Religion Weighs In

Most scientific debates take place in coffee houses and scientific conferences.  But with something as fundamental as how the universe began the public got involved.  George Gamow was in large part responsible for the publicity by writing articles for popular magazines.  Eventually even the Catholic Church got involved.  In 1951 Pope Pius XII gave an address in which he praised the Big Bang Theory as proof  of the existence of a creator:

“Thus everything seems to indicate that the material universe had a mighty beginning in time, endowed as it was with vast reserves of energy, in virtue of which, at first rapidly and then ever more slowly, it evolved into its present state. . . . In fact it would seem that present-day science, with one sweeping step back across millions of centuries, has succeeded in bearing witness to that primordial Fiat lux uttered at the moment when, along with matter, there burst forth from nothing a sea of light and radiation, while the particles of chemical elements split and formed into millions of galaxies. . . . Therefore there is a Creator.  Therefore God exists!”

image of pope Pius xii
image of pope Pius xii (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The atheist and jokester Gamow seized on this and mischievously quoted the Pope in a research paper he published in 1952, knowing it would annoy many of his colleagues who were anxious to avoid any overlap between science and religion.  The large majority of physicists believed that the validity of the Big Bang Theory had nothing to do with God and that the Pope’s endorsement of it should not be used in a serious debate.  Supporters of the Steady State Theory began to use the Pope’s address as a way of mocking the Big Bang Theory.  British physicist William Bonner suggested that the Big Bang Theory was part of a religious conspiracy to shore up Christianity.  “The underlying motive,” he said, “is of course to bring in God as a creator.  It seems like the opportunity Christian theology has been waiting for ever since science began to depose religion from the minds of rational men in the seventeenth century.”

Bonner was clearly referring to Galileo’s experience.  Since that unfortunate encounter between religion and science, science had portrayed a religious person as someone who checked his intellect at the door of the church when he entered.  This wariness toward religion sometimes bordered on paranoia.  English Nobel laureate George Thomson observed: “Probably every physicist would believe in creation if the Bible had not unfortunately said something about it many years ago and made it seem old-fashioned.”

English: George Gamow (1904—1968) — Russian-bo...
English: George Gamow (1904—1968) — Russian-born theoretical physicist and cosmologist. Русский: Георгий Гамов (1904—1968) — советский и американский физик-теоретик, астрофизик и популяризатор науки. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By the end of the decade of the 1950s, scientists were fairly equally divided between the two theories.  Both models had established themselves as serious contenders but neither had proven conclusive.  Both were based on observations that were made at the limits of science’s technology, so the “facts” deduced from those observations had to be taken not lightly but with critical examination.  Furthermore there were a number of highly intricate connections between the facts that were necessary in order to arrive at the final version of each theory.

According to Hoyle

Gamow and Herman, faced with overwhelming apathy over their notion of CMB radiation proving the Big Bang theory, withdrew from the fight in the 1953.  The Big Bang Theory had two strikes against it: the fact that it predicted the age of the universe to be less than the age of the stars it contained; and, while it adequately explained the formation of lighter elements such as hydrogen and helium, it couldn’t explain the existence of heavier elements.  The theory could be salvaged if only someone could detect the existence of CMB radiation but years of trying to gin up any interest in attempting that had failed.

Fred Hoyle
Fred Hoyle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Meanwhile, Fred Hoyle had built a reputation as the foremost critic of the Big Bang theory.  Trained in England he earned a PhD from Cambridge, working alongside some of the most famous physicists of the era, Paul Dirac, Max Born and Hoyle’s hero, Arthur Eddington.  In 1942, while assisting the war effort, he met Thomas Gold and Hermann Bondi.  The three formed an alliance based  on their interest in cosmology.  In 1946 they made a breakthrough in reviving the eternal universe model.  That  model failed to explain the red shift observed by Hubble.  Hoyle, Bondi and Gold theorized a revised model whereby the universe was expanding but eternal.

The inspiration for this theory seems to have been a low-budget horror film called Dead of Night.  The film was written in such a way that the story evolved, characters were introduced and their stories told, yet it ended exactly where it began.  It could have gone on forever without a resolution.  In that sense it seems a lot like the comedy series Seinfeld, characters getting in and out of situations but never really accomplishing anything.  As the story goes, after the film Gold asked “what if the universe was like that?”  From that came the revised steady state theory.  The universe does indeed expand but as it does new matter is continually created. This modification overcame the prediction of the Big Bang theory, that the universe was becoming less dense as the matter within it expanded.  Instead, though the universe did expand, the newly created matter filled in the gaps, making it eternally the same.  It was much like a river that flows in its course, decade after decade, century after century, apparently unchanging but never containing the same water.

The immediate question leveled against the Steady State Theory was, where was all this new matter coming from?  Hoyle replied that this shouldn’t be a concern.  The creation of one atom in a space the size of the Empire State Building every century was enough to account for the new matter.  While Hoyle acknowledged that the Steady State Theory had flaws, so did the Big Bang Theory, as we have already noted.  What Hoyle did was give cosmologists a clear choice:  Big Bang, which implies a beginning of time and space, a moment of creation (with all the implications attendant to that notion), and an unknown future; or Steady State, which offers an eternal existence, constant creation of matter, and a predictable future.

The other thing Hoyle did, ironically, was to coin the term Big Bang.  Prior to 1950 the term Big Bang as a description of that theory had not been used.  In that year Hoyle appeared as a guest on a BBC radio program to discuss the competing theories of the universe.  Hoyle said, in part, “On scientific grounds this Big Bang assumption is much the less palatable of the two.  For it is an irrational process that cannot be described in scientific terms. . . . On philosophical grounds, too, I cannot see any good reason for preferring the Big Bang idea.”  As Hoyle spoke, his voice took on a derisive tone when he used the words “big bang,” apparently trying to convey his disdain for the theory by dismissing it as nothing more than a firecracker explosion.  To his chagrin the term caught on and the theory was thenceforth and forever to be known as the Big Bang Theory.