Saturday, August 23, 2008

Big Bang exploded? Seriously, is there room for reasonable skepticism about the Big Bang?

Agnostic retired Australian political science prof Hiram Caton has been tackling the huge industry of pious legends and ridiculous reverence around Charles Darwin.

I also happened to mention to him the frothier bits of speculation about the multiverse, and he replied,

Your comments and criticisms of the 'multiverse' speculation are well taken; basically it's gibberish. That peer review journals publish this stuff is a stark statement of the fallibility of scientists. Admittedly, the atheist do-gooders have a problem with the prevailing Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe: it looks like creation ex nihilo! The theory was first advanced by Father Georges Lamaitre in 1927 and was endrosed by Pope Pius XI in 1952. So Dawkins types understandably find it a bit embarrassing.

But, he notes,

There's an alternative to the Big Bang--the steady state theory, for which there's extensive empirical evidence. The steady state is rather more amenable to their position than the Big Bang, yet as far as I know they never discuss it. Maybe they don't know about it.
Steady State theory (= the universe has always existed) was - as Stephen Hawking pointed out, a good theory. For one thing it could be falsified by evidence, and the official story is that it was (see below). That compares pretty favourably with the many mere speculations that seem to dominate cosmological discussions these days.

Here's Caton's page on Steady State theory. He grumbles, "NASA's more ideology infected than the American Medical Association, which is pretty far gone."

Come to think of it, agnostic mathematician David Berlinski has also published a skeptical look at Big Bang theory.

Berlinski is skeptical of a lot of cosmology these days. Here is one of his comments from his interview with The Observer's Ron Rosenbaum (June 7, 1998)

Speaking of the knee-jerk acceptance by trade book publishers of every faddish cosmological theory in the aftermath of Stephen Hawking's success with A Brief History of Time , he said, "A lot of stuff that gets into print is simply nonsensical. Alan Guth's derivation of something from nothing [in The Inflationary Universe ] is simply incandescent horseshit . Don't tell me you're deriving something from nothing when it's transparently obvious to any mathematician that this is incandescent nonsense."
Yes, it's old, but Berlinski's recent The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions enlarges on the theme.

Like most traditional Christians, I am partial to Big Bang theory because it backs up a theist's intuitions about the universe. one evangelistic ministry aimed at the science-minded, for example, uses the Big Bang is a central apologetic device. But that is precisely the reason people like me need to stay in touch with reasonable skepticism about it.

Here's a bit of what I wrote about it in By Design or by Chance?:

The story goes that Hoyle and two other physicists, Hermann Bondi and Thomas Gold, went out one night in Cambridge in1946 to see a horror movie. It was one of those movies with a circular plot so the final scene is the same as the opening scene. Later that night, over glasses of brandy in Bondi’s apartment, the physicists were inspired to wonder if the universe is really like that movie. The end is just replaced by the beginning, over and over again.

In 1948, in a bold move, they proposed a new theory, the Steady State universe. They began by noting that the best evidence for the Big Bang is the fact that the universe is expanding. Most scientists assume that the universe is expanding from its own origin in a single point, as LemaƮtre had said.

However, Hoyle’s team argued, suppose the universe is expanding a little bit at a time, from everywhere at once? Perhaps hydrogen atoms, the simplest ones, can come into existence all by themselves by spontaneous generation. Just a few here and there, maybe one particle per cubic kilometre per year.9 It would add up, they said. The galaxies move apart because the new atoms shove other matter aside, and create an expanding—but still eternal—universe.

So . . . not with a Bang, but with a whimper, the universe leaks into existence.

Such a small whimper of creation eludes strict bookkeeping. To sticklers who demanded to know where all the individual newborn hydrogen atoms were coming from, the Steady State physicists replied with a question of their own: Is spontaneous creation of single atoms a bigger mystery than a Big Bang, according to which the whole universe comes into existence suddenly from nothing? So on either side there is a mystery. But which mystery is the real one?

And which is just a good plot device for a science fiction movie? That was the question they were posing.
Much later:

The Envelope, Please . . .

In the study that tested the two theories, the Big Bang predicted the correct amount of helium—about 25 percent—but the Steady State was way off.

In Hoyle’s own words:

Our results, together with further developments by William Fowler, Robert Wagoner and myself, became what even to this day is pretty well the strongest evidence for the big bang, particularly as the arguments were produced by members of what was seen as the steady state camp.

That did not stop Hoyle, who stubbornly continued to search for a No Bang theory to the end of his life. Most scientists respected him for his stubbornness, as was evident in the many eulogies written at the time of his death in 2001.17 Because he needed to find a source for atoms other than the Big Bang, he ended up doing important research on the way in which heavier elements are produced inside stars.
Find out the real reasons why there is an intelligent design controversy and why it doesn't and can't just go away: