Recently an upstart group of plasma physicists has been attempting to blow up the Big Bang theory. Why? New observations indicate the universe is clumpy – organized into great ribbons and bands of galaxies – rather than being the perfectly symmetrical, ever-expanding cloud first postulated by Big Bang theorists.
The plasma physicists contend that these structures, which are often billions of light-years across, could not possibly have been formed in the 15-20 billion years estimated to have elapsed since the alleged Big Bang. Writing inThe New York Times, plasma physicist Eric J. Lerner asserted that the idea of a universe that began from nothing, expanded to its present size, and will one day collapse or decay is now "mortally wounded," and that the idea of "an eternal universe evolving from a past without beginning to an unlimited future" must take its place.
If so, proponents of the cosmology known as "The New Story" – which presents the story of the universe’s development since the Big Bang as a new and perhaps unifying global myth (see IC #12, "The New Story," and IC #24, "Earth and Spirit") – might be sent back to the philosophical drawing board. But physicist Brian Swimme, author of The Universe is a Green Dragon and director of the Center for the Story of the Universe, sees no danger of that.
Swimme notes that framing the controversy in terms of the age of the universe misses the point. "The challenge," he says, "is to account for the emergence of structure." An architect (together with geologian Thomas Berry) of New Story cosmology, Swimme welcomes the controversy and believes it could lead to something that neither the Big Bang nor plasma physicists currently expect.
"My own intuition – this is not science at all, in fact you might call it a hope – is that we will begin to understand some of the self-organizing dynamics of the Universe better than we do now. The emergence and development of structure is one of most ignored topics in science – physics and biology both. The reductionistic approach has been very powerful. For example, we know a lot about the DNA molecule, but the way biological form appears and develops has escaped our attention. If there is to be a Copernican revolution in astrophysics, as Lerner claims, having to account for the emergence of form may be what brings it about."
Contemplation of the Earth’s self-organizing dynamics led to the increasingly popular, but scientifically controversial, Gaia Hypothesis, which holds that life itself works to maintain the conditions that support it on Earth. Does Swimme see this line of inquiry leading to a "Gaia Hypothesis" for the universe? "It could very well," he replies.
However this controversy is resolved, the New Story of the Universe is getting richer – and more mysterious – all the time.