More Evidence of a Creator?

English: René Descartes, the French philosophe...
English: René Descartes, the French philosopher, by the French engraver Balthasar Moncornot. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We’ve already made note of the fact that the big bang looks a lot like the Bible’s description of the formation of the world. We’ve noted that the rate of expansion of the early universe had to be within tolerances on the order of 1 part in 1015 either way. That much more and stars wouldn’t have formed; that much less and everything would have collapsed by now. In the last post we saw the asymmetry between matter and antimatter necessary for the stars and galaxies to form and that that asymmetry is on the order  of one part in 109. As they say in TV commercials, “but wait! There’s more.”

If the asymmetry between matter and antimatter had been smaller, say one part in 1011 there wouldn’t have been enough matter for galaxies to form.  And if it had been greater, on the order of one part in 108 the abundant matter would have congealed into enormous lumps without forming discrete stars.

The same surprises exist in the world of particle physics.  If the strong force that binds atomic nuclei together were a few percentage points greater quarks wouldn’t form protons.  If it were five percent weaker stars couldn’t make heavy elements past hydrogen. If the weak force was much stronger the big bang would have cooked atoms all the way up to iron, leaving no lighter elements. If gravity was stronger stars would be mostly weak red dwarfs; much weaker and they would be fast-burning blue giants.  Either way so-called normal stars like our Sun would be non-existent or rare.

Many have seized on these incredibly improbable coincidences as evidence that some “Cosmic Designer” is at work. It is ironic that cosmology and physics can be conscripted to give evidence of a creator. This notion that the Goldilocks universe in which we live didn’t happen by chance is called the Anthropic Principle. The Anthropic Principle can be expressed many ways but the most common is, “the universe is the way it is because we are here to see it. If it weren’t the way it is, we wouldn’t be here.” This is reminiscent of Rene Descartes statement Je pense, donc je suis (I think, therefore I am, or cogito ergo sum in Latin). Descartes, a French philosopher of the 17th Century, set out to develop a set of fundamental principles that one can know without any doubt. As a starting point he had to prove his own existence. This he did by concluding that because he thinks, he exists. “The simple meaning of the phrase,” he wrote, “is that if one is skeptical of existence, that is in and of itself proof he does exist.” Similarly, the universe exists as it does because we are here to question its existence.

Does all of this mean there is someone or something behind the big bang? Consider this hypothetical. You have been sentenced to death by a firing squad of 100 trained sharpshooters. You stand blindfolded and hear “ready, aim, FIRE” followed by a volley of shots. Suddenly you realize you are not dead. Under these circumstances the law says you may go free. Is it not realistic to see a higher power behind this? Aren’t the odds against all 100 sharpshooters missing you so astronomical as to be impossible in the absence of divine intervention?

On the other hand, the odds of a bridge player being dealt a particular hand are something like one in six billion. Does the bridge player marvel at the hand she has been dealt or does she simply play the hand she has? Most bridge players play the hand they are dealt rather than wonder why they got that particular hand, since all hands are equally likely.

Many scientists have taken the latter position — that the universe just happened this way. But to bolster their position against the “astronomical odds” argument, they suggest that one view of reality is that there is an enormous number of existing universes, on the order of 10500 (1 followed by 500 zeroes). With so many universes it is virtually certain that one of those is suitable for life. Therefore the Anthropic Principle holds true: the universe is this way because we are here to see it. We need not wonder at this particular state any more than we wonder at any other state. By making the universe non-unique in the sense that this is not the only one there is, the need for a creator is eliminated and replaced by simple laws of probability.

So where did these 10500 universes come from? For that we need to enter the world of string 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.

Hubble the Hero

The 100 inch (2.5 m) Hooker telescope at Mount...
The 100 inch (2.5 m) Hooker telescope at Mount Wilson Observatory near Los Angeles, California. This is the telescope that Edwin Hubble used to measure galaxy redshifts and discover the general expansion of the universe. At the time of this photograph, the Hooker telescope had been mothballed, although in 1992 it was refitted with adaptive optics and is once again in use. Keywords: 100 inch Hooker, telescope, Mount Wilson Observatory, Edwin Hubble (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Edwin Hubble was already famous by 1924 but that year he became a celebrity.  A few years earlier he had met Grace Burke, daughter of a California millionaire.  Grace was already married when Hubble fell in love with her but in 1921 she was widowed when her husband, a geologist, fell down a vertical mineshaft to his death.  Grace and Edwin renewed their relationship and were married in 1924.  Hubble was working at the Mt. Wilson observatory about 15 miles from Los Angeles at the time.  With his marriage into money he gained entry to parties where movie stars and politicians mingled.  Hubble was gregarious and outgoing and soon the likes of Douglas Fairbanks and Cole Porter visited the Mt. Wilson observatory where Hubble regaled them with stories.

Hubble had heard of Slipher’s and others’ discoveries that the majority of galaxies are moving away from us.  He took it as his duty as the world’s foremost astronomer to solve this problem.  The 100-inch Mt. Wilson telescope was 17 times more powerful than Slipher’s.  Hubble spent countless hours staring through it at the night sky.  With his assistant Milton Humason he set about measuring the speed of the receding galaxies.

What they discovered was the first observational evidence to support Lemaitre’s and Friedmann’s theory that the universe is not static but is expanding.  Hubble plotted the distance of dozens of galaxies against their speed and discovered a linear relation.  In other words, if a galaxy was twice as far from earth as another, the first was moving twice as fast.  Instead of traveling at random speeds and in random directions, virtually all galaxies were traveling at speeds proportional to their distance and moving away from the Milky Way.

By running the movie in reverse, so to speak, Hubble showed that last year all galaxies were closer to us than now, a hundred years ago they were closer still.  Moreover, and this was the incredible part, since the velocity was in proportion to the distance, the more distant galaxies would arrive at the beginning point at the same time as the nearer ones.  A galaxy three times as far away moved three times as fast, so, assuming that the relative speeds were constant, there was a time in the distant past when all galaxies were gathered together in one region of the universe.

Hubble’s findings weren’t conclusive proof of the Big Bang (it still had not been so named) and Einstein and others still favored a steady state view of the universe.  But it did give ammunition to the expanding universe proponents and put the burden on the steady-staters to reconcile their view with this indisputable evidence of galactic movement.

Hubble’s discovery gave rise to what is known as Hubble’s Law.  This isn’t an exact law like gravity but is more of a rule of thumb.  What it does is allow the distance of a galaxy to be calculated by knowing its speed, or its speed to be calculated if the distance is known.  The most profound implication of Hubble’s Law is that the age of the universe can be calculated.  Using Hubble’s Law and the speed of various galaxies led to a conclusion that the universe is 1.8 billion years old.

The only problem with this age is that geologists have calculated the age of the Earth at around 4 billion years.  How can the Earth be older than the universe that contains it?  While Hubble’s discovery gave credence to a time of beginning or creation of the universe, it posed internal inconsistencies.

Nevertheless, Hubble had a showman’s sense of when to leave the stage.  Rather than stay around after his prime, he stepped down at the top of his game.  He did not get involved in the next Great Debate

over the steady-state vs. expanding universe.  He luxuriated in his celebrity status as the man who had expanded the universe from the Milky Way to a perhaps infinite number of galaxies, who had shown that all these galaxies are racing away from us and who, though he might not acknowledge it himself, had nurtured the seed of the notion that the universe began at a finite time in the past, thus giving some objective evidence that Genesis’ statement “let there be light” is more than just a poetic description.

Lemaitre Sheds Light and Creates Conflict

Georges Lemaitre was born in 1894.  He began studying engineering but, like Friedmann, his studies were interrupted by World War I.  In the trenches he observed first-hand the effects of German mustard gas and won the Croix de Guerre.  After the war he returned to his studies but switched to theoretical physics.  He also enrolled in the seminary and was ordained a priest in 1923.  For the remainder of his life he pursued two careers, physics and the priesthood, saying “There were two ways of arriving at the truth.  I decided to follow them both.”

Georges Lemaître is credited with proposing th...
Georges Lemaître is credited with proposing the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe in 1927. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1923 after spending two years in Cambridge with Arthur Eddington, Lemaitre returned to Belgium and began his own cosmological quest for truth.  He adopted Einstein’s general relativity but, like Friedmann, rejected the notion of the cosmological constant.  Without knowing anything about Friedmann’s work, Lemaitre resurrected the expanding universe model.  Unlike Friedmann who was a mathematician, interested mainly in the numbers of the theory, Lemaitre wanted to understand the reality behind the numbers.  If the cosmos were expanding, Lemaitre decided to run the clock backwards.  An expanding universe implied that things were closer together yesterday, closer still 100 years ago and still closer 1 million years ago.  Run the clock backward enough and the inescapable conclusion was that everything was together at one point.

Perhaps influenced by his theological training, Lemaitre realized that general relativity implied a moment of creation.  He concluded that the universe began in a relatively small, compact region that suddenly expanded and evolved into what we observe today.  He refined his theory into what he called the primeval atom that contained all of the matter that eventually became the stars and planets.  Though a moment of creation was central to his theory, Lemaitre was interested in the evolution of the universe from the primeval atom to the stars and galaxies.

Lemaitre published his theory and was met with the same deafening silence that greeted Friedmann.  To make matters worse, Lemaitre also had a run-in with Einstein who rebuffed him, saying that his mathematics were correct but his “physics is abominable.”  Einstein had thus been offered two chances to accept an alternative to the steady state view of the universe and rejected both.  As the world authority on cosmology, Einstein’s words had the force of law.  It is ironic that, having challenged authority in his early career Einstein had now become the authority behind whom virtually all scientists fell into line.  It probably didn’t help Lemaitre that he was a priest and his theory smacked of a Creator.  Though it had been nearly four centuries since Galileo was forced to confess, the wounds science felt from religion were still tender.

The truth is, both theories were appealing and both had flaws.  The flaw in the steady state theory was the cosmological constant, which, as we have seen, is nothing but a fudge factor to make the theory conform to the accepted view of how things are.  The flaw in the nascent big bang theory (it still had not been thus named) was that there was no evidence to support the theory of a sudden explosion, other than the logic behind an expanding universe.  For that matter, though, there was no evidence to support a steady state model other than the belief that this is how things are.  The theorists needed evidence to support their various theories so they turned to the experimental physicists, the astronomers.

Friedmann’s Models of the Universe

Alexander Friedmann was a brilliant mathematician who also had a penchant for science and technology.  After enduring both the First World War and the Russian revolution in 1917, Friedmann was eventually introduced to Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity.  It may have been a combination of his delayed exposure to the theory and Russia’s relative isolation from the rest of the world that allowed Friedmann to ignore Einstein’s (and most other physicists’) view of the universe as static and formulate an entirely new and radical approach.

While Einstein started with the assumption that the universe is static and introduced the cosmological constant to counter the effect of gravity, which, under his view, would eventually lead to the collapse of the universe, Friedmann ignored the cosmological constant and then looked at general relativity to see what kind of universe it predicted.  First of all, Friedmann’s model was one of a dynamic universe, one that had started with an initial expansion (the term Big Bang wouldn’t come along for some 30 years).  This initial expansion led to three possible results:

friedmann models
friedmann models (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

First, if the initial expansion wasn’t great enough, gravity would eventually pull the universe back in on itself.  Like a ball thrown upward, the universe would at first move quickly, then slow to a complete and brief (in cosmological terms) time, and then begin to contract ever faster.  Friedmann envisioned it then expanding again, endlessly like a bouncing ball.

Secondly, if the initial expansion was great enough, the universe would continue to expand infinitely.

The third view was a middle ground in which the initial expansion was enough so that the universe would continue to expand, though slower and slower, never quite stopping.  It is like the problem of the rabbit and the lettuce.  Each second a rabbit moves one-half of the remaining distance between himself and a piece of lettuce.  For example, the rabbit starts out four feet from the lettuce.  In the first second he moves two feet closer.  The second second he moves one foot closer.  The third second he moves six inches closer and so forth.  Does he ever reach the lettuce?  The answer is, no, he never covers the remaining half-distance to the lettuce.  Similarly Friedmann’s third model never quite reaches a point where gravity overcomes expansion, though the rate of expansion continually slows until, like the rabbit, the universe is creeping forward.

Friedmann thus proposed a model of the universe based on general relativity that did not match the model proposed by the creator of the Theory of General Relativity, Albert Einstein.  Although Einstein would admit that Friedmann’s view was mathematically correct based on general relativity, he claimed it was scientifically irrelevant because the universe was static.

Friedmann was eventually proven correct, but he did not live to see himself vindicated as Einstein had done with his theory.  Friedmann died of a serious illness, probably typhoid fever, in a delirium, reportedly lecturing to an imaginary audience.  Part of Friedmann’s problem was that his notion was too radical.  He suffered the same fate as Copernicus in that the scientific world simply wasn’t ready for his view of the universe.  Another problem was that he locked horns with Einstein himself, the world’s foremost cosmologist at the time.  Finally, Friedmann, a mathematician, was not an astronomer and was therefore an outsider to the cosmological world.  Though Friedmann’s papers were published during his lifetime they received almost no notice and would not until they were rediscovered by a Belgian scientist, Georges Lemaitre.

The Cosmological Consequences of General Relativity

In 1917 Einstein published a paper entitled Cosmological Considerations of the General Theory of Relativity. The title is significant.  Unlike Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler, Brahe and Newton, Einstein was concerned with the entire universe, not just the solar system.  Calculating the orbit of Mercury to predict its movement around the sun was hard enough, but Einstein had the audacity to attempt to predict the movement of stars and galaxies.  In order to do this he had to make an assumption.  His assumption, known as the cosmological principle, is that the universe is isotropic and homogeneous.  This means that the universe looks pretty much the same in every direction, and that it looks that way from whatever vantage point in the universe you have.  This means that we do not occupy a special place in the universe.

When he applied his theory to the universe, the result was unsettling to say the least.  General relativity predicted that the universe was destined to crash in on itself as a result of gravity’s relentless pull on the stars and galaxies.  Newton’s theory had predicted the same thing.  In the early 20th Century, the view of the universe was that it was stable, that it had always existed more or less as it is today.  But Einstein’s prediction was that things would start creeping slowly toward each other.  The creep would turn into a frantic dash as stars and galaxies collided.

Anxious to make general relativity consistent with the observed and accepted notion of what the universe is, Einstein realized that if he introduced a constant, which he called the cosmological constant into general relativity, he could keep the result from being a huge crunch at some point in the future.  The cosmological constant was a sort of anti-gravity that repelled matter, offsetting the natural attraction of gravity just enough to prevent collapse.  It was, in essence, a fudge factor similar to that found by proponents of Newton’s theory of gravity who were unwilling to accept general relativity.  Even Einstein was somewhat ashamed of the need for this fudge factor, saying that it was “detrimental to the formal beauty of the theory [general relativity].”

Most scientists were content to accept the cosmological constant as a “refinement” to general relativity because it made the theory fit with their notion of the universe.  Remember we began with the adage that things are what they are and if the theory doesn’t explain them we better get a new theory.  No one wanted to jettison general relativity after having just adopted it.

No one, that is, except Alexander Friedmann, a Russian scientist born in 1888.  Friedmann would tackle orthodoxy head on and come up with a radically different view of the universe, one that would not be confirmed for decades.

Einstein’s Victory

Einstein needed to be able to predict a result that hadn’t been observed yet.  Only in this way could he definitively show the superiority of his theory over Newton’s.  Think of it this way:  Suppose you have been talking to two investment advisers, Fred and Barney.  Fred shows you his calculations that predicted yesterday what the stock market did today.  Barney shows you his calculations today that predict what the market will do tomorrow.  Tomorrow the market performs exactly as Barney predicted.  Whom do you believe?  Fred could have manipulated his theory to match today’s results because he knew the result before he gave you his prediction.  But Barney couldn’t have known what the market would do today except through his theory.

Einstein had long pondered the relationship between light and gravity.  Since the General Theory of Relativity defines gravity as a warp in the fabric of spacetime and light travels through spacetime, under Einstein’s theory light should be affected by a massive body such as the sun.  Einstein theorized that light from a star behind the sun would be bent, resulting in an apparent shift in its position.  The problem was, you can’t see any stars when the sun is shining.  Einstein realized that during a total solar eclipse stars are visible in the daytime sky so he looked for an opportunity and an astronomer (remember, Einstein was a theoretical physicist — he didn’t actually conduct experiments) to observe stars during a solar eclipse.  He found both a partner in Arthur Eddington and an opportunity in the Southern Hemisphere in 1919.  Eddington and one team went to the island of Principe off West Africa and another team went to Brazil, hoping that if clouds obscured the eclipse in one location, the other location would be clear.

Eddington's photograph of a solar eclipse, whi...
Eddington’s photograph of a solar eclipse, which confirmed Einstein’s theory that light “bends”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the end both teams were successful in observing the eclipse and taking what photographs needed to be taken.  After developing the plates, making measurements and calculating margins of error, Einstein’s predictions were within the margin of error while the results predicted by Newton’s laws were far too low.  Both Eddington and Einstein became virtual rock stars in science.  Eddington became inextricably connected to general relativity.  At one point someone said to him that he was one of three people in the world who understood the General Theory of Relativity.  Eddington was silent for several seconds and finally the person urged him not to be so modest.  “On the contrary,” Eddington replied, “I am trying to think who the third person is.”

The vindication of Einstein’s theory required a paradigm shift, a complete and sudden alteration in the way science viewed the universe.  Science usually moves incrementally, in small changes.  It isn’t often that Saul becomes Paul on the road to Damascus.  When a paradigm shift such as this occurs it usually isn’t generally accepted.  Older scientists who have devoted their professional lives to a particular view of things are reluctant to change and often it requires a dying off of the older generation before a new theory is completely accepted.  Such was the case with the General Theory of Relativity.  Yet his theories have been proven correct.  Einstein was once asked by a student how he would have felt if the universe had ultimately turned out to be different than his theory predicted.  With tongue firmly in cheek he replied, “Then I would feel sorry for the Good Lord.  The theory is correct anyway.”