Exploding the big bang!
An interview with creationist physicist/cosmologist John Hartnett
Dr John G. Hartnett received his Ph.D. in Physics, with distinction, from the University of Western Australia, where he is currently a Post-Doctoral Fellow. His current research interests include ultra-low–noise radar; ultra-high–stability microwave clocks based on pure sapphire resonators; tests of fundamental theories of physics, such as Special and General Relativity; and measurement of drift in fundamental constants and their cosmological implications. He has published more than 30 papers in refereed scientific journals.
How did our universe come to be? This is one of the ‘big’ questions, and scientists who study the origin and history of the universe (cosmos) are called cosmologists. Nearly all modern cosmologists believe that everything was ‘kickstarted’ by a ‘big bang’1 about 15 billion years ago, where the universe suddenly emerged from an extremely hot and dense state.2
But one dissenter from this ideology is Dr John Hartnett—this makes him a ‘rare breed’ of physicist. He is one of a relatively small number of Bible-believing creationists worldwide involved in cosmological research and thinking.
Facts vs their interpretation
When they view distant stars that are millions of light-years away from the earth, many folk, including Christians, have trouble accepting the biblical account that God created the universe about 6,000 years ago. But believing the Bible right from the start is not a problem for John, which puts him at odds with his evolutionary counterparts.
Often they will accuse him of denying reality (‘look, we can see it—it’s obvious’). But John explains that when looking at the universe, it’s no different to looking at the fossil record.
It’s the interpretation of the evidence’, he says. ‘Sure, distant stars and galaxies might be millions of light-years away, but that doesn’t mean that it took the light millions of years, by our standards, to get here. A light-year is a measurement of distance, not time. [It is the distance that light would travel in a year through a vacuum at its current speed of 300,000 km/sec (186,000 miles per second), i.e. 9,461,000,000,000 km (5,878,000,000,000 miles).] In other words, it’s just an expression used to tell us how far away something is—not how long it took the light to get here.’
John did not always believe in Genesis creation. He explains that he was interested in cosmology from a very young age, and mixed with those of similar interests. When John was 16, he and a friend co-authored a cosmology book that won a local science contest.
Big bang founded on unprovable assumptions
He says, ‘At that time, I would have described myself as an atheist, believing that the big bang had all the answers, although there was actually very little in the way of specifics about this model. It was this that drove me into further investigation.
Interestingly, most people think that the big bang has already been worked out, but they don’t realize that there are differing versions of the big bang model—and not everyone agrees. By inserting a few unprovable assumptions at your starting point, you can end up with virtually any model you like. The big bang assumes that the universe has no centre or edge. Not only is this not proven, some recent research on redshift patterns have badly damaged its credibility by indicating that our galaxy is at, or near to, the centre of the universe.3
‘What I really find amusing’, he says, ‘is the way people from various other fields of science often quote the big bang as if it’s set in stone. I don’t wish to sound unkind, but because they are not experts in this field, many of them have no idea what the big bang is really all about and misunderstand it.’
At present, John is assisting another creation scientist, Alex Williams, in compiling a book about the big bang from a creationist viewpoint. ‘We really want to show the scientific weaknesses in big bang thinking, and that you can’t fit it into the Bible’, he says. Jokingly, he adds, ‘We actually want to create a big bang of our own among the scientific establishment, and dispel the myth of this cherished icon of evolution.’
John is not content simply to point out that a light-year is just a measure of distance, but tries to explain distant starlight from a biblical framework:
‘The way I see it, the Bible is true and the stars were created on Day 4. Yes, the universe is very large but we also have a very great God. My personal view is that the explanation probably involves a certain amount of miraculous activity during Creation Week.There is every reason to anticipate a logical scientific explanation for all that we see.
‘But I don’t believe that we see any false information, like “light created on its way.” This would mean that we would be seeing light from heavenly bodies that don’t really exist; and even light that seems to indicate precise sequences of events predictable by the laws of physics, but which never actually happened. This, in effect, portrays God as a deceiver.
[This is very different from creating Adam as fully grown, looking like a 20-year-old, say, although he was really only a few minutes old. Here there is no deception, because God has told us that he created Adam from the dust, therefore there cannot be any history of growing for 20 years from an infant. But God has also told us that the stars are real, and that they are signs, not just apparitions from light waves.4]
‘There is every reason to anticipate a logical scientific explanation for all that we see. We don’t deny that some research is still needed, as we don’t yet know all the details—just as big bang theorists face various problems and challenges.’
In fact, John thinks this is an exciting time to be a Christian, particularly in the area of cosmology. He thinks that Dr Russell Humphreys’ book Starlight and Time has broken new ground for creation researchers in this area.
‘What Humphreys has done’, he says, ‘is show us another parameter of something that most people view as a constant, and that is time itself. Using Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, he has shown how time can vary depending on your position in space—it affects your viewpoint. Time is slowed by gravitational forces. A clock at sea level has been shown to run more slowly than one on top of a mountain, because the one at sea level is affected by more gravity. This is an effect known as time dilation, and has been experimentally demonstrated.
‘Humphreys uses this to great effect in his model to deal with the distant starlight issue. His cosmology starts with the earth near the centre originally, then the universe rapidly expanding in a “white hole” or black hole running in reverse. At the beginning, gravity would slow earth “clocks” far more than clocks further away, especially at the edge of the universe. Therefore, “billions of years” would be available (measured by clocks in those distant regions of space) for light to reach the earth, for stars to age, etc.—while less than one ordinary day is passing on earth (measured by earth clocks, on which biblical time is based).’
Dr John Hartnett showed us these man-made sapphires. Very pure crystals of aluminium oxide, they are used in the oscillator pumps his team develops for atomic clocks. He said, ‘The ones we are using in our clocks right now would cost around US$20,000 each.
We’re currently working with the European Space Agency in developing technology to test their atomic clock that is going to be used on the International Space Station. The precision of clocks like those can be used to measure the effects that gravity has upon time, even on earth.’
John’s current work is directly related to this field. As a research fellow with a prestigious secular university, he is part of a team that develops technology for very precise atomic clocks (see box). He explained that the clocks are so precise that they might only gain or lose about one second of time every 400 million years. ‘They tick so fast—about 10 billion times a second—that we can directly measure infinitesimal losses.’
Cosmology and Christianity
John adds that since he became a Christian, he regards it as his ‘calling’ to make cosmology more understandable for the average layperson. He says, ‘Modern ideas about the origin of the universe contain lots of complicated mathematical theories and formulas. Many people are duped into thinking that because two plus two equals four, the maths of the big bang must be right. But in most cases, these formulas are not provable or testable—they remain completely theoretical, and the models they support are based on unprovable starting assumptions. Christians, in particular, should not be worried about this.’
He is particularly critical of Dr Hugh Ross’s beliefs. That is, Ross ‘reinterprets’ Scripture to claim the days of Genesis 1 were long ages, and tries to use the big bang as a proof of Christianity. He observes, ‘Hugh Ross is on very shaky ground—placing his faith in this model, particularly when the real big bang leaders seem not to agree that the theory implies a creator.’
When I asked him about his history as a Christian, he reminisced about his young co-author friend. He recalls, ‘He got saved, and I became quite bitter towards him and other Christians. I used to go along to meetings and torment them. At one meeting I even tipped over a table full of books and stuff. I challenged them on evolution and origins, and they always avoided the subject. Looking back, though, I can remember having some doubts—a sort of belief in God, so if someone could have shown me some scientific basis like creation—in the Bible—I think it would have had a big impact on me.’
Years went by, and John became a Christian during the third year of his undergraduate degree in physics. Meeting other Christians after that, one young man challenged him to read Genesis, saying, ‘Read the first part, and when you’re finished, I’ll come back and talk to you.’ John says, ‘When I started reading it—it was like—wow, unbelievably amazing. Straight away it struck me that this could be completely consistent with the scientific evidence and the knowledge I had at that time. I was being converted into a creationist there and then.’
In their enthusiasm, John (by now married) and his wife strayed for a while into a quasi-Christian cult. He remarks, ‘We thought we were serving God—we were so keen. But looking back, I don’t think we ever really fitted in, and we now realize our mistake.’
John realizes that the distant starlight issue is a major stumbling block to belief in the Bible; the controversy, he says, is aimed squarely at the Genesis account of creation, which is foundational to the Gospel. He says, ‘I can understand it being an issue—it was a problem for me, too. But now I know that God did create it all, and when He says He did, I’m just eager to find out more about how. And, in the process, to help Christians give increasingly powerful answers to defend and share their faith.’
References and notes
- The term ‘big bang’ was coined in derision by its illustrious opponent, Sir Fred Hoyle (1915–2001). See Hoyle’s obituary, Demme, G. and Sarfati, J., ‘Big-bang’ critic dies, J. Creation 15(3):6–7, 2001. Return to text.
- However, although most people think of the big bang as an enormous explosion into space, leading big bang proponents picture it as a rapid expansion of space itself, which carried the matter along with it. Return to text.
- Humphreys, R., Our galaxy is the centre of the universe, ‘quantized’ redshifts show, J. Creation 16(2):95–104, 2002. Return to text.
- See further discussion of why the ‘light in transit’ is fallacious, and a plausible alternative explanation, Batten, D., (Ed.) et al., The Creation Answers Book, Queensland, Australia, 2006. Return to text.