The inflated debate over cosmic inflation

Amanda Gefter writes: On the morning of Dec. 7, 1979, a 32-year-old Alan Guth woke up with an idea. It had come into his head the previous night, but now, in the light of a California day, he could see the shape of the thing, and was itching to work through the math. He hopped on his bike and rode to his office at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. His excitement got him there in record time: 9 minutes, 32 seconds. At his desk, Guth neatly carried out the calculations in his notebook, forming the numbers and symbols in tight, careful lines. Then, at the top of a fresh page, he wrote in all caps: SPECTACULAR REALIZATION.

A year later and some 6,000 miles away, in Moscow, in the middle of the night, Andrei Linde, having read Guth’s paper, had his own spectacular realization. He had been working on his own idea and now he saw how to bring it to life by fixing the difficulties that plagued Guth’s theory. He woke his sleeping wife. “I think I know how the universe was created.”

Guth and Linde had worked out the beginnings of the theory of cosmic inflation. The theory would go through several incarnations over the next few decades, as kinks were worked out and details honed. But the core idea was spectacularly simple: In the earliest fraction of a second of time, a small patch of universe expanded faster than the speed of light, doubling its size again and again, growing a million trillion trillion times bigger in the blink of an eye. A little patch of world, about the size of a dime, grew into our entire observable universe.

What began as a radical notion has now become standard wisdom among physicists—except, notably, Paul Steinhardt, Anna Ijjas, and Avi Loeb. The three physicists recently wrote a scathing article in Scientific American arguing that it’s time to abandon inflation and look for a competing idea. (What idea, you ask? Steinhardt, conveniently, has one that he’s been pushing for decades.) Inflation is too unlikely to occur, too flexible to be confirmed or rejected experimentally, and too messy in its implications, the threesome argued. It “cannot be evaluated using the scientific method.”

It’s not surprising, then, that Guth and Linde—along with physicists David Kaiser and Yasunori Nomura—published a terse response in Scientific American earlier this month defending their theory. What is more surprising, perhaps, is that 29 more of the world’s leading physicists signed it—including four Nobel laureates and a Field’s medalist.

In the media flurry that followed, the disagreement between these groups of physicists was presented as a straight debate, of the kind that often occurs in science when there are multiple interpretations of data. But describing an equivalence between the opinions of Steinhardt, Ijjas, and Loeb on the one hand, and nearly the entirely cosmology community on the other, is a mistake.

The long list of signatories to the recent rebuttal letter in Scientific American puts the lie to the claim that the community is divided. When Ed Witten, Steven Weinberg, Leonard Susskind, Frank Wilczek, Juan Maldacena, Eva Silverstein, Sir Martin Rees, and Stephen Hawking (to name a few) write a letter saying you’ve gotten something wrong … well it’s probably worth considering.

The rebuttal letter also challenges us to understand more clearly why so many scientists are passionate about inflation. What is it about this theory that has the greatest minds in the known universe leaping to its defense? [Continue reading…]

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