During a 2015 conference on theoretical cosmology at Princeton University, Roger Penrose, a pioneer in the field of mathematical physics, was asked to speak on a panel about the origin of the universe. For decades, the leading theory had been that, during roughly the first trillionth of a trillionth of a nanosecond following the Big Bang, there was a single period of extremely rapid expansion, known as inflation, that formed the universe we observe today.
When it was Penrose’s turn to speak, however, he wanted no part of that dogma. Instead, he reiterated his belief that the theory of inflation was false, and he proposed that the universe could instead be better described by an alternative theory, conformal cyclic cosmology, which posits that our universe continually alternates between periods of expansion and contraction. In Penrose’s formulation, the universe as we know it began not so much with a bang but with a bounce.
As Penrose recalls, few people in the audience seemed to pay him any attention, and those who did shot back with ridicule, murmuring their disbelief. “I was pointing out major flaws with the theory of inflation,” he says. “Nobody commented on that at all.” Inflation had secured such a strong foothold in the physics zeitgeist, it seemed, that even one of the world’s most accomplished theorists couldn’t chink its armor.
Today, Penrose and other physicists who seek to rewrite the narrative of how the universe began continue to face an uphill battle. To many of them, the dismissals and rejections feel more personal than scientific, driven by an academic job culture that penalizes risk taking. They worry that — for young professionals especially — the quest to unravel the deepest mysteries of the early universe will take a backseat to a far more mundane pursuit: career survival. [Continue reading…]