The big bang—Science or science fiction?
A Scientific American article makes some fascinating observations
Galileo wrote, “Mathematics is the language in which God has written the universe”.
A recent Scientific American (SciAm) article1 notes that cosmology—the study of the origin of the universe—is “a mathematically driven science”. Thus it “is usually thought to be extremely precise”.
Thus the study of the universe is driven by the language in which God has written the universe. That seems appropriate. But while cosmology may be precise, is it accurate? (The two are related but different; see glossary, below, for all terms in blue bold.)
Human language can be used to write all sorts of things; descriptions and predictions (weather and forecasts), history and science, and historical novels and science fiction. Mathematics can similarly be used to write different things. For example, it can describe the force of gravity (F) between two masses (m) at a given distance (r) by F = G m1m2/r2. And it can predict the velocity (v) at a time (t) after starting with an initial velocity (u) and constant acceleration (a) by: v = u + at.
Behind the numerous popular descriptions of the big bang, there is an elaborate mathematical edifice. The article calls it a “conceptual framework” upon which “floor upon floor has been added intact”. There is a story being told with this mathematics. However, is this story history based firmly on (observational, experimental) science, or is it largely a historical novel with elements of science fiction?
The SciAm article strongly suggests that it is the latter—a novel. It is based on an assumed history and is loosely grounded with elements of real science. But there is also lots of science fiction, including, as will be seen, the equivalents of the mythical dilithium crystals, warp drive, and cloaking fields from Star Trek:
Born out of a cosmic explosion 13.8 billion years ago, the universe rapidly inflated and then cooled, it is still expanding at an increasing rate and mostly made up of unknown dark matter and dark energy … right?
This well-known story is usually taken as a self-evident scientific fact, despite the relative lack of empirical evidence—and despite a steady crop of discrepancies arising with observations of the distant universe.1
Every story needs some good illustrations, and NASA has produced one to go with this ‘story’. It does quite a good job of condensing the various plot lines and characters of this story onto one page (figure 1).
Most historical novels provide fictional details of happenings around well-established events that occurred on a known timeline. The big bang is different. The historical events are only generally inferred—once upon a time, there was no universe, no stars, no sun, no Earth; now these all exist. So, events must have happened that brought them into being from not being. However, for secular cosmologists, there is no independent record of these events nor their timing or sequence. The big bang is their attempt to determine these things, as well as fill in all the details around them.
These details include things like:
- a quantum fluctuation from the quantum vacuum;
- an initial superhot, superdense ‘singularity’;
- a brief period of superfast cosmic inflation (expansion faster than light);
- star formation;
- galaxy formation;
- planet formation;
- dark matter; and
- dark energy.
Many of these are noted in NASA’s illustration.
When you read the blurb for this story (“Born out of a cosmic explosion …”) it can sound very plausible. However, on careful examination (1 Thessalonians 5:21), every one of the items listed above is either inconsistent with what we know from physics, or has no direct observational support, or both.
For example, the article notes (emphasis added) that a
recent probe found galaxies inconsistent with the theory of dark matter, which posits this hypothetical substance to be everywhere. … A crucial function of theories such as dark matter, dark energy and inflation … is not to describe known empirical phenomena but rather to maintain the mathematical coherence of the framework itself while accounting for discrepant observations. Fundamentally, they are names for something that must exist … .1
This is all because the ‘story’ requires them to exist so that the mathematics will work.
In the big bang story, cosmic inflation happens almost immediately after the ‘quantum fluctuation’. The quantum fluctuation transfers all mass/energy that is in the universe from something called the ‘quantum vacuum’ to a zero-volume, infinite-density ‘singularity’ in real spacetime. Then inflation expands this singularity to occupy a non-zero volume.
This expansion of space happens so quickly that any two points inside it are moving away from each other at a speed much faster than light. Inflation is the big bang’s warp drive.
There is no known, or even hypothesized, force or energy for causing this expansion—the big bang’s dilithium crystal—and no known mechanism for stopping it. The SciAm article says (emphasis added):
… inflation theory relies on ad hoc contrivances to accommodate almost any data, and … its proposed physical field is not based on anything with empirical justification. This is probably because a crucial function of inflation is to bridge the transition from an unknowable big bang to physics we can recognize today. So, is it science or a convenient invention?1
Such “convenient invention” is of course a hallmark of science fiction. Inflation happens at a time in the big bang story when it is impossible for us to see anything by ‘looking out and back far enough’. So it is not possible to verify its occurrence by direct observation. (It is in effect rendered invisible by a StarTrekkian cloaking field.)
It is, however, hypothesized to have generated gravitational waves that should be detectable, not directly but via certain effects they would have on radiation we can observe.
Gravity wave find turns to dust
In March 2014, amid much fanfare, it was announced that such an effect had, in fact, been detected, thereby establishing that inflation had, indeed, happened. However, by June 2014 when the associated paper was published, it had been determined that the observed effect actually came from intergalactic dust.2 Undeterred, and because inflation is so crucial to the big bang, attempts to detect these waves have continued, but, so far, without success.
In fact, the prospect of finding them keeps getting smaller, with profound implications.
An updated search for primordial gravitational waves has not found a signal, which implies that some popular early universe models are becoming less viable.3
That is to say, the effect predicted by some of the mathematical constructs (models) for inflation could not be unequivocally observed. The experimental uncertainty (degree of precision) in these measurements was sufficient to conclusively show that some of the models are definitely wrong, although it leaves others still possible. Future experiments are planned with improved equipment that will reduce the size of the experimental uncertainty. These could result in even more of the theories also being shown to be wrong (see figure 3).
This would be very bad news for big bang proponents, because inflation is required to solve several of those aforementioned “discrepant observations”. One of these is the extreme uniformity in the ‘temperature’ of the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMBR) – see box below: ‘The big bang’s light-travel problem’.
Inflation, postulated in order to solve the big bang’s light-travel problem, leaves it with another. The extreme uniformity in the radiation (CMB) implies an extremely uniform distribution of the matter that emits the radiation. But the big bang requires a non-uniform—indeed, lumpy—distribution of matter to provide the nuclei for star formation by gravitational collapse.4
Dark matter to the rescue?
The hypothesized dark matter, unlike ‘normal’ matter, is invisible but, fortuitously, has a ‘normal’ gravitational field. Consequently, ‘lumps’ of this dark matter—their convenient invisibility another big bang cloaking field—provide the necessary mechanism for star formation in the big bang story, so as “to maintain the mathematical coherence of the framework”.1
The third hypothetical entity mentioned in the SciAm article is dark energy. But is it real? As John Rennie, editor-in-chief of SciAm in 2009, wrote:
… when astronomers suddenly realized that the universe was not merely expanding but accelerating in its expansion, most of them concluded that some otherwise undetectable antigravity force, a ‘dark energy’, was shoving apart galaxies. An alternative possibility, however, can explain the observations as a fluke of cosmological geometry. It avoids invoking dark energy as an ad hoc cause but at the price of throwing out the Copernican principle: roughly speaking, it puts Earth, or at least our galaxy, back at the center of the observable universe.5
The Copernican principle is not something deduced from the observational data but is, rather, a presupposition—an unquestioned assumption—that has been arbitrarily and unnecessarily imposed on the interpretation of the data. “Throwing out” something that is arbitrary and unnecessary would not seem to be unreasonable. It would be like discarding a piece of junk that you capriciously picked up from the side of the road but for which you have no real need.
So, according to the SciAm article, the big bang “relies on a conceptual framework” that, in turn, relies on a number of “hypothetical” entities (inflation, dark matter, dark energy) “to maintain the mathematical coherence of the framework itself while accounting for discrepant observations”. As the author puts it, to maintain this paradigm:
… we must accept that 95 percent of our cosmos is furnished by completely unknown elements and forces for which we have no empirical evidence whatsoever. For a scientist to be confident of this picture requires an exceptional faith in the power of mathematical unification.1
Also, should it turn out that, as with Newton’s gravity, some of the assumptions of today’s cosmology do not apply on a universal scale (which Ekeberg calls “entirely plausible”) he writes (emphases added):
… today’s multilayered theoretical edifice of the big bang paradigm would turn out to be a confusing mix of fictional beasts invented to uphold the model, along with empirically valid variables mutually reliant on each other to the point of making it impossible to sort science from fiction.1
Shades of Star Trek
All this sounds like the epitome of science fiction—complete with the equivalents of dilithium crystals, warp drive, and cloaking fields.
The biblical account of the origin of the universe, on the other hand, is classic history—a detailed record of well-defined events. They occur in a particular chronological sequence over a specific period (6 days about 6,000 years ago), with no “fictional beasts invented”. And all of it is expressed in easily understood natural language rather than abstruse mathematics.
Moreover, being the Word of God (who invented both the human mind and the language of mathematics) it is both accurate and precise.
The big bang’s light-travel problem (the ‘horizon problem’)
Biblical (‘young earth’) creationists are often asked: since the universe is far bigger than 6,000 light-years across, how could light have reached us in only 6,000 years? But big bangers have their own light-travel problem, also one of far more light-years than years.*
After the supposed big bang, different parts of the universe must have had very different temperatures, because of the great randomness of the initial conditions. But now, no matter where we look in the universe, the CMB shows the background temperature is extremely even—to one part in 100,000—and a frigid 2.728 K (-270.422 °C). How could the universe go from very different temperatures to very uniform? Only if the hot parts transferred energy to the cool parts. The fastest this can happen is the speed of light—radiant energy.
However, in the big bang story, the universe started as an enormously hot plasma. This ‘fourth state of matter’ comprises charged particles, which strongly scatter photons of electromagnetic radiation (‘light’), preventing light getting through. It was only 380,000 years after the big bang that the universe cooled enough to form neutral atoms. These would be transparent to photons. CMB is supposed to have originated from this time, and comes from all directions.
But this means that light could have travelled only 380,000 light-years in that time—a ‘horizon’ beyond which it can’t reach. However, CMB reaches us from regions of space that would have been separated by about 10 times that distance when the universe became transparent. In fact, regions of the sky separated by more than 2° could never have been in contact. So big bangers also have far more light-years than years (figure 4). This is the horizon problem, described as “a big headache for cosmologists, so big that they have come up with some pretty wild solutions”.** In summary: they have proposed either that light itself was much faster soon after the big bang, or that the universe once expanded much faster than light (inflation).
* Lisle, J., Light-travel time: a problem for the big bang, Creation 25(4):48–49, 2003.
** Brooks, M., 13 things that do not make sense, New Scientist, 19 Mar 2005. See also Harwood, M., How can distant starlight reach us in just 6,000 years? 12 Jan 2009.
Accuracy is a measure of closeness to the correct answer. Precision measures the repeatability of the measurement. Something can be very precisely measured but be quite inaccurate. To know how accurate a measurement is, one needs to know the correct answer. Knowing how accurate a shooter has been requires knowing where the bullseye is located relative to their grouping (figure 2). Radiometric dating of rock formed in a Mt St Helens eruption involved very precise measurement of the radioisotopes. However, it gave ages of millions of years—obviously wildly inaccurate for a rock known to be 10 years old at the time.
In big bang theory, a singularity is the presumed ‘beginning’ of what we now know as the universe. It is a mathematical construct with zero volume and infinite density, and is derived by setting the radius of a sphere in certain equations to zero. However, a sphere of zero radius is impossible to reach experimentally and probably not physically realizable. A singularity is, however, part of the mathematical “conceptual framework” of the big bang.
The quantum vacuum is a state in quantum field theory which has the lowest quantum energy possible, and therefore implies a temperature of absolute zero (0° Kelvin). There is good, direct experimental support for much of quantum physics* in the subatomic world. However, “absolute zero is impossible to reach. The reason has to do with the amount of work necessary to remove heat from a substance, which increases substantially the colder you try to go. To reach zero kelvins, you would require an infinite amount of work.”** So direct, experimental evidence of the quantum vacuum is not possible, and it can only be hypothesized as a mechanism for explaining certain observations. In the case of the big bang, it is a mathematical construct used to explain the appearance of the physical universe at a particular point in time prior to which the universe as we know it did not exist, instead existing only as energy in the ‘quantum vacuum’.
The quantum fluctuation is a hypothesized, spontaneous fluctuation of the energy contained in the quantum vacuum. Based on Heisenberg’s famous Uncertainty Principle, and Einstein’s even more famous E = mc2, it is theoretically possible for some of this energy to be converted into particles of matter and an equal number of antimatter particles—only to annihilate each other almost immediately. This supposedly happens all the time, but the particles theorized are called ‘virtual’ particles, since they exist for such a vanishingly brief time that they cannot be observed. We can only observe some effects consistent with the hypothesis. Applied to the big bang, the idea is that such a fluctuation created the first particles of matter/antimatter, then cosmic inflation immediately ‘kicked in’ (for unknown reasons) to spread things out before the particles could annihilate each other and collapse back into the quantum vacuum. It has been claimed that a quantum fluctuation could have created the universe ‘from nothing’. But even in this way of thinking, there must be something there to fluctuate, and the quantum vacuum is not ‘nothing’.
The Copernican principle is a fundamental tenet of secular cosmology. It was named after Copernicus, the creationist Polish cleric who, before Galileo, argued that the earth was not the centre of the solar system. It assumes that on a large enough scale, the universe will look much the same in every direction, and regardless of where the observer is located. It therefore insists that there is no special place in the universe and no ‘centre’ to it. However, the principle is not derived from observation, but is an a priori assumption. Some observations indicate that the assumption is dubious.
The cosmic microwave background radiation (CMBR/CMB) refers to the radiation reaching Earth from all directions. Most secular cosmologists believe that it reaches us from the very early stages of the universe. It has sometimes been referred to as the leftover heat (in the form of extremely redshifted light) from the big bang. CMBR was a key part of the big bang theory’s eventual acceptance.
* Underlying this and quantum field theory is quantum mechanics. This is a theory that seeks to explain the properties of nature on the atomic/subatomic scale, where classical physics is inadequate. It incorporates the notions that various properties such as energy and momentum are restricted to discrete values (quanta); that objects can have the properties of both particles and waves; and that there are inherent limits to how accurately the values of certain pairs of physical quantities (e.g. the position and momentum of a particle) can be simultaneously determined.
** Gainey, C., Racing toward absolute zero, blogs.scientificamerican.com, 16 Aug 2019.
References and notes
- Ekeberg, B., Cosmology has some big problems, blogs.scientificamerican.com, 30 Apr 2019. Return to text.
- Hartnett J., The authors of the claimed biggest astrophysics discovery of the century admit they may have been wrong, 3 Jul 2014. Return to text.
- Meerburg, D., Squeezing down the theory space for cosmic inflation, Physics 14(135), 4 Oct 2021; physics.aps.org. Return to text.
- See creation.com/stars. Return to text.
- Rennie, J., In our expanding universe, earth is nothing special, scientificamerican.com, 1 Apr 2009. Return to text.