Jayant Narlikar's Cosmology

Saturday, January 23rd, 2010
Jayant Narlikar's Cosmology

Artwork: Shovamayee Maharana

“According to the big bang theory the universe is only 13 billion years old. ... We made some observations a year ago which we are still trying to explain but the simplest explanation seems to be that there stars that are 20 billion years old.” (Jayant Narlikar).  Does the universe have a beginning? Was life on earth seeded from outer space? Dr. Jayant Narlikar visited NCBS recently and the Centre's news team was there to ask his opinions on questions that humans have pondered since time immemorial.

Dr. Narlikar is probably best known for his role as a science communicator – his appearances on television (Surabhi), his efforts to popularize science via articles, science-fiction, books, radio and television programmes in English, Hindi and Marathi. We hear that he has quite a fan following in Maharashtra. Some of us remember him as the scientist who would answer questions on science sent to him on a post-card. He is of course a cosmologist of international repute and best known for his work on the conformal gravity theory, together with his mentor Fred Hoyle. He also set up the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA) in Pune. More recently, he was involved in an effort to sample air from the atmosphere at heights of 41km for microorganisms. This study reported at least two strains of bacteria and one fungus that were cultured in the lab. If these findings hold up to further enquiry, they provide a new perspective on life on earth and its beginnings.


What do you think about the Big Bang theory?

When you claim that the universe started in this particular way you are making a very profound statement. If I make a statement saying that the sun started in a certain way, I would immediately be asked for proof that the sun started in that way. I will have to go around gathering evidence of solar systems forming, stars forming. I will have to produce evidence saying that this is how new solar systems are being formed, so the sun must have been formed in the same manner. That is a reasonably credible assumption.

Now with the big bang there is only one event that happened. So like the sun you can’t say that there are other big bangs going on that are what ours was like. The second problem is that at the big bang mathematics and physics break down. So there is no way of mathematically describing it. That is not a satisfactorily scientific approach, to ascribe something to speculations which you cannot justify using mathematics and physics.

People quote various evidences in favour of the big bang, like the microwave background. It is a relic radiation supposed to have formed very early after the big bang. As the universe expanded it cooled down and its present temperature is at 2.7 K. Of whatever I said just now the only fact which is measurable or has been measured is that there is a background of 2.7 K temperature. Saying that this is left over from the early universe is a speculation. It is a part of a theoretical structure I am supposed to have built which enables me to say that it is a relic of that early-on era. We have given a different explanation. Helium forms by fusion of hydrogen inside a star like the sun, leading to radiation. One can ask the following question: if all the helium that you find in the universe was formed in stars sometime or the other, how much radiation will be formed and what would its temperature be? The answer is 2.7 K. If you ask a big bang person why his relic radiation today has a temperature of 2.7 K he doesn’t know. This alternative explanation that I’m giving is able to do more than what the big bang does. So I don’t see any reason to say we have a very positive proof of the big bang happening.

In our theory we have multiple “mini bangs” and these mini bangs are not mysterious like the big bang but they come because of the concentration of what we call negative energy fields. Whenever there are pockets of negative energy, they explode and produce a mini bang. We believe there’s a mini bang producing energy in the centre of quasars, which are very bright star like objects. Gamma ray bursts, which are the explosive creations of gamma rays, are another example of a mini bang. These are actually happening. These can be described by normal physics, but the big bang cannot. The big bang theory does not use any mathematical formulation so they can’t say why the bang occurred.

Is there an observation one could make to support this theory?

Something we have predicted that is dramatically different from the big bang theory is that since the universe is infinitely old, you should see some very old stars. According to the big bang theory the universe is only 13 billion years old. No stars should be older than 13 billion years. In our cosmology, stars older than this should exist. So we are on the lookout for very old stars. We made some observations a year ago which we are still trying to explain but the simplest explanation seems to be that there stars that are 20 billion years old.

Do you think the cosmos is flooded by micro organisms?

We are looking at the threshold of the earth’s atmosphere - the stratosphere. Hoyle and Wickramasinghe have argued that microorganims fill up the whole of space. One finds dust and biological molecules between stars. Why not microorganisms? They assumed in one example, E. coli filling up interstellar space and then they calculated how much the absorption of light at different wavelengths from the E. coli model would be. They showed that the extinction curve i.e. absorption curve, was precisely followed for some infra red source. So their argument was that these micro organisms must exist.

Do you think life originated in space?

Biologists conventionally think that it is a crazy idea. First they argued that microorganisms cannot last through the passage through UV, X rays, gamma rays. Now people have shown in laboratory experiments that bacteria learn to survive. So that argument doesn’t work. People are still not receptive. It is like the heliocentric theory of Copernicus. Biologists are going through the same phase.

What do you think of science in India today? How has doing research changed here and in the West?

Science in India is getting better support now than in the past. But I wish it were done in a way that universities also could do better research. But the present system is heavily loaded against these universities. Institutes like yours get good research grants, but universities won’t. It is a chicken and egg problem. There are no good people there, so they don’t get any grants. There are no good people because there are no grants. One needs to break out of this loop. Doing research has changed in the way that it is very grant oriented. The mentality that some accepted paradigm must be believed has become more rigid. This is something I don’t particularly like.

What role can an institute like NCBS play in increasing scientific awareness in society?

Each scientific institute in my opinion should have a public outreach program. We have one at IUCAA which is very successful. My feeling is that all the research you are doing is funded by the government. The government gets money from the people, so you owe something to the people. You are shutting yourself in an ivory tower, saying that all these people outside the scientific community do not understand it. That is not the right attitude. You should make effort to explain some part of what you are doing and that will make them better informed and will help you in future.


Pardon me for saying this:

Pardon me for saying this: First of all I don't believe in Big Bang Theory and it is obvious that you don't. I still think Higg's Boson and all its findings as well as the Euro Collider thing at Cern will simply culminate one day to the truth that life came from outer space. May I please have your view.

Hello Dr Narlikar, I have

Hello Dr Narlikar, I have been watching your program since I was a kid. I have a question for you based on this article. How do you explain the current exponential expansion of the universe ie galaxies moving away from each other if the universe according to you is localised. Thanks, Manoj

Good interview. Happy to

Good interview. Happy to read. I would like to suggest a correction: "Vikram Sinha" should be replaced by "Wickramasinghe". Dr Wickramasinghe heads the Cardiff Centre for Astrobiology in the UK. Thanks.

Thanks Ravi! The correction

Thanks Ravi! The correction has been made.

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