Has the Cosmology Standard Model become a Rube Goldberg Device?

Article written: 26 Jun , 2014
Updated: 23 Dec , 2015

This week at the Royal Astronomical Society’s National Astronomy Meeting in the UK, physicists are challenging the evidence for the recent BICEP2 results regarding the inflation period of the Universe, announced just 90 days ago. New research is laying doubt upon the inclusion of inflation theory in the Standard Cosmological Model for understanding the forces of nature, the nature of elementary particles and the present state of the known Universe.

Back on March 17, 2014, it seemed the World was offered a glimpse of an ultimate order from eons ago … actually from the beginning of time. BICEP2, the single purpose machine at the South Pole delivered an image that after analysis, and subtraction of estimated background signal from the Milky Way, lead its researchers to conclude that they had found the earliest remnant from the birth of the Universe, a signature in ancient light that supported the theory of Inflation.

 BICEP2 Telescope at twilight at the South Pole, Antartica (Credit: Steffen Richter, Harvard University)

BICEP2 Telescope at twilight at the South Pole, Antarctica (Credit: Steffen Richter, Harvard University)

Thirty years ago, the Inflation theory was conceived by physicists Alan Guth and Andei Linde. Guth, Linde and others realized that a sudden expansion of the Universe at only 1/1000000000000000000000000000000000th of a second after the Big Bang could solve some puzzling mysteries of the Cosmos. Inflation could explain the uniformity of the cosmic background radiation. While images such as from the COBE satellite show a blotchy distribution of radiation, in actuality, these images accentuate extremely small variations in the background radiation, remnants from the Big Bang, variations on the order of 1/100,000th of the background level.

Note that the time of the Universe’s proposed Inflationary period immediately after the Big Bang would today permit light to travel only 1/1000000000000000th of the diameter of the Hydrogen atom. The Universe during this first moment of expansion was encapsulated in a volume far smaller than the a single atom.

Emotions ran very high when the BICEP2 team announced their findings on March 17 of this year. The inflation event that the background radiation data supported is described as a supercooling of the Cosmos however, there were physicists that simply remained cool and remained contrarians to the theory. Noted British Physicist Sir Roger Primrose was one who remained underwhelmed and stated that the incredible circular polarization of light that remained in the processed data from BICEP2 could be explained by the interaction of dust, light and magnetic fields in our own neighborhood, the Milky Way.

Illustration of the ESA Planck Telescope in Earth orbit (Credit: ESA)

Illustration of the ESA Planck Telescope in Earth orbit (Credit: ESA)

Now, new observations from another detector, one on the Planck Satellite orbiting the Earth, is revealing that the contribution of background radiation from local sources, the dust in the Milky Way, is appearing to have been under-estimated by the BICEP2 team. All the evidence is not yet laid out but the researchers are now showing reservations. At the same time, it does not dismiss the Inflation Theory. It means that more observations are needed and probably with greater sensitivity.

So why ask the question, are physicists constructing a Rube Goldberg device?

Our present understanding of the Universe stands upon what is called “the Standard Model” of Cosmology. At the Royal Astronomical Society meeting this week, the discussions underfoot could be revealing a Standard Model possibly in a state of collapse or simply needing new gadgets and mechanisms to remain the best theory of everything.

Also this week, new data further supports the discovery of the Higg’s Boson by the Large Hadron Collider in 2012, the elementary particle whose existence explains the mass of fundamental particles in nature and that supports the existence of the Higgs Field vital to robustness of the Standard Model. However, the Higgs related data is also revealing that if the inflationary period of the Universe did take place, then if taken with the Standard Model, one can conclude that the Universe should have collapsed upon itself and our very existence today would not be possible.

A Rube Goldberg Toothpaste dispenser as also the state of the Standard Model (Credit: R.Goldberg)

A Rube Goldberg Toothpaste dispenser as also the state of the Standard Model (Credit: R.Goldberg)

Dr. Brian Green, a researcher in the field of Super String Theory and M-Theory and others such as Dr. Stephen Hawking, are quick to state that the Standard Model is an intermediary step towards a Grand Unified Theory of everything, the Universe. The contortion of the Standard Model, into a sort of Rube Goldberg device can be explained by the undaunting accumulation of more acute and diverse observations at cosmic and quantum scales.

Discussions at the Royal Astronomical Society meeting are laying more doubts upon the inflation theory which just 90 days ago appeared so well supported by BICEP2 – data derived by truly remarkable cutting edge electronics developed by NASA and researchers at the California Institute of Technology. The trials and tribulations of these great theories to explain everything harken back to the period just prior to Einstein’s Miracle Year, 1905. Fragmented theories explaining separately the forces of nature were present but also the accumulation of observational data had reached a flash point.

Today, observations from BICEP2, NASA and ESA great space observatories, sensitive instruments buried miles underground and carefully contrived quantum experiments in laboratories are making the Standard Model more stressed in explaining everything, the same model so well supported by the Higg’s Boson discovery just two years ago. Cosmologists concede that we may never have a complete, proven theory of everything, one that is elegant; however, the challenges upon the Standard Model and inflation will surely embolden younger theorists to double the efforts in other theoretical work.

For further reading:
RAS NAM press release: Should the Higgs Boson Have Caused our Universe To Collapse?
We’ve Discovered Inflation!: Now What?
Cosmologists Cast Doubt on Inflation Evidence
Are the BICEP2 Results Invalid? Probably Not

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27 Responses

  1. rkarl39 says

    A higher power is still here and will never change. Be faithful and do not become comfortable in the face of humankind’s advances. We are merely human but given the free will to create our reality unlike any animal to walk this earth so do the best with what you are given for the betterment of mankind.

    • Underlings says

      You’ve made several assumptions here which are contradicted by evidence…not the least of which is the claim that we have free will. Science, philosophy, even the Bible (if you believe that sort of thing) contradict that. I’ve made a video illustrating the evidence for people like you:


    • Torbjorn Larsson OM says

      Why would you troll an innocent science blog with anti-science magic ideas? Have you no shame, no understanding of that you make deconverts from magic ideas (which is exactly what happens then, see Dawkins’s Convert’s Corner), no moral or intellectual compass at all?

  2. metalman_5150 says

    oh boy

  3. forj says

    im confused, so confirming the Higgs boson helps strengthen the standard model, but at the same time weakens the standard model? maybe someone can ELI5 ( explain like i’m five )..

    we still havent been able to account for dark matter and dark energy in the standard model right? so… yeh i dunno im confused. maybe im reading this wrong.

    *also, can moderators please remove or not approve these religious posts? is anyone moderating this? i regretfully fed the last troll and i aim not to do that again. but it completely derailed a previous article’s comments.. thanks

    • catseye says

      Well said Sir forj!
      Science when done right is self correcting and if future data proves the model
      needs work our at worst case dumping then so be it! The quest for understanding the cosmos and our place in it will continue via the scientific

    • weeasle says

      I agree with the ElI5 about Higgs Boson & Standard model validation..

      Also why take umbrage at people like rkarl39 expressing their beliefs here?

      It might be helpful to know that oddly enough religion has been like an awkward sibling to science.. Many of the great scientists came from monasteries or religious institutions.. During the Dark ages churches essentially preserved all books and learning while society had collapsed with disease and poor sanitation. When Isaac Newton (a religious scientist) studied in University there was only a subject for him to study called “Natural Philosophy” not long after studies called science were born…

      Interestingly both religion and science have at their core a relation to questions of existence: Who/what, why, how? The big questions… I see no need to be offended by people with differing beliefs…

      Sorry about your troll experience, better just to ignore such posts but the alternative (removal of posts) is not the way forward in a free and open society…

      • forj says

        I agree religion and science can benefit from and coexist with each other, and often have. In regards to the comments section of universe today though, there has been an increase in comments which have no relevance to the article and are simply statements of spiritual or religious belief. Sometimes they are overtly attempting to discredit science. The above case is a little more harmless but if still contributes nothing to the discussion related to the article at hand. I am all for free speech – but I come here to learn more about these articles from people who might lend important insights into the subject being presented, not to hear your personal beliefs about god or faith

      • Torbjorn Larsson OM says

        Science and magic agency belief can manifestly not coexist as making claims on reality, else the -11 find that there never was a single breeder pair human bottleneck as in the abrahamistic myths wouldn’t upset the largest such sect. (In fact, they had made their magic agency depend on it, now it is rejected and they should have to invent a new one.)

        That science and religion can coexist in the traits of people is merely a testament to that psychology is complex.

        That science and religion has been intermingled is merely a testament to the latter’s social power at the time, the whole society was such. Science roots derived before magic ideas became influential in the then briefly secular greek society, and has now manifestly returned there (e.g. atomic theory was true, while number mysticism wasn’t, et cetera).

      • postman1 says

        Torbjorn, I understand where you are coming from, but when you make fun of religion , (eg. “magic agency”) it makes you seem to be more of a troll.
        rkarl39’s comment was well written, non-antagonistic, and relevant to the article, whether anyone else here agrees or not.
        By the way, I enjoy reading most of your comments.

    • timrtoo says

      I should have referred once to Standard Model “of Cosmology” – as the SM applies to the large scale (as philw1776 points out). Also, the Inflation Theory defines a “rapid” inflation of the Universe for the brief moment after the Big Bang. The Universe has effectively been inflating ever since the Big Bang but it is the sudden momentary inflation that Guth and others latched onto that resolves the issue of homogeneity in the CMB.

      Like you said, the discovery of the Higg’s Boson strengthened the Standard Model. However, when you take Higg’s existence as well accepted, then add the Inflation Theory to the Standard Model of Cosmology, as theorists Malcolm Fairbairn and Robert Hogan stated this week – with the known mass of the Higg’s Boson and the conditions during Inflation estimated from BICEP2 results, “large quantum fluctuations of the Higgs field could destabilize the vacuum during inflation”. They explained that this would have caused the Universe to collapse upon itself and the Universe would have never achieved its present age and evolution. Fairbairn and Hogan’s paper could be another indicator that BICEP2 researchers underestimated the contribution from local sources, i.e. S/N.

      • Torbjorn Larsson OM says

        You are overstating Fairbarn and Hogan, unless “explanation” should be “opinion”. [See my longish comment for details. The omitted references are used by F&H.]

        Nitpick: That BB preceded inflation is idiosyncratic, and confusing since you admit that inflation was cold. How can BB be hot, then cold, then hot? Cosmologists seem to adopt the “first Cold Inflation, then Hot Big Bang” terminology, where inflation is thermodynamically cooling the universe as any expansion. It is after the end of inflation that the universe becomes heated, likely for the first time.

        It suits the history and mechanisms of the subject too. The kick starter of inflation replaced the singularity that earlier was thought to be the origin of later expansion.

        Here is an illuminating description of various definitions of “Big Bang”, and where the BICEP2 result places vs current reliability of the cosmology. The shortest time period is the “CI, then HBB” definition. Your open ended definition can be either of the other two possibles, and may need further specification.

    • Torbjorn Larsson OM says

      It is the confusion between the article referring to the consensus cosmology as the “standard model” of cosmology, however it is not the Standard Model [of particles]. See my longish comment below.

  4. Manu says

    Let’s hope Sir Roger Penrose doesn’t visit UT :S

    • timrtoo says

      This is Cosmology for the layman. If you listen to Penrose’s chat with Ira Flatow from April, I did not misrepresent his views. When Sir Roger talks to the public, he does openly omit some and many aspects of, say, Standard Model; also to fit a 20 minute time slot. I was chatting with a friend about a comparison between the intensity of boxing vs. tennis. Well, one has to be careful. Cosmology is a blood sport of sorts. There are a lot of arm chair amateur cosmologists, not to mention professionals. 😉 Emotions run high in this field of study. There is a recent recording of Penrose at University of San Francisco online, too.

  5. philw1776 says

    There are 2 standard models. The SM of physics is strengthened by discovery of the Higgs because the model predicted & required it.
    The SM of Cosmology (a DIFFERENT SM) is weakened by the Higgs’ properties because they make the inflation model unstable which is a much needed tweak to the SM of Cosmology.

    • timrtoo says

      Agree. I point out above in comment, this and another omission. And I point out what you are referring to – Fairbairn and Hogan. Thanks.

  6. Member
    Aqua4U says

    I have always thought the adherents of the Standard Model far too rigid. Seeing it now as something that can change, is malleable or even fluid as new evidence presents itself, helps.. lots. The ‘priests’ who scream “SACRILEGE!” whenever anyone posits outside the box be damned. These are not scientists, they are egotists.

    • timrtoo says

      I mention at the end a comparison to the period just prior to Einstein’s great work. The accumulation of theories and especially new observations reached a melting point and Einstein figured it out, to put it simply. Another interesting comparison is between Dark Energy and Dark Matter and Aether – quintessence or the fifth element. Aether was used up until the 1900s to explain the propagation of light and gravity through space. I’m not saying that Dark Energy and Matter will share the same fate. Probably not. The pervasive presence of Dark Energy is linked to the Cosmological Constant (Lambda) in the Standard Model. And so many observations indicate the presence of Dark Matter which seems to interact with normal matter through only gravitational force. The accumulation of observations now like at the year 1900, is screaming for new answers.

    • Olaf says

      Thinking outside the box is ok as long as you do not enter the realms of the woowoo. Those that think out of the box should present very good reasons why their theory is more correct.

    • postman1 says

      Aqua4U, this sounds as if you are referring to the global warming religion:

      “The ‘priests’ who scream “SACRILEGE!” whenever anyone posits outside the box be damned. These are not scientists, they are egotists.”

  7. Member

    I get the impression science communicators pumped up the BICEP-2 results to pre-peer-review levels of unreasonable confirmation (although I think UT was suitably on-the-fence over this one).

    The BICEP-2 investigators were not obviously guilty of a cold-fusion press release, they just weren’t ready for social media to over-champion their ‘umm… we think we might have found something here?’

  8. weeasle says

    Great article. +1 for the Rube Goldberg machine comparison for SM-Cosmology.. Some great American heritage there… As so aptly pointed out by philw1776 and timrtoo, the incongruities noted by the esteemed physicists relates to the Bicep 2 resuts and SM Cosomology and not SM particle physics…

  9. Torbjorn Larsson OM says

    Around halfway this article turns rather dreadful, like a Jekyll and Hyde persona.

    It is true that the consensus cosmology is the “standard model” of cosmology, however it is not the Standard Model [of particles]. Hence mentioning the higgs field (it’s a particle, so small letters) and referring to the consensus cosmology as the Standard Model is bound to be confusing.

    However, the Higgs related data is also revealing that if the inflationary period of the Universe did take place, then if taken with the Standard Model, one can conclude that the Universe should have collapsed upon itself and our very existence today would not be possible.

    No, one cannot conclude that.

    – With the best LHC observations our Standard Model [of particles] vacuum is posed ~ 2 sigma from stability. It will remain there even after the upcoming extended LHC run AFAIK, since it is a difficult observations. This is no done deal.

    – Even if the stability wouldn’t be assured within the Standard Model, we already know nature isn’t fully described by it. Neutrino masses, dark matter existence and baryogenesis is not predicted by the Standard Model. Hence the question of SM vacuum may be unrelated to stability of the cosmological vacuum.

    – The claim that chaotic inflation (given BICEP2 measurements) need vacuum stability is iffy. Anthropic reasoning may make it unrelated to observation, it is a new claim and I think not fully derived from inflation alone, et cetera. Since it is an extraordinary claim it would need extraordinary evidence. Unlike BICEP2, it hasn’t even ordinary evidence.

    The contortion of the Standard Model, into a sort of Rube Goldberg device can be explained by the undaunting accumulation of more acute and diverse observations at cosmic and quantum scales.

    You can say that of anything. Evolution is precisely such an integrative theory, yet it works and is accepted. Electromagnetism can be used as a RG device in astronomy, anything unpredicted is “magnetic fields”, yet it works and is accepted.

    The consensus model, with or without inflation, is just 6 parameters. That is no open ended RG theory, not yet. The inclusion of standard matter is a feature, not a bug.

    Discussions at the Royal Astronomical Society meeting are laying more doubts upon the inflation theory which just 90 days ago appeared so well supported by BICEP2

    Meh. The need for repeating BICEP2 has not changed, the dust models are still not certain to predict all the signal, and the signal is still more likely a gravitational wave than a dust signature both from strength and from correlation. The BICEP2 adjusted down the latter a smidgen as a response of criticism for leaving out lensing, and indeed its inclusion wasn’t doing much but at least it is explicit.

    We all have to wait for a) data and b) the science discussion playing out. An uninformed science discussion, e.g. no new data, isn’t much to listen to. In fact it becomes annoying fast for outsiders that aren’t invested in the process but in the result.

    • forj says

      Thanks so much.. this is exactly the type of explanation I was looking for. I admit I am one of those who may be more invested in the results of such science than the process, and I can get confused when an article like this tends to not quite get it right, or otherwise adds to the confusion.

  10. john kulick says

    It is time to scrap the “standard model”. It is so full of after the fact fixes and contradictions that it should not be taken seriously. The illustration is perfect.

    The current model contradicts special relativity, conservation of energy and the equivalency between matter and energy. And I PROVE IT. The argument is solid and irrefutable.

    For a model that works I suggest looking at my “A Multidimensional Geometric Expansion of Space Time” published in a peer reviewed paper.

    Google the Title and it will include links to youtube presentations that prove in no ambiguous way that the current model has to be wrong.

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