Science & Environment
Getting Past the Big Bang
Fall 2007 Issue
“The most widely accepted cosmological philosophy at the dawn of the 21st century is nothing more than a flight of imagination [that] pretends to describe reality. It does not describe reality.”
—Hilton Ratcliffe, The Virtue of Heresy
“Most people don’t change their mind; most people repeat their thesis over and over."
—Geoffrey Burbidge, Vision Interview
“To hear scientists talk today, you would think the first moment in human history in which nonsensical views are not widely held is now. Yet . . . I am compelled to wonder.”
—Sir Fred Hoyle, Home is Where the Wind Blows: Chapters from a Cosmologist's Life
Our age is a unique and exciting one: we now possess the means of exploring many of the great questions of our place in the universe. But will we find the answers we’re looking for?
In Part One, we saw that human history is the story of seeking both to discover the natural borders of our world and to find meaning in those boundaries. Our most distant boundary has always been the proverbial dome of the sky, the celestial sphere, the medium in which we are enclosed.
In the 1960s when Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase “the medium is the message,” he was not speaking of the cosmos. Nevertheless, his discourse on the burgeoning electronic environment of television and computers has application well beyond its sociological context. Consider the way we continue to seek a message in the medium of the universe. We are embedded here, entrenched and rooted on a small planet looking out at a big expanse and wondering, what is it all for? As Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle is said to have remarked, if indeed the heavens “be not inhabited, what a waste of space.” Of course, as intriguing as extraterrestrials may be in the movies, we are not simply interested in the possibility of alien neighbors; we seek the history of the universe because, from its message, we believe we will find insight into our terrestrial condition. McLuhan argued that we have a difficult time understanding societal change because our eyes and minds are tuned to the past—traveling forward while watching the rearview mirror. In astronomy as well, our perspective on the present is derived from our view of the past.
Because the light we observe has traveled across great distances, as we peer outward into space we see backward in time. We see what was. Photons of sunlight do not instantaneously jump from the sun to us. Their energy, which drives the earth’s weather and gives us a tan, is eight minutes old when it strikes us. The light from our next nearest star in the Milky Way, Proxima Centauri, must travel across space for four years before it can be detected on earth. Our nearest galactic neighbor, Andromeda, is almost three million light years away. It has taken that long for its light to traverse the void. The apparently most distant “light” is the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation that seems to come from all directions of space. It is thought to be the faint afterglow of the origin of the universe 15 billion years ago.
While we are young, the universe is old, and its immense size severely limits our knowledge of what actually is. The sparkling points in a clear night sky may look close enough to touch, but surely they are not. Like being at the bottom of a deep pit, we look to the sky above but have little sense of the depths of the walls around us. As humans with both physical and metaphysical yearnings, we somehow hope to find meaning in this “bottomless-up” chasm of things past. Rather like looking in a rearview mirror, we hope to find something that will guide us to a more informed present.
The most widely accepted backwards view of the universe is called the big bang. While the theory has gained broad acceptance, it is not a conclusion favored by all scientists. However, although several alternatives have been put forward, we seldom hear of these competing theories. “For most people cosmology equals the big bang,” physicist Geoffrey Burbidge told Vision. “It’s not true in my view, but it is an idea that people take and now include in their thinking and their dreaming.”
The information gathered from the light we collect is open to much interpretation. While the CMB and the redshift (an offset of the lines of the spectrum toward the red end in radiation from distant celestial bodies) may be accurately observed, what each means and tells us about the history of the universe is not so clear. There is not always agreement, and the establishment of theory is hardly unanimous. It is a competition between majority and minority views (see "Cosmologies Compared”).
Edwin Hubble, who discovered the redshift-speed-distance relationship, put a cautious spin on his correlation. He wrote in the 1930s, “Because the telescopic resources are not yet exhausted judgment may be suspended until it is known from observations whether or not red-shifts do actually represent motion.” Most astronomers today believe that the redshift has both a motion component and a cosmological component. The motion effect (or Doppler shift), as it applies to sound, is familiar to us as the change in pitch one hears when a siren passes by. For a source of light moving away from the observer, the redshift is a comparable effect. To stay with the siren analogy, the cosmological shift is a change in pitch caused not from the source of the sound moving but from the street itself stretching out. For this component of the redshift, light waves are being flattened and stretched as the universe expands.
Thus, as light travels across the universe, the spectrum is altered both because the source of light is moving and because the space between the source and the earth is expanding. Many astronomers remain unconvinced of this relationship, however, and suggest other causes for the redshift. They cite evidence concerning quasars (quasi-stellar or starlike objects), which have some of the highest redshifts observed. According to big bang theory, this implies that they are some of the most distant and therefore oldest and brightest objects in the universe. But skeptics point to instances where quasars appear to be in front of low-redshift galaxies, and standard explanations for this conundrum have apparently been ruled out.
If some quasars are indeed associated with relatively young galaxies, then the meaning of the redshift remains to be properly understood. But because the Hubble correlation of redshift to distance and age has become the bedrock metric of the majority cosmological view, such anomalous data are disregarded as obviously incorrect—spurious simply because they do not fit expectations.
Understanding of the cause of the CMB is also obviously skewed by allegiance to the big bang or an alternative model. The standard big bang interpretation can be traced back to the late 1940s. George Gamow, Ralph Alpher and Robert Herman calculated the properties of the relic radiation of the origin event. While their numbers were ultimately found to be incorrect, the discovery of the CMB in 1965 apparently had Gamow claiming that these astrophysicists had “found a nickel” exactly where he had lost one.
The non–big bang explanation of the CMB finds its point of reference in Andrew McKellar’s work in the early 1940s. Based on his observation of the abundance of various interstellar gases, McKellar correctly predicted the temperature of the CMB. But according to Burbidge, who himself advocates an alternative view called the quasi-steady-state theory, this background radiation is not the result of a single event but is a byproduct of the continuous creation of new atoms within stars. McKellar’s work, he argues, is significant because it matches reality and was done without presupposing a big bang, whereas Gamow’s group created parameters that would make a big bang work. “In truth, no prediction was involved,” writes Burbidge. “But the psychological effect based on mistaken ideas concerning the prediction and discovery [of the CMB] is one of the major reasons why the big bang is believed by so many.”
If the sciences were only concerned with objective facts, one would expect to hear much more open debate. However, other human elements are involved in the process of theory-making. Science writer Timothy Ferris has observed that science may put on a dispassionate, logical and dry façade, but scientists aren’t different from the rest of us. We are all emotionally involved and therefore “unavoidably entangled in that which we study.”
This interplay between human logic, emotion and experience is important to consider in our piecing together of cosmic history. All of these factors color both our individual and our collective sense of how to sort the possible from the impossible. The late philosopher and historian of science Thomas Kuhn considered this interplay of science method and human emotion in his work on scientific revolutions—instances when one theory has given way to another. “Observation and experience can and must drastically restrict the range of admissible scientific belief, else there would be no science,” he wrote. “But they cannot alone determine a particular body of such belief.”
Kuhn noted that science is not simply a detective story; it is an enterprise that reaches beyond mere facts. Just as a weaver makes many choices when creating a tapestry, the scientific construction of “reality” entails decisions concerning what to leave out and what to leave in. Creativity, personality and politicking are all involved in the process. As Kuhn pointed out in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, “an apparently arbitrary element, compounded of personal and historical accident, is always a formative ingredient of the beliefs espoused by a given scientific community at a given time.”
According to Burbidge, among others, the big bang is more of a belief system than a dispassionate description based on observation. “Literally everyone I know who is doing observations of the CMB believes from the time they start on the project that they know where it comes from,” he says. “There is nobody in the group (and they wouldn’t let anyone into the group) who is skeptical, who would say ‘Maybe this is the wrong interpretation.’ Those people do not exist. They are not allowed to exist. You couldn’t become a graduate student if you didn’t believe what they believe.”
If the big bang is indeed a belief system, is it about to unravel? “You can believe something all you want; you may be right, you may be wrong,” adds Burbidge. “But the fact that lots of people believe it does not make it right.”
Could the big bang be on the verge of being muted in a new cosmological revolution? If the big bang and its view of a beginning were lost, how would that impact other beliefs that have become commingled in the vortex of science and Genesis?
The seed that would eventually germinate to become the big bang idea was first suggested in 1931. In a letter published in Nature, Belgian cleric and astronomer Georges Lemaître described a beginning to the universe: the “primeval atom.” Out of this he conjured an expansion analogous to exploding fireworks disintegrating into ever smaller pieces. As we noted in Part One, this idea had parallels with a prose poem written by Edgar Allan Poe in the 1840s as well as with kabbalist writings from 600 years earlier.
Some believe Lemaître’s ideas were meant to create a confluence of astronomy with theology. The scientific impetus for his speculation, however, was Einstein’s equations concerning gravity. While Einstein preferred a static and harmonious universe and created formulae to show a balance of forces working within the universe, Lemaître and Russian mathematician Alexander Friedmann discovered solutions to his equations that predicted an unstable, dynamic universe. When combined with Hubble’s 1929 announcement indicating that other galaxies are moving away at speeds proportional to their distance, the bell for the expanding universe was rung.
Over the next decades the discussion ran hot between supporters of the steady state and devotees of the new explosive model. British astronomer Fred Hoyle coined the phrase big bang to mock the concept; the universe, he said, is not a girl jumping out of a cake. But by the 1950s opinion had turned against the steady state. In a remarkable meeting of the Royal Society, Burbidge recalls, “the president gave an address in which he essentially told them that they weren’t even scientists for proposing this steady state way. When you are told that by the president of your own society, everyone else gets the message too.”
Burbidge writes, “There is no particularly compelling reason why one should so strongly favor a standard model of the Universe starting with a beginning rather than an alternative approach, apart from the fact that it is always easier to agree with the majority rather than to disagree.”
The early 1950s is also when the big bang theory made the leap of faith from scientific construct to “divine will.” Linking cosmology with Genesis, Pope Pius XII boldly announced, “To the measure of its progress, and contrary to affirmations advanced in the past, true science discovers God in an ever-increasing degree—as though God were waiting behind every door opened by science.”
In his 1951 encyclical to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, the pope continued, “We would even say that from this progressive discovery of God . . . there flow benefits not only for the scientist himself when he reflects as a philosopher—and how can he escape such reflection?—but also for those who share in these new discoveries or make them the object of their own considerations.”
Astronomer Hilton Ratcliffe notes the psychological attraction of such a convergence of science, spirit and faith. “The idea of an infinite universe just wriggling around aimlessly is an anathema to the collective human psyche,” he writes in The Virtue of Heresy. “In the face of burgeoning atheism in scientific philosophy, man uttered a sigh of relief and clutched to his bosom a universal pattern that looked suspiciously like it might just be divine!” Mentally, the idea of a big bang may be easily morphed into the fingerprint of a creator’s initial act.
By such reasoning one could then use scientific theory as a foundation to understand God. Certainly within the scientific community at large this does not happen; scientists do not attach belief in a Creator to belief in the big bang. Although they may invoke such figurative statements, cosmologists do not literally admit to believing that understanding the origin of the universe is tantamount to knowing the mind of God.
Because we are all to some degree seeking spiritual understanding—whether we believe this to be inspiration or evolution (see ”An Astronomer Attempts to Explain Spirituality”)—it becomes easy to make the big bang our proof-of-concept for the existence of a Creator. The downside is that if one sees Genesis and the big bang as one and the same, then when one goes, the other necessarily goes too.
However, if it is “by faith [that] we understand that the universe was created,” as Paul wrote to the Hebrews, “so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible,” is it then through science that we may discern the invisible and put substance to faith? To make the natural world more transparent is certainly a goal of science. But if faith is accurately described as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1 and 3, English Standard Version), then one must question whether the observational, experimental and theoretical methods of the scientific process are truly helpful in a spiritual quest.
Might these methods more likely be deceptive, useful in “proving” the nonexistence of a Creator, as some scientists indeed argue? When combined with a better sense of how science is actually done—not merely through cold rational deduction at the bench but also via the thoroughly human realm of competition, compromise and emotional allegiance—the observer must recalibrate his opinion as to what science actually is. Caveat emptor.
Creators of theories opposed to the big bang are not attempting to do away with spiritual meaning; that is the least of their concerns. They are fighting an uphill battle simply to force a return to observation-based science, lab-based physics, and an accurate accounting of the evidence. To this growing cohort of physicists, a theory of origins that rides on the improvisations of imaginary multiverses, quantum tunneling, and the dark matter and forces that enliven them, is simply not tenable.
One such big bang detractor is Eric Lerner, a physicist studying the dynamics of plasmas. To him, a theory that can be molded to be all things to all observations is just not credible (see “The Big Bang: Science or Scientism?”). Lerner writes that “the time has come, and indeed has long since come, to abandon the Big Bang as the primary model of cosmology. . . . All the basic predictions of the Big Bang theory have been repeatedly refuted by observation. The theory is now cluttered with a multiplying collection of ad-hoc hypotheses.”
Iconoclasts, such as Lerner’s Alternative Cosmology Group, argue that big bang cosmology is simply a form of creationism: a matter of belief based on incorrect interpretation, not testable scientific evidence. They insist that their alternative cosmologies show “promise to coherently explain the observations and to predict new phenomena” in ways the big bang is failing to do. The success of big bang cosmology rests not in its observational or experimental validation, Lerner writes, but in its “ability to retrospectively fit observations with a steadily increasing array of adjustable parameters, just as the old Earth-centered cosmology of Ptolemy needed layer upon layer of epicycles” (see “Theory or Sleight of Hand?”).
Proponents of alternative theories are looking for the kind of revolution Kuhn discussed. “How . . . do scientists respond to the awareness of an anomaly in the fit between theory and nature?” he asked. A revolution in viewpoint grows out of the sense that “an existing paradigm has ceased to function adequately in the exploration of an aspect of nature to which that paradigm itself had previously led the way.”
Whereas at the start of the 20th century Einstein envisioned a comprehensible universe where “God does not play dice,” scientific understanding today has become more arbitrary, cloudy, dark. Advocates of non–big bang cosmologies believe that their conclusions concerning the structure of the universe will revitalize a scientific enterprise shackled to a moribund theory. The incomprehensibility, they argue, is of our own doing. Ignoring experiments that can actually be carried out and observations that can be made, big bang theorists have instead invented a fantasy worldview that cannot be tested and cannot be explained except by yet another intellectual invention.
Could the change of view that the iconoclasts propose lead to a renaissance of theoretical and technological achievement? They believe so. From their perspective it is clear that reliance on the big bang as the explanation of origins is a scientific dead end: absorbing funding dollars, big bang research channels our scientific capital into an ever expanding maze of bizarre theoretical pathways, creating theory upon theory to explain things that cannot be shown to exist.
If this is happening on the physical stage, it is not too far a leap to ask whether it is also happening on the metaphysical. Do we mirror the same practice of inventing theory to match opinion when we delve into questions of a spiritual nature?
A curiosity for meaning is the driving force behind science in general and, more specifically, the specialties of physics, astronomy and cosmology. Curiosity and an emotional need for knowing are the lubricants of the human mind in inventing telescopes and accelerators, as well as the mathematics to examine our findings. We have indeed invented incredible tools for exploring many of the great questions of our place in the universe (though one may question how these tools are being used), and we hope that this physical probing will unlock doors to metaphysical meaning (see “Crunch Time”). It is easy to commingle the two quests—physical and metaphysical—because, as physicist Freeman Dyson once said, the universe seemed to know we were coming.
At the end of his book Many Worlds in One, astrophysicist Alexander Vilenkin arrives at a most important question. After spending the body of the text describing how “no cause is required” to create a universe from “nothing,” Vilenkin notes that the fundamental laws that govern the subsequent development of the universe must have an origin in something real. The “process is governed by the same fundamental laws that describe the subsequent evolution of the universe. It follows that the laws should be ‘there’ even prior to the universe itself.”
Whether the universe first appeared in one form or another (Did it result from a blast or was it all in place?), or at one time or another (Is it young or old?), the ultimate source of the laws that govern the universe remains the big conundrum. The troubles of cosmology echo our basic questions as a conscious species. If we cannot decipher the patterns of the material universe to orient ourselves within creation in an understandable way, then is there any hope of finding the metaphysical behind the physical? It seems that even the heavens themselves, or at least human interpretation of them, are untrustworthy. Is there a source of information concerning the past, present and future of the universe that is reliable and above human bias? Is there another medium to explore for answers to our deep questions, a guide to an accurate rearview so that we may move forward in a more effective and contented way?
The Bible, in a sense a record of Vilenkin’s mysterious lawgiver, locates a Creator outside the realm of scientific discovery. Whether the universe is 6,000, 6 billion or a trillion years old, the hope of humankind is not found in discovering a born-on date. It is found in the revelation that there is more beyond what we see; the answer lies not in dark energy and dark matter but in a new heaven and a new earth.
To realize that there is more beyond the time frame of either a human or a cosmic lifetime is a revolution in thought. It is comparable to our instruments that can see out into the universe beyond our personal sight. This realization opens a new paradigm, a new sense of meaning akin to Kuhn’s view of scientific revolutions applied personally rather than collectively. This requires a personal reorientation, a revolution where one paradigm hesitatingly, then fully, gives way to another. Our personal revolution is one that allows the leap from a wholly physical view of where we are to a spiritual sense of why we are.
To find the purpose and meaning that we each intuitively seek, we must make use of information that is found outside the purview of science. Is there a mind that predates the universe? If so, why did that mind determine to make humans? Our conclusions become guides not only to our inner sense of life but also to our outer behavior—how we will relate to and care for our fellow passengers on this journey.
An understanding of origins delineates important boundaries both to our thinking on where we are in time and space, and to where we must look for guidance. The right path forward is often obscured and difficult, but it is not impossible to discover as we each—for reasons that science could never understand—find our way past the big bang.