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The birth of the “Big Bang”

No one knows what the Big Bang looked like. This illustration is an artist’s rendering of the Milky Way galaxy.   | Photo Credit: ALYSSA GOODMAN

The Big Bang theory is really famous. No, this isn’t about the American sitcom that shares the same name and is also extremely popular. This is about the theory that explains our origin. This means that the Big Bang theory is the leading explanation about how the universe began.

A cosmological model of the observable universe, the Big Bang theory, in its simplest form, says that the universe as we know it today began with a small singularity. This single point expanded, stretched, and inflated over the next 13.77 billion years to grow as large as we know it right now.

Alternate explanations exist

While the theory has won over most of the astronomical community, there are still others who believe in alternate explanations. There was a time – years after the theory had first been suggested and didn’t even go by this name – when the Big Bang theory was also perceived as an alternate explanation for the origin of the universe. In fact, the term “Big Bang” was coined by someone who was firmly against the idea. The credit for naming the theory goes to English scientist Fred Hoyle.

British Scientist Sir Fred Hoyle

British Scientist Sir Fred Hoyle   | Photo Credit: T_L_PRABHAKAR

Born in 1915 in Yorkshire, England, Hoyle was educated in Cambridge before spending six years working on radar development with the British Admiralty during World War II. Returning to Cambridge as a lecturer in 1945, he announced the steady-state theory of the universe three years later, in collaboration with astronomer Thomas Gold and mathematician Hermann Bondi. According to this theory, the expansion of the universe and the creation of matter were interdependent.

The “primeval atom”

Questions about the origin of the universe have been probed by scientists through centuries. It gathered momentum in the 20th Century and was bolstered further when American astronomer Edwin Hubble brought experimental observations regarding the constant expansion of the universe. The idea of the Big Bang theory was also first suggested around that time by Belgian priest and cosmologist Georges Lemaitre. Lemaitre proposed that the universe had begun from a single “primeval atom” by thinking back on Hubble’s evidence for expansion.

So when Hoyle delivered a lecture on The Third Programme, a broadcast by BBC radio, on March 28, 1949, he naturally tried to champion his cause. At one point during this show, when Hoyle was trying to distinguish the opposing theory with his own, he made the following statement: “We now come to the question of applying the observational tests to earlier theories. These theories were based on the hypothesis that all the matter in the universe was created in one big bang at a particular time in the remote past. It now turns out that in some respect or other all such theories are in conflict with the observational requirements.”

Controversial statement

The statement has since become controversial with many observers believing that the term “big bang” was coined in a derogatory way. The fact that Hoyle himself has clarified that he had no such intentions and was merely using it to help listeners invoke an image as it best described the idea hasn’t made headway either. Regardless, this is accepted as the first usage of the term “big bang” to describe the theory and the name has stuck to it.

Research in the second half of the 20th Century and the identification of cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation in particular further strengthened the case of the Big Bang theory. Even though this debunked the original model of the steady-state theory and it slowly went out of favour among cosmologists, Hoyle remained a staunch supporter of it, tweaking it where he could to try to fit in the new evidence.

Hoyle might be best remembered for coining the term “big bang” and his strong refusal of the theory while defending his own, but his greatest contribution came in 1957 when he revealed through his research the stellar origins of the elements from which the universe, solar system, and our bodies are made. The fact that his close collaborator in this work, U.S. physicist Willy Fowler, was awarded the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physics for this research while Hoyle was outright ignored continues to be hotly debated till this day and is a story in its own right.

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Printable version | Jan 23, 2022 12:25:14 PM |

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