Physics, Earth & Space Icon Physics, Earth & Space

Big Bang: Put Simply, the Facts Are Wrong

Denyse O'Leary

Big Bang

Typing “Big Bang Theory” into a search bar links us immediately to the long-running (debut 2007), immensely popular CBS sitcom, a post-modern look at the lives of Caltech physicists. The conventional meaning of the term, our universe’s origin starting with a small singularity currently pegged at 13.8 billion years ago, is a mere second thought.

Even “relativity” cannot match that pop culture success: The first hit I tried offered to define the term, as if that really matters.

But the Big Bang is unpopular among cosmologists. It survives on evidence alone. And sadly, evidence matters much less than it used to.

Science historian Helge Kragh tells us that astronomer Fred Hoyle coined the term “big bang” in 1949: “Ironically… to characterize the kind of theory he much disliked and fought until the end of his life… As Hoyle said in an interview in 1995: ‘Words are like harpoons. Once they go in, they are very hard to pull out.'” In 1949, he had described the theory as “irrational.”

But in 1965, the evidence of aftershocks (the cosmic microwave background) made the irrational theory an apparent fact. In that year, the New York Times announced “Signals Imply a ‘Big Bang’ Universe,” which certainly helped introduce the term to a large public.

Kragh tells us, “Many people feel that ‘big bang’ is an unfortunate name, not only because of its association with a primordial explosion, but also because it is such an undignified label for the most momentous event ever in the history of the universe.”

Undignified, possibly. But that is hardly the only reason the detractors didn’t (and don’t) like it. Arthur Eddington (1882-1944) exclaimed in 1933, “I feel almost an indignation that anyone should believe in it — except myself.” Why? Because “The beginning seems to present insuperable difficulties unless we agree to look on it as frankly supernatural.” Others chimed in, making it clear that the principal problem is not with the evidence, then or now, but with obvious conclusions.

As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy sniffs, “A naive or ideological reading of twentieth century cosmology might count big bang cosmology as providing new support for theism, and alternatives such as steady-state cosmology as atheistic backlashes.” Yes, possibly. The entry conveniently demonstrates the very point it seeks to dismiss: The half-century war against the Big Bang is not going well for the warriors.

We are now told that there is more to the universe than the Big Bang. and that, with the help of physicist Sean Carroll, we can speculate wildly as to what it was like before the Big Bang. A recent theory relies on a quantum fluid of “hypothetical massless particles.” Or a holographic mirage from another dimension.

It all sounds like a guy explaining why he can’t pay his rent. Only the last sentence matters.

Statue of Fred Hoyle, Institute of Astronomy, by Mark Hurn [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.