Introduction by Asia Times Science Editor Jonathan Tennenbaum
In September Eric Lerner created a sensation with his Asia Times article, “Saying goodbye to the Big Bang,” arguing that the Big Bang theory is contradicted by an overwhelming mass of astronomical evidence accumulated over decades, including recent data from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope.
The data forced even a pair of hitherto staunch advocates of the Big Bang, the well-known astrophysicists Adam Frank and Marcelo Gleiser, to admit that something must be fundamentally wrong with the standard cosmological theory. In their words, “It’s beginning to look as if we may need to rethink key features of the origin and development of the Universe.”
In this and two following articles, Eric Lerner sketches the basic ideas of an alternative theory of the evolution of our Universe, a theory that goes back to the work of the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Hannes Alfvén.
According to Lerner, the same principles that account for the origin and development of stars, galaxies and larger-scale structures in the Universe provide a key to realizing practical fusion power here on Earth. He aims to prove that with the work of his own company, LPPFusion, on the so-called dense plasma focus approach to fusion. Here is his Part 1:
How did things come to be as they are? For millennia, people turned to religion and mythology for answers, and many still do. But today, most people look to science to describe the history of the evolution of our society, of our species, of our world and of the entire cosmos.
In the past year, the story that most cosmologists have been telling about the history of the cosmos has begun to crumble under a flood of new data from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and other instruments. The hypothesis that the Universe is expanding from a gigantic explosion 14 billion years ago is today contradicted by dozens of separate sets of data and, by any scientific test, has been invalidated.
But if the Big Bang never happened, what did happen? Is there an alternative history of cosmic evolution that actually has been verified by observations? And what difference does it make to the here and now what happened in distant galaxies billions or trillions of years ago?
In fact, an alternative, scientifically validated history of cosmic evolution has been developed over the past half-century, starting with the work of physics Nobel Laureate Hannes Alfvén and his collaborators.
This is an approach that quantitatively describes – and predicted before observations – the main phenomena that we see in the Universe, using the physical processes that we observe and study here on Earth and in our solar system.
It’s a story that needs no mysterious entities like dark matter, dark energy and inflation. I’ve called this alternative “plasma cosmology” since plasmas – electrically conducting gases– are critical to understanding cosmic evolution.
Perhaps most critically, some of the key processes that explain the evolution of the cosmos can be harnessed here on Earth, specifically for the production of fusion energy – cheap, clean, safe and unlimited energy to replace fossil fuels. As was the case many times in the past, the study of the heavens can lead to extremely concrete and important technological advances here on Earth.
The Science of Evolution
To scientifically study and understand the evolution of the Universe – or the evolution of anything – a correct scientific method is essential. As Alfvén wrote 40 years ago, “To try to write a grand cosmical drama leads necessarily to myth. To try to let knowledge substitute ignorance in increasingly large regions of space and time is science.”
In other words, if we want to learn about the real Universe, we can’t sit at our computers and write the most beautiful equations that show how the Universe must have been in the beginning. That produces myth described in the language of mathematics. Mathematics can describe myths just as easily as Sumerian or Hebrew or English.
Instead, we must use observations to trace the actual evolution of the cosmos step-by-step backward in time and outward in space. We are always then describing an evolutionary history that starts not at some mythical “beginning” but at a time just as far back as we can observe with our existing technology.
Second, a correct understanding of the process of evolution requires a description of reality that recognizes that the Universe consists not only of structures – things like protons, molecules, cells and people – but also of the processes that bring such structures into existence and maintain them.
The bottom-up philosophical approach, called “reductionism,” that says the Universe is built up of elementary particles that form nuclei, that form atoms, that form molecules and so on, leads to paradoxes and “mysteries” when applied to complex systems, including the Universe as a whole.
Instead, the processes producing these structures, such as thermonuclear fusion in stars that produce chemical elements, must be seen as just as fundamental as the structures.
To give a simple example of the difference in approach, consider what happens when you take in a breath. Oxygen molecules in the atmosphere are sucked into your lungs, travel through the lungs into your bloodstream and, within seconds, enter cells and become part of your body.
Clearly, oxygen molecules in the atmosphere are not alive. Yet do they somehow become “alive” when they enter your cells and become part of you? Do they then “die” when they are later exhaled as part of carbon dioxide molecules in your breath?
From a reductionist standpoint that says you are “just” built out of atoms, forming molecules, forming cells and so on, these questions become mysterious and paradoxical.
But when reality is understood as processes we can see that, when we breathe in, the oxygen molecules entering our cells become part of the process that we call “life,” in the specific process that is an individual human being.
The structures in your body, from molecules to cells to organs to your entire body are ever-changing and renewing, but they are created and maintained by this process of life. The particular oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen molecules you consist of change with each breath, but the process that forms all those atoms into you continues from birth to death.
This individual process of life, you as an individual human being, is tied into the broader process of biologic and social evolution that created you and sustains your life process.
These processes can be, and are, studied with the same mathematical precision that’s used when we describe structures like atoms and molecules, and they are essential to understanding the broadest process of all – the process of evolution.
The earliest processes that we can see now
What is the epoch the farthest back in time that we now have evidence for? The observations that give us the farthest view back are those of the largest-scale structures in the Universe.
As space-based and ground-based telescopes have peered farther and farther out into space, they’ve discovered larger and larger conglomerations of galaxies. Roughly spherical clusters of galaxies are strung like beads on filaments stretching over tens of millions of light years and these filaments are twisted into a hierarchy of larger and larger superclusters, extending to more than 4 billion light years in radius. Their length is even greater.
We can estimate how long it took to form such giant structures because we can measure the velocities at which galaxies are moving within them. Typically, these velocities don’t exceed around 1,000 km/sec, which is about 1/300th the speed of light.
Since the formation of any object takes at least as long as it takes the object to rotate around its axis, simple arithmetic tells us that these objects must be about 7 or 8 trillion years old, or about 500 times older than the hypothetical age of the Big Bang.
Indeed, the existence of these giant objects is one of the key contradictions of the predictions of the Big Bang hypothesis.
Without the time limitation imposed by the Big Bang concept, it is possible to predict the evolution of the observed hierarchy of structure in the Universe up to and including these largest structures, through processes that we have observed in the laboratory.
Starting in 1978, Alfvén and his collaborators showed that such structures, given adequate time, were the inevitable result of the interactions of a small number of processes, all well-observed in laboratory experiments and explained by widely verified theory.
The first such process is the pinch effect – the attraction of electric currents moving in the same direction – caused by the interaction of the currents with the magnetic fields that the currents themselves produce. This is an effect first observed, using currents in wires, by Ampere in 1820.
In a plasma in space, with some electrons moving freely, any tiny currents of electrons moving in one direction will attract other currents that happen to be moving in the same direction. They repel currents moving in the opposite direction.
Over time, larger and larger electrical currents build up. Alfvén emphasized that astrophysical plasmas outside of stars are of such low density that they are always magnetized – that is, the motions of currents are controlled by the magnetic fields that the currents create.
Collisions between particles, which would disrupt the currents, are rare.
Even relatively tiny currents self-organize themselves into filaments with currents moving along the direction of the magnetic field. When electrons move across the magnetic field, the magnetic field forces them to move in small circles around the field direction, so they are constrained to move very close to the magnetic field direction, like gymnasts holding onto a pole.
The filaments assume a characteristic shape, with currents moving along the axis of the filament at the center and wrapped into helixes around the outside.
Magnetic forces concentrate plasma along the axes of these filaments like a vortex sucking fluids to the center and their swirling forces accelerate these cosmic whirlwinds to velocities of 1,000 km per second.
We observe such filaments today at all scales in the Universe. They are beautifully seen in images of the Veil nebula. Over immense periods of time, tiny currents of a few amps gradually merged together into gigantic filaments billions of light years in radius, carrying close to a billion trillion amps.
Out of those filaments the largest structures that we now observe formed.
How do we know?
How do we know that this process created these gigantic structures and that this is not just another fairy tale – like the Big Bang, dark energy and dark matter?
First, the predictions of the creation of these filaments and their coalescing up to gigantic scale are based on a theory, the theory of electromagnetism, which has been confirmed in millions of experiments and forms the basis of much of the technology that supports human society today.
Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism is confirmed every time you switch on the current. This is very unlike the concepts of, for example, dark energy, for which no evidence exists in laboratory experiments. Dark energy is not a rigorous theory with verified predictions.
Second, we can observe and manipulate the filaments themselves in laboratory experiments.
As we’ll describe in more detail in the subsequent parts of this series, filaments appear spontaneously in all high-energy plasmas that are used to produce fusion energy here on Earth. In our own dense plasma focus machine, we use the filaments as the first stage of a process of concentrating plasma and heating it.
Third, and perhaps most significantly, we observe at all scales in the Universe that magnetic fields characteristic of these filaments do exist. Magnetic fields can be detected remotely by their effects on the polarization of light and radio waves.
Detailed comparisons of the structure and magnitude of the magnetic fields have confirmed the quantitative predictions of the theory that these filaments are guided by electric and magnetic forces.
We’ll discuss more evidence for this process in the second part of the series, when we describe the next phase of cosmic evolution, which involves the interactions of these magnetic filaments with gravitation. There we will show how the hierarchy of stars, galaxies, clusters and superclusters actually formed from the gigantic primordial magnetic filaments.
Before going on to that next subject, let’s ask: Is this the earliest process that ever occurred in the Universe?
Not necessarily. We again go back to Alfvén’s concept of moving back step-by-step in time. This filamentation process is the earliest one for which we now have solid evidence. But researchers, including Alfvén and his colleagues, have looked at the possibility of earlier phases.
We know for example that, in the lab, matter and antimatter come into existence from energy only in exactly equal amounts. Antimatter consists of particles that are identical to matter particles, but opposite in charge.
Yet in the cosmos, for example in cosmic rays, matter is 50,000 times more abundant than antimatter.
Alfvén and colleagues found that the interactions of a matter-antimatter “ambiplasma” with gravitation, electric currents and magnetic fields would naturally lead to the separation of matter and antimatter at extremely large scales. This separation process could have occurred simultaneously with or even prior to the formation of large-scale filamentation.
But since we have no concrete observational evidence of such an earlier stage, we have to say that right now it is “speculative” – something that may be true, that is theoretically possible but that is not in any way scientifically validated.
To validate it, we would need more, and different observations than we have now. This may be an unsatisfactory answer for those looking for tidy stories, but it is the scientific answer.
In the next part of this series, though, we will go forward, not back, in time to the gravitational-magnetic contraction phase of cosmic evolution that formed galaxies, stars, planets – and thus, eventually, ourselves.
Eric J Lerner is chief scientist of LPPFusion, Inc.