About that Red Shift

Sometimes, one comes across a statement that makes one think – That should have been kind of obvious, but I never thought about it before. Witness this article in the Asia Times:
Red shift, Big Bang and the James Webb telescope - Asia Times

The Red Shift of spectrographic lines of elements in distant stars is observable & measurable, and therefore real. The accepted interpretation (with a lot of good reason) is the Doppler Effect – light from an object travelling away from us will have the same speed as if the object were standing still, but it will be shifted towards longer wave-lenghts, i.e. the red end of the spectrum. Similarly, light from an object travelling towards us will have the same speed, but shifted to shorter wave-lengths, the blue end of the spectrum. For example, light from one side of a rotating galaxy shows a red shift, and from the other side a blue shift. Edwin Hubble observed that fainter galaxies tend to have larger red shifts, suggesting that more distant galaxies are moving away faster, hence the Universe must be expanding. This is the foundation for much of modern cosmology, including the Big Bang.

Now, about that strange non-intuitive constant speed of light in a vacuum. One of the great advances in physics was when James Clerk Maxwell realized that the speed of light can be calculated from the electromagnetic properties of empty space. But hang on! If a vacuum has measurable properties, can it really be empty? That is a new thought, an interesting thought!

The article in the Asia Times talks about Mark Anderson and his “Resonance Theory” – about which I know nothing. Anderson’s theory is that the observed red shift represents the combination of the Doppler Effect and a smaller loss of energy as light moves through the non-empty vacuum of space. (Are we getting close to the theory of the Aether, which Michelson & Morley disproved in Cleveland, Ohio all those years ago?)

The fascinating possibility is that, if there is anything to this “Resonance Theory”, then our current cosmological theories (including the Big Bang) may collapse. What an interesting time to be alive!

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I don’t know any more about the “Resonance Theory” than was said about it in the Asia Times article (whose description and that of the theory’s proponent made them sound pretty flaky. For example, Anderson is quoted claiming:

No one is doubting that the Doppler effect is real, but neither does anyone really know much about star distances, except by applying Hubble’s red shift.

This is complete baloney. The first three rungs on the cosmic distance ladder: solar system distances, stellar parallax, and Cepheid variable stars, are all known to a high degree of precision and have been used to calibrate the red shift scale. In fact, this was one of the primary missions of the Hubble Space Telescope, and by the end of the 1990s this work was largely complete.

Anderson’s theory largely seems to be a re-hash of the venerable “tired light” hypothesis proposed in 1929 by Fritz Zwicky as an alternative to an expanding universe. From the start, Zwicky noted that if the theory was correct, images of distant galaxies would be increasingly blurred with distance. Now we know that there is no evidence of such blurring.

Over the years, tired light has been advanced by proponents of a steady state universe and others who reject the Big Bang theory, but also over time evidence has piled up which falsifies tired light on numerous independent grounds, which Wikipedia lists as including the surface brightness of galaxies at various distances, time dilation observed in events on distant objects, and the thermal spectrum of the cosmic background radiation—each, by itself, well-observed and inconsistent with tired light.

It may be possible to construct a tired light model that evades all of these experimental results, but it’s likely to be contrived with lots of twiddle knobs without justification, and much more complex than the expanding universe which explains all of the observational data.

From the quote from Anderson, it appears he does not even understand the source of the cosmological red shift. It is not a Doppler shift due to motion, but rather the result of the expansion of the spacetime through which the electromagnetic radiation has been propagating between its emission and detection.

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All so – but what do you make of Anderson’s observation that apparently empty space has measurable properties (which I think is not controversial)? The controversial part might be his assertion that a vacuum which has measurable electromagnetic properties cannot be truly empty. If there really was nothing there, then there would be nothing to measure.

Personally, I have doubts about the convenient quantum assumption that virtual particles are continuously popping into existence and annihilating each other – it seems like a cludge to make a theory work. However, if the High Priests are correct and the vacuum of deep space is indeed full of evanescent virtual charged particles, they would undoubtedly have some (very small?) effect on passing electromagnetic waves. The analogy might be to a frictional loss of energy – which would have to translate to a red shift lengthening of wavelengths since light in a vacuum cannot slow down.

All speculation, of course. An unfortunate consequence of the Global Warm-Mongers is that they have made us all aware of how dependent Big Science is on taxpayer funding handed out by bureaucrats, with the associated tremendous pressure on anyone seeking funding not to deviate from the Current Thing. Astronomy with its extreme dependence of political funding for key tools like the James Webb telescope could possibly be subject to a similar pressure against rocking the boat. Maybe!

Let’s keep our minds open, and enjoy the good fortune of living at a time when scientific paradigms may be shattered!

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Historically, it was precisely the opposite. Experimenters discovered the Lamb shift in the spectrum of the hydrogen atom where the original quantum theory predicted nothing should be seen. It was only after quantum theory was extended to account for special relativity (the theory of quantum electrodynamics) (QED), which predicted a sea of virtual particles in the vacuum, that the experimental results could be explained. Today, many experimental results confirm the existence of virtual particles in the quantum vacuum and their influence on real particles in experiments.

But at the same time, the principle of Lorentz invariance, which is one of the foundational principles of QED, rules out any form of vacuum birefringence such the tired light hypothesis predicts. A variety of experiments, on scales from the tabletop to cosmological, have failed to find any evidence for Lorentz invariance violation.

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Well, since photons are “real particles”, is it not possible that virtual particles would interact with photons in the vacuum of space? And it seems that the consequence of any interaction would show up as a red shift in the photon’s wavelength.

All I am suggesting is that we should keep open minds. Let’s not fall into the self-satisfied trap of scientists at the end of the 19th Century, when even an intellectual giant like Lord Kelvin thought that physics was essentially complete. It is worth recalling that Newtonian gravity had centuries of successful predictions before it was proved to be incomplete. Should we assume that today’s Quantum Electro-Dynamics is the last word?

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It is possible, but there is absolutely zero experimental evidence that such an effect occurs, as an interaction between photons and the quantum vacuum would show up in all kinds of experiments in numerous ways and it has never been seen. Theory predicts no such interactions, as if they existed they would violate conservation laws which have never been observed to be violated in any experiment.

Frankly, I grow weary of crackpots flogging theories which have been falsified decades before and for which there is neither any experimental evidence or justification in that it predicts new phenomena one could test. When you try to pin them down, they almost always start playing word games and arguing, “Well, couldn’t it be possible that…”? Sure, many things are possible, but you have to place your bets on those which are plausible and have interesting consequences if discovered.

There is a long list of unsolved problems in physics which are genuine phenomena that may point the way to new physics. In my opinion it’s far more productive exploring them than trying to overturn theories which have survived every experimental test to which they were put for over a century and for which there are no discrepant experimental results on the table.

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Perhaps. You are quite correct that there is a ladder of cosmological distance estimation – parallax of the closest stars, etc. What that demonstrates is that IF (very big IF, we are agreed on that) there is an interaction between photons and the vacuum of space, it would have to be extremely small and would show up only over cosmological distances, millions of light-years. I am not aware of any experiment which has the sensitivity to detect that, but – open mind! – always ready to learn.

We have to avoid the Algore falsehood of “settled science”. All we can hope for is successive approximations in the approach to perfect knowledge.

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