Before the Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe from the Multiverse

There’s a new book out this month, Before the Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe from the Multiverse, about which we’re told:

One of the world’s most celebrated cosmologists presents her breakthrough explanation of our origins in the multiverse.

In recent years, Laura Mersini-Houghton’s ground-breaking theory, spectacularly vindicated with observational evidence, has turned the multiverse from philosophical speculation to one of the most compelling and credible explanations of our universe’s origins.

I spent a few minutes today looking through the book in the bookstore, trying to figure out where to find the details of the “spectacularly vindicated with observational evidence.” I didn’t see any references in the book, just a claim that in 2018 the author collaborated with Eleonora Di Valentino on showing vindication by observation. Presumably this is a reference to these three papers, but who knows. I don’t see anything like that in a quick look at the papers.

For many years I’ve spent a significant amount of time reading books and papers purporting to offer scientific evidence for a multiverse, trying to carefully understand the author’s arguments and write about them here (one example involved earlier claims by this author, see here). Few physicists though seem to care that bogus claims and pseudo-science about the multiverse have overrun their field and become its public face. I’ve come to the conclusion that best to not waste more time on this.

Update: Will Kinney reminds me that he wrote a paper about this, see here, as well as here and here for more about the story of that paper. Also see another old posting, here.

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17 Responses to Before the Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe from the Multiverse

  1. Will Kinney says:

    Peter, I wrote a paper examining the claims of evidence for the model in light of the Planck data here:

    https://arxiv.org/abs/1606.00672

    Long story short, there isn’t any. Only lower bounds on the relevant scales. If you remember, this paper caused a bit of a kerfuffle with LM-H 😉

  2. Peter Woit says:

    Thanks Will, I’d forgotten that story, even though I wrote about it at the time here. I’ll add some links to the posting.

  3. Larry Lurio says:

    It is not a waste to respond to each and every exaggerated scientific claim that makes its way into a serious published book. They eat away at peoples confidence in the scientific endeavor and diminish the value of more mundane scientific theories that are actually supported by evidence earned by sweat and long hours of experimental work.

  4. Marty says:

    Re: Waste of time responding to multiverse nonsense:

    I suppose back in the 2000s you could have taken a similar point of view regarding string theory hype. But you didn’t, and it made a real difference. A positive difference for theoretical particle physics, I’d say.

    I’d also say your efforts helped save the careers of at least a few PhD students who might have otherwise focused on string theory. I don’t know if I would have ended up going down the string theory path without your perspectives, but a fellow grad student didn’t heed your warnings and I think his future in theoretical physics suffered.

  5. Peter Woit says:

    Will,
    Took a quick look and, funny thing, the 2016-8 papers claiming to have Planck evidence don’t reference your earlier 2016 paper claiming there isn’t any. Perhaps the authors somehow missed hearing about your work, but I would have thought the referees would have pointed it out to them.

  6. Will Kinney says:

    Peter —

    Pretty sure they didn’t miss it.

  7. Alex says:

    “spectacularly vindicated with observational evidence”

    Just… wow. I’m speechless on how spectacularly outrageous that is. These people have really destroyed science popularization. Just imagine the amount of lay people that will read that and believe it. A bit of exaggeration, teatrics, histrionism is okay I guess, since you must catch the public’s eye in a competitive market. But these are just blatant lies. Just lies, lies and more lies. What the F is wrong with these people? Do they live in an alternate reality? How can this happen? What happened to institutions, to book editors, etc.? This strange world is like Orwell’s 1984, physics version!

    I’m really baffled and depressed by seing things like this.

  8. Nirmalya Kajuri says:

    I remember her from her old hit ‘black holes don’t exist’, based on a flawed argument whose flaw was already understood in the 80s.

  9. Anonymous theoretical physicist says:

    Peter: in case you feel that you are engaged in a Sisyphean task, I should perhaps comment that I first discovered your blog when I was entering grad school back in the aughts, and it was instrumental in convincing me to avoid string theory (and more broadly, high energy physics), and I do believe you very likely saved my academic career in the process, before it had even begun. So: thank you.

  10. From the Ars Technica article

    In order to solve the firewall paradox, Mersini-Houghton wasn’t thinking small: she claims to have unified general relativity with quantum mechanics. “Physicists have been trying to merge these two theories—Einstein’s theory of gravity and quantum mechanics—for decades, but this scenario brings these two theories together, into harmony,” said Mersini-Houghton in a press release. “And that’s a big deal.”

    I guess this fell through…

  11. Alessandro Strumia says:

    What started the phenomenon of theory books with ridiculously exaggerated claims? String hype? Or maybe it started with Hawking, who had real interesting science plus medical bills, so physicists turned a blind eye to minor exaggerations? With the result that, once the anti-bullshit dam is broken, going back is difficult.

  12. Peter Woit says:

    Alessandro Strumia,

    I think Hawking’s 1988 “A Brief History of Time” had a big effect, not by opening the subject to exaggeration, but by unexpectedly making huge amounts of money. Publishers got the idea that a fundamental physics book, especially if written by someone with an interesting story, was worth publishing, because they might hit a jackpot. By the way, absent a full-time self-promotion campaign, most such books don’t end up making much, the author often could have made more money by not writing the book and instead taking a part-time job dog-walking…

    The post 2004 flood of pseudo-science books about the multiverse was enabled by publishers hoping to get lucky, but more importantly by the collapse of any intellectual standards in the field, and having no real fundamental physics science to write about (one can only sell so many books about the Higgs).

    When I was growing up, there were plenty of books for sale about bogus physics. But they weren’t written and/or blurbed by prominent theorists at elite academic institutions, so it wasn’t hard to tell the difference between those and real science.

  13. Will Kinney says:

    Peter, Alessandro —

    I tried to handle the inflationary multiverse with honesty and nuance in my book, for what it’s worth. Jury is still out as to how well that sells.

  14. Peter Woit says:

    Will,
    I did quickly read through your book, which seemed significantly better than the usual multiverse lot. Didn’t write anything here just because writing anything substantive would have required time and energy I don’t have, as well as patience I now lack for engaging with this material. Good luck with sales, although I fear taking a more sensible point of view may mean you’ll do even worse than the dog-walking gig…

  15. Sleptovia says:

    Peter–why is Brian Green’s book “The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos,” better than Laura Mersini-Houghton’s book “Before the Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe from the Multiverse”?

    Here you write, “My colleague Brian Greene has a new book coming out soon, The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos. I haven’t seen a copy, but from what I can gather, it looks like it is probably the best of the many books about “multiverse” ideas,. . .” –https://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=3389

    What exactly makes Brian’s book so much better than Laura’s and the rest?

    Thank you!

  16. Peter Woit says:

    Sleptovia,
    You deleted the rest of the sentence (“but still not exactly my cup of tea.”), as well as the part telling people to look for experimental evidence of any multiverse claims. From what I remember, Brian doesn’t claim any. The big difference with Mersini-Houghton is that she does make such claims (and as far as I can tell, they are bogus).

    By the way, if one wants to evaluate multiverse books, I think Will Kinney’s is better than Brian’s.

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