Exposing PseudoAstronomy

November 10, 2008

What Does it Mean to “Prove” the Big Bang? – De-Mything the “Myth” that It Has Not Been “Proven”


The Big Bang is one of the fundamental theories (and I do mean “theory” in a scientific sense) of modern cosmology. It describes what happened just after the universe formed, how primordial matter was made, and the growth of structures like galaxies and superclusters of galaxies.

Being so fundamental in nature, it is not surprising that people who want to try to use astronomy to support a religious creation mythology try to mythify it, or at least cast enough doubt and suspicion on its plausibility that their adherents will take their word for it. (This is not a straw man on my part, but it is discussed in the broadcast (below) for several minutes towards the end.)

This entry is based on refuting the “Myth that the Big Bang Has Been Proven” Institute for Creation Research radio broadcast, originally aired on December 11, 1999, and re-aired on June 22, 2002.

Background Information

I don’t really have enough room here (and you likely don’t want to read) to go into the whole theory of Big Bang Cosmology, nor to really discuss in-depth the Three Pillars of evidence for the Big Bang theory (expanding universe, cosmic microwave background radiation, amounts of the light elements; sometimes the growth of large-scale structures is tossed in as a Fourth). Rather, as is generally the case when I discuss an ICR radio episode, I will address the claims as they come.

Individual Claims

Claim: “It seems like every time we turn on the TV, read the newspaper, or listen to the news, we hear about the big bang.” (at the beginning of the broadcast, by the narrator).

Response: Right off the bat, here, we have a straw man argument – they’re arguing against something that simply isn’t true. Honestly, think about it: When was the last time you picked up a newspaper or turned on the TV (unless it was a sci-fi show) and they were discussing the Big Bang?

Claim: “8 to 20 billion years ago, the date is not quite certain, the universe began suddenly.” (about 1 min 5 sec, Danny Faulkner).

Response: I’ll begrudge them this that when the show was originally recorded 10 years ago, the date wasn’t really certain, and estimates ranged from about 10-20 billion years for the formation of the universe. However, the latest data from the WMAP satellite places the age at about 14.1 billion years for the age of the cosmos.

Claim: “One of the misconceptions of the Big Bang theory is that, since the universe is expanding, the theory must be true.” (~1:30, Narrator). Immediately following, “It turns out this isn’t true at all, it turns out the expansion of the universe was discovered before the Big Bang model was developed. In fact, the Big Bang model was developed to explain why the universe was expanding.” (Danny Faulkner)

Response: I’m trying to find the logical fallacy that is effectively, “you’re either ignorant of the field, or you’re lying.” I think I can again politely refer to this as a straw man fallacy because he’s arguing against something that we astronomers don’t actually say. It is true that the expanding universe is one of the Three Pillars of the Big Bang. In general, logically, if something is getting larger today, it must have been smaller in the past. Unless something happened further in the past to change this, then the logical assumption is that it would continue to shrink the further in the past you go, until it was an infinitesimally small thing. But, this is not the only line of evidence, as I very briefly mentioned in my Background Information above.

The second sentence of this claim is, to my knowledge, mostly correct. But that’s how science works: We think something operates one way (originally, the “Steady-State” model saying that the universe has pretty much always been like it is today). But, new evidence (expansion) shows that our thinking was incorrect. Hence, we need to revise our models, or come up with new ones. I’m honestly not sure why they emphasize this except in the sense that it’s a subtle ad hominem attack (effectively, “You crazy ‘evolutionary’ astronomers don’t know what you’re doing, you have to keep changing your theories”) as well as a small tu quoque fallacy (effectively, “My evidence may not be valid, but neither is yours.”).

Claim: “One scientific problem with the Big Bang is that no like process has ever been observed so, science is supposed to deal with observation … yet no one has ever seen an explosion like a Big Bang. So right away, that places the Big Bang outside the realm of science.” (~2:00, Jonathan Henry)

Response: Ah, my first use of the False Continuum fallacy by attempting to argue that astronomers are guilty of the Inconsistency logical fallacy. In other words, he is implying that astronomers are being inconsistent in that we can’t have seen a Big Bang, therefore it’s faith, just like we’re claiming religion is faith because we can’t see (a) G/god(s). But the false continuum is that there really isn’t a fuzzy line of “scientific faith” in the Big Bang – there are real consequences and real predictions that come from it.

Unlike creationism, from where there can be no scientific evidence, “proof,” nor predictions from, models of the Big Bang predicted the existence of the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation (CMBR, or sometimes CMB) – the discovery of which resulted in a 3-way Nobel Prize – as well as predictions about the relative abundance of hydrogen to helium, lithium, and beryllium, which have so far been observed to be consistent with the Big Bang model.

It’s true, we can’t “see” the Big Bang, nor can we see another Big Bang simply by definition. But we can observe its effects and check for their consistency with that model. And so far, they support the Big Bang.

Claim: “One of the … predictions … has been that all matter in the universe aught to be distributed evenly everywhere.” (~3:00, Jonathan Henry)

Response: Again, ignorance, a lie, or politely a straw man. No one argues this to be the case because it’s OBVIOUSLY not the case (the fact that you sit separate from your chair, the air, the planet, and the solar system is proof that this is not the case). It may have initially been that when the theory was first developed that this was a consequence. But, that was quickly modified because, as I said, it obviously is not the case. We explain the non-uniform distribution as being caused by tiny fluctuations in the universe at the earliest times. Over hundreds of thousands of years, these grew into much larger variations in density, which led to the large-scale structures that we see today.

Claim: Paraphrasing this claim from Russ Humphreys (~4:15) – The Hubble Space Telescope has observed galaxies that formed about 700,000 years after the Big Bang, but this can’t be because galaxies take longer than that to form.

Response: This is actually a pretty neat science result (NASA Press Release, a more recent one than the show was referring to). What it shows is that galaxies were actually already being formed earlier than had been previously assumed, but that was only under one model of galaxy formation – a “Top-Down” approach where larger galaxies form first. What this is evidence for is more of a “Bottom-Up” mechanism, where smaller things formed first, in this case dwarf galaxies. So this is another case where there is a “distortion” of the facts. (Another related article.)

Claim: “Dark matter is the brain child of the fertile imagination of the Big Bang theorist who, not seeing the amount of matter that their theory requires invent other matter that we can’t see. … Dark matter … is pure speculation.” (~4:45, Russ Humphreys)

Response: Again, ignorance, a lie, or politely a straw man. To my knowledge, the ideas behind dark matter originally had nothing to do with the Big Bang. The problem was that stars in the outer parts of spiral galaxies were moving too quickly. In order to get them to move as fast as they were, our current understanding of physics required that there be much more mass, otherwise the stars would escape the gravitational pull of the galaxy because there wasn’t enough material that we could see to hold them all in. The alternative – which still have many proponents – is that our Newtonian theories of gravity need to be revised, that they work on the scales of humans, planets, and solar systems, but there may be a small term in the equations that only becomes noticeable on the scale of galaxies. You may ask, “What does this have to do with the Big Bang?” Good question. I’d like to know that, too, since the original Big Bang theories have nothing to do with dark matter.

Now, we can look at the CMBR and determine that there is a significant mass component to the universe that we can’t see, which we refer to as dark matter. WMAP results put it at about 23% of all the energy-mass of the universe being composed of dark matter. To to very quickly re-cap, the idea of dark matter originated because stars were moving too quickly for galaxies to be only composed of matter we could see, and this was later verified to be a “dark matter” by observations of the CMBR … it is not required for the Big Bang theory, nor would its existence or lack of existence have anything to do with whether or not the Big Bang model is correct.

Claim: “According to evolutionary theory, huge gas clouds were produced by the Big Bang. Soon these gas clouds collapsed into stars, planets, and galaxies, which emitted microwave radiation. Because of the pockets and clumps of these galaxies, there should be corresponding pockets of radiation. Therefore the Big Bang theory would predict that cosmic radiation would be uneven throughout the universe.” (~5:30, Narrator)

Response: I honestly don’t know what to say to this. What the narrator stated is equivalent to saying, “Water is dry.” It’s just wrong. One would think that if they have any sense of intellectual honesty, they would at least check on their facts.

The idea behind the CMBR can really be summed up in about 3 sentences: After the universe formed, it was very hot, and light (photons) could not move without being absorbed and re-emitted by atoms, which meant that the universe was opaque (kinda like a star). As the universe continued to expand, it cooled down, and eventually light was finally able to stream freely without interacting with the atoms. This first light, from when the universe became transparent, is what we see as the CMBR.

Now, what the CMBR reflects are the fluctuations in density in the universe at that time. Hotter regions of the CMBR indicate denser regions, and cooler indicates more rarified regions. The reason that it is in the microwave has nothing to do with galaxies, stars, and planets emitting microwave radiation, it’s because the radiation comes from so far away (back in time) that the light has been stretched into the microwave wavelengths. If we existed billions of years ago, it would be higher-energy light, even to the point of visible, and the entire sky would literally glow with it.

For more information on the CMBR, visit the WMAP Overview.

Claim: Paraphrasing this claim from Russ Humphreys (~6:00) – The variations in the CMBR are 10x smaller than what scientists predicted, but this is now claimed as proof of the Big Bang.

Response: As I said above, this is the nature of science. I honestly don’t know if this claim is correct, but even if it is, it does not take away from the idea that the CMBR was directly predicted from the Big Bang theory. Different perturbations of that theory can be used when it’s not well-constrained by other data. Based upon the best available data at the time, astronomers may have predicted the variations would be larger than they found them to be.

That they were discovered to be smaller meant that they had new constraints on their models and could go back and revise them to better fit the data, which can then be used to make future predictions. This has nothing to do with showing that the Big Bang is wrong, just with revising the specifics, which is how science works. Creationism, on the other hand, hasn’t changed in hundreds of years because there is only one piece of “evidence,” the Bible.

Claim: Paraphrasing this claim from Otto Berg (~7:30) – The biggest problem with the Big Bang is how to account for the formation of life? How could life evolve from a dead cluster?

Response: This is a straw man. The origin of life has absolutely positively NOTHING to do with the Big Bang (nor, for that matter, does it have anything to do with evolution).

Claim: “All life has carbon in it … [but] it’s an extreme improbability that carbon would have formed … since [the universe] was only 25% helium. [For carbon] to form, it would require two helium atoms to combine at exactly the right velocity with enough energy but not too much energy, it would collide and form a beryllium atom, and that beryllium atom would combine with another helium atom – with the right velocity, not too much not too little – to form the carbon atom. If you think about the improbability about that carbon atom — it’s very improbable. All life has carbon.” (~8:30, Otto Berg)

Response: I’m not sure why a particle physicist doesn’t know this, but Big Bang Nucleosynthesis (the third pillar) does not produce carbon, or if it does, it’s very very little. The early universe was pretty much like a star – except the whole universe was a star. Protons and neutrons fused to hydrogen, or deuterium, and deuterium could fuse into helium. But these conditions did not last very long, and they only had time to really fuse about 23-24% into helium-3 and helium-4. A very little bit of lithium-7 was created, but only a negligible amount (if any) of carbon. So if nothing else, he’s actually correct, but it’s a non sequitur.

Today’s carbon formed in stars. Massive stars, generally more massive than the sun, can easily reach the temperatures and pressures required to make forming carbon not a statistical improbability. We’ve known this for decades, as it’s relatively basic nuclear physics. Where did the carbon in life today come from? Past generations of stars. Carl Sagan put it well: “We are star stuff.”

For more on the fusion processes in stars, you can see the Fusion beta page of my revised astronomy website (please note that the bulk of the site is not yet finished, but that page is reasonably complete and fairly extensive).

Final Thoughts

The Big Bang is far from a myth that young-Earth creationists may have you believe. Is it “Proven?” Or is it a “Fact?” No. But really nothing in science is. A “Fact” means that it is TRUTH, that it is known beyond all doubt. As I discussed in my LHC particle two months ago, that’s not how science works. It only takes one verified and inexplicable observation to destroy a theory.

But from a scientific standpoint, a “Theory” is as close to a “Fact” as we can get. The Big Bang Theory has been tested and revised over almost the last 100 years. It has withstood efforts to disprove it, and it still remains the foundation of modern cosmology.


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