The Steady-State, Big Bang and Religion
In the period of confusion,
the cosmological dark ages before these revisions, the expanding universe
seemed too young to contain its ancient parts, and so various attempts were
made to accommodate the short 1-2 billion-year age indicated by the reciprocal
of the erroneously large Hubble constant.
These included the possibility of an eternal, steady-state universe,
which was proposed in 1948 by Fred Hoyle, Herman Bondi, and Thomas Gold. In this scheme the universe expands ever
faster, but in an exponential way so that one cannot extrapolate back to an
initial singularity when the universe sprang into being. It described a universe that had existed
forever, without a beginning.
At first the steady-state
universe received comparatively little notice, until in 1949 when Fred Hoyle
had the opportunity to give a series of popular science broadcasts on the BBC. In the penultimate lecture he expounded on
the steady-state theory in considerable detail, criticizing those
interpretations of the expansion that included a point of origin. Taking a clearly partisan stance, he argued
that, On scientific grounds this big bang assumption is much the less
palatable of the two. For it is an
irrational process that cannot be explained in scientific terms. This was, by the way, the first use of the
term Big Bang, here used a somewhat pejorative sense. Finally, in a lecture entitled A Personal
View, Hoyle expanded his discussion to include ethical and religious opinions
as well, making trenchant criticisms of several Christian beliefs.
For better or worse, Hoyles
outspoken statements linked the steady-state theory with atheism. Although the reviews of his book, The Nature of the Universe, rarely
addressed a possible anti-religious connection with Hoyles cosmology, but it
was not far beneath the surface. Certainly by that time, 1953, the parallels
between the big bang and the Let there be light! of Genesis I had become well
known, for Pope Pius XII, a pontiff much interested in astronomy, had in 1951
presented a triumphalist address to the Pontifical Academy of Science, which
concluded, Thus, with the concreteness which is characteristic of physical
proofs, it has confirmed the contingency of the universe and also the
well-founded deduction as to the epoch when the world came forth from the hands
of the Creator. Hence, creation took
place. We say: therefore, there is a
Creator. Therefore, God exists!
The Popes address was not
only featured in Time magazine, but
mentioned in The Physical Review when
physicist George Gamow, in a characteristically whimsical mood inserted it in a
footnote as infallible proof of his own cosmology. In contrast, Georges Lemaître, then the
president of the Pontifical Academy, took a dim view of mixing metaphysics with
an unproven scientific theory.
In the 1960s several new
phenomena were discovered including the quasars and the background radiation
left over from the primeval fireball.
Such discoveries convincingly demonstrated that our observable universe
has a history, and that it has not always presented the same face. These findings sounded the death-knell for
the steady-state cosmology. This paved
the way for widespread, although never universal, acceptance of the Big Bang
In the late 1970s the astrophysicist Robert Jastrow recorded this
state of affairs in a book entitled God
and the Astronomers. There he
argued that the convergence between Genesis and cosmology should cause agnostic
scientists to sit up and take notice, and even be a little worried. In one memorable passage in his book Jastrow
At this moment it seems as though science will never be able to raise
the curtain on the mystery of creation.
For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the
story ends like a bad dream. He has
scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as
he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians
who have been sitting there for centuries.
The band of theologians has
an answer: God did it!
Contributed by: Dr. Owen Gingerich