Olbers’ Paradox: the brightness of the universe and the dimness of the mind

One hears these days, in both the serious scientific literature and its popular press parallels, of two of the great unsolved mysteries of modern science, particularly in the fields of physics and astronomy. These are the mysterious “dark energy,” and its lesser companion, “dark matter.” Unfortunately, when a modern physicist speaks of “dark energy” he is describing not just something that must exist because of the effects it appears to have but, in fact, something that can be shown to be a completely non-existent fantasy, even if you take “dark” to mean “not yet identified or observed.” There is energy out there but nowhere can it be described as “dark.” One has only to look at the latest images from the Planck project, seen by the more easily impressed among us as something called the CMBR, or “cosmic microwave background radiation,” once hailed by the true believers in the big bang as evidence of that imaginary occurrence, cooled down by 13.7 billion years of travel through the cosmos.

Olbers’ paradox is a one time conundrum originally expressed by many thinkers but given its name by the German amateur astronomer Heinrich Olbers. Simply put, Olbers hypothesized that if the universe were infinite and populated evenly with stars, then one must of necessity be visual in every possible line of sight, and hence the night must then appear uniformly bright, which is obviously not true. The key to this puzzle lies first in the word “visual,” since that limits the issue to the narrow range of electromagnetic frequencies available to human vision. If one surveys the night sky at, say, a radio frequency, the sky is uniformly bright. The second answer is, that even at normal light frequencies, the problem is one of distance, in that the light from stars at great astronomical distances suffers from having been distributed in all directions and that its intensity has as a result, fallen off at the rate of the square of its distance from its point of origin. The light from those distant points is simply too dim to be detected, and so does not contribute to the brightness of the night.

Another key word in the paradox is “infinite.” A true big bang believer “knows” that the universe has an edge, because nothing could possibly exist more than 13.7 billion light years away.

The big bang, and its concomitant theories of universal expansion have become the “standard model” of modern cosmology. They are seen as the ultimate explanation for all phenomena observed in the night sky despite the observation by some astronomers of stars apparently much older than the supposed age of the universe; serious doubts about and arguments against the Hubble “redshift” law, the basis of the expansion theory, even by Hubble himself; and the finding of numerous anomalies in the observations of nearby quasars in other apparently cosmologically distant galaxies. The standard model rules!

This is where the dimness of the mind enters the equation. What we seem to have here is what the astronomer Hilton Ratcliffe has described as— “the pervading tenet of human behavior…..to seek out, then believe with absolute conviction and utter disregard for rational experience, that which is dark and mysterious.” He goes on, “Every time we have a Standard Model of anything, no matter what, disciples experience an apparently irresistible urge to accept proof before the miracle has occurred.” The big bang has occurred, supported even, perhaps not surprisingly, by the Pope himself. Perhaps the passage of time will work this out, but don’t hold your breath.

A more disturbing, perhaps even frightening aspect of this tendency (are we born this way?) of this aspect of human behavior is what we might call the politicization of science in our modern American society. Not necessarily of science itself, but of the reporting and response to its findings in relationship to political and governmental policy.

Beliefs and opinions on such subjects as climate change, on evolution, are the prime subjects we hear debated these days, but many others are high on the list. We, and most educators have for many years been of the conviction that the best way to manage the conflict is by increasing education and knowledge of any disputed subjects. and that the spread of rational thought would prevail but recent studies support the old saw that says, “Don’t bother me with facts, I know what I believe.” In a column on Sunday, July 6, 2014 in the New York Times, Brendan Nyhat of Dartmouth College reports on studies that confirm that even people highly educated in science and math just aren’t ready to accept a scientific consensus when it contradicts their political or religious views. Max Planck’s observation that getting the establishment in science to accept a new theory that contradicts the old is impossible, and that our best hope remains that the establishment eventually dies off, is still in effect. The brightness of the facts and evidences of science are perhaps too easily dimmed by the clouds of political and religious belief. “Unfortunately,” Professor Nyhat concludes, “knowing what scientists think is ultimately no substitute for actually believing it.” Even among scientists themselves.


About Charles Scurlock

Charles is a recently retired architect/planner and generalist problem-solver with a lifelong interest in science, physics, and cosmology, and the workings of the human mind. He has started this blog in the interest of sharing his ideas with others of like-(or not so like) minds.
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