Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 21, 2016

How did the universe begin? How will it end?

Filed under: cosmology,science — louisproyect @ 10:09 pm

The last entry in the latest Harper’s Magazine Index, a compendium of interesting factoids featured each month, reminded me that I wanted to say a few words about cosmology:

Percentage of Americans who feel a deep sense of wonder about the universe at least once a week: 46

I am one of those Americans who had such feelings, often twice a day. It has always been with me to some extent but much more so after seeing the documentary on the Hadron Collider titled “Particle Fever” that I reviewed just two years ago. The film can be seen on Amazon streaming, as a DVD from Netflix or for $2.99 on Youtube:

It is entirely possible that my review didn’t exactly represent the purpose of the Hadron Collider but this was about the best I could come up with:

A hadron is a composite of subatomic particles (quarks) that have mostly been identified, except for the one that is at the hub: the boson. It is commonly referred to as the Higgs boson, after the British physicist who theorized its existence back in 1964. Don’t ask me to try to explain this (as if I could) but the boson is viewed as the critical sine qua non for the creation of the universe. As the film barrels along at an exciting pace, we learn that if the experiment fails to prove its existence, some physicists will conclude that reality consists of multiple universes each with its own set of discrete laws of physics. While that sounds like a good plot for a Star Trek episode, some of the physicists interviewed in the film—including uber-physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed, who is a multi-universe adherent, fear that it will make the task of a unified theory of matter impossible.

Multiple universes each with its own set of discrete laws of physics? That’s pretty difficult to imagine but for someone like myself just about all these theories about the origins of the universe, its certain termination, and fundamental laws of astrophysics such as gravity, etc. are virtually impossible to imagine, let alone understand.

Does any of this have anything to do with Marxism? Says Louis Proyect to Louis Proyect: “I’m glad you asked that question.”

Frederick Engels took a stab at the question of gravity in “Dialectics of Nature” and seemed about as in over his head as me in a fragmentary chapter on “Mechanics and Astronomy”:

Newtonian gravitation. The best that can be said of it is that it does not explain but pictures the present state of planetary motion. The motion is given. Ditto the force of attraction of the sun. With these data, how is the motion to be explained? By the parallelogram of forces, by a tangential force which now becomes a necessary postulate that we must accept. That is to say, assuming the eternal character of the existing state, we need a first impulse, God. But neither is the existing planetary state eternal nor is the motion originally compound, but simple rotation, and the parallelogram of forces applied here is wrong, because it did not merely make evident the unknown magnitude, the x, that had still to be found, that is to say in so far as Newton claimed not merely to put the question but to solve it.

To the displeasure of the scientists involved with Higgs boson research, it has been popularized as the “God Particle” in a 1993 book titled “The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question?” by Leon Lederman, a physicist who shared the Nobel Prize in 1998 with two other men researching neutrinos. Like everything else falling within the rubric of astrophysics, trying to get a handle on neutrinos is nearly impossible for the layman especially when they are described simultaneously as having the dimensions of thousands of galaxies and being massless. What the fuck?

Just by coincidence (or maybe there’s more than just a coincidence), a lot of the breakthroughs on understanding the origins of the universe begin to take place just around the time of the Russian Revolution and its stormy aftermath and largely through the pioneering efforts of Albert Einstein who wrote an essay for the first issue of Monthly Review in 1949 titled “Why Socialism”. In case you’ve never read it, it is good reminder of what the word “socialism” once meant as opposed to the vaporous formulations of Bernie Sanders:

The profit motive, in conjunction with competition among capitalists, is responsible for an instability in the accumulation and utilization of capital which leads to increasingly severe depressions. Unlimited competition leads to a huge waste of labor, and to that crippling of the social consciousness of individuals which I mentioned before.

Maybe the people who set up the Marxism Internet Archives understood that Einstein’s Relativity: The Special and General Theory was worth including even though few people would be able to understand much of it. This much I am fairly sure about, his work was about understanding time, space, gravity—the building blocks of the universe so to speak—but not so much about how it began.

That is much more the bailiwick of men and women who developed the “big bang” explanation for the origins of the universe. Among the earliest proponents was a Catholic priest named George Lemaître who concluded that the universe was expanding, a theory that was soon supported by Edwin Hubble. It was of some interest that a priest was a pioneer of the “big bang” theory, especially since it was compatible with Catholic doctrine. For Pope Pius XII it validated Catholicism even though Lemaître resented making such a connection and eventually persuaded the Pope to drop the matter.

As the most famous physicist since Einstein, Stephen Hawking—like him—is known by everybody but understood by few. He is notable for synthesizing Einstein’s theory of relativity and quantum mechanics, the field that Nils Bohr developed in the 1920s. Einstein highly respected Bohr but could not embrace a theory that he viewed as incomplete. It probably would not be a stretch to say that Hawking was able to synthesize Einstein and Bohr.

Quantum theory, as I understand it, is mostly focused on subatomic particles but at least one physicist applied to astrophysics. Born in 1930, Hugh Everett split his time between weapons research for the Pentagon and explaining how It All Began. He developed something called the Universal Wavefunction that supported the idea that quantum mechanics could make multiple universes possible, a notion that Nils Bohr found reprehensible when Everett presented it to him in a 1959 visit to Copenhagen. (I should mention that Hawking is another supporter of this idea.)

Discouraged by the reaction that Bohr and others had to his work, Everett abandoned physics and focused on arms research, even hoping to cash in on the Vietnam War. In 1973 he made another career transition into software development and launched a company called DBS where he developed a passion for programming—of all things. The man died of a heart attack in 1982, the result of a life style of smoking, boozing and overeating that made him even more vulnerable to an early death than Christopher Hitchens. His belief in quantum immortality, a thought experiment about as obscure as anything in this field, did not do much good in the end, nor did it do much for his daughter who killed herself in 1996, asking in a suicide note that her ashes be put in a garbage can just like her father had requested in a will. (As an atheist, he thought that’s where one’s remains belonged.)

Everett’s son Mark discovered his dead body. As leader of the rock band Eels, Mark Everett writes songs about death, mental illness and loneliness. After his cousin died while working as a stewardess on the jet that hit the Pentagon on 9/11, he wondered if it might have struck his father’s old office there.

I recommend the BBC documentary on Mark Everett titled “Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives” in which he performs and interviews his father’s fellow scientists about which a Scientific American blogger wrote:

Visitors to the film’s Web site can read two previously unpublished documents that Everett’s son, EELS singer-guitarist Mark, 45, found among the 25 boxes of his father’s belongings. One of the documents is from an early draft of Everett’s doctoral dissertation, in which he uses the metaphor of an amoeba splitting to explain his many worlds theory. In the other, he responds to cosmologist Bryce DeWitt, who told Everett that his theory was a “beautiful mathematical formula, but I do not feel myself split,” according to Byrne.

Getting back to Hawking, it is worth noting that his political views hew close to Einstein’s even if not as well grounded in historical materialism. In a Reddit session, he gave this reply to a question about technological unemployment:

If machines produce everything we need, the outcome will depend on how things are distributed. Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution. So far, the trend seems to be toward the second option, with technology driving ever-increasing inequality.

Also, like Einstein, Hawking is a critic of Israel—so much so that he honored the BDS movement by pulling out of a conference there in 2013.

As indicated above, I am fascinated by the questions of how the universe began and how it will end even though most of the articles I crosspost to Marxmail sail over my head. I am not sure how much Alan Woods understands about astrophysics but he and his followers are certainly not shy about offering their opinions.

On the In Defense of Marxism website, you can find a three part article by Adam Booth on “The Crisis in Cosmology”. In part one Booth wants to make it clear that Marxists have no truck with any theory that the Pope could embrace, even mistakenly. The “big bang” and some related theories are just too close for comfort as a kind of creation myth:

All of these theories – whether it is the standard SMBBC model [Standard Model of Big Bang Cosmology], the steady-state Universe, or the cyclic Universe – suffer from a similar problem, in that they envisage a closed, finite Universe, a bounded space that exists with nothing outside of it. But how can there be a boundary to the Universe? What is beyond this boundary? Nothing? To talk of an “edge of the Universe” is as nonsensical as to talk of the beginning of time.

Yeah, how can there be a boundary to the Universe? Unless you run into a barrier erected by Thor or something.

Booth identifies the problem as one of a scientist’s allergy to the concept of Infinity:

The Universe can only be understood as a dialectical unity of opposites: an infinity of finite matter that is itself infinitely divisible and transformable. That is to say, there is an infinite amount of matter – matter that is itself finite in size and endlessly changing. All attempts to banish this infinity from cosmology have only led to even greater riddles and confusion, to talk of “singularities” where all the laws of physics break down. But a singularity is nothing but a theoretically infinitesimally small point, which, in turn is simply an inverted infinity. Far from removing infinity from the Universe, therefore, the cosmologists have merely re-introduced it by the back door.

It is hard to argue with this—even if it is just as hard to argue with those who hold the opposite view because when it comes to cosmology, there is very little way to ultimately “prove” anything. You can only operate on the basis of evidence, for which the “big bang” seems to be accumulated aplenty as time goes by.

The other two articles in Booth’s series mostly amount to arguing against the wisdom of synthesizing quantum mechanics and Einstein’s theory of relativity. Plus some quotes from Lenin’s polemic against Empirio-Criticism, a work that is mostly of interest to the archivists among us.

His final article claims that many of the scientists involved in cosmology are contributing as much to the social good as cosmetologists. Like Keynesians (!), they are spinning their wheels on the public’s expense:

In this view, the field of modern cosmology has become, at best, a fairly harmless form of Keynesianism – a way of employing and funding a few hundred (or thousand) scientists who would otherwise be out of work. At worst, current cosmological research is a colossal waste of scientific resources which, far from being harmless, is actually damaging the wider credibility of science by dressing up nonsense as serious and important theoretical research.

You get the same sense of ennui from Christy Rodgers who wrote a CounterPunch article titled “Is the World Living or Dead?” on March 4, 2016 that was prompted by the front-page news about scientists finding evidence of gravity waves, a phenomenon that would confirm Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

Without quoting Lenin, Rodgers is even more compelling than Booth on the crisis that has befallen physics:

Instead of illuminating ever more of the cosmos, theoretical physics now seems committed to its disappearance in a cloud of unknowing: it proposes that the universe is almost entirely made up of matter we cannot observe and do not understand, and is being torn apart by anti-gravitational energy in quantities unpredicted by any theory, whose source is also unknown. And (according to string theory) the universe is dependent for a unification of its major forces on the existence of infinitesimal extra dimensions that can never be observed or completely described because they are infinitely variable, and generate an infinity of hypothetical universes that can never have any meaningful relation to ours.

I suspect that the question of the origins of the universe will remain insoluble until a deus ex machina appears to tell us mortals How It All Began, maybe Thor riding to earth on a white stallion with a flow chart in hand.

What is more easy to wrap your head around is the idea of it all coming to an end. Scientists generally believe, whatever their particular commitment to quantum mechanics, string theory, the big bang, etc, that the universe came into existence 14 billion years ago or so and that our planet was born about 3.5 billions years ago.

In their 2003 book “The Life and Death of Planet Earth”, paleontologist Peter Ward and astronomer Donald Brownlee see things winding down starting around a billion years from now as the sun begins its inexorable transformation into a “red giant”, a radiating death star that will dry up the oceans and kill everything on earth. Pretty fucking depressing, no?

As it happens, Ward and Brownlee are also the authors of the 2000 “Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe”, which makes the case that we are probably the only advanced species in the entire universe, which itself will come to an end around a hundred trillion years from now as the fuel, which makes the stars radiate, runs out. Sort of a “peak hydrogen” hypothesis.

I get sad meditating on the inevitable disappearance of life on earth and the universe itself. But I am even sadder thinking about the likelihood of a “quantum suicide” taking place long before that. Gosh, I’d be happy if homo sapiens can make it to a million years from now, just one/one thousandth of the time before the oceans dry up in the approaching “red giant” scenario.

Then again, I despair of us making it to a thousand years from now, given the indifference that our ruling classes have toward civilization, human life and everything else we hold dear. With the intensity of global rivalries advancing on a daily basis and with the continued proliferation of nuclear weapons, it seems like the likelihood of making it to 2116 is guarded at best.

In 1950, Albert Einstein, who had praised socialism the year before in Monthly Review, warned of the dangers of nuclear weapons in a pithy fashion: “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” As was the case 67 years ago, the choice is between socialism and barbarism. As long as we have a billion years or so in front of us, let’s make the best of it.

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