Feb 16,2007 00:00
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.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.
“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.”
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=mc2, 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.