Did the Universe Begin with a Big Bang? —Perhaps Not, part 3
This article is part of a series, a conversation between Gerald R. Baron and myself debating the truth or otherwise of the Big Bang theory. It began when he published this article, in which he argued for its truth. It seemed to me that he was doing this because the Big Bang lends support to his Christian belief in an initial creation event, and that he was merely repeating the orthodox account as found in popular science books, too readily accepting it for that reason.
I therefore responded with this article, in which I pointed out what I perceived to be the errors in his account. The main point was that Edwin Hubble, who discovered the redshift phenomenon, did not himself believe that this suggested an expanding universe, therefore the need to hypothesise a Big Bang, although that is what the orthodox story claims. In a second article, I outlined an alternative cosmological scenario, based on the beliefs of various spiritual traditions. I argued there that it is an error to suggest that “God said ‘Let there be light’ ” in Genesis refers to the Big Bang, and is therefore evidence for it.
Baron has now invited me to read a recent article by Ethan Siegel, which argues that the Big Bang is an established fact, or at least that there is overwhelming evidence to suggest this. I don’t know whether he has any qualifications in physics which would enable him to assess the quality of Siegel’s statements, or whether he is just taking his word for it because he likes his conclusions.
This article is primarily the response to Baron that he requested, but also my response to, and critique of, Siegel should he wish to make any comments. I am approaching this subject matter with caution, as I am not a scientist, have no qualifications whatsoever in physics, and therefore have to accept that Siegel is far more knowledgeable about these matters than I am. However, I still believe that there are some relevant observations that can be made to challenge what he says. If he would like to respond to these, or if anyone else can make a useful contribution by way of clarification, I would be very grateful.
Before I do that, however, it’s worth evaluating Siegel himself. He frequently writes on Medium as ‘Starts-with-a-bang’, so he doesn’t think it necessary to enter into any debates about the subject, since it is an established fact. He also writes as ‘Ask Ethan’. Just before the article that Baron has asked me to read, he published another one entitled ‘The 5 Truths About Dark Matter That Everyone Should Know’, and his subtitle includes “here’s the truth”. He is obviously trying to present himself as an authority in all these matters, the one we can all turn to when in doubt, which he may well be. I am somewhat suspicious of such an attitude, however. I suggest that it is always dangerous in science to claim that one is in possession of ultimate truth. He reminds me somewhat of a new convert to a religion, completely enthusiastic but perhaps somewhat uncritical.
As if confirming my train of thought, Siegel does not get off to a good start, beginning with an ad hominem attack: “Today, it’s largely crackpots and a few fringe contrarians who muster even the flimsiest of challenges to the consensus position”. So anyone who doesn’t agree with him is a nutter; that is not a great way to begin any serious scientific debate, and leads me to have doubts about his supreme self-confidence, and therefore his credibility. I will, however, have to take the risk of appearing to be a ‘crackpot’ in what follows.
Siegel relies heavily on Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, thus science’s current theory of gravity: “the Big Bang remains the only modern theory in the context of General Relativity to explain our observations of the Universe”. This is fair enough, since the theory is perceived to be true, the best we have, but only up to a point. There is no mention in his article of quantum physics, which is also perceived to be true, in fact the most successful physical theory of all time. Both theories are therefore ‘true’, yet physicists assure us, so I have to believe them, that they are incompatible.
Cosmologists are therefore seeking a theory of quantum gravity, a grand Theory of Everything, to unite them. So there must be something wrong somewhere. It’s possible that there is a fundamental flaw in one of the theories (which could be Einstein’s General Theory) and that the other is completely true, but we don’t know which one. That seems unlikely, so my suggestion is that both theories are probably limited in ways we do not yet comprehend, while we await their synthesis.
Perhaps we cannot rely therefore on the General Theory of Relativity as much as Siegel would like. This is important, because I believe that quantum physics can be interpreted to suggest a non-Big Bang viewpoint, and is in line with the spiritual alternative that I proposed in my previous article.
My second objection is that Siegel too readily accepts, as most cosmologists do, the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation (CMBR) as evidence of the Big Bang. He says:
- the CMBR was “widely interpreted as the leftover glow predicted by the Big Bang… While many considered that the decisive evidence in favor of the Big Bang, others dug in harder to non-standard positions”
- “According to the original observations of Penzias and Wilson, the galactic plane emitted some astrophysical sources of radiation, but above and below, all that remained was a near-perfect, uniform background of radiation, consistent with the Big Bang and in defiance of the alternatives”.
- “This leftover glow — originally called the primeval fireball and today known as the cosmic microwave background… is (in many ways) the most spectacular confirmation of a scientific theory in history”.
These are statements typical of a firm believer. Let’s have a look at how credible they are. Was the discovery of the CMBR a “spectacular confirmation” of the Big Bang? Did it defy the alternatives? The alternatives may have become “non-standard”, but that can only be in retrospect once the conclusion has been made that the CMBR is evidence of the Big Bang.
Here’s a brief history of the debate around the CMBR. In 1948 Big Bang advocates Robert Herman and Ralph Alpher predicted its existence, believing it to be the afterglow of the Big Bang. In 1965, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson detected an odd signal with a radio horn they were using for satellite communications. The signal did not come from the Earth nor the Sun; it seemed to come from all over the sky. They did not immediately understand its significance, but then other scientists rushed to the conclusion that this appeared to be the evidence required, that the predicted CMBR had been discovered. Fred Hoyle’s Steady-State theory, which was the main competitor at the time, was therefore rejected, Stephen Hawking no less saying that the discovery of the CMBR was the “final nail in the coffin for the steady-state theory”.
Was this the only alternative explanation, however? Alpher and Herman predicted the existence of the CMBR in 1948. In 1933, however, the German physicist Erich Regener had already predicted the existence of a microwave background produced from the warming of interstellar dust particles by high-energy cosmic rays, thus not a product of any Big Bang.
Now, if CMBR is predicted by Big Bang theory, and also by a non-Big Bang theory, then surely its discovery says nothing whatsoever about the origin of the universe in a Big Bang. Both options remain open. This becomes even more interesting when you consider that Alpher and Herman predicted in 1948 a microwave temperature of about 5 degrees Kelvin, which they revised upward to 28 degrees Kelvin in the three years that followed. This turned out to be ten times too high. Regener, however, had predicted a temperature of 2.8 degrees Kelvin, this estimate erring from the actual value by less than 3 percent.
So Regener was not only the first to predict the existence of the CMBR, but also the one who predicted it with the greatest accuracy. According to the scientific method, therefore, this alternative theory should have been considered superior to the Big Bang. So why did Big Bang theorists win? Apparently, they were better organised, and lost no time in claiming the newly discovered CMBR for their own cause.
According to this interpretation, far from “defying the alternatives” according to Siegel, the discovery of the CMBR actually seemed to confirm one of them.
Then some strange science followed. The CMBR was claimed to be proof of the correctness of Big Bang theory: “But as more data on the CMBR were gathered, little evidence appeared of any connection between the alleged big bang fireball and this microwave radiation. The uniform manner in which the CMBR is distributed across the sky implied that the fireball should have been extremely uniform and that matter should also be uniformly distributed in space. Instead, the universe is seen to be very clumpy. Matter is gathered in the form of gas clouds and galaxies, which in turn are gathered into clusters, and so on. Just to account for the existence of galaxies, the big bang theory required that the CMBR intensity vary from one part of the sky to another by at least one part in a thousand. To account for the vast structures discovered in the mid-1980s, the supercluster complexes and immense periodic structures stretching across the universe, even greater nonuniformities would have been needed.
“But such nonuniformities were not found. In 1992, the most accurate observations of the microwave field were made with the COBE (Cosmic Background Explorer) satellite. These indicate that when the Earth’s motion relative to the CMBR is taken account of, there are intensity variations of less than one part in 100,000, a hundred times smaller than the big bang theory’s most modest prediction. When the COBE scientists first announced the discovery of ‘ripples’ in 1992, they proudly asserted that they had finally proven the existence of the Big Bang. The news media blindly echoed their claims, and even theologians were purporting the ripples to be evidence of the biblical act of creation. Yet if anything, the COBE measurements had definitively disproven the big bang theory by showing that the CMBR was far too smooth to account for the universe’s clumpiness”¹.
In the following year an article appeared in New Scientist with the heading, Challenge for the big bang: Results from the COBE probe ruled out key elements in the conventional explanation of how the Universe began. Is it time for an alternative theory? The article did indeed suggest an alternative called quasi-steady state cosmology².
If these dissenting voices (of professional physicists) are correct, then evidence which disproves, or at least challenges, a theory is claimed to be proof of it. That would be extraordinary, and would probably be an unconscious process; it is hard to believe that so many scientists would deceive so deliberately. It would go to show just how committed to the theory some cosmologists are for no good reason.
At various points in his article, Siegel assures us that the alternative theories have now been rejected because they are inconsistent with the best data we have. He names:
- tired light (even though Edwin Hubble, the discoverer of the redshift, favoured it)
- quasi-steady state theory (thus Hoyle and his colleagues), as just mentioned
- plasma cosmology (I assume he is referring to Eric Lerner, following on from Hannes Alfvén)
- quantized redshifts.
His justification for this is: “The full suite of data, including the observations of the light elements and the cosmic microwave background, leaves only the Big Bang as a valid explanation for all we see”. “The overwhelming agreement between the Big Bang’s predictions and these observations — including in greater and greater detail — was what led to its widespread acceptance”.
He dismisses the Steady State Theory because it “failed to match the observed spectrum of the cosmic microwave background”. This is relevant, of course, only if the CMBR is indeed the afterglow of the Big Bang, As I’ve just shown, this is not the only interpretation, and not necessarily the best one.
Siegel repeatedly insists that the Big Bang is the only hypothesis consistent with our current knowledge: “The problem is that every such alternative is already ruled out by the evidence in hand. Until an idea arises that meets those necessary criteria, the Big Bang will stand alone as the only idea compatible with the full suite of data we now possess”.
It is interesting therefore that in 2005 there was a conference of Big Bang dissenters in Portugal. Siegel doesn’t mention this; I assume he is unaware of it. There was enough doubt about the theory to inspire scientists to travel from all over the world in order to attend, and there was a feature in New Scientist magazine about it³.
One of the dissenters, Riccardo Scarpa, was quoted: “Every time the basic big bang model has failed to predict what we see, the solution has been to bolt on something new — inflation, dark matter and dark energy”. The data contradicting the theory at the time of writing were argued to be: the temperature of the universe, the expansion of the cosmos, and even the presence of galaxies. All these were said to have cosmologists “scrambling for fixes”.
The article further said: “For Scarpa and his fellow dissidents, the tinkering has reached an unacceptable level. All for the sake of saving the notion that the universe flickered into being as a hot, dense state”. Eric Lerner, author of Big Bang Never Happened, attended and was also quoted: “Big bang predictions are consistently wrong and are being fixed after the event”.
The author of the article, Marcus Chown, offered the orthodox CMBR story, then asked: “So if there was no big bang, where did the CMBR come from?” As if there were no alternative explanation! He draws a comparison between Lerner’s ideas and Hoyle’s Steady-state theory, but seems to have no knowledge of Regener. And he is a physics graduate, professional science writer, and cosmology consultant for New Scientist. It’s as if the alternative, and arguably better, theory has been obliterated from history.
Here is one more detail from the article. Following significant data obtained by the Spitzer telescope, “some of the stars in distant galaxies appear older than the universe itself”. This is not the only time this has happened. Down the years there have been occasional articles in New Scientist describing stars which are calculated to be as old, if not older than the universe, at least according to the date of the origin of the universe according to the predictions of Big Bang theory. It’s possible that the ages of these stars have been miscalculated, but such observations should at least make one pause for thought.
If these dissenters are correct in what they say, then what Siegel calls “the full suite of data” has been manipulated in order to make it conform to the Big Bang model.
This conference was described as “doubters thinking the unthinkable”, asking “the question no one is supposed to ask”, which shows that the Big Bang has become tantamount to a religious dogma. Siegel would obviously like to be ordained as one of the high priests. But thinking the unthinkable is sometimes what is required in science. That is, for example, what led to the quantum physics revolution.
While we’re discussing these issues, it’s worth having a look at Siegel’s earlier article on dark matter. Again he seeks to avoid any challenges by announcing that we all have to have “the necessary expertise to diagnose what’s being presented accurately and fully”. I again confess that I have no expertise whatsoever, but I’ll nevertheless make some observations.
Siegel says “You cannot explain either the cosmic microwave background or the large-scale structure of the Universe without dark matter”. The first problem here is that he connects dark matter with the CMBR. As I argued above, it’s possible — I’ll put it no more strongly than that — that he may have misunderstood the nature of the CMBR.
More importantly however, as far as I understand it, the only reason we need to hypothesise the existence of dark matter, is that otherwise the observable universe would not conform to the predictions of Big Bang theory and, in Siegel’s view, its close relation Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. (Cosmologists’ attempts to correlate the estimated mass of the galaxy with the known laws of gravity were inaccurate by as much as 90 percent. Invisible, dark matter was therefore suggested as an explanation to account for this.)
I’m not aware if there have been any recent developments, but for years scientists have been saying that this dark matter has never been detected, even though much time and energy have been spent in attempts to locate it. (For some reason, this does not prevent articles in New Scientist magazine from announcing frequently: “we know that the vast majority of the mass of the galaxy is hidden”.)
Has anyone noticed something odd here? Scientists have been forced to hypothesise the existence of dark matter, because otherwise the observable universe, that is to say actual data, does not fit with the theory, whether Big Bang or General Relativity. According to the scientific method, when data conflict with the predictions of a theory, you are meant to reexamine the theory. It seems, however, that the Big Bang has become so accepted that this is no longer deemed necessary. I have actually heard a Harvard Professor of Physics being interviewed on the radio, discussing dark matter, and saying “We have to defend the theory”. Why, if it contradicts what we actually observe? Obviously because it has become an unchallengeable article of faith.
As I’ve said in the article, I’m not attached to anything I’ve written here. I’m merely offering it as food for thought, since I would genuinely like to get to the truth about all these matters. I find Siegel’s attitude of supreme self-confidence more suspicious than his arguments. I’d be grateful if any physicist reading this can offer any further thoughts or clarification.
I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here).
1. This quote is from Beyond the Big Bang by physicist Paul LaViolette, Park Street Press, 1995, p 277. I also have relied upon him for the analysis in the previous paragraphs. I would be grateful for any informed criticisms about this material.
2. by Jayant Narlikar, New Scientist, June 19th 1993
3. issue 2506 July 2nd, 2005