Why the Big Bang isn’t what you think it is

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

[Editors’ note: This is part of America’s space issue, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Click here to find our other stories that are out of this world.]

What is the Big Bang? If you think it is something like an explosion that started the universe, then you would be in the same boat as most people. As far as I can tell (and I have done a lot of asking around because it is kind of my job as an astrophysicist who communicates to audiences in all sorts of venues and media), that is about as close to the most common public perception of the Big Bang as you can get.

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If you do think of the Big Bang like that, I do not want you to take this personally, but just about every word in that description is dead wrong.

What is the Big Bang?

Why are there so many misconceptions about the Big Bang? There are likely several reasons, but the most likely culprit is simple cultural patterns. Many people grow up learning or hearing about this particular version of the theory and spend most of their lives not needing to fact-check it. And if they do, any reference is likely to be chock full of nearly-incomprehensible jargon, so the original notions stick.

I am highlighting the Big Bang because, to me, it perfectly encapsulates a breakdown in communication between scientists and the public.

The Big Bang is not a theory of the origins of the universe. I will say it again just to be clear: The Big Bang is not a theory of the origins of the universe. In fact, we have no scientific theory of the origins of the universe.

The Big Bang is not a theory of the origins of the universe.

The Big Bang is a model of the early history of the universe based on abundant observations. The simplest and most powerful observation was made in the 1920s and revealed that galaxies are, on average, flying away from us and from each other. So over time, the distance between galaxies grows larger. This means that in the past (and I am sure you can follow my logic here), the galaxies were closer together. And in the distant past, they were all really smooshed together. And in the extremely distant past, they were really, really smooshed together.

The general theme is that in the past, our universe was smaller and hotter and denser, and in the future, it will be larger and colder and less dense.

That is the Big Bang. Seriously, that is it. I mean, of course, there are a lot of details in that story to flesh out and a lot more observations to back up those details, but that is the Big Bang in a nutshell. 

Ultimately, science is a story of evidence. Scientists build mathematical models based on our observations to describe and understand the natural world around us. This construct naturally places a barrier between science and the public (since science is performed in a rather unnatural language for most people), but that is still about as neutral an activity as you can get. Sometimes the scientific process may produce statements that are in conflict with personal beliefs. Even the more refined understanding of the Big Bang outlined above may cause you a little bit of internal friction. That is fine. Science will just keep on doing its thing. 

There are many scientists with deeply held religious views, of all sorts of faiths. There are also a bunch of atheists running around in scientific circles. They all seem to be able to sleep soundly at night, and they all seem to have come to a personal reconciliation of their faith with their work. As best as I can tell, when it comes to the relationship between science and faith and any possible friction you might encounter, it’s nothing personal. 

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J Cosgrove
2 months 1 week ago

Just read it twice. The “Big Bang” seems to be what I thought it was. There was an incredibly rapid expansion of matter/energy as if an explosion took place. No sound since no air so no bang. And from what I understand all the matter and energy originated in a small area. If there existed some other entity within which this expansion took place it still was a rapid expansion. So the metaphor of the Big Bang seems appropriate. Why the fuss?

J Cosgrove
2 months 1 week ago

From Discover Magazine http://bit.ly/2Jyns5v

I’ve come across many proposed alternatives to the Big Bang, but I’ve never seen one that deals honestly and comprehensively with the vast observational evidence that our universe had a hot, dense beginning about 13.8 billion years ago.

Stanley Kopacz
2 months 1 week ago

Not really an explosion IN space. It's an explosion OF space or space-time. The space between galaxies and everything else is increasing. Galaxies are not really moving away from each other IN a grid of spacetime. The grid itself is growing.

James Carney
2 months 1 week ago

If I can borrow from Shakespeare, my comment might be titled, "A rose by any other name is still a rose." Or, alternatively, "much ado about nothing." The term "big bang" does not purport to characterize the physical nature of the universe's beginnings as if it were an explosion on earth but to indicate that the universe began in a single instantaneous outward expansion from a single point. Exactly how big the point was and whether "explosion" would be an appropriate word to describe the sudden, rapid expansion might be debated but "big bang" seems to work well to distinguish this now-accepted theory of the origin of the universe from its primary competitor for several decades: the solid state theory whereby the universe had no ascertainable beginning and sustained itself for what appeared to be an unending future by creating new stars as old ones died out.

Less charitably, I could be churlish about the author's pompous insistence that the "Big Bang Theory" is not a theory when it obviously is. Just because the theory cannot be tested empirically does not disqualify it from being a theory in the broad sense of a scientific proposal for how the universe came to be.

Michael Bindner
2 months 1 week ago

Hawking did an episode about what existed before the Big Bang. He came to the conclusion that there was no time, no natural laws, nothing. He had been looking for God and could not find Him. He said that he was grateful there is no God. Grateful to who?

This is actually an interesting question of how God exists for us. Is it an evolving idea or meme? Is it an artifact of brain chemistry? Is it the ultimate of Being, Truth and Love? We have faith, but no idea. In the end, it is a decision we all make. Whether Being, Truth and Love are made up ideals or so real that they are cause does not really matter if we live those values. If there is a God, she is fine with whatever we think. She has no vested interest either way. If she did, She would not be God. The Church's unwillingness to recognize this is what causes many of our problems.

Derek Lomas
2 months 1 week ago

Around 500BC, a theory emerged with the Pythagoreans that the world began with the number one and continued through two, three and into the multitude. The oneness was not like a dot in space -- because that would actually be the twoness -- which is the something and the nothing. That is still a helpful thought for understanding the big bang.

But their theories were actually far more complex and aligned with modern science. For one, they thought the material properties of atoms were based on their geometric forms. See, part of the evolution of numbers was a geometric progression, from points to lines to shapes and finally to (the Platonic) forms. In the forms, Democritus the pythagorean predicted that atoms were made from the most basic 3d geometries, and that the geometries affected the material properties. While in 400BC they thought cubes made the element of earth because of how they fit together, today, we understand that the simplest geometries are spherical harmonics -- and that these geometries determine the material properties of the electron shells of atoms. That's just to say that we can learn from the ancients, especially if we give them the benefit of the doubt (rather than adopting the exact form of what they claimed)

The notion that the Oneness created the universe was adopted by the Neoplatonists in Alexandria, such as Philo in 50BC (a Pythagorean Jew, in an Essene-like community called the Therapeuts), who described the theory of Logos as the emanation of the ineffable Oneness. This was taken up by early Christians (e.g., Origen) to describe Jesus as the incarnation of the Logos - because the logos was the emanation of the One, the one and only son of god. But, this implies that the logos is much bigger than jesus the man -- a cosmic concept -- and that neither god nor jesus were persons, per se. The concept of monothesism in Jewish and Christian Tradition can view the one god as one person-god (as he is portrayed in the old testament) but it is common enough in many jewish and christian traditions to view god as an ineffable oneness with cosmic characteristics. The emanation of the oneness seems perfectly aligned to the big bang. The emanation of the one is viewed as son of god and if you believe in that you will live forever. If you believe that you are part of the logos -- the emanation of the one -- then its easy to believe that we live forever. You just have to dispose of the illusion of individual personhood: of ourselves, of the onesness and of the logos.

So that's the spiritual implication of the big bang, according to the vision of Pythagoras.

Bill Underwood
2 months 1 week ago

Well, there's 5 minutes of my life I'm never going to get back...

Mark Brown
2 months 1 week ago

Ditto. I have a good understanding of cosmology, I I don't know why this was published. It's even more baffling why America magazine republished it.

Alan Johnstone
2 months ago

If I thought the topic worth an article in this journal, I would have made it clear what I was trying to say.

Hopefully, it would explain that scientific exploration results in discovering more about a topic or issue than meets the naked senses and provides a more detailed description of the object studied.

No science explains anything about ultimate origins, it describes.

Now, the observations that coalesced into the awareness of physicists that there was a Doppler red shift in light coming from distant objects in every direction could be interpreted as due to everything flying away from everything else.
Diverse explanations were invented, imagined, discussed.
One was that light got tired as it journeyed through space and the further it had travelled the lower its energy was.
Another was that if all bits we could see were moving away from each other, maybe the space we all occupied was expanding and that suggested we could imagine turning the clock back and guessing what it was like in the past.

Why, all bits of the universe would have been closer and closer to each other the longer ago in the past we could think about.
The consensus of physicists at the time believed that the universe was like this because matter was continuously being created and spreading out.
The expansion idea shocked them, they searched for an explanation, ANY explanation besides the idea that the universe had a beginning at a measurable point of time in the past and all packed together in a tiny space; they agreed that they must not accept this theory as it was far too consistent with the story of creation in the Old Testament.

The name, Big Bang was contemptuously and mockingly given to it by one of these incredulous scientists and the name stuck.

Nothing wrong with a mind picture of an explosion for ordinary discourse. Bad mistake to take it as an explanation for the EXISTENCE of the universe.

Bottom line: "Science" has NOT proved that the Bible is nonsense when it describes that God created the heavens and the earth, a claim being made for most of my postgraduate 50 years by the atheists trying to stop us teaching pre-enlightenment superstition to the young.

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