle.
If this dissenting view is correct and the Universe doesn't become smoothed out on the very largest scales, the consequences for cosmology are profound. "We're lost," says Coles. "The foundations of the big bang models would crumble away. We'd be left with no explanation for the big bang, or galaxy formation, or the distribution of galaxies in the Universe."
Put simply, if the results are upheld and a fractal distribution of matter in the universe exists then a primary tenet of the Big Bang model (inflation and homogeneity) goes out the window. Those may well be the straws that break's the camel's back, for the Big Bang model.
There is, of course, the usual dissent amongst scientists. Some claim that the fluctuations observed by Labini et al are too small to be of significance.
Sylos Labini and Pietronero, along with physicists Nikolay Vasilyev and Yurij Baryshev ... say if the universe does become homogeneous at some point, it has to be on a scale larger than a staggering 300 million light years across. That's because even at that scale, they still observe large fluctuations – a cluster here, a void there – in the matter distribution. Most cosmologists interpret such fluctuations as being no more significant than small waves on the surface of the sea, but Sylos Labini and colleagues say that these are more like tsunamis.
Others adopt a less scientifically rigorous defense of current theory.
Many cosmologists find fault with their analysis, largely because a fractal matter distribution out to such huge scales undermines the standard model of cosmology.
Unfortunately that is frighteningly reminiscent of Einstein's own apparent contempt of disconfirming data.
If the facts don't fit the theory, change the facts!
A dangerous doctrine indeed! One cannot set aside disconfirming data simply because one does not wish to be wrong. That's simply not scientific.
Science is about evidence and science is about falsification of incorrect hypotheses. Has the Einsteinian revolution gone too far? Some have called for a return to the scientific method of Isaac Newton and the "real science" of Karl Popper's falsifiability, whilst retreating from abstract mathematics with endless adjustable parameters that seems to be unfalsifiable (hence unscientific) and from probabilistic science.
When SDSS data was released in 2004, physicists David Hogg of New York University and Daniel Eisenstein of the University of Arizona, both in the US, published an analysis of 55,000 luminous red galaxies suggesting that the fractal pattern smoothed out at scales over 200 million light years.
But Sylos Labini and Pietronero were not convinced. They believed that the apparent smoothing was an illusion caused by weak statistics – the smoothing seemed to occur at the largest scales the survey was capable of studying, where there were too few large regions to be able to reliably compare their densities, they said. Only a bigger map could resolve the debate.
Now, SDSS has released its sixth round of data, which plots the locations of roughly 800,000 galaxies and 100,000 quasars, bright objects powered by violent supermassive black holes.
According to their latest paper, which has been submitted to Nature Physics, Sylos Labini and Pietronero, along with physicists Nikolay Vasilyev and Yurij Baryshev of St Petersburg State University in Russia, argue that the new data shows that the galaxies exhibit an explicitly fractal pattern up to a scale of about 100 million light years.
With newer and more extensive data sets available, Labini et al have concluded that the fractal pattern is in fact present on the much larger scales and does not "smooth out," as other researchers have suggested, at the largest scales.
The team maintains that orthodox cosmologists are mistaken. "What they are seeing is an artefact of the way they analyse galaxy surveys," says Sylos Labini. In conventional calculations of how close to homogeneity the Universe is-the two-point correlation function, for example-astronomers look for departures from the average density of the Universe. This necessarily assumes that there is such a thing as average density ... "If the Universe is fractal, however, it has no characteristic scale," says Sylos Labini. "Everything, including the average density, changes with scale so the concept is meaningless. It's not surprising that people find the Universe is homogeneous when homogeneity is one of their basic assumptions."
To avoid this, Pietronero and his team calculate the extent of galaxy clustering by using statistical methods that take account of the properties of fractals. The simplest technique is to measure the number of neighbours around a chosen galaxy within a radius R. In fractal maths, this number is proportional to RD, where D, the fractal dimension, can have any value between 0 and 3. When D is 3, galaxies are distributed evenly within a sphere-the conventional view. But when D is not a whole number-fractal, that is-the galaxies cease to be distributed evenly.
From their measurements, Pietronero and his colleagues estimate that D is about 2.1, implying that the Universe is fractal on scales up to 300 million light years. There is a proviso, however. "We should not forget the invisible `dark' matter, which is thought to account for at least 90 per cent of the mass in the Universe," says Sylos Labini.
If the voids we see, apparently empty of galaxies, are in fact full of dark matter, then the Universe may still be homogeneous and FRW models will apply. "However, it seems very unlikely that the clustering of ordinary light-emitting matter and dark matter would be completely different," says Sylos Labini. If, on the other hand, the voids are empty of dark matter and the distribution of dark matter is roughly the same as that of ordinary matter, then the Universe is even more inhomogeneous than the luminous matter indicates.
If true, this becomes a problem for the standard model and its "Big Bang" theory.
Is the matter in the universe arranged in a fractal pattern? A new study of nearly a million galaxies suggests it is – though there are no well-accepted theories to explain why that would be so.
That would leave cosmologists without a working model, like acrobats without a net.
What's at stake if the universe is indeed a fractal on the largest scales? Besides a radical rethink of the laws and history of the cosmos ...
To be blunt, does anyone care about a wager over a case of wine when the future of the cosmos (and astronomical / cosmological science funding) is at stake?
If the "Big Bang" goes down, and takes all or part of the standard model with it, the big question is "what next?" Are there any contenders to the throne that can deal with the new data in addition to the old?
Some plasma physicists and electrical engineers think they're up to the challenge! A radically different paradigm known as Plasma Cosmology, based upon the known physics of plasmas in the lab scaled up to cosmic dimensions (according to the appropriate scaling laws, since not every process involved scales at precisely the same rate as the rest), has been slowly progressing along an alternate path to understanding the cosmos without having to invent "new physics" with every third press release.
With firsthand experience of electrical phenomena, plasma cosmologists can offer concrete and testable models addressing the puzzles and contradictions of popular theories. They know that the magnetic fields in deep space trace macrocosmic electric currents like a cosmic wiring diagram. And they understand that plasma phenomena are scalable up to intergalactic dimensions: under similar conditions, what occurs in the laboratory can be seen in space.
(Wallace Thornhill and David Talbott, The Electric Universe, 2007, pp. 26-27)
More to the point, fractal distribution of plasma filaments throughout the universe are a prediction of the plasma universe.
As plasma cosmologists have noted, the universe exhibits fractal patterns: the patterns repeat at different scales from small to large. The scalability of plasma phenomena thus means that a fractal universe is a prediction of plasma cosmology while it is inimical to the Big Bang model.40
(Wallace Thornhill and David Talbott, The Electric Universe, 2007, pp. 27)
 A fractal distribution implies areas empty of matter—voids between galaxies and clusters—will appear at ever larger scales. Plasma cosmology, unlike the Big Bang, has unlimited time to form these structures. See A. Gefter, “Don’t mention the F word,” New Scientist, 10 March 2007, pp.30-33. “Einstein’s equations would be thrown out first, followed by the Big Bang and expansion of the universe.”
(Wallace Thornhill and David Talbott, The Electric Universe, 2007, pp. 27)
Plasma processes scale over many orders of magnitude: from microscopic electrical processes to novelty plasma lamps, there are also the Io-Jupiter "flux tube" (carrying a million Amp current) and the "magnetic flux ropes" (a 650,000 Amp current) connecting Earth's upper atmosphere to the sun the sun and vice versa, plasma even scales to the magnitude of the Double-Helix Nebula and to galaxies formed along filaments (of plasma) like beads on a string.
The simple fact of the matter is that plasma is scalable, and tends to form filamentary self-similar (fractal) structures across many orders of magnitude. This can be seen rather simply in the fractal nature of Lichtenberg figures, a type of electrical discharge, or in novelty plasma lamps.
While some naysayers poo-poo the idea, claiming that the field of plasma physics or plasma cosmology has made "no progress" in a quantitative understanding the universe, that claim hasn't stopped researchers from publishing peer-reviewed papers on the subject and elaborating the good matches between supercomputer simulations and actual astrophysical data or making falsifiable predictions about the cosmos.
Several qualitative / conceptual papers papers or articles explain Plasma Cosmology:
The Cosmic Power Grid and Flexible Thinking and Cosmic Electricity (a talk given at Eglin Airforce Base in California) both non-fiction pieces presented by science fiction author James P. Hogan, as well as Plasma Cosmology, and Not With a Bang [Part A & Part B] both by notable Los Alamos plasma physics researcher and senior IEEE member Anthony Peratt.
A few notable quantitative papers detailing results include:
A considerably earlier monograph that, while largely ignored throughout most of last century and only receiving experimental confirmation by satellite in 1973, may still be prescient and highly useful is the 1908 work by Norwegian scientist Kristian Birkeland: The Norwegian Aurora Polaris Expedition 1902-1903. In particular, Chapter VI. On Possible Electric Phenomena in Solar Systems and Nebulae is most helpful in unraveling several processes taking place within the bounds of our solar system.
Is it time for the abstract mathematicians of the Standard Model to hand the keys to the temple of the queen of the sciences back to the experimentalists of Plasma Cosmology?
Perhaps we can yet salvage the possibility of a "knowable" universe!