Monday, November 8, 2010

Beyond the tilting point: The limits of Modern Science

Beyond the tilting point: The limits of Modern Science
Syed Iqbal Zaheer
Whether it is astronomy, biology, physics or chemistry, humankind seems to have arrived at a point which could be classified as the tilting point. At this point the Sun of knowledge and understanding seems to be setting into the dark zone, writes SYED IQBAL ZAHEER
This article was published as ‘Editorial’ in October 2010 issue of Young Muslim Digest, Bangalore.

In every branch of knowledge, a point arrives during human pursuit after which further knowledge leads to no further clarity, but indeed, to confusion. It can be called the tilting point. After this boundary line, the more the humans try, the more they feel muddled. If they persist, they enter into a chaotic world of ideas that begin to contradict each other.
“When pushed to its limits, every fundamental theory of physics runs foul of our poor understanding of information.
It may be no understatement to say that the biggest breakthrough in physics must come in information theory rather than quantum mechanics or relativity.” (
In that zone, there is more darkness than light. To cite an example from philosophy, when asked, Swiss philosopher Carl Jung (1875-1961) answered at the prime of his life, after having fried and stewed much philosophy in his earlier robust years, to the effect, “ I don’t know who I am.. cannot say much about myself.. except that I am a product of circumstances.”  He was at the tilting point.
This is the situation with frontier sciences and scientists now, in our times. Whether it is astronomy, biology, physics or chemistry, humankind seems to have arrived at a point which could be classified as the tilting point. At this point the Sun of knowledge and understanding seems to be setting into the dark zone: “Until, when he reached the point at which the Sun sets, he found it setting into a slimy lake” (the Quran, 18:86).
Some scientists believe that they are in a situation which can be considered as the “the end of science”, although the word goes in muted voices. Nonetheless, books dealing with this theme have already begun to appear.
Joachim of Floris, a 13th century ecclesiastical writer had divided religious history into three phases: the Age of the Father, the Age of the Son, and (his own times) the Age of the Holy Ghost (Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West, p.19). Now, since nothing of the Holiness remains in the Western Technological Civilization, it can be renamed as the Age of the Ghosts. In fact, in keeping with the ghostly tendencies of the modern scientific findings, a certain class of sub-atomic particles are aptly named Ghost Particles.
Science is not dead. In every field of knowledge, immense numbers of men and women are active in research and experiments, and immense amount of data is being collected, classified, and stacked or stored. But, not of all of it is retrieved often because they are unable to make much from them. In quite a few instances the data is baffling. In some cases, it is absolutely incredible and illogical. It is inconsistent with the well-known laws of nature. But, repeated experiments yield the same results and confirm the conclusions. Perhaps this has led to the appearance of Fuzzy Logic and Chaos Theories.
Astronomy is one such cosmos of dark horizons. Some time back the Hubble Telescope discovered stars that seem to be older than the Universe. Either the age of our Universe as estimated by the astronomers was wrong, or the measurements were wrong. But neither seemed to be wrong. Yet here were a naughty bunch of stars teasing bright in the telescope, demanding explanation. After 200 years of research and experiments, theory-building and observation, some scientists were ready to revise the age of the universe, others the Cosmological constant, while some others were on the verge of joining forces with those who have always looked at the Big Bang theory with suspicious eyes.
“If we compare the two age determinations, there is a potential crisis. If the universe is flat, and dominated by ordinary or dark matter, the age of the universe as inferred from the Hubble constant would be about 9 billion years. The age of the universe would be shorter than the age of the oldest stars. This contradiction implies that either 1) our measurement of the Hubble constant is incorrect, 2) the Big Bang theory is incorrect or 3) that we need a form of matter like cosmological constant that implies an older age for a given observed expansion rate.”  (
Another example comes from the frontiers of Black Holes. Albert Einstein vigorously denied them for several decades and died on his belief. He thought they were a “mere mathematical curiosity.” But the invisible black holes have been becoming more and more visible. (Stephen Hawking is said to be a leading expert on Black Holes). What is a Black Hole anyway? Well, when a star of certain size has burnt all its fuel, it starts to shrink under the pressure of its own gravitational force which grows in intensity as the star shrinks. Ultimately, the star-body is shrunk to such small size and its gravitational power grows to such stupendous magnitude, that nothing can escape from it; not even light; and, therefore, it becomes invisible; hence its name Black Hole. It can be detected by indirect means alone. To put it in proper scientific jargon:
“Every star, however, must eventually exhaust its nuclear fuel. When it does so, its unbalanced self-gravitational attraction causes it to collapse. According to theory, if a burned-out star has a mass larger than about three times the mass of our sun, no amount of additional pressure can stave off total gravitational collapse. The star collapses to form a black hole. For a non-rotating collapsed star, the size of resulting black hole is proportional to the mass of the parent star; a black hole with a mass three times that of our sun would have a diameter of about 10 miles.” (
But latest observations have sent the telescope-peering scientists back to supercomputers. All along they said that a star of 25 and above solar masses should turn into a Black Hole after it had burnt out all its energy. But now it had been discovered from observation that a few neutron stars seemed to have formed from stars that were once of 40 solar masses. That is, these stars (known as “magnetar”) must have actually become Black Holes. How come they are neutron stars?
“By comparisons with these stars, they found that the star that became the magnetar must have been at least 40 times the mass of the Sun. This proves for the first time that magnetars can evolve from stars so massive we would normally expect them to form black holes. The previous assumption was that stars with initial masses between about 10 and 25 solar masses would form neutron stars and those above 25 solar masses would produce black holes.”  (
Confusions neither start here, nor end here; like space, they have no boundary. As you follow the findings, you also discover that none less than a Nobel Prize winning scientists would, in fact, obliterate the Black Holes with his thumb:
“Nobel prize-winning physicist says black holes and space-time singularities cannot exist in the latest model of universe.” (
The scientist concerned is Gerard ‘t Hooft. He won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1999. (He has a splendid Website that offers excellent guidelines to students pursuing science courses)
Age and size questions are major confusing issues in astronomy. How old is the Universe and how big? As soon as one raises the issue, the first question shot back at him is: “Which Universe?” If you are baffled, you will be explained that there are several universes. And, if you do not cease to be baffled, you are told they could be in billions! You could also be told (if you refer to enough number of books) that you bat an eye, and a new Universe comes into existence.
In fact, someone suggested that the stars older than “our universe” detected by the Hubble telescope could be from another universe. But scientists will accept no such nonsense because they will tell you that those other universes are beyond human visibility. Some of these universes might be crossing through our own universe, but going through clean and dry, without any clash, in a fashion similar to the jaw-dropping Japanese Precision Cross-March. So, we are told that we live in a world of multiverses. Except for our own, the others are invisible, and will remain so, because of dimensional problem. Ours has only 4, others 8, perhaps 11, perhaps more.
At all events, as you learn to properly word your question and ask, “What’s the size of our Universe,” you get a variety of answers. A straight jacket answer is: it is 13.7 billion years old; which implies that the Universe is of size 13.7 light years across. But you couldn’t be more in error.
Another scientist (they are careful not to answer all the questions in one book), would clarify that if the oldest photons reaching us are 13.7 billion years old, then, it must be kept in mind that the figure gives us the radius; which means the width of our Universe has to be twice that, i.e. roughly 28 billion light years.  In other words, light travelling at the speed of 300,000 km/second, will take 28 billion years to travel edge to edge. 28 billion years by the way is 28 followed by 9 zeros (28,000,000,000). Multiply that figure by 60, and then by 60, then by 24, and then by 365 to get the distance in km. Order a cup of tea before you reach out for your calculator.

A third scientist will tell you that you are far from truth. The universe could be 156 billion years old. When you come out of the shock, he will explain to you that this is because the Universe is expanding at almost the speed of light in every direction. That is, it becomes 600,000 km. bigger in diameter, every second. Therefore, while the light ray was tiresomely plodding through the distance to kiss your retina, the Universe was mercilessly expanding, and the poor photon took 78 billion years for touch down. Double it up and you get 156 billion years. That’s the size of the Universe; i.e. ‘our Universe.’
That was taking for granted that the Universe is 13.7 billion years old. But is it? Let us hear another authority:
“The new finding implies that the universe is instead about 15.8 billion years and about 180 billion light-years wide.” (
If you wish to give up the question of the size of this Universe out of frustration, you are still left with a piece of information that they tend to ignore but which ultimately lands to your door; viz. you will never know how big this Universe is. Whoa. Yes. And it is such a simple conclusion that you should have known it instantly. To explain; since the universe is expanding at almost the speed of light, light from the cosmic bodies at the extreme edge can never reach you because, by the time they travel “a distance”, the world stretches itself by twice that distance, and therefore, the photons will never have the pleasure of kissing your retina. Those cosmic bodies that sent you the gift of light rays, have gone out of vision, and you will never know how big this Universe is! The same authority as quoted above says:
“This (14 billion light years) would be the diameter of just the observable universe. The actual size of the total universe may be 10 - 1000 times larger.”
To proceed with our original issue of the “tilting point” in mind, questions about the shape of the Universe bring out the most amusing answers. For quite a while the scientists held - and still do - that the Universe had no edge and no boundary. Others say that they still do not know whether space is curved or flat. To the question, what lies beyond the edge, the answer was, and remains in many scientific circles, “there is no beyond.” Whoa again.
But, one need not be disheartened too soon. Ask others. They might say it is cone-shaped. Yet others are now speaking of a torus-shaped Universe, or to simplify, doughnut-shaped.
But what about the beginning? Do we have any clear evidence about how it begun? “Yes,” the scientist might jump in excitement, “it began with the Big Bang.” When you ask when it was, the answer is, “That was 10-43 seconds after the Big Bang.” You ask, “But what was it like at Zero time?” The answer is, “We do not know what happened before 10-43 seconds, because calculations begin to fall from the point backward. You cannot go any further than Planck’s constants. Further, there was a time after the Big Bang, when the infant Universe was in dark zone, about which nothing can ever be known because the Dark Body did not allow any radiation to leave its surface.”
So if there are boundaries at the end of the Universe, beyond which lies the unknowable world, there are boundaries too at the point it started which is also the unknowable world.
One can go on and on with dozens of more questions. The more the data sought, the fuzzier the situation it seems to sound. It is the same story in any other scientific field, be it physics, chemistry, biology, geology, or even economic theories or political philosophies. There is much data, but little understanding. Long back, Einstein had called the earliest Quantum findings as “the spooky world of physics.” It seems the entire sciences, as well as humanities, have acquired a spooky character.
This little preamble should prepare us to consider with considerable respect the claim of a leading scientist that this Universe of ours does not need a Creator. He can explain it without God.
Man is a little bit of a funny creature. He can press a humorous point when dealing with most profound subjects. He does not know the nature of his Universe, he does not know what it contains, he does not know what its shape is, he does not know how big it is, he does not know how many there are, he does not know how it begun, he does not know how it will end, but he knows that it can be explained without taking God into consideration!
He is perhaps in the zone beyond the tilting point.



  1. It's quite clear that the author doesn't have a scientific career (not a researcher), neither enough knowledge of epistemology and how the science work and progress over it's own steps. But I must recognize a good religious/philosophical background.
    If this "tilting point" can be comparable with a paradigm in crisis, then it must be argued that once a particular paradigm CAN'T explain new discoveries, or the predictions are wrong, then a new paradigm emerges and the theories built under it provide better explanations. That's how science works. This process happens over and over again.
    For example, less than 100 years ago scientists thought the universe was just the size of our own galaxy, THEN we discovered other galaxies, THEN we discovered an expanding universe, etc. We might not know yet how big it is but we're improving our knowledge day by day. And if the current paradigm is not working, then a new one will come out THANKS to all that evidence that today might look "confusing" under the wrong paradigm.
    The answers are out there. We need to be more patient. If someone needs ALL the answers in ONE book NOW, then to look for a religion that provides them might be a good idea. But do not judge science with a "religious" scale.

  2. The way that the author is questioning science is by saying that when new data is found that contradicts the theories used at present, this would indicate that "science has failed" and has reached a tilting point. In my opinion finding data which seems to contradict present day theories, paradigms, even is a crucial part of science!

    It is in human nature to be curious about the origin of our existence. It expresses the admiration we have for nature, life, the world and the universe we are living in. It is only the way that we seek the answer that puts a (perhaps only seemingly) dividing line between religion and science.

    From a scientists point of view: As I mentioned before, what characterizes scientists is the fact that they are looking for a way to explain the phenomena that they encounter. They are curious about patterns that seem to emerge, on extremely small scales as well as on scales comprehensible to human standards as well as on the very largest scales. With a lot of effort we are capable of finding descriptions (theories) that seem to accurately describe the phenomena that we observe. And in fact, it is truly amazing that we are capable at all of doing so!

    When a new theory is found, it is still nothing but a theory. The crucial point in accepting this new theory comes from the fact that NEW PREDICTIONS can be done based on this newly found theory, predictions of processes that have not yet been observed before. When these predictions are indeed confirmed by experiment, then scientists regard to this as proof of the newly found theory.

    But there is a very important point that is not emphasized enough and often causes some confusion and resistance from people that do not believe in or practice science. Even though a new proven theory takes science a step further in understanding nature (hence the universe), scientists do NOT claim that they have found "the ultimate truth" in that particular part of science. It would be very arrogant and even ignorant to claim such a thing. If a theory turns out to be wrong (in a particular limit), and there is a theory that better describes this phenomenon (in the old limit, as well as the new limit), this theory will be adapted to. History has shown more than once that scientists having clang on to old theories eventually had to give in when proof of the new theory became overwhelming.

    To my opinion, what characterizes a "good" scientist, is one who dares to question his or her results or present day paradigms and keeps an open mind to new possibilities. Every attempt in not doing so will slow down the overall progress and could clog ones mind from acknowledging a better alternative. And even more important, the biggest breakthroughs in science where the ones where scientists dared to distance themselves from paradigms and truly dared to think out of the box.

    Finding new data that disagrees with old data and thus contradicting the theories we have so far, is merely a reflection of the complexity of nature and the fact that we haven't understood nature as well as we thought we did. No one knows how far we are from truly understanding nature to its fullest extend. One can only imagine what beautiful discoveries lie ahead to be discovered. But being able to ask questions and dare question our current views will slowly but surely take us ahead.


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