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Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Big Bang Theory: The Longest Playing Reality Show in History.

Not a comedy but a documentary

There is an American television comedy series called "Big Bang Theory". You may be a fan. It was first aired in 2007 and continued being shown on the television and satellite networks for twelve years until 2019. In Malaysia, we are still being transmitted the more recent episodes of this sitcom series.

This post is not about the television comedy series. Instead, I will try to provide a precis of a story that has been ongoing, without a break for about 13.772 billion years. So this post is about the Big Bang model which is the leading theory about how our Universe began.

There are many elements about the development of this model that are fascinating. Several components are steeped in advanced mathematics. I am certain that those who are enthusiastic about the philatelic and historical perspectives of my posts would be less appreciative of a sudden detour into the realm of some specialized mathematical techniques so in this narrative, I will try to keep myself on the track of simple explanations. I shall leave those more interested and gifted in the complex math supporting Big Bang physics to seek advanced publications for a deeper understanding of the subject.

There is one more technical point worth noting on my use of the word "creation". In the context of the English language, this word normally implies the formation of "a something" from "a nothing". This is not the intended definition in this post of the Big Bang Theory. On the contrary, I use this word in the context first proposed by George Gamov i.e. "making something shapely out of shapelessness".

The Big Bang - A beginning for creation but (currently), the end of the road for our understanding

As I understand the data available to me today, the science-based story of our creation goes back to a moment approximately 13.772 billion years ago. Mathematical models, supported by empirical evidence suggest that around this time, an event, popularly termed "The Big Bang" is believed to have taken place. The phrase, "Big Bang" itself is partially a misnomer. The event had, and continues to have, inconceivably large implications so in that respect, it was "Big". There was however, no "Bang". A "bang" implies a sudden and loud explosive sound but in that particular instant of the Big Bang, a medium to propagate sound waves (like a solid, liquid or a gas) did not exist so the Big Bang, very likely, took place in silence.

In the beginning ....

Over the millennia, every culture developed its own folklore about the creation of the universe. On reflection, this is unsurprising. Communities were dispersed, inter-culture communication did not easily take place and each environment was different. Thus stories about our creation were also varied. Probably the most widely known record of the creation of the universe comes from The First Book Of Moses, called, Genesis (King James Version). Chapter 1, opens as follows:

"1. In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. 2. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. 3. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light."

Genesis does not offer the sole story of creation. There are ancient records reporting other myths of our beginning. These are from multiple cultures, some detailed whilst others are more abstract. Given the lack of development in the scientific method and a scarcity of observational tools in the early centuries before and after the birth of Jesus Christ, there were not many alternatives available to those philosophers posed the difficult questions relating to the conundrum of our creation. It is likely their only option at the time was to offer answers which were linked to an act of a God or some form of Creator.

A stamp from the United States of America - Earth from the Moon

The earliest thoughts about a universe that was created naturally

In the sixth century before Christ, Greek philosophers started to attempt to describe the Universe as being a result of natural phenomena, not attributable to supernatural acts but they were limited in very many ways. Data of what was being observed around and above them were transmitted by word of mouth, writings and drawings, or through debate and discussion. In addition, at the time, observations were made with the naked eye and it would be more than two thousand years before the first telescope was invented. The problem that was set for these philosophers was enormous. How could an accurate and plausible story of creation be developed when the extent of what had been created remained an unknown like a jigsaw that was incomplete because so many critical pieces were missing?

Without convincing answers, myths and legends around gods and monsters prevailed at the core of beliefs about the creation of the Universe. Centuries passed and as various religions, particularly Christianity became dominant and imposing, humankind converged on a God - created, Earth-centered Universe.

A brief recapitulation of the initial turning point (1543 - 1915) ...

In my previous post entitled "Albert Einstein to Mr. Spock: "Vulcan does NOT exist!", I provided some granularity of the intolerance of the Vatican toward scientists who offered new ideas which did not conform with biblical teachings. Copernicus was discredited, Kepler, barely heard and Galileo was placed under house arrest for the nine years prior to his death for challenging the status quo of an Earth-centered Universe.

Stamp honouring Galileo Galilei  issued by the island of Grenada (a country in the Caribbean).
He was persecuted by the Vatican for progressive scientific thinking that did
not conform with the  Vatican's interpretation of the Bible.

Galileo was not alone as a target of persecution. Giordano Bruno, an Italian Dominican friar, philosopher, mathematician and cosmological theorist, supported the Copernican Sun-centered model of the Solar System and further proposed that stars which shone in the heavens were distant suns which might be orbited by their own planetary systems. He also offered the possibility that these planets might foster life. For his visionary but unorthodox world view of the Universe, he was tried by the Vatican and burnt at the stake in 1600 at the age of fifty-two. He is the first recorded martyr of modern science.

In my previous post I also described how the work of Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo (using telescopes as a visual aid) collectively and irrefutably moved the Earth away from the center of the Universe. The contributions of Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein were also covered in my previous post. The Big Bang event could not have been theorized without an understanding of General Relativity and the Laws of Gravitation.

Suffice to say that between 1543 (the publication of the works of Copernicus) and 1915 (General Relativity and a new thinking on gravity being offered by Einstein), an essential mathematical based foundation was being laid, backed-up by empirical astronomical observations. Without this path that was being cut, it is unlikely that we could have written a credible story about the creation of the Universe itself.

The first clues and the Great Debate (1912 - 1920)

Whilst mathematical models were being investigated, in 1912, Vesto Slipher, subsequently followed by Carl Wilhelm Wirtz in 1918, observed a consistent redshift of "spiral nebulae". What did this mean? In simple language, these "redshifted" observations indicated that the identified spiral nebulae were moving away from Earth. These observations were difficult to comprehend. Interpretation complexities led to arguments between leading astronomers which culminated in the "Great Debate" of 1920.

The subject of the Great Debate was the "Scale of the Universe". The participants in the debate were Harlow Shapley and Heber Curtis. Both participants used data of suspect quality that did not permit well-grounded conclusions to be synthesized but both astronomers also offered points that commenced a fundamental shift in our understanding of our place in the Universe.

Shapley correctly demonstrated that the Milky Way is larger than it was thought to be at the time and that the Sun is offset from the center of our galaxy but he incorrectly concluded that the Milky Way was so large it could actually encompass the spiral nebulae that had been observed. Curtis, on the other hand, believed that the data presented did not allow the drawing of the conclusion that spiral nebulae were inside the Milky Way. He contributed the view (which would eventually be established as fact) that these spiral nebulae were external objects, similar to the Milky Way. The drawback in his argument was that he incorrectly relied on his belief that the Milky Way was much smaller than its actual size.

The debate was of intellectual interest with several opinions but little by way of facts.

Albert Einstein and the cosmological constant of convenience

Whilst the debates and arguments took place between 1912 and 1920 about the scale of the Universe, Albert Einstein was applying his mind to his General Relativity problem. By late 1915, the Theory of General Relativity was complete and was being disseminated to the science community. But when Einstein tested his general relativity and gravity formulae, the resulting outcome showed an unstable universe that was destined to destroy itself.

Sir Isaac Newton had also (over two hundred years before) encountered the same dilemma when he applied his gravity formulae to the problem and was troubled by the implications of the results that were obtained. For Newton, as for Einstein, the mathematics demonstrated that eventually, the Universe would collapse upon itself. To resolve the problem, Newton gave God a role. He suggested that from time to time, the Almighty intervened to maintain the stability of the Universe by forcibly keeping apart the members of the celestial family (like the stars and the galaxies), preventing them from gravitating towards (and eventually destroying) each other.

Einstein did not accept that God played such a critical role. He understood that the scientific community expected an eternal and static universe so to meet their expectations, Einstein adapted his gravity formula to include a new feature. He called this the "cosmological constant". Here was a method to include a convenient repulsive force acting throughout the Universe which balanced the gravitational attraction of the stellar bodies. As a physicist, Einstein was never comfortable with this awkward mathematical fix but he was willing to sacrifice the beauty of his initial formulae to a degree because it allowed his General Relativity Theory to accommodate an eternal universe. It was also outcome the traditional scientific community expected and accepted.

A First Day Cover issued in the United States in March 1979 honouring Albert Einstein. This First Day Cover also carries a "wet ink" signature by Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world wide web (www)

Unfortunately, the story for Einstein did not end there. Alexander Friedmann, a Russian mathematician, isolated from the expectations of the orthodox scientific community of Western Europe worked Einstein's equations in their purist theoretical form. He set the "convenient" cosmological constant to zero and in doing so, returned Einstein's equations back to their original state. His workings resulted in a universe that was both dynamic and evolving. Whilst Einstein viewed this interpretation as one that would take the universe to a collapse, Friedmann saw it differently. In 1922, he suggested that our Universe may have received an initial jump-start - an initial burst of expansion - that allowed it take off on a path of evolution, against the pull of gravity. This was an hypothesis of the early workings of the Universe that had never previously been forwarded.

Friedmann challenged Einstein on his views but Einstein, whilst finally agreeing that Friedmann's math was correct, did not relent and continued to maintain a personal position in favour of a static universe. Sadly, in 1925, Friedmann died suddenly of illness and for a short period of time, Einstein was spared the necessity of having to justify the inclusion of his cosmological constant.

Critical work of Edwin Hubble (1923 - 1924)

It would be difficult to imagine a trained lawyer, soldier and then, astronomer, making the crucial observations that settled the core argument of the Great Debate. Edwin Hubble attended the University of Chicago and then Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. Even though he loved the subject of astronomy, he acquiesced to his father's wishes and read law. After his father passed away, he returned to the University of Chicago to further his studies in astronomy. On completion of his doctorate, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and served a tour of duty in World War 1. After the war, he worked at California's Mount Wilson Observatory which was equipped with the 100-inch (2.5 m) Hooker Telescope, then the world's largest reflector.

A First Day Cover from Palau - an island country in Oceania, honouring
astronomer Edwin Hubble

At that time, the prevailing view of the cosmos was that the Universe consisted entirely of the Milky Way Galaxy and the celestial bodies within it. Between 1923 and 1924, using the Hooker Telescope at Mt. Wilson, Hubble made detailed empirical observations which proved conclusively that most spiral nebulae, the subject of the 1920 Great Debate, were much too distant to be part of the Milky Way and were, in fact, separate galaxies outside our own. Each composed of billions of stars, very like our Milky Way. This idea had been opposed by many in the astronomy establishment of the time, in particular by Harvard University-based astronomer, Shapley, one of the participants in the Great Debate, until Hubble put the matter to rest.

In essence, by 1924, we were at a point where the Theory of General Relativity was in place and with Hubble's discovery, the Universe was much larger than had been initially thought. It also then became accepted that the Milky Way was also not the only galaxy in the Universe. Progress was certainly being made on the route towards establishing the manner in which the Universe came into being but there was still a long way to go.

Stamps from the USA - A nebulae is a giant cloud of gas and dust in space . Some nebulae come from the dust thrown out by the explosion of a dying star. Other nebulae are regions where new stars are born so sometimes they are called 'star nurseries' . The images on the stamps above were captured by the Hubble Space Telescope. At the time of the Great Debate, astronomers called other galaxies "spiral nebulae" because they perceived them to be within the Milky Way Galaxy, thought at the time to be the only galaxy in the Universe. Post the work of Hubble we understood that those perceived "spiral nebulae" are galaxies in their own right.

The advent of the Big Bang hypothesis (1927 - 1931)

Many people are aware that the Big Bang theory is currently thought to be the best explanation for how the Universe came to be created. It is also highly likely that only a few will know that a Catholic priest formulated this theory in the late 1920s.

Reverend Monsignor Georges Lemaître, a Belgian, was this priest. He was also a gifted scientist who was willing to challenge the orthodox thinking of his colleagues. A brilliant mathematician and physicist, he rejected the static universe model that was entrenched in the minds of his fellow scientists, which included Albert Einstein, in favour of a dynamic model. In the course of carrying out his studies and his research, he repeatedly had to confront those with illogical thinking who pitted faith against reason and positioned the Church against science.

A stamp from the Republic of Mali (Africa)  honouring Belgian priest and mathematician, 
Father Georges Lemaître

Father Lemaître started publishing his ideas about the creation of the Universe in 1927. Initially. he published his work in a local Belgian scientific journal but this did not have a wide circulation. In his report, he presented his novel idea that the universe is expanding, a conclusion he derived from application of theory embedded in General Relativity.

In 1929, Edwin Hubble provided empirical data to corroborate Father Lemaître's idea of an expanding universe. Using observations of distant galaxies, Hubble showed that the Universe is expanding in a specific way, governed by the rules of the Hubble - Lemaître law. In simple language, this law states that galaxies are racing away from each other at speeds that grow with their increasing distance from each other.

What did all this mean? In simple language: If the Universe is continuously expanding, then tomorrow, other galaxies would be further away from us than they are today. By extension, today these galaxies are further away from us than they were, say, yesterday. Hypothetically then, if we could turn a clock all they way back to the beginning of time, then all galaxies, and their components, currently moving away from each other in an expanding Universe model, would all be at a common point,

The 1929 discovery of Hubble and compelling mathematics, based on Einstein's own General Relativity Theory, motivated Father Lemaître to go further with his expanding universe theory and assert in 1931 that the Universe expanded from an initial point (which he termed the "Primeval Atom" and is today called the "Singularity"). Initially Einstein had maintained his support for a static, steady-state Universe. However, there is evidence to suggest that by 1933, Einstein had changed his view and became an advocate of the Big Bang model. In doing so, he admitted that the inclusion of the "cosmological constant" was unnecessary.

Over the centuries, it was the Roman Catholic Church that had been the inhibitor of progressive scientific thinking. But in Father Georges Lemaître was a man who had answered the call of God, understood the traditional views of his religious institution and yet pursued the scientific truth with vigour and rigour. Given the unique circumstances of his life, many feel that Father Lemaître's legacy extends beyond cosmology and transcends to the conduct of a life of truth itself.

The search for conclusive evidence of the Big Bang Model: Cosmic chemistry to the fore (1940s)

Hubble's analysis of the receding nature of the galaxies coupled with Father Lemaître's mathematics were compelling but not sufficiently conclusive as evidence for the Big Bang Model that started with the presence of a Singularity. More evidence was required. One question in particular needed to be addressed: If all matter in the Universe started at the Singularity, then why were some substances more commonly found in the Universe than others?

Quickly, research moved from the cosmic scale to an atomic level. Ernest Rutherford, a New Zealander offered new thinking in this area in the early 1900s. Later, in the 1940s, seminal work by Gamow, Alpher and Herman showed how the Big Bang model could result in a Universe today which comprises of about 90 percent hydrogen atoms and 9 percent helium atoms. This was a data-point that was empirically supported but still, it was not enough.  

Stamp from the Soviet Union honouring Ernest Rutherford 

At this point, there was one development that would play an important future role in the determination of the Big Bang debate. The research work of Gamow, Alpher and Herman had deduced that approximately 370,000 years after the moment of creation, a "luminous echo" of the Big Bang should have been released and they predicted that such an "echo" might still be detectable today. If this "echo" could be detected, then that would be the irrefutable strand of evidence that the Big Bang had taken place.

The Steady State model (1940s)

Without solid evidence in place in favour of the Big Bang model, other competitive theories emerged. In 1948, Bondi, Hoyle and Gold formulated the Steady-State Theory. Their theory also held that the Universe is constantly expanding but in the case of the Steady - State model, matter was being constantly created to form new stars and galaxies to maintain an average density throughout the Universe. With time, this model started building its own following and on each occasion when threads of fresh data or observations emerged, it became customary to analyse such datasets from the perspective of both the Big Bang and Steady-State models to determine which hypothesis held up better to the fresh set of facts.

The smoking gun (1960s)

Arno Penzias was born in Germany before the advent of World War II.He is of Jewish descent. His family migrated to the United States in 1939 and there, he studied at American schools and completed his doctoral studies in radio astronomy in 1961. He then joined the Bell Labs and worked in the New York area.

In 1963, Penzias was joined at the Bell Labs by Robert Wilson, who had also done a doctorate in radio astronomy. Apparently, Wilson had been interested to work for the Bell Labs because the company owned a radio antenna, originally designed to detect signals from a balloon satellite. The horn-shaped antenna could also be used to scan the skies for the detection of radio signals with a high degree of accuracy.

For some of their work, Penzias and Wilson obtained the agreement of their employers to scan the skies to study sources of radio signals. Prior to embarking on this initiative, they needed to calibrate the company antenna to understand the baseline level of "noise" associated with this radio telescope. This "noise" is a term used to describe random interference that obscures a genuine signal that is detected. Penzias and Wilson needed to do this calibration because the signals originating from distant galaxies are so weak that unless it was possible to understand the baseline level of noise, it would not be possible to specifically identify radio signals from distant galaxies.

To establish their baseline noise level, the two radio astronomers directed their antenna to a part of the sky known to be devoid of radio galaxies. They believed that anything detected from this area could only be attributable to noise and hence their baseline would be determined. They also expected that the noise level would be low.

Surprisingly, their findings were not as expected. Measured readings of the noise levels were higher than that anticipated but not high enough to really impact the work they were pursuing. In order to obtain a good set of results, Penzias and Wilson tried to identify the source of this noise. Strangely, it seemed that in whichever direction they pointed their antenna, the noise remained at the same level. This was most unusual and perplexed both the radio astronomers.

Determined to identify the source of the noise and eradicate it, they looked for every possible root cause of it, but to no avail (and to great personal annoyance). They even noticed two pigeons had nested inside the antenna and suspected that it was the pigeons that were somehow causing the noise. To test this theory, they caught the pigeons, transported them thirty miles away and released them only to find that these homing pigeons found their way back. These pigeons were eventually shot!

But still the noise prevailed.

The silver bullet (1964 - 1965)

Earlier in this post, I reported that Gamow, Alpher and Herman had calculated that the Universe would undergo a transition approximately 370,000 years after the Big Bang event. At the time of creation, the Universe would have been bathed in a sea of light but the plasma of charged particles present at the time repeatedly scattered that light making the Universe opaque. So, for anyone present and observing the birth of the Universe, it would have been "dark".

After approximately the 370,000 year mark, temperature and chemical changes taking place would have allowed the Universe to become transparent and "light up" in a process called "recombination". Recombination would have then released the "first light" that theoretically at least, should have been visible. Due to stretching of the Universe from the early expansion, this luminous "echo" from the Big Bang would have transformed itself into radio waves and what the two radio astronomers, Penzias and Wilson, did not realize at the time was they had discovered the radio wave manifestation of the "echo". This was the cosmic microwave background radiation ("CMBR") that had been been predicted by Gamow, Alpher and Herman some twenty years earlier in the 1940s.

In 1964, in a chance meeting at a conference in Canada, Penzias mentioned the problem of the antenna noise to Bernard Burke of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It was a passing comment but two months later, Penzias received a call from an excited Burke. Burke said that he had received a draft paper describing some research work done by Princeton students that explained that if the Big Bang was indeed the model of the creation of the Universe, then there should be an omnipresent noise or more precisely, a cosmic microwave background radiation, at about the wavelength discovered by Penzias and Wilson.

The silver bullet and the smoking gun had now both been discovered.

Nobel Prize (1978)

In 1965, Penzias and Wilson published their findings on the discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation in a six hundred word article. In 1978, they won the Nobel Prize for those six hundred words!

Many a true word said in jest (1948)

There is an ironic twist to the work of Bondi, Hoyle and Gold. They thought the idea of the universe having a beginning as proposed in the Big Bang model, to be an utter nonsense.

In March 1948, Fred Hoyle went on a BBC radio broadcast to champion his own ideas of creation - the Steady- State Model. Over the radio, he commented that, "the hypothesis that all matter in the Universe was created in one big bang at a particular time in the remote past was irrational and outside science." This was the first time such a descriptor of an expanding universe had been used. Over the subsequent months and years, his jocular comment was circulated in print and transmitted over the air and became the popular way to speak about the theory of an expanding universe that originated from a single point at a particular instant in the past.

Big Bang Theory was no more a comedy - it is the reality of the scientific method in action! We finally had come to know how the show started. Now we are trying to understand how this show will end.

Epilogue (2020)

There were many contributions the led to the confirmation of the Big Bang model as being the most likely manner in which the Universe was initially created. Einstein, Friedman and Hubble are just a few of the protagonists. It has been reported that Hubble was on the brink of being awarded a Nobel Prize for his work when he suddenly passed away. Normally, nominations for a Nobel award are kept secret but in this case, it is reported that two members of the selection committee informed his wife, after his death, that he was about to receive the award.

The only key individual to live to see closure of one of the longest debates in physics was Father Georges Lemaître. He died a year after hearing the news of the discovery of the cosmic background microwave radiation, having served the life of a loyal servant of God without having to compromise on his scientific beliefs.

Post Script: This post has turned out to be much longer than I expected. Therefore, in a future post I will be covering further details about some supporting roles and stories related to the Big Bang Theory. Five areas need to be covered

  • how we know the Universe is 13.772 billion years old;
  • the alpha - beta - gamma paper and its authors;
  • the work of Max Planck;
  • the roles of Henrietta Leavitt and Sir Martin Ryle; and,
  • Yelm - the name for the primordial soup of particles that first filled the Universe

Note: The Big Bang itself was not an explosion IN space. It was an explosion OF space. It also defines the moment when time begins to have a meaning. Theory and mathematics suggest that at the instant before the Big Bang there existed all the energy and spacetime of the Universe concentrated in an extremely hot, high energy single point called the "initial singularity". Just imagine, everything we see around us and above us was focused at this single point. This was the seed of evolution.

Note: All stamps and First Day Covers shown above are from my personal collection.


  1. This is a brilliant erudite piece and which clearly sets out, aside from the beautiful stamps which are impossible to ignore, the various elements leading to the theory. Fascinatingly it also explains the position of God in the same, which has always been a frosty relationship in science. I've never had the mental ability to mathematically grasp the theory, and we all colloquially speak of it as if we know it. But Ken in his innate stylisation summarises it eloquently and leaves a nice touch. I've also just learnt of the use of the term! Hoyle in 1948 would never have imagined his catchy phrase being what it is today. Brilliant...

  2. Very well written Ken, Very exhaustive research presented in very simplified manner.

  3. Great piece again by Ken (great stamps too!). Big Bang, how apt. We've had a couple of big bangs this year - coronaviruses, oil prices, stock markets...

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