“Wrinkles In Time” & Critical Thinking

1. Background

This article is about George Smoot’s looking For “Wrinkles In Time” in the Cosmic Background Radiation (CBR). Among Smoot’s early findings was that the CBR fit the pattern for blackbody radiation perfectly and that the CBR was extremely uniform in all directions. While the former was consistent with the Big Bang theory, the latter posed a problem, namely, how could the extremely structured universe (galaxies, galactic groups, super galactic groups, the Great Wall of galaxies) evolve from a purely uniform beginning. Hence, Smoot’s mission was to see if there were “wrinkles” in the CBR representing the earliest signals of the Big Bang – from about 300,000 years after the bang. Smoot & team also had to make a detailed map of radiation from our galaxy and indeed from the whole sky so that they could remove “noise” radiation from their data.

The Inflationary Epoch of the Big Bang, mentioned below, lasted from 10−36 seconds after the conjectured Big Bang singularity to sometime between 10−33 and 10−32seconds increasing the universe’s size by about a factor of 1050. Whereupon a slow expansion rate resumed.

2 Mindset

My views are based purely on what Smoot writes. Presumably, while Smoot seems to have high integrity and be quite honest, one would not expect him to purposely write so as to put himself in a bad light, however, I think a certain bias and other pressures are evident.

In addition, I watched the CNPS whiteboard on Prof. Alexander Unzicker’s critique of the alleged finding of the Higg’s Boson (A link is at end of article). Unzicker cataloged a lot of sources for error in that search for the Higg’s boson. It reminded me that when I read “Wrinkles In Time” years ago, I had many of the exact same concerns as Unzicker had, but regarding this completely different area of science research. So I’m documenting those echoes of Unzicker’s concerns.

However, note that whereas Unzicker is a world class expert in particle physics, I know little about the detailed analysis of the Cosmic Background Radiation (CBR) – other than what was written in the book, “Wrinkles In Time”. Hence, my main focus is on mindset rather than a detailed critique of the science.

Further, I do NOT claim that the mindset described precludes valid findings, just that it calls for Critical Thinking review. Further still, while Unzicker gives strongly dunning review, my only criticism of Smoot is based on his being human and clearly a certified member of a peer group (academic cosmologists).

The Higg’s Boson was hailed as the discovery of the century by many. Similarly, many, such as Stephen Hawkings, declared that finding wrinkles in the CBR was “The scientific discovery of the century , if not all time.” Smoot won the 2006 Noble Prize for his finding. But that does NOT mean that Smoot’s thesis should be accepted without serious critical thinking.

2.1 Criterion For Success

On the one hand, if Smoot found wrinkles or indeed did NOT find any sign of wrinkles, the findings would be huge. If the former, then a big problem for current theory would be removed and if the latter, then that would be even more dramatic as it would seem to mean that cosmology would have to start again almost from scratch to develop a replacement theory. However, the mindset of Smoot and indeed his whole peer group, perhaps understandably, was that the former would be a HUGE success with much hoopla, congratulations, celebrations and parties whereas the latter finding would be a failure yielding much despair. Hence, there may have been a predisposition toward “success” from within and from without (i.e., from the peer group). In the quotes below, I occasionally add bolding for emphasis.

Smoot writes about the Inflation Epoch,

How did this big bang within the big bang occur? How could a brief explosive expansion, which was so different from the normal expansion of the big bang, occur in the early life of the universe? It is here that Guth [the inventor of Inflation] has pointed to a harmonious marriage between astrophysics and particle physics – a match so beautiful it has to be right.


Smoot writes, after many years of failure, about finding wrinkles, “Clearly, cosmic anisotropy- the wrinkles of creation- was proving harder to detect than most of us had ever suspected. In the late 1960’s , theorists had suggested anisotropy might be relatively easy to spot – perhaps as obvious as one part in ten” Note that the wrinkles were finally found at around 1 part in 100,000 so there was a very wide range open for success.”

Smoot writes, “Many believed that COBE was going to resolve once and for all whether the big bang really happened. For me, there was no question about it. The big bang did happen and we were going to find out much more about how it happened.

Smoot writes about an interim presentation where FIRAS, part of Smoot’s COBE mission, showed that the CBR was a perfect fit to the blackbody radiation profile as required by the Big Bang, “No doubt about it, the cosmological community had become ever more edgy about the big bang. FIRAS had dispelled that doubt. … the reaction to the FIRAS data reflected as much relief as recognition of good science.” [Note: The FIRAS presentation received a standing ovation.]

Smoot writes his presentation, following the FIRAS presentation on so far NOT finding wrinkles, “We had no indications of wrinkles [at 1 in 10,000], no indications of comic seeds from which galaxies grew early in the history of the universe. This disappointment aside, …” [Applause, but no standing ovation.]

At this point, pressure from the National Research Council was great as in,

If no variations are found at these increased sensitivities, then theoretical extragalactic astronomy will be thrown into crisis. Something will be seriously wrong either with our theories of galactic formation or with our understanding of the cosmic background radiation.

… we had seen no evidence of seeds, and that any variations in the cosmic background radiation had to be less than several parts per hundred thousand.”

The DMR aboard the COBE satellite had boosted our detection sensitivity more than tenfold, and brought us close to the limit of what was technically possible. Had we failed to detect wrinkles with this instrument, the science would have been in deep trouble.


2.2 Unzicker, “There’s always a signal”

Smoot writes,

After all by the early 1980’s, the failure to detect ripples had begun to worry cosmologists seriously. … they still failed to detect temperature variations at a level of one part in a hundred. Then our U-2 borne experiments got down to one part in a thousand … Now sensitivities were pushing down toward one part in ten thousand and still nothing. … Cosmological theory demanded that fluctuations exist … Their eventual discovery was going to be a major event in the history of cosmology and, though I really wanted to be the one to discover them, I was ready to applaud their discovery by others.

“… Simultaneously, worried theorists pushed their ideas to the limit. They had been revising their theories to account for the inabilities to detect the ripples … If cold dark matter existed at the critical density, it was possible to push down to about one part in one hundred thousand.


2.3 Sources of Errors

Smoot writes,

We were looking for tiny variations in the smooth background temperatures, something less than one part in a hundred thousand- that’s something like trying to spot a dust mote lying on a vast, smooth surface like a skating rink. And just like a skating rink, there would be many irregularities on the surface that had nothing to do with what we sought. These irregularities are like the systematic errors that plagued the differential microwave radiation data – stray sources of heat, magnetic radiation, artifacts in software analysis and so on.


Smoot talks to the team, “cautioned that the noise and our limits on potential errors in the system were still as great as the signal.

Smoot writes, “But we still could not be certain whether the pattern was that of cosmic wrinkles or any one of many artifacts – flowing from radiation from our galaxy or from the instrument – that looked like wrinkles.

After 18 years of searching for wrinkles and now believing he’d found them, Smoot, to his great credit, brought in someone from outside the group who was expert at ferreting out errors to review the data and analysis.

It looked like they finally found wrinkles, all signed off on error checking including Smoot’s outside observer. Smoot said do another round of error checking. The outside observer, to his own surprise, did find an instrument error that manufactured the erroneous wrinkles. But if they hadn’t done that extra check, they would have announced finding wrinkles and would have gotten the same reception as they later actually got!

2.4 Software Analysis

Smoot wrote, “we would steadily clear out the noise that would obscure the [looked for] signal.”

Smoot subtracted out “the mean, the dipole and the quadrupole” from the data and then the faint wrinkles appeared.

2.5 Resources

Smoot had a team of observers, hardware technicians, software analysts, testers, computer technicians and NASA support. The COBE mission cost over $160 million. The search consumed 18 years of intensive work, first with weather balloons, then a U2 plane and then an instrument satellite launched by NASA. Critical thinkers, even within academia, don’t have access to this type of support.

2.6 Interpretation

Smoot claimed that finding the wrinkles confirmed the Big Bang, Inflation and Dark Matter. If verified, finding the wrinkles would support a Big Bang, but not necessarily today’s Big Bang model. Inflation was invented to bridge the gap between the data, namely, a highly structured universe and a Big Bang that should yield homogeneity. Inflation calls for a sudden dramatic increase in the rate of expansion yielding increasing the universe’s size by about a factor of 1050 in about 10-34 of a second. And then a sudden return to slow expansion. Inflation calls on quantum fluctuation at this early point which are then quickly and greatly expanded to yield the basis for the structure we now observe. So the wrinkles would be the byproduct of this rapid expansion period.

Dark matter was originally invented by physicists to fill the gap between the data on galaxy rotation and current theory. The rationale for saying the wrinkles confirm dark matter is that cold dark matter is needed to explain why wrinkles might be 1 part in 100,000 versus the expected lower ratios.

There seems to be a pervasive, strong tendency to interpret the data so as to confirm currently accepted theory without equally strong justification.


Smoot and his team had done 18 years of yeoman’s work operating with high integrity and strong adherence to modern scientific method. Smoot and the core of his team even had to go to the South Pole and endure temperatures of -30o to -40o for a month just to get the best observing possible of the galaxy to help eliminate galactic radiation errors. But Critical Thinking and analysis is called for as the task required getting billions and billions of pieces of data and searching through it at the limits of detection while also doing software manipulations to remove noise/non-patterns – all the time having a strong drive to “finally” find “wrinkles”.

For additional thoughts on some aspects of this theme see the article “Cargo-cult statistics and scientific crisis“.

See Prof. Unzicker’s critique of the claim of finding the Higg’s boson – when you get to the linked page, you’ll need to scroll down to the 3rd Whiteboard presentation.

The Higgs Fake by science woke author and physicist Dr. Alexander Unzicker.

About the Author

Nick Percival
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