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The Big Bang Crisis?

May 2nd, 2012

I don’t think so…but it’s a classic lesson in how not to get into grad school.

I recently had an exchange with a student who queried me about why they had not been admitted into our graduate program. I won’t name names, or say where they were from, or their gender, and I won’t quote this person verbatim, but I do want to share the story.

The application was okay but not great in terms of the usual things like grades and standardized test scores. Some strengths, some weaknesses, but probably admittable. Compared with other applicants, the research experience was somewhat lacking. No published papers, even as a co-author, and not much evidence for promise in research. What there was sounded potentially problematic: a statement about problems with the foundations in the big bang theory and an ensuing review of steady state models, tired light theories, the plasma universe, etc.

I teach cosmology and my colleague on the admissions committee this year is an observational cosmologist. To us, the foundations of the big bang are compelling, especially compared to the alternatives that are ruled out by many observations. The microwave background radiation and the abundances of light elements, in particular, are immediate and clear predictions of the big bang that other models struggle mightily with. Also huge problems for some alternatives, but natural for the big bang, are the Lyman alpha forest, quasar host galaxies, time dilation of supernova light curves…etc., etc., etc.

There are other elements of cosmology, not foundational to whether the general big bang picture (that of a universe finite in time and hotter and denser in the past) is correct, which may be problematic or speculative. That’s good! Those are areas for continued research! But none of them rise to anything close to a level of “crisis” for the big bang framework, or have driven any significant number of cosmologists to the infinitely more problematic alternatives.

I don’t mind a few people working on alternatives or poking at the big bang. Scientists do that, and it’s usually a good thing, but when they lose perspective it can be bad. It’s worse when they drag young impressionable students into it. Chances are way against anyone overturning a paradigm as solid as the big bang, evolution, relativity, quantum mechanics… Those endeavors are probably best suited to more senior people who have a lot of experience with the theory and observations and who can really see if things add up to a crisis. Yeah, there are stories of young geniuses doing this sort of thing, but science is ultra specialized now with so much to learn, and even before that was the case, most hot shots did not overturn paradigms.

Anyway, I’m making a short story long here. I let the student know that their research background was weaker than that of other applicants, and that in particular we didn’t feel that the big bang was in crisis, implicitly suggesting that there were better areas of inquiry. I’m probably too honest for my own good.

Paraphrasing the reply, the student thanked me for the rejection (!), as they were not interested in working with simple scientists who could not think outside the box, especially when the crisis was obvious to them and so many cosmologists in the world. Who? Halton Arp and his couple of buddies who haven’t died yet? The obvious crisis was never spelled out, or even suggested, so I don’t know if it is something I’d recognize as an issue or something I’m already aware of and dismissed as unsupported.

In any event, an undergraduate student who thinks like this is either a budding young crank already primed to tilt at windmills or a genius who can publish papers pointing out the crisis without taking a cosmology class from me. In fact, I shudder to think of having a student like this in class, not because I’m afraid of controversy, but because the vast majority of information in my class is extremely not controversial, and it would likely disrupt the experience of my other students. I’m guessing. When I get to inflation, I point it out as an excellent solution to some concerns but as still somewhat speculative. Is that a crisis? I don’t think so. It’s sure not a reason to jump to tired light or steady state models, which are either disproven or so modified as to be contrived and useless.

The student’s reply on its own sounds like an obnoxious crank reply mixed with some classic sour grapes. At face value, it’s funny, thanking us for the rejection and accusing us of being simple-minded for something that is very well supported with decades of arguments and observations far from simple. On the other hand, it did sound like the student had a iconoclastic crank advisor who did them no favors by setting them on this path. Save the way out of the box stuff for after you have tenure, and when you do, take the risks on yourself and don’t foist them on your students. Most likely you’re wrong and in the worst case you also ruin a promising young career. The equivalents in the arts and humanities would be having your student research Holocaust denial, or teaching them to write in some obscure vernacular before they’ve mastered grammar and elements of good style. I think I originally meant this post to be amusing, which it is in a way, but it’s sad, too.

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