Planck sees the Big Bang—or not?


The microwave sky as seen by Planck. This multi-frequency all-sky image of the microwave sky has been composed using data from Planck covering the electromagnetic spectrum from 30 GHz to 857 GHz. The image was derived from data collected by Planck during its first all-sky survey and comes from observations taken between August 2009 and June 2010. Image: ESA/ LFI & HFI Consortia.
The microwave sky as seen by Planck.1 This multi-frequency all-sky image of the microwave sky has been composed using data from Planck covering the electromagnetic spectrum from 30 GHz to 857 GHz. The image was derived from data collected by Planck during its first all-sky survey and comes from observations taken between August 2009 and June 2010. Image: ESA/ LFI & HFI Consortia.

On July 5th 2010 the European Space Agency (ESA) released its first one-year-long all-sky survey map of the cosmos as seen by the Planck-satellite-borne microwave telescope. The image shown here is the result. Nice picture!

The accompanying press release2 said:

It not only provides new insight into the way stars and galaxies form but also tells us how the Universe itself came to life after the Big Bang.

“This is the moment that Planck was conceived for,” says ESA Director of Science and Robotic Exploration, David Southwood. “We’re not giving the answer. We are opening the door to an Eldorado where scientists can seek the nuggets that will lead to deeper understanding of how our Universe came to be and how it works now. The image itself and its remarkable quality is a tribute to the engineers who built and have operated Planck. Now the scientific harvest must begin.”

There is no doubt in my mind that this is a major technological achievement, and as a microwave physicist3 I greatly appreciate the technical challenges that have gone into this venture. But what are they really looking at? Clearly the telescope orbiting in space at the second Lagrangian Point4 L2, located 1.5 million kilometres directly ‘behind’ the Earth as viewed from the Sun, has a clear view of the microwave and millimeter-wave radiation pouring in from space. The radiation is said to come from primarily two sources:

1) our Milky Way galaxy, and that is what you see across the central band of the image and

2) the Big Bang. This is radiation that is now seen at microwave frequencies, and known for four decades now as the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation (CMBR).

A large portion of the image is dominated by the diffuse emission from the gas and dust in the Galaxy. However, the mottled structure at high latitudes in this image is the CMBR. The mottling represents tiny temperature fluctuations seen after a near uniform radiation flux at a constant 2.7 K temperature has been extracted. The fluctuations are claimed to be representative of the primordial density variations in the Big Bang fireball from which today’s cosmic structure originated.

One headline claimed, “Big Bang telescope probe captures first image of our universe”5 and continued in the article to say, “A SPACE telescope that reveals how the universe came to life after the Big Bang returned its first image this morning.”

Another claimed “ ‘Afterglow’ of big bang captured by satellite”6 and justified the headline with “It’s sometimes known as the ‘afterglow of creation’ because it was the first light to be produced when matter began to form following the Big Bang some 13.7 billion years ago. Now scientists are close to producing the best-ever image of this fossilised relic from the dawn of time.”

But how do we know that this radiation comes from the big bang? Firstly, this cannot be a ‘photograph’ of the big bang itself, because it is very feeble low temperature radiation, and it is assumed that as the universe expanded the very hot unobserved putative radiation from the initial putative primordial fireball was adiabatically cooled to this radiation we see today. Secondly, only by eliminating all other possible sources of the CMBR radiation could you definitely say it is from an alleged ‘big bang’.

But that last statement, like big bang theory itself, assumes a naturalistic cause—no Creator. So, if there was no naturalistic big bang, but instead God ‘stretched out the heavens’ in an awesome display of supernatural power, even eliminating all other naturalistic causes for the CMBR would not mean that a big bang had been demonstrated.

Most ‘big bangers’ ascribe all creative power to some sort of a quantum fluctuation of nothing, no God, and certainly no design, no purpose, nothing. Given sufficient time, anything can be believed, it seems. For people to be gazing at this as if it is a picture of origins reminds me of the guy who claimed, “I would not have seen it if I hadn’t believed it.” And that is how the ESA press release reads. It is now only a matter of digging into the details, they say, and given more time and more data, a sharper image, they hope.7

So does the Planck satellite really tell us something new about the Big Bang? Not really! The problem is that you cannot know for sure what you are looking at. The cosmos is not the same as the local laboratory where you can do a control experiment—send in some radiation and look for a response. Nowadays it has come down to inventing many unknowns8—‘dark’ matter, ‘dark’ energy, this big bang ‘afterglow’ and even ‘inflation’, some unobserved super-expansion that occurred for an infinitesimal moment after the big bang, that was started and stopped by … well, no one knows, but it caused the volume of the universe to increase 1070 times (yikes!) in this brief moment, so causing the universe to expand much faster than the speed of light. The ESA press release says they hope to examine this period. And it (inflation) must be correct (remember, no Creator, no purpose) because it solves so many other problems with the big bang, like the isotropy problem, flatness problem, the horizon problem, problem, problem, etc. … . You can believe anything you like, it seems, but the true historical creation account, found in the first book of the Bible, makes much more sense to me.9

Published: 13 July 2010


  1. www.esa.int/esaCP/SEMF2FRZ5BG_index_1.html accessed 7 July 2010 Return to text.
  2. www.esa.int/esaCP/SEMF2FRZ5BG_index_0.html accessed 7 July 2010 Return to text.
  3. [Dr Hartnett is a full Research Professor at the University of Western Australia—Ed.]. Return to text.
  4. At this point spacecraft are free from gravitational forces and sort of just hover there—an ideal place in solar orbit to place a scientific satellite. Return to text.
  5. www.heraldsun.com.au/news/world/big-bang-telescope-probe-captures-first-image-of-our-universe/story-e6frf7lf-1225888309540 accessed 7 July 2010 Return to text.
  6. http://www.nzherald.co.nz/world/news/article.cfm?c_id=2&objectid=10656869 accessed 7 July 2010 Return to text.
  7. “He hath made every thing beautiful in its time: also he hath set the world in their heart, yet so that man cannot find out the work that God hath done from the beginning even to the end.” Eccleciastes 3:11 ERV Return to text.
  8. ‘Cosmology is not even astrophysics’ Return to text.
  9. Genesis stands in stark opposition to big bang cosmology; firstly the millions of years issue, and secondly the order of events. Genesis has the sun and stars created after the earth exists—big bang thinking has them existing millions of years before the earth. Return to text.

Helpful Resources

Dismantling the Big Bang
by Alex Williams, John Hartnett
US $20.00
Soft cover