Stephen Hawking's Universe
Episode 2: The Big Bang
This second episode in the six part series addresses the question "Did the
universe have a beginning, as the church taught?" Ps. 148:3-6
The story starts with how new technology impacted theory. In 1917
Mount Wilson Observatory was opened in the US with a 100-in telescope, the
largest in the world at that time. The increased resolution provided by
this instrument led to experimental observations, which revealed Einstein's
Einstein's Theory of General Relativity predicted expansion or
contraction of the Universe. But at that time, most scientists felt the
Universe was static, and Einstein went along with that bias and inserted a
"cosmological constant" into his theory to make the universe static.
Georges Lemaitre, a Catholic priest and mathematician, examined
Einstein's theory and followed it to its mathematical conclusion. He
proposed that the Universe is expanding from a "primeval atom", which
exploded. He felt that "science and religion can fit together."
To represent Lemaitre's views, the show interviews Father Michael
Heller of the Pontifical Academy of Theology. He thinks that there are two
ways to fit science and religion together. Richard Bube distinguishes
seven ways of relating science and religion. However, Heller and Bube
are describing different levels of relation. Heller answers the question
of how scientists and theologians relate whereas Bube addresses the
philosophical question of modes in which science and theology relates.
Heller thinks that *dialogue*, in which scientists and theologians sit
down together to discuss issues, doesn't work. I think members of the ASA
would disagree. After all, haven't we been doing that for 50 years? The
other option for Heller is for a priest or religious man to *do* science.
The Pope agrees with Heller's view and science is done within the Vatican
at the Pontifical Academy. I see a third option: a scientist that *does*
theology. As Christians, we should all do theology on some level, as an
outgrowth of our desire to know God. So a scientist who is a Christian
should be in the process of relating science with theology. Perhaps Heller
feels that any Christian would be a "religious man" and so would fall under
his second option.
Back to the story: when Lemaitre tried to demonstrate his theory to
Einstein, he was rejected, "your physics is bad." But then Edwin Hubble,
at the Mount Wilson Observatory, found that nebulae were other galaxies,
millions of light years away, which greatly increased the size of the known
universe. In addition, he was able to determine that the further the
galaxy, the faster it moved away from us (Hubble's Law).
In 1931 Lemaitre visited Einstein and Hubble: theory, math, and
experiment joined to move science forward. The video presents a mock-up of
the famous dinner, with Einstein standing up at the end and exclaiming
"it's the most beautiful thing."
But "many scientists didn't like the idea that the universe had a
beginning, a moment of creation"-such as Fred Hoyle, who proposed the
Steady State theory (1948). The evidence that the Universe was expanding
was irrefutable, but he interpreted it differently. Instead of expanding
from a single point, the Universe is expanding everywhere, and matter is
continuously produced to fill the void.
The matter produced spontaneously would be the simplest element: hydrogen.
However, where did all the other elements come from?
Chris Halls, a geochemist, pointed out that the heavy elements aren't
subject to chemical breakdown on Earth (e.g. Au). Since they are so
durable, they must have originated off planet in some extreme process. I
felt that this argument was mixing up chemistry and nuclear physics--the
fact that gold doesn't tarnish or dissolve isn't related to the stability
of its nucleus.
The Steady State model proposed that stars synthesize the elements by
nuclear fusion (more about this will be presented in Cosmic Alchemy, the
next episode). Inside stars, H2 is fused to form He. When the H2 is
consumed, He undergoes fusion, forming heavier elements until Fe is formed.
In order to produce the heaviest elements, an even more extreme process
must occur: a supernova.
There were problems with the Steady State model: where did H2 come
from? Why is there so much He in space? But there were also problems with
the Big Bang theory, for example, there should be a "fossil radiation" from
such a large explosion.
David Wilkinson explained how in 1964, when he was a student of Robert
Dickie at Princeton, they realized that we are embedded in the Big Bang
explosion, and so should see it from any direction. But it was Robert
Wilson and Arno Penzias at Bell Labs who detected noise from every
direction with their horn antenna designed to receive satellite
transmissions. There is some good footage from the actual sites. "Well
boys, we've been scooped," said Dickie to his students.
The discovery of the cosmic background radiation put the nail in the
Steady State model's coffin and lead to the 1978 Nobel Prize in Physics for
Wilson and Penzias. The show interviews Bob Wilson, who is very humble.
"The Nobel Prize is given for discoveries. It's not given for being the
best physicist...I still have a hard time putting myself in the same
category as Einstein...I feel very lucky to be at the right place when that
There were still problems with the Big Bang: need slight
irregularities in the radiation to form galaxies. In 1989, COBE (1st
satellite devoted to cosmology) took a whole year's worth of data,
obtaining a "portrait of the Universe as it was 15 billion years ago."
George Smoot, the principal investigator, described the results: "It's like
you're seeing God, or your seeing the handwriting of God when He wrote out
how He was going to make the Universe...like seeing the Ten commandments."
Throughout this episode, Hawking interjects how his life and work
related to the unfolding story. It works well, as the events were taking
place during his graduate work. The background radiation was discovered as
he completed his thesis. When he started at Cambridge, he had just been
diagnosed with ALS. It wasn't until his third year that he found a thesis
topic: develop a theory to describe the conditions of the Big Bang,
inspired by Roger Penrose's work on Black Holes [another episode]. "From
Lemaitre's primeval atom to my own work had taken only a few decades."
"In Lemaitre's primeval atom, we have found consensus between the
claims of Scriptures and the rigors of science." The Pope gave a medal to
Hawking for his part in discovering the Big Bang. In 1981, the Pope
commended the scientists who developed the Big Bang theory, but said that
science "should not inquire into the Big Bang itself, for that was the work
of God." Hawking reacted to that limitation: "If science and religion were
now at one, perhaps they were still not quite seeing eye to eye."
1. _Putting it All Together: Seven Patterns for Relating Science and
Theology_ 1994 Richard Bube, Academic Press