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New Left Review I/191, January-February 1992

Felix Pirani

The Crisis in Cosmology

Among the physical sciences, cosmology is distinctive: its domain is a unique and irreproducible system, the Universe; those who study it are inescapably immersed in the system; almost all of it is inaccessible to them; even on the accessible fragment there is almost no possibility of experiment. [1] ‘Cosmology: The science or theory of the universe as an ordered whole, and of the general laws which govern it.’ oed. For comments on an earlier draft I am grateful to Max Alexander, Abraham Baravi, Hermann Bondi, Dina Hecht, Harmke Kamminga, Moshé Machover, Stephen Mason, Bianca Monteleoni, Marta Monteleoni, Jerry Ravetz, Chris Roper, Abner Soleimany, and my sons Adam and Simon; the remaining errors are mine. At the same time, the employment of continually improving techniques produces a flood of observational results. These distinguishing characteristics are partly responsible for the present state of cosmology: the inadequacy of the theoretical foundations becomes increasingly apparent, the contradiction between theory and observations increasingly acute. To match current theory with observation, for example, one must believe that 90 per cent or more of the matter in the Universe is unseen and of unknown composition. The unsatisfactory and unstable state of the subject has given popularizers of cosmology great ideological scope. I shall discuss two examples below: Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, and Barrow and Tipler’s The Anthropic Cosmological Principle. First I shall establish a historical context in which the crisis can be understood.

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