Saturday, June 9, 2007

But can they predict the weather?

In a lovely essay in Tuesday's New York Times, Dennis Overbye writes:
If you are of a certain science fiction age, like me, you might have grown up with a vague notion of the evolution of the universe as a form of growing self-awareness: the universe coming to know itself, getting smarter and smarter, culminating in some grand understanding, commanding the power to engineer galaxies and redesign local spacetime.

This in contrast to Lawrence Krauss (Case Western) and Robert Scherrer's (Vanderbilt University) prediction that future astronomers will be "fundamentally incapable of determining the true nature of the universe."

In the way way future (100 billion years from now), they write, cosmic expansion will have scattered galaxies so diffusely that our sky will be bare of all but a handful of galaxies. Observers in the Milky Way will have no way of knowing that other galaxies exist, that the universe is expanding, or that there was ever a Big Bang.

Future astronomers will perceive the universe to be empty and static, and their conclusions about cosmology will most closely resemble ideas that reigned in the very early 20th century, before Edwin Hubble, before Penzias and Wilson, when it seemed perfectly plausible that our galaxy was the only galaxy; that the universe was just as it had always been and would always would be.

The moral, according to Krauss and Scherrer:
Thus, we live in a very special time in the evolution of the universe: the time at which we can observationally verify that we live in a very special time in the evolution of the universe!

Overbye offers a different take-away:
The lesson in the meantime is that we don’t know what we don’t know, and we never will — a lesson that extends beyond astronomy.

If that's the case, one might where Krauss and Scherrer get off extrapolating the state of science 100 billion years into the future (when, incidentally, the Sun and all of today's stars will be long dead, our solar system a cosmic ghost town). But I would never begrudge two physicists their daydreams.

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