Cosmology – Confusion on a Higher Level?

I’ve already posted the picture below, which was taken at a conference in Leiden (Netherlands) in 1995. Various shady characters masquerading as “experts” were asked by the audience of graduate students at a summer school to give their favoured values for the cosmological parameters (from top to bottom: the Hubble constant, density parameter, cosmological constant, curvature parameter and age of the Universe).

From left to right we have Alain Blanchard (AB), Bernard Jones (BJ, standing), John Peacock (JP), me (yes, with a beard and a pony tail – the shame of it), Vincent Icke (VI), Rien van de Weygaert (RW) and Peter Katgert (PK, standing). You can see on the blackboard that the only one to get anywhere close to correctly predicting the parameters of what would become the standard cosmological model was, in fact, Rien van de Weygaert.

Well, my excuse for posting this again is the fact that a similar discussion was held at a meeting in Oslo (Norway) at which a panel of experts and Alan Heavens did a similar thing. I wasn’t there myself but grabbed the evidence from facebook:


I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to identify the contributors. The 2015 version of the results is considerably more high-tech than the 1995 one, but in case you can’t read what is on the screen here are the responses:


The emphasis here is on possible departures from the standard model, whereas in 1995 the standard model hadn’t yet been established. I’m not sure exactly what questions were asked but I think my answers would have been: 3+1;  maybe; maybe; don’t know but (probably) not CDM; something indistinguishable from GR given current experiments; Lambda; and maybe. I’ve clearly become a skeptic in my old age.

Anyway, this “progress” reminded me of a quote I used to have on my office door when I was a graduate student in the Astronomy Centre at the University of Sussex many years ago:

We have not succeeded in answering all our problems. The answers we have found only serve to raise a whole set of new questions. In some ways we feel we are as confused as ever, but we believe we are confused on a higher level and about more important things.

The attribution of that quote is far from certain, but I was told that it was posted outside the mathematics reading room, Tromsø University. Which is in Norway. Apt, or what?

14 Responses to “Cosmology – Confusion on a Higher Level?”

  1. Extra points: Which expert is not wearing footwear appropriate for the Norwegian winter?

  2. The seating order shown above was the initial one. Alan later had them regroup to reflect the order of columns in his chart (alphabetical by last name, except for Alan himself, who provided the correct answer after those of the experts had been noted), rather than vice versa. (He had the basic chart before they were asked, then filled in the answers one by one.) The last column reflects the vote of the audience, by the way, with “split” meaning that at least two choices were equal within the noise.

    Note that the answers of the audience are somewhat radical, reflecting the selection effect which attracted all sorts of shady types due to the “Beyond” in the title of the conference (as well as a couple who might have misread it as “Beyoncé”). Alan noted that, in another sense, you looked somewhat radical back in 1995. (My avatar, by the way, shows me in August 1995. Extra points if you can name both other people in the picture.)

    Tom Shanks was present in spirit, with Alan showing a mug shot (I don’t remember it was before or after the Scream slide) with the quote: “There are only two things wrong with Lambda CDM: Lambda and CDM.”

  3. “The attribution of that quote is far from certain, but I was told that it was posted outside the mathematics reading room, Tromsø University. Which is in Norway. Apt, or what?”

    Google returns several hits for “confused at a higher level”, including a remark made by Fermi after hearing a talk. One of them links to a blog called “Confused at a Higher Level” where the latest article is entitled “Noticing how many women are in the room”. There were several in the room in Oslo. Also, I noticed only two “accompanying persons”, both of whom were men accompanying women, one with a three-month-old baby.

    Note that Oslo is closer to Brighton than to Tromsø (which is so far north that it makes Newcastle look like the Midlands).

  4. Peter, do you classify theories like Einstein-Cartan-Kibble-Sciama
    gravity as modified GR or as generalization of GR ?

  5. Also a followup question. Would you consider Slava’s model
    of mimetic matter as Lambda CDM or beyond Lamda CDM?

  6. Sounds like fun. Here’s my twopennyworth:

    inhomogeneous spatial energy
    bubblegum balloon

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