Archive for Das letzte Gericht

Das Letzte Gericht

Posted in Art, Astrohype, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on December 20, 2012 by telescoper

Apparently the world is due to end tomorrow, so I’ve saved quite a lot of money by not having done my Christmas shopping yet. Anyway, the forthcoming Apocalypse reminded me of the painting that I often use to introduce cosmology talks. I usually use this piece of Hieronymus Bosch Das letzte Gericht (The Last Judgement) to illustrate my feelings about the standard cosmological model:


The top part represents the concordance cosmology. It clearly features an eminent cosmologist surrounded by postdoctoral researchers. Everything appears to be in heavenly harmony, surrounded by a radiant glow of self-satisfaction. The trumpets represent various forms of exaggerated press coverage.

But if you step back from it, and get the whole thing in a proper perspective, you realise that there’s an awful lot going on underneath that’s not so pleasant or easy to interptet. I don’t know what’s going down below there, although the unfortunate figures slaving away in miserable conditions and suffering unimaginable torments, are obviously supposed to represent graduate students. The large knife visible in the bottom right corner clearly symbolises budget cuts looming in the next Comprehensive Spending Review.

The main point is that the concordance model is based on rather strange foundations: nobody understands what the dark matter and dark energy are, for example. Even more fundamentally, the whole thing is based on a shotgun marriage between general relativity and quantum field theory which is doomed to fail somewhere along the line.

Far from being a final theory of the Universe I think we should treat our standard model as a working hypothesis and actively look for departures from it. I’m not at all against the model. As models go, it’s very successful. It’s a good one, but it’s still just a model.