The second speaker at the CFI ‘Science vs. Religion’ event was the popular science writer Simon Singh. Simon Singh is an excellent public speaker who gives very polished talks and he also happens to be one of my favourite science writers.
His talk on this occasion was on the Big Bang and the all too familiar battle between unyielding, dogmatic conservatives and progressive, open minded pioneers. The slight twist in this tale was that it was actually the religious figures who were being more open minded and the scientists who were being dismissive.
However, before parapsychologists and pseudoscientists everywhere get to celebrating, there is an important point worth recognising. Namely although the Big Bang story does illustrate how resistant to change everyone, including scientists, can be it also illustrates how as more and more evidence came in supporting the theory the scientific consesus did in fact shift. Thus the Big Bang is a good story for highlighting that science is somewhat unique as an endeavour, in that, no matter how much people resist a concept, when it is true the evidence for it will eventually overcome any resistance.
The story recounted by Simon Singh began with the soviet scientist Alexander Friedman who lived from 1888-1925. Friedman took the first steps towards developing the Big Bang theory by mucking around with the value of the cosmological constant in Einstein’s theory of general relativity. The cosmological constant was an addition Einstein made to his general relativity equation so that it would be compatible with a static and stable universe which was the dominant scientific conception of the universe at the time he was working.
Friedman’s theories were based on changing the value of the cosmological constant which made the universe unstable and chaning. However, they were all highly mathematic and speculative and were not based on much observational evidence. As such they were not particularly well received and Friedman himself recognised their limitations. Yet despite their theoretical nature his inquiries did lead him to consider the possibility that the universe was expanding and not static- a view which would later be vindicated. Unfortunately, when he published his papers in 1922 and 1924 they went largely unnoticed by the international scientific community. This was partly due to the fact that by this stage Russia had become the Soviet Union and Friedman’s research was thus looked on with some suspicion due to being locked behind the soviet ‘iron curtain’.
Elsewhere in the world however George Lemaitre a physicist and ordained Catholic priest had also been working on similar ideas to Friedman. He had come up with a theory which he dubbed the ‘hypothesis of the primeval atom’ which included a moment of creation or as he described ‘the cosmic egg exploding at the moment of creation’. Many in the scientific community were extremely sceptical of Lemaitre’s ideas as they were resistant to ideas which postulated a creation-like event especially when they were developed by a Catholic priest. Einstein for instance is quoted as having told Lemaitre, when he met him at a conference, “Your calculations are correct, but your physics are abominible”.
At this point via an amusing anecdote Simon Singh illustrated how you could use creative calculations to prove almost anything such as:
- The teletubbies are a product of time and money so… Teletubbies = Time X Money
- And since time is money… Teletubbies = Money X Money or Teletubbies = Money^2
- However since money is the root of all evil then… Teletubbies = Evil
Which suggests it’s really how valid the values that you put into your equations which make your equation worthwhile.
Anyhow, returning to the story the topic changed to the cosmological observations and discoveries of Edwin Hubble at Mount Wilson in the 1920’s. These are semi-complicated but can basically be summarised as providing some evidence that supported Lemaitre’s theories. In particular, Hubble discovered that galaxies were emitting light that was ‘red shifted’ i.e. had a longer wavelength than expected which suggested the galaxies were moving away from the earth i.e. the universe was expanding. With some further calculations Hubble also worked out that that there was a point when all matter had been compacted together approximately 1.3-1.6 billion years ago.
Although this may seem like it was a slam dunk for Lemaitre as now there was strong observational evidence supporting his model Singh pointed out that an influential physics book, ‘The Mysterious Universe‘, published in 1931, 2 years after Hubble’s findings contained no mention of the Big Bang theory. This was due to several factors including general widespread resistance to the idea and the significant fact that the Earth was thought at this stage to be 3.5 billion years old and Hubble’s findings supporting the Big Bang theory calculated that the universe was significantly younger than this. This contradiction created considerable doubt over Hubble’s findings and on top of this there were also alternative theories put forward to account for Hubble’s observations.
Most prominent among these alternative explanations were the theory of three physicists Gold, Bondi and Hoyle who suggested that it was possible that the universe could expand but without change. Their model proposed that new galaxies were coming into existence in the gaps created as the universe expanded as shown in the diagram below.
Ironically, it was also Hoyle who invented the term ‘Big Bang’ when he used it dispargingly to refer to Lemaitre’s theory in a radio interview in the 1940’s. Throughout the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s debate over whether the ‘Big Bang’ model was correct or not still raged although for most of this period it seems that the scientific consensus remained generally opposed to the theory. An example of a conservative reaction of the time can be found for instance in the writings of the British physicist William Bonnor who described the Big Bang as a Christian conspiracy designed to support the Christian concept of creation. Such concerns were likely fuelled by Pope Pius XII providing his endorsement and support to the theory in an official statement released in 1951.
However, Lemaitre was actually opposed to religion getting involved in this issue and actually advised the Pope against making any further statements on the topic. He also made it clear in his writings that although he regarded religion and science as two methods of arriving at the truth he also considered them as entirely seperate endeavours with religious belief having nothing to do with his theories on the origin of the universe.
What’s clear from most of the responses to the Big Bang theory throughout this period however is that most commentators were allowing their ideological bias to influence their position on the topic. George Thomson, a British nobel prize winning physicist, astutely commented on the controversy that “Probably every physicist would believe in a creation if the Bible had not unforunately said something about it many years ago and made it seemed old fashioned”.
This cosmological controversy raged on well into the 1960’s but was finally laid to rest by some unexpected observations from a radio telescope which were published by Penias and Wilson two radio astronomers in 1965. While calibrating a newly developed radio telescope Penias and Wilson pointed the telescope into empty space expecting to detect nothing but were shocked to discover a significant amount of microwave energy no matter where they pointed their telescope. Despite spending quite some time removing pigeons from the telescope, believing them to be the cause of the strange readings, Penias and Wilson eventually had to accept that the microwave radiation was really there all throughout the universe. This accidental observation however provided the data that had been predicted by the Big Bang theory and as a result Lemaitre’s theory was finally vindicated by strong observational data for which there was no other good explanation. He died one year later in 1966.
Of course, this was not the end of the controversy and the debate continued to rage into the 1970’s however as more and more data was discovered that supported the Big Bang model more and more scientists came to be convinced by it. Then in the mid 1970’s Penias and Wilson were finally awarded a noble prize for their discovery which reflected that the wider scientific community had come to accept the evidence for the Big Bang theory.
This was where Simon Singh’s talk ended though he did finish with the note that Lemaitre had not been totally forgotten by the wider world… as he had been ranked in 2005 in a poll to find ‘The Most famous Belgian’ unfortunately he came in at no.78 but still, at least he was in there.
The whole story though is a good illustration of how we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss ideas because of their religious connotations or people because of their religious beliefs.
EDIT: It’s also worth noting that the age of the universe being older than the age of the earth issue turned out to be due to some problematic calculations and was ironed out some years later. The age of the universe is now thought to be much older than the age of the earth… which is a good sign for the theory!