EP 012: With a Bang!

What came first: the cosmic chicken, or the cosmic egg? Either way, Fred Hoyle would disapprove. In this episode we're off to the edge of the universe, to sort fact from fiction, and the fiction from the totally bizarre. 

“In the beginning” – to quote Douglas Adams – “the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.”

If you ask high school science students, high school science teachers, and perhaps the odd struggling undergraduate, they might agree that this anger comes, in no small part, from the sheer enormity of trying to understand how it was all done. Gone are the days where we can read the first three paragraphs of Genesis and put our feet up. We want to know what happened, and as far as possible when, not to mention the even more elusive why. Humans are curious creatures – its why we have so many adages involving cats, and why there’s a whole industry built around covers for plug sockets. Of course, whether that curiosity is good for us is another story entirely.

By the way, none of what follows has any real bearing on the first three paragraphs of Genesis, so if that’s something that’s worrying you – don’t let it. Even the scientific community is still warring over that one, so we’re just going to leave it to them.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating – and surprising – things that emerges when you dip a toe into the proverbial waters of the History of Science, is the extent to which the scientific community does just that – it fights amongst itself, and at every possible turn. If you had the benefit of any kind of elementary science between 1920 and 2008 – and I don’t imagine much has changed since then either – you might have got the impression that the rules of science are clearly written down in big, invisible writing, which occasionally someone very clever is able to translate. Like a video game, these discoveries then unlock doors and routes that were previously locked in greyscale, you add one thousand coins to your chest, and everyone has a bit of a party. But that isn’t how it works at all. The history of science is a history of bitter rivalries and wild theories, and new discoveries tended to perpetuate the cycle, rather than alleviating it.

This is probably very frustrating to anyone actually working in the sciences, but it makes for highly entertaining reading for everyone else. Why they don’t teach us this in schools is beyond me, but school administrators seem to hold some incredibly inaccurate ideas about the fondness of small children for formulas, complicated diagrams, and end of year exams.

But despite their best efforts, most of us managed to emerge from school with, at the very least, a mild curiosity about the beginnings of the universe still intact. And when asked, most of us can confidently assert that the Universe began with a Big Bang – whether or not we fully comprehend the nuances of it.

What many people don’t know is that the name – Big Bang – was coined by a scientist who was, to put it mildly, odd to the point of controversy. He also didn’t believe in the Big Bang at all, despite having so evocatively named it.

Fred Hoyle was a cosmologist from West Riding, who spent most of his life working for the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge. He held some exceedingly strange beliefs. For one thing, he was convinced that life had certainly not begun on Earth, but that it had started in space and had been flung around to all corners of the universe by space dust and comets. This, incidentally, was how he thought a number of common illnesses arose too, so we can only imagine what he might have made of the year 2020. He was also firmly of the opinion that Stonehenge was a kind of prehistoric computer for eclipses, and dismissed a rather important fossil (quite publicly) as a man-made fake.

In his defense, Hoyle was not alone in many of these ideas. Nor was he alone in what is, often, remembered as the greatest of his missteps – his support for the steady-state theory of the universe. The steady state model is an alternative to the Big Bang theory, and suggests that the Universe has no beginning or end, but exists in a kind of steady loop in which its density remains constant. If its density were to change, of course, the steady-state/no beginning-ness of the whole idea would fall apart. Density, in very basic terms, is how much space something takes up, compared to its volume – in other words, how tightly packed in all its component parts are. Of course, at the time that Hoyle and others were working on these ideas, it was already well-accepted as fact that things in the universe seemed to be moving away from each other; stars, galaxies and planets all expanding apart. To explain this, the steady state model suggested that new matter was continually being created to fill in the new spaces, thereby maintaining the constant density. One (frankly, imperfect) way of imagining this is by thinking of a river, in which the individual molecules of water are all moving away from each other, but the flow of the river remains unchanged, because new molecules of water are always joining in.

This was the theory Hoyle backed, and he had some moderate support until two other scientists in the 1960’s stumbled quite accidently onto the proof of cosmic radiation left over from the Big Bang, which, in the view of most people, undisputedly put the nail into the Steady-State theory’s coffin.

Despite what movies and popular illustrations in old school textbooks may have led you to believe, the Big Bang theory wasn’t – and isn’t – actually a perfect theory either. However, as most of the scientific world seems to agree, it is – for the moment – the best one we’ve got. Ironically, it was Hoyle himself who closed one of the more gaping holes in this theory – inadvertently, I’m sure. One of the problems that had several cosmologists scratching their heads was that, whilst the moment of the Big Bang itself created 98 percent of all the matter with which we share the universe, it restricted itself to light gases. So it made a quite enormous amount of hydrogen and helium, and a sprinkle of lithium, and obviously, the whole fabric of space and time, but not much else. This is, obviously, a remarkable thing – especially since it all happened in less time than the Game of Thrones title sequence. But there’s no denying that without anything a little bit heavier and substantially more solid, us carbon-based, oxygen breathing, alcohol drinking life forms would have had a far harder time of things than we do already.

The problem was that these heavier elements needed an enormous amount of heat and energy to form, and there’d been – so far as anyone could tell – only one Big Bang. So if the Big Bang didn’t create them, what did? Until Hoyle, nobody had managed to figure that out.

Now Really big stars, when they reach the end of their impressively long life span, go out with as much pomp and ceremony as many of those littered along the Hollywood Walk of Fame. They let of an explosive amount of heat and energy, and can burn almost as brightly as a galaxy before fading and vanishing forever. Contemplating the night sky, and – more specifically – the slightly more twinkly-twinkle that is all the human eye can usually detect of a supernova, Hoyle realized that these imploding stars would release enough heat to allow the heavier elements to form, and enough energy to eject them into the rest of the universe. It was ground breaking science, and laid the ground for others to begin the long, arduous journey of figuring out how the elements combined, crashed and coalesced to get – eventually and painstakingly and with not a few hiccups on the way – to you and I.

Hoyle never got on board with the Big Bang Theory, despite the fact that his work gave it such a leg up. In an interview with the BBC in 1950, Hoyle described this theory of the birth of the Universe as a “big bang” – not necessarily intending to disparage it, as many claim, but merely to describe it to the layman in a more useful way than “the Friedman cosmology,” which was the very dull and immensely unhelpful name being bandied about at the time. Of course, he did without question disparage the Big Bang theory elsewhere, so it’s a bit of a moot point. Either way, the name stuck.

Hoyle retired from science and died, aged 81, in 2001. He joked in his later life that he ought to have patented the name he had, quite flippantly, coined. He also spent a number of years writing some quite excellent science fiction – in which he often gave free reign to his wilder theories. But perhaps the mind that came up with supernova nuclearsynthesis just needed to work that way – many great minds do. And as he himself said: “it is better to be interesting and wrong than boring and right”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s