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Paper takes swipe at bedrock law of physics

Oct. 14, 2006
Special to World Science  

A new paper by a self-described hob­by phys­i­cist chal­leng­es what may be the bed­rock law of na­ture. And while skep­tics are roll­ing their eyes, the study has ap­peared in a pro­fes­sion­al jour­nal with the ap­pa­rent con­sent of lead­ing physi­cists.

A time­line show­ing es­ti­ma­ted cos­mic ex­pan­sion since the Big Bang. Right af­ter that event, a su­per­heated, ac­cel­er­at­ing ex­pan­sion is be­lieved to have tak­en place. It lat­er slowed down. In more re­cent times, the speedup mys­ter­ious­ly re­sumed. The tilted gray disk at ap­prox­i­mate­ly the mid­dle of the fig­ure rep­re­sents the pre­s­ent. (Cour­te­sy Law­rence Berk­e­ley Na­tio­n­al La­b­o­ra­to­ry).


The principle under dispute, central to physics for at least two cen­tur­ies, is called the law of con­ser­va­tion of en­er­gy. It states that noth­ing can be cre­at­ed or de­s­t­royed: you can’t get some­thing from no­th­ing, or vice-ver­sa, though con­vert­ing sub­s­tan­ces be­tween di­verse forms is very pos­si­ble.

But the pa­per claims new stuff may be formed con­s­tant­ly, in one spe­cial set­ting: with­in black holes or si­m­i­lar ob­jects. The idea, the auth­or adds, is tes­t­a­ble and would re­solve sev­er­al mys­ter­ies, in­c­lud­ing why the uni­verse is ex­pand­ing ev­er faster.

“Not very plau­si­ble,” though not im­pos­si­ble, was how the­o­r­e­t­i­cal phys­i­cist Ga­ry Gib­bons of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cam­b­ridge, U.K., rated the pro­po­sal.

Cos­mol­o­gist An­drei Linde of Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty in Stan­ford, Ca­lif., de­clared the pa­per non­sense nine mi­n­utes af­ter be­ing e­mailed a copy. At “first glance,” he wrote back, it “does not make any sense.” 

But asked to spec­i­fy its er­rors, he de­clined. The over­rid­ing prob­lem, he wrote, was not mistakes, but an over­all am­a­teur­ish­ness. “Sorry for be­ing so ne­ga­tive,” but the stu­dy is “not ev­en wrong,” he wrote—quo­t­ing a sting­ing phrase sci­en­t­ists some­times use to dis­miss ab­surd find­ings.

Yet a note pub­lished with the pa­per, in the jour­nal New As­tron­o­my this month, in­di­cat­ed it had suc­cess­ful­ly passed the scru­ti­ny of at least one emi­nent­ly qua­li­fied scho­lar: co-editor Jo­seph Silk, head of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ox­ford, U.K., as­tro­phys­ics de­part­ment. That “does make one won­der more” about the work, vo­lun­teered Saul Perl­mut­ter of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley, one of the ac­k­now­ledged disco­ver­ers of the ac­cel­er­at­ed cos­mic ex­pan­sion. He de­clined to com­ment more on the pa­per, though, say­ing it was­n’t ex­act­ly in his field. Silk al­so de­clined.

As stand­ard prac­tice dic­tates, New As­tron­o­my ac­cept­ed the pa­per on­ly af­ter an ed­i­tor—Silk—re­viewed it in con­sul­ta­tion with an anon­y­mous out­side ex­pert, the au­thor said. 

Most sci­en­tists say a stu­dy’s ac­cept­ance for pub­li­ca­tion in a “peer-reviewed” re­search jour­nal, as New As­tron­o­my is, is a mark that it con­sti­tutes se­ri­ous sci­ence. This, of course, does­n’t at all prove a study cor­rect. More­o­ver, not all peer-reviewed jour­nals comma­nd equal re­spect among sci­en­tists, and New As­tron­o­my isn’t con­si­dered the cream of the crop. Thom­son Sci­en­ti­f­ic, a Phi­la­del­phia-based or­gan­i­za­tion, rat­ed it as the 16th most in­flu­en­tial of 43 as­tron­o­my and as­tro­phys­ics jour­nals world­wide pub­lish­ing new re­search last year. 

Its ed­i­to­ri­al board in­cludes, along­side Silk, re­search­ers with the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cam­b­ridge, Har­vard Uni­ver­sity and the Harvard-Smithsonian Cen­ter for As­tro­phys­ics.

For the au­thor, Greg­or Bay­er of Ce­dar Hill, Tex­as, the pub­li­ca­tion was a break­through. “It has been a very hard strug­gle for me to get an­ything pub­lished,” he wrote in an e­mail, though he had an­oth­er pa­per in print ear­li­er this year. “For­tu­nately, some good peo­ple are be­gin­ning to take me se­ri­ously.”

Bay­er at­trib­ut­ed his trou­bles to the fact that he doesn’t work for any sci­en­ti­fic in­sti­tu­tion, so oth­er re­search­ers are re­luc­tant to back his the­o­ries. “I have a Ph.D. in phys­ics from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go,” from 1972, he wrote; “but I left the field ma­ny years ago. As a ca­reer, phys­ics is hell: as a hob­by, it is heav­en. Ideas come eas­i­ly to me now.”

Bay­er’s pa­per on energy con­ser­va­tion con­si­ders black holes, stu­pen­dous­ly dense ce­les­tial bo­dies that pack so much weight in­to so lit­tle space that their grav­i­ty over­pow­ers ev­erything near­by, in­clud­ing light rays. Con­di­tions in black holes are thought to mim­ic in some ways those pre­vail­ing at the or­i­gin of the uni­verse. Then, sci­en­tists be­lieve, all mat­ter was packed in­to a point; this then ex­plod­ed in a “Big Bang,” spawn­ing the cos­mos.

If a black hole had an op­po­site, it would be what phys­i­cists call vac­u­um. In plain terms, that means noth­ing­ness, though this word is mis­lead­ing be­cause some min­i­mal lev­el of ac­tiv­i­ty has been found to un­fold even in the emp­tiest space.

Vac­u­um is ubiq­ui­tous. Even in sol­id ob­jects, there is plen­ty of room for vac­u­um, be­tween and in­side the atoms. In a black hole, vac­u­um could al­so con­ceiv­a­bly find lodg­ings. But there, the cramp­ing might be­come sev­ere even for a guest of such mod­est dema­nds—forc­ing the vac­u­um, in Bay­er’s view, to lead a pre­car­i­ous ex­ist­ence.

With­in black holes or si­m­i­lar ob­jects, he ar­gues, ex­treme con­di­tions may in­ject “in­sta­bil­i­ty” in­to the vac­u­um, con­vert­ing parts of it in­to non-vac­u­um, or mat­ter. “Mat­ter cre­a­tion can be said to arise from some new par­ti­cle in­ter­ac­tion which vi­o­lates en­er­gy con­ser­va­tion,” he wrote in an email.

Gib­bons is un­con­vinced. Bay­er fails to clar­i­fy “the dy­nam­ics be­hind” the pro­cess, he wrote, adding that stand­ard par­ti­cle phys­ics al­ready of­fers a well-sup­port­ed ac­count of how mass arises, called the Higgs mech­an­ism. 

Bay­er ar­gued that some vague­ness in his ac­count is in­e­vi­ta­ble, be­cause re­search­ers are still “try­ing to fig­ure out what the vac­u­um real­ly is.”

But he claims mat­ter cre­a­tion could ex­plain the ac­cel­er­at­ing ex­pan­sion of the uni­verse, which Perl­mut­ter and oth­ers iden­ti­fied in the late 1990s. Why the speedup oc­curs is one of the most vex­ing scientif­ic mys­ter­ies of the past dec­ade. As­tro­no­mers pro­vi­sion­al­ly at­trib­ute it to a yet-to-be-i­den­ti­fied “dark en­er­gy,” whose na­ture re­mains un­known.

Bay­er’s ex­pla­na­tion of this links mat­ter cre­a­tion to anoth­er con­cept, pres­sure, a meas­ure of how much a giv­en blob of mat­ter is “squeezed” by what’s around it. It’s why your head hurts if you dive deep­ly. Neg­a­tive pres­sure is al­so con­ceiv­able—your head be­ing pulled apart—though we nev­er ex­pe­ri­ence this on Earth.

A sim­pli­fied view is that pos­i­tive pres­sure is an air hose blow­ing out­ward; neg­a­tive pres­sure, a vac­u­um clean­er suck­ing in­ward.

Ein­stein de­ter­mined that an ob­jec­t’s grav­i­ty de­pends not just on its mass, as was known be­fore, but its pres­sure. If an ob­ject has enough neg­a­tive pres­sure, its grav­i­ty can al­so be­come neg­a­tive, and hence re­pul­sive rath­er than at­trac­tive.

Bay­er ar­gued that mat­ter cre­a­tion is as­so­ci­at­ed with re­pul­sive grav­i­ty be­cause it’s al­so linked to neg­a­tive pres­sure. “The flow of en­er­gy in­to the Uni­verse can be de­scribed as be­ing caused by an ex­ter­nal pres­sure from the vac­u­um,” he wrote in an email. “Viewed from in­side the Uni­verse, the pos­i­tive ex­ter­nal pres­sure looks like a neg­a­tive in­ter­nal pres­sure.”

Bring­ing back the air-hose anal­o­gy, im­ag­ine an in­vis­i­ble hose blow­ing air out­ward and in­to the mouth of a sec­ond tube. That sec­ond pipe would ap­pear as though it were suck­ing in air—neg­a­tive pres­sure.

Neg­a­tive pres­sure with­in le­gions of black holes would cre­ate a grav­i­ta­tion­al re­pul­sion that per­me­ates the cos­mos and pushes it out­ward re­lent­less­ly, Bay­er claims. “While mat­ter is be­ing cre­at­ed, there is a grav­i­ta­tion­al re­pul­sion as­so­ci­at­ed with the en­er­gy flow. When the flow stops, on­ly the or­di­nary grav­i­ta­tion­al at­trac­tion of the cre­at­ed mass re­mains.” All new­ly minted mass would re­side perma­nently in its home black hole.

Mat­ter cre­a­tion would equate to en­er­gy cre­a­tion be­cause, as Ein­stein found with the famed equa­tion E=mc
2, mat­ter and en­er­gy are two forms of the same thing.

Whatever you call it, Bay­er said the creation pro­cess could ex­p­lain not on­ly the dark en­er­gy puz­zle but an ar­ray of oth­ers: the iden­ti­ty of the “dark mat­ter” that makes up five-sixths of the ma­te­ri­al in the cos­mos, but is un­seen; why cer­tain cos­mic rays hit Earth with oth­erwise in­ex­pli­ca­bly high en­er­gies; and what caused an “in­fla­tion” be­lieved to have made the uni­verse grow stu­pen­dous­ly big with­in a frac­tion of a sec­ond af­ter the Big Bang.

Cos­mol­o­gists be­lieve ac­cel­er­at­ed swell­ing of the cos­mos oc­curred dur­ing two sep­a­rate pe­ri­ods: dur­ing the in­fla­tion ep­och, and more re­cent­ly. Bay­er says that’s be­cause both episodes wit­nessed mat­ter cre­a­tion. The speedup stopped in be­tween, he ar­gues, be­cause in­i­tial for­ma­tion of the uni­verse was over, but black holes weren’t formed yet.

Yet Linde, a found­er of the in­fla­tion the­o­ry, dis­agrees. 

Bay­er said his the­o­ry of en­er­gy non-conservation could be tested us­ing par­ti­cle ac­cel­er­a­tors, which bash sub­a­tom­ic par­ti­cles to­ge­ther to help see what they’re made of. Nor­mal­ly, conserva­tion of en­er­gy is used to cal­cu­late prop­er­ties of the par­ti­cles fly­ing out of the bang-up. But the law is as­sumed, rath­er than prov­en, in these ex­per­i­ments, Bay­er ar­gued. “A se­ri­ous test of en­er­gy conserva­tion in high-en­er­gy col­li­sions will re­quire care­ful anal­y­sis of ma­ny com­plex multi-par­ti­cle events,” he wrote in his paper. This would be hard, he ad­ded,
but it can be done.


* * *

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Homepage im­age: A de­vice known as a bub­ble cham­ber, at­tached to a par­ti­cle ac­cel­er­a­tor, records the paths of sub­a­tom­ic par­ti­cles. Their prop­er­ties can be de­duced from these paths. (Cour­te­sy Law­rence Berke­ley Na­tion­al Lab­o­ra­to­ry)

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A scientific journal has published a paper by a self-described hobby physicist challenging what may be the bedrock principle of modern physics. Called the law of conservation of energy, it proclaims nothing can be created or destroyed. You can’t get something from nothing, and vice-versa—though converting stuff into different forms is quite possible. But the paper’s author said new stuff may be created constantly, within black holes or similar objects. The notion, he adds, is testable and would explain several unsolved mysteries, including why the universe is expanding ever faster. The proposal has drawn criticism. Gary Gibbons, a theoretical physicist at the University of Cambridge, U.K., wrote an an email calling the theory “not very plausible,” nor sufficiently detailed, though not impossible. Cosmologist Andrei Linde of Stanford University in Cambridge, Mass., went further, declaring the paper nonsense nine minutes after being sent a copy by email. At “first glance,” he wrote back, it “does not make any sense.” But asked to specify its errors, he declined to do so. The overriding issue, he wrote, is that it’s simply amateurish overall, not up to the expertise demanded of professional research reports. “I believe that, as we sometimes say, ‘he is not even wrong.’” Yet a note published with the paper, in the journal New Astronomy, indicated it had successfully passed the scrutiny of a man of sterling credentials: co-editor Joseph Silk, head of the University of Oxford, U.K., astrophysics department. That “does make one wonder more” about it, wrote Saul Perlmutter of the University of California, Berkeley, whom astronomers credit with co-discovering the accelerated cosmic expansion. He declined to say more on the paper, saying it wasn’t exactly in his field. Silk also declined. The research appears in this month’s issue of the journal. As standard practice dictates, New Astronomy accepted the paper only after an editor—Silk—reviewed it in consultation with an anonymous outside expert, the author said. Most scientists say a study’s acceptance for publication in a “peer-reviewed” research journal of this type is a mark that it constitutes serious science. This, of course, doesn’t at all prove the study correct. Moreover, not all peer-reviewed journals command equal respect among scientists. Thomson Scientific, a Philadelphia-based organization, rated New Astronomy as the 16th most influential of 43 astronomy and astrophysics journals publishing new research last year. For the author, Gregor Bayer of Cedar Hill, Texas, the publication was a breakthrough. “It has been a very hard struggle for me to get anything published,” he wrote in an email. “Fortunately, some good people are beginning to take me seriously.” Bayer attributed his troubles to the fact that he has no tie to an academic institution, so other researchers are reluctant to back his theories. “I have a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Chicago,” he wrote, “but I left the field many years ago. As a career, physics is hell: as a hobby, it is heaven. Ideas come easily to me now.” Bayer’s paper focuses on black holes, stupendously compact cosmic objects that pack such weight into so little space that their gravity drags in everything nearby, including light rays. Conditions in black holes are thought to mimic in some ways those at the origin of the universe. Then, all matter was packed into a point which exploded in a “Big Bang,” scientists believe, spawning the cosmos. If a black hole had an opposite, it would be what physicists call vacuum. In plain language, that means nothingness, though this word is misleading because some minimal level of activity has been found to to go on even in vacuum. Vacuum is ubiquitous. Even in solid objects, there is plenty of space for vacuum, between and inside the atoms. In a black hole, vacuum could also conceivably find lodgings. But there, the cramping might become severe even for a guest with such modest demands, forcing the vacuum, in Bayer’s view, to lead a precarious existence. Within black holes or similar objects, he argues, extreme conditions may inject “instability” into the vacuum, which could convert parts of the vacuum into non-vacuum, or matter. “Matter creation can be said to arise from some new particle interaction which violates energy conservation,” he wrote in an email. Gibbons is unconvinced: Bayer fails to clarify “the dynamics behind” the process, he wrote, adding that standard particle physics already offers a well-supported account of how mass arises, called the Higgs mechanism. But Bayer argued that vagueness is unavoidable because “at this stage of the game, we are just trying to figure out what the vacuum really is.” Bayer claims matter creation could explain an accelerating expansion of the universe, which Perlmutter and others identified in the late 1990s. Why the speedup occurs is one of the most vexing scientific mysteries of the past decade. Astronomers provisionally attribute it to a yet-to-be-identified “dark energy,” whose nature remains unknown. Bayer’s explanation of the acceleration links matter creation to another concept, pressure, a measure of how much a given blob of matter is “squeezed” by what’s around it. It’s why your head hurts if you dive too deeply. Negative pressure is also conceivable—your head being pulled apart by the surroundings—though we never experience it on Earth. A simplified view is that positive pressure is an air hose blowing outward; negative pressure, a vacuum cleaner sucking inward. Einstein determined that an object’s gravity depends not just on its mass, as was known before, but its pressure. If an object has enough negative pressure, its gravity can also become negative, and hence repulsive rather than attractive. Bayer argued that matter creation is associated with repulsive gravity because it’s also linked to negative pressure. “The flow of energy into the Universe can be described as being caused by an external pressure from the vacuum,” he wrote in an email. “Viewed from inside the Universe, the positive external pressure looks like a negative internal pressure.” Bringing back the air-hose analogy, imagine an invisible blowing hose air outward, and into the mouth of a second tube. That second pipe would appear as though it were sucking in air—negative pressure. Negative pressure within legions of black holes would create a gravitational repulsion that permeates the cosmos and makes it expand, Bayer claims. “While matter is being created, there is a gravitational repulsion associated with the energy flow. When the flow stops, only the ordinary gravitational attraction of the created mass remains.” All newly minted mass would reside permanently in its home black hole. And matter creation should equate to energy creation because—as Einstein found with the famed equation E=mc2—matter and energy are two forms of the same thing. Either way, Bayer said the process could solve not only the dark energy puzzle but an array of others: the identity of the “dark matter” that makes up five-sixths of the material in the cosmos, but has never been seen; why certain cosmic rays hit Earth with otherwise inexplicably high energies; what caused an “inflation” believed to have made the universe grow stupendously in size within a fraction of a second after the Big Bang. Cosmologists believe accelerated swelling of the cosmos occurred during two separate periods: during the inflation epoch, and more recently. Bayer said that’s because both episodes witnessed matter creation. The acceleration stopped in between, he argues, because initial formation of the universe was over, but black holes weren’t formed yet. Yet Linde, a founder of the inflation theory, disagrees. Bayer said his theory that energy isn’t conserved could be tested using particle accelerators, used to smash subatomic particles into each other to see what’s they’re made of. Normally, conservation of energy is used to calculate properties of the particles flying out of the bang-up. But the law is assumed, rather than proven, in these experiments, Bayer argued. “A serious test of energy conservation in high-energy collisions will require careful analysis of many complex multi-particle events,” he wrote in his paper.