The State of the Universe Mid-Century

By the time Fred Hoyle inadvertently created the term “Big Bang,” this was the state of the universe debate.

Gamow and Herman made a specific prediction based on their calculations.  They predicted the light left over from the Big Bang would have been in the 10-3 millimeter length 300,000 years after the Big Bang.  Because the universe had been expanding, the light would have been stretched, or red-shifted, so that is was now about one millimeter in length.  This is longer than visible light.  One millimeter is in the microwave wavelength.  Gamow and Herman called this cosmic microwave background radiation, or CMB radiation.  This was a bold prediction, in the same league with Babe Ruth calling his shot in Game 3 of the 1932 World Series or Joe Namath predicting a Jets’ win over the heavily favored Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III.

Unfortunately no one had taken up Gamow’s and Herman’s cause.  There are many reasons for this.  First, the Big Bang theory was still the minority view of most scientists.  No one wanted to look for CMB radiation that might be there based on a theory that most people didn’t accept.  Secondly, Gamow had a reputation as a bit of a jokester and wasn’t taken altogether seriously.  For instance, he once said that heaven was 9.5 light years from earth.  He based this on the fact that in 1904, at the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War, many in Russia were praying for the destruction of Japan.  It wasn’t until 1923 that a severe earthquake hit Japan.  Gamow said, tongue in cheek, that prayers were limited by the speed of light and since it took 19 years for them to get to heaven and the response to get back, it must be 9.5 light years from Earth to heaven.  A third reason that Gamow’s and Herman’s theory wasn’t worked on was it required a unique skill set.  Their theory was based on the intersection of astronomy, nuclear physics and microwave detection.  Almost no one had those skills and even if they did the technology to detect CMB radiation was in its infancy.

This intersection of astronomy and nuclear physics comes as a result of running the expanding universe predicted by Friedmann and Lemaitre and demonstrated by Hubble backwards to its logical end.  As the universe contracts back on itself it becomes more and more compact.  Its curvature becomes greater and greater until, at the instant of the Big Bang, it has infinite curvature.  Mathematics abhors infinity.  It simply can’t deal with it.  It’s like trying to divide by zero; it can’t be done.  General relativity breaks down when the curvature becomes infinite.  Physicists had to turn to other models to predict what happened.  Those other models are in the realm of nuclear physics, or particle physics as it has come to be called.  To fully understand the birth of the universe, one had to understand not only the cosmos as it is today, which is the realm of general relativity, but also what went on from those first crucial nanoseconds after the explosion, when temperatures were in the millions of degrees and no matter existed; the universe was composed completely of energy, to about five minutes after the explosion when atomic nuclei began to form.  And then, after the first 300,000 years, for the next ten million years or so, how did the lighter elements like hydrogen and helium

The Hubble Ultra Deep Field, is an image of a ...
The Hubble Ultra Deep Field, is an image of a small region of space in the constellation Fornax, composited from Hubble Space Telescope data accumulated over a period from September 3, 2003 through January 16, 2004. The patch of sky in which the galaxies reside was chosen because it had a low density of bright stars in the near-field. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

combine to form heavier elements?

You can begin to see why many physicists still clung to the eternal universe theory.  The implications of the Big Bang are staggering.  Besides the question “how did it happen” there is the question, “how did we get from the plasma soup to stars, galaxies and planets.”  It’s much easier simply to say that the universe has always looked like it does and always will.  It was never created and it will never end.  It just is.  With the new life breathed into the Steady State view by Hoyle, Bondi and Gold the debate took on some aspects of trench warfare during World War I with both sides staring at each other across a no-man’s land.


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