Cosmology and Ideology

There has always been an intimate relation between the ideas dominant in cosmology and the ideas dominant in society. It would be astonishing if that relationship had come to an end in our present enlightened times. Not that cosmologists directly derive their theories from social or political ideas--far from it. But what sounds reasonable to them cannot but be influenced by events in the world around them and what they and others think about it.

So it is certainly no coincidence that the period during which the Big Bang was in eclipse, from around 1957 to 1964, corresponds to the time of the most vigorous expansion of postwar recovery and a resurgence of confidence in progress. The Big Bang's golden age in the seventies, on the other hand, corresponds to the end of the postwar boom and a new decade of growing pessimism. In fact, the links between cosmological and social ideas were made explicit by both cosmologists and political writers of the period.

In the late sixties and the early seventies the postwar recovery ended in all the market economies. Real wages peaked in the United States and Western Europe, and somewhat later in Japan. In the Third World, per capita grain production, the best overall indicator of food supply and living standards, reached 340 kilograms per year and stopped rising, only to remain there for the next twenty years. While the food supply had increased by 50 percent from the depths of the late forties, it only recovered the levels of 1913.

As the seventies wore on, the economic problems facing the entire world, east as well as west, became more obvious. As had happened before, new markets were being saturated and increasing pressure was put on wages and living standards worldwide, as industrialists strove to maintain and increase their companies' profitability.

Almost as soon as this cessation of growth began to manifest itself, social ideas that justified the situation as inevitable started to circulate. In 1968 the Club of Rome, bringing together industrialists and academics, championed the idea of zero growth: the earth is finite, the universe is running down, it is impossible to continue the increase in living standards. The two oil crises were interpreted as warnings of the exhaustibility of finite resources-- a logic that must appear quaint to oil producers who now go to war in a struggle against a persistent glut.

Many writers used the Big Bang cosmology and the idea of universal decay to buttress the argument that consumption has to be restrained. In his 1976 book The Poverty of Power Barry Commoner begins from the cosmological premise that "the universe is constantly, irretrievably becoming less ordered than it was", and concludes that, given this overall tendency, Americans must make do with less in order to postpone the inevitable day when total disorder reigns on earth. The faltering universe of the Big Bang became a metaphor for the faltering economy--both equally inevitable processes, beyond the control of mere mortals.

Nor were cosmologists and physicists immune from the influence of such analogies. In the popular 1977 account of the Big Bang, The First Three Minutes, Nobel Prize winner Steven Weinberg concludes by contemplating the philosophical lessons of this universe, which will end either in the icy cold of final decay and infinite expansion, or in the fiery collapse to a new singularity: "It is almost irresistible for humans to believe that we have some special relation to the universe, that human life is not just a more or less farcical outcome of a chain of accidents reaching back to the first three minutes, but that we were somehow built in from the beginning. As I write this I happen to be in an airplane at 30,000 feet, flying over Wyoming en route home from San Francisco to Boston. Below, the earth looks very soft and comfortable--fluffy clouds here and there, snow turning pink as the sun sets, roads stretching straight across the country from one town to another. It is very hard to realize that this all is just a tiny part of an overwhelmingly hostile universe. It is even harder to realize that this present universe has evolved from an unspeakably unfamiliar early condition, and faces a future extinction of endless cold or intolerable heat. The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless."

For Weinberg, as for others, the universe of the Big Bang is irreconcilable with human progress. The end may come billions of years from now, but in the end all that the human race accomplished in aeons will be nothing, of no consequence. Progress, then, is an illusion, as it was for Augustine sixteen hundred years ago. The only question is when it will stop--now, or at some point in the future. It is thus no surprise that the Big Bang flourished simultaneously with the social ideas, like zero growth, that deny the reality of progress, and with a growing economic crisis that, at least in the short term, had stalled that progress. Once again, cosmology justified the course of events on earth.

But there is probably no better example in this century of the interaction of social ideology and cosmology than the development of the inflationary universe in the eighties. Nineteen eighty, with the coming to power of conservative administrations in America and elsewhere, marked the end of a period of fashionable pessimism and the beginning of a decade of speculative boom. Alan Guth arrived at his idea of cosmic inflation just as the worst monetary inflation of the century was coming to a climax. He concluded that the universe is a "free lunch" just as the American economy began its own gigantic free lunch--a period of speculation which rewarded its wealthy participants while actual production stagnated.

Throughout the decade, the rise of financial speculation in Wall Street was shadowed by the rise of cosmologists' speculations in Princeton, Cambridge, and elsewhere. As Witten and his colleagues were acclaimed by the press as geniuses for theories that produced not a single valid prediction, so men like Michael Milken and Donald Trump earned not only far greater fame but also incomes that peaked, in Milken's case, at half a billion dollars per year for paper manipulations that added not a single penny to the nation's production.

In the realm of finance, fortunes were built on a tower of debt. A speculator would borrow four billion dollars to buy a company, sell it for five billion to another speculator, who would, in turn, break it up to sell it in pieces for six billion dollars--all on borrowed money. All involved reaped handsome profits and were hailed as geniuses of financial wizardry--until their indictments.

The result of this was an actual decline in living standards both in the U.S. and throughout the world: by the end of the eighties real family income in the U.S. had dropped by 10 percent and was at the same level as it had been twenty-five years earlier, despite the fact that most families by now had two incomes.

Obviously, the small-scale speculators of cosmology did not, in any conscious way, imitate the large-scale speculators of Wall Street. Yet, as in every other epoch, society's dominant ideas permeated cosmology. If the wealthiest members of society earned billions by mere manipulation of numbers, without building a single factory or mill, it didn't seem too strange that scientific reputations could be made with theories that have no more relation to reality. If a tower of financial speculation could be built on debt--the promise of future payment--then, similarly, a tower of cosmological speculation could be built on promises of future experimental confirmation.

There was, however, a more direct relationship between the development of the economy over the past decade and the development of cosmology and science generally. The eighties saw a slashing, particularly in the U.S., of the amount of money devoted to nonmilitary research and development and a drastic slowing of technical advance.

To a large extent, this intensified a tendency evident in the seventies and even in the sixties. Since 1960 there has not been a single major qualitative breakthrough in physical technology.
The thirty years before 1960 saw a series of fundamental developments: television in the thirties; the transistor, computer, radar, and, of course, nuclear energy in the forties; the development of space travel and the laser in the fifties. In the subsequent three decades there have been dramatic improvements in all these areas, particularly in computers, but not a single qualitatively new, functional idea. Only in biology has genetic engineering brought about a qualitative advance.

This is a profound change for modern society: not since the beginning of the industrial revolution 250 years ago has there been a similar period of three decades without major technical advances. Such technical stagnation has a deep impact on science and technology. An advancing society, which requires and thus supports fundamental work in science and technology, continually generates challenges for the pure sciences and provides the materials needed to meet those challenges. Thus the problems arising from the development of electricity and electrotechnology in the late nineteenth century led directly to the study of nuclear structure and eventually to the release of nuclear energy. When technological progress slows or ceases, that crossfertilization of theory and experiment, thought and action, begins to wither and scientists begin to turn to sterile speculation.

The slowing of technology is, today, directly linked to the growth of financial speculation. Five billion dollars invested in buying, say, Hughes Aircraft, is five billion dollars that the buyer, General Motors, will not put into new factories or new research. To the extent that the world market appears to be saturated, as it does today, then profits are easier to make through speculation than in production. What use is new technology if new factories aren't profitable? The diversion of financial resources from technical advance has pushed thousands of scientists away from the challenges of the real world into the deserts of speculation.

Fortunately for science, even the perfection of existing technologies, such as the computer, requires a broad base of scientific research. But it is fundamental research--investigations whose findings don't seem to be immediately useful--that suffer first when technological development slows. Today those areas are clearly cosmology and particle or high-energy physics--where the link between science and technology, theory and human progress, has been broken almost completely. It is here that, as in postclassical Greece, the stagnation of society has led to the return of mathematical myths, a retreat from the problems of base matter to the serene contemplation of numbers.

Today cosmologists often pride themselves on the isolation of their work from the everyday world and from any possible application. They and their particle theorist colleagues give their hypothetical entities whimsical and comical names to flaunt their belief that their activity is, at base, an elaborate and difficult game, the "free play of the mind." In a society beset by growing crises, a world of poverty, crime, drugs, and AIDS, a world without progress, the pure realm of mathematics offers a serene cloister.

[Source: Eric J Lerner - The Big Bang Never Happened]