A meta-prediction as to what the James Webb Space Telescope will see, and not see
We're about to discover that the energy which flows through the universe acts to organise the universe
First, let me briefly recap what I've said so far. Yes, I am pounding you over the head with this, but there is a good reason for it. It’s remarkably hard to step outside not just a scientific paradigm, but an entire way of doing science, and I think it helps to have the problem described a few times, from different angles, so you can see it more clearly.
REDUCTIONISM IS GREAT, BUT IT ISN’T ENOUGH
You can solve any big problem by creating 100 small problems.
And if that, somehow, mysteriously, doesn’t solve the problem, he provides a useful corollary:
You can solve any 100 small problems by creating 1,000 tiny problems.
Human beings once thought of the universe (however complex its details might be), as singular and unified. (Thus, ah, the “uni” in its title.) As something you could meaningfully think about, and talk about, in its entirety.
But over the past few decades, the universe has been broken down into a hundred, and then, when that didn’t work, a thousand, tiny problems. And this is not a bad thing! Reductionism does work. A huge amount of new knowledge rapidly emerges, as separate teams of brilliant scientists work away on each of these problems, developing ever more specialised tools. And languages. You could spend your life just mastering agrology. Or agnoiology. Or acanthochronology. Or aerodonetics. Or asteroseismology. Or…
But these hyper-specialised languages eventually leave each research field isolated. Often, now, scientists in different sub-fields can’t even communicate with each other, let alone the general public.
My first post argued that this ever-more-reductionist approach, on its own, cannot describe the universe accurately. That it, in fact, makes the universe as a whole harder to see.
Eventually, someone has to put all the pieces back together.
OUR UNIVERSE BEHAVES LIKE AN EGG, NOT A ROCK
My second post described how I'm trying to put all those pieces together.
In essence, I think there's already a breakthrough theory that reassembles the universe, and also has huge explanatory power in other important areas of science. That can make use of, that can make sense of, the thousand separate stacks of data. The theory is about 25 years old now.
I think the evidence for that theory is growing overwhelming. And I think it has failed to gain traction, not for scientific reasons, but for sociological reasons: human beings, bless them, are flawed, and the institutions they build (including universities, and science itself) replicate those flaws. (There isn’t room to explore the theory’s tragic, tangled history of almost criminal neglect here, it requires its own post. But man, it’s a fascinating story.)
The theory is cosmological natural selection, and it emerged from the work of physicists John Wheeler, Bryce Seligman DeWitt, and Lee Smolin. Smolin’s is the most advanced, thoughtful, and detailed treatment. It argues that our universe is descended from earlier universes: that our universe evolved. (The mechanism: every black hole becomes a Big Bang, starting a new universe.) I believe (based on a lot of evidence, across multiple fields) that it's true, it's useful, and it's been ignored for dumb, bad reasons.
WHY AM I TALKING TO YOU NOW?
As I mentioned in my third post, I've been exploring the implications of this theory for over a decade, in private. But the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope has changed things. That telescope is now a million miles away from Earth; it has cooled down and calibrated its instruments; and on July 12th, it is due to reveal its first pictures of the early universe.
If the argument I laid out in my second post is right – that our universe is the result of an evolutionary process at the level of universes – I can make some specific predictions about that early universe.
But of course, predictions only count if you make them before the experimental data comes in.
So I am coming out of stealth mode, and starting this Substack for the book now, in order to make some strong, simple, predictions in public.
Let me first make a meta-point, or a meta-prediction, to help you see this extraordinary universe the way I see it. (You are, of course, then free to disagree with my view; but I would like you to really see it first.)
Looking at our universe as an evolved entity – an egg, rather than a rock – I keep coming back to a principle that is particularly familiar to biologists. As Harold J. Morowitz put it, in his book Energy Flow In Biology,
“The energy that flows through a system acts to organize that system."
Bear in mind again, that, unlike an evolved DNA organism such as a fish, or bird, or human being, the universe is both organism and environment.
Its own energy flows through itself.
Indeed, it is the energy flowing through itself.
And during and in the immediate aftermath of the Big Bang, the energy that flowed through the young universe was almost incalculably vast.
My argument (drawing on Wheeler, DeWitt and Smolin) is that the basic parameters of matter in our universe have been finely honed and optimised by evolution, over countless earlier generations of universes, to produce, for example, complex spiral galaxies such as ours.
(QUICK EXPLANATORY ASIDE: Why would evolution optimise for spiral galaxy production? Because such galaxies efficiently produce, over their lifetime, astonishing numbers of black holes, and thus baby universes – a tremendously successful reproductive trait.)
As a result of that evolutionary process at the level of universes, the colossal energy released by the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago was not merely scattering matter randomly: it was flowing through an evolved system, and in doing so, it was organising that system.
And the best time to organise that system was right at the start, when the energy was available in staggering quantities, and everything was relatively close together. I will argue that that’s when you build out your universal magnetic field; that’s when you generate supermassive black holes as the gravitational seeds of future galaxies – and so on. Later will be harder, and less efficient.
So here’s my meta-prediction: At all points in the early years after the Big Bang, the James Webb Space Telescope will see that the energy flowing through the system acts to organise that system. It's egg physics, not rock physics: far closer to biology than to the powerful but limited, reductive, mathematical physics we are using in cosmology today.
Another way of putting this is to say that the James Webb Space Telescope will see structure as far back as it can see: it will never find an amorphous, totally random cloud of gas.
That is, the future structure of the universe will be encoded in that matter from the very start, and it will unfold in a clearly directional process from day one, as the universe expands. Large galaxies, in particular, will come together early and fast, as the basic parameters of matter smoothly mesh to generate the conditions required for such rapid, efficient galaxy formation.
To a simple-physics reductionist, it will look like order is repeatedly and mysteriously emerging from chaos due to a series of odd coincidences in the masses of particles and the strengths of forces; but to an evolved-physics holist (like, um, me), it will be obvious that those masses and strengths evolved (over many, many, many, earlier generations of universe) so as to produce, in concert, just this unlikely (but ultimately reproductively successful) outcome in our particular (highly evolved) universe.
Our universe doesn’t just expand; it develops.
The analogy is with a fertilised egg, doubling and redoubling in size; though it might look from a distance like a mere blob on day one, it is never just randomly expanding, but is always building out a structure, which will grow clearer and clearer over time.
Well, that’s my meta-prediction. And over the next fortnight, before the James Webb Space Telescope sends back its first pictures, I'll lay out some more specific predictions. I was trying to pack them all into one post, but it grew vast and unwieldy, so I'll post them one at a time, as I finish them.
And why, after over a decade of thinking about all this, am I putting up predictions mere days before the deadline? Because of my many, many character flaws, which lead me to do everything at the last possible second. I am working on these myriad vices, but they are quite tightly entangled with my few virtues, and so the work is slow, and delicate, and takes time.
Oh, before I go… If you like the sound of Zach Weinersmith’s extremely short book Science: Abridged to the Point of Uselessness, you can download a free PDF copy of the whole book here. He’s made it available under a Creative Commons licence. (Yes, it’s a gift, but in all civilised societies gifts entail obligations, even if they are not legally binding: buy Zach a coffee, or a house, next time you see him.) Hmmmm? How much science does the book cover, you ask? Oh, it brutally summarises all the major fields of science, and is therefore the only book about science you ever need to read! Think how much time, and thus money, that will save you… Thoroughly recommended, it’s a delight.
What a wonderful world we live in!
And then share this post with anyone you think will benefit from reading it.
Let’s change the way we see the universe. The old way is broken.