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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.My account here follows Helge Kragh, Cosmology and Controversy (Princeton, 1996), p. 191ff. 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, Hoyle’s 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 Hoyle’s cosmology, but it was not far beneath the surface.I remember attending an NSF summer school at the University of Michigan in 1953, and in the informal discussions, Gerard Kuiper, one of the lecturers, openly complained that Hoyle was opposed to the universe... 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!”Kragh, p. 257

The Pope’s 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.Gamow, Physical Review, 86 (1952), 251. Time, 58 (3 December 1951), 75-77. In contrast, Georges Lemaître, then the president of the Pontifical Academy, took a dim view of mixing metaphysics with an unproven scientific theory.Kragh, p. 431, note 186, quoting Ernan McMullin.

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 cosmology.

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 wrote:

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

Cosmic Questions

Did the Universe Have a Beginning? Topic Index
Scientific Cosmology Meets Western Theology: A Historical Perspective

The Steady-State, Big Bang and Religion

The Challenge of Copernicus
Two Mythological Arguments
Objections to Copernicus
Osiander's Introduction
Hubble's Expanding Universe and Lemaître's Primeval Atom
Too Easy an Answer?


Owen Gingerich

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