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The Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) map of cosmic microwave background temperatures. Red indicates warmer, and blue indicates cooler areas. The cosmic microwave background fluctuations are extremely
faint (one part in 100,00) compared to the 2.73 Kelvin average temperature of the radiation field. Credit: NASA

Aug 23
, 2006
The “Science” of the Big Bang

Astronomer Halton Arp has called it “science by news release,” and some of the most disturbing examples come from statements “confirming” the validity of the Big Bang.

Many critics of modern theories in the sciences have noticed that science editors (newspaper, magazine, and television) appear to have lost the ability to separate fact from theory. When discussing the trademarks of popular cosmology, such as the Big Bang, the science media incessantly report that new discoveries confirm them—even when such reports are far from the truth.

One reason for this pattern is simply the momentum of archaic beliefs. But it is also apparent that good news is essential to the funding of exotic projects.

At the heart of conventional cosmology lies the dogma of an electrically neutral universe governed by gravity alone. Without the benefit of this dogma, the Big Bang hypothesis could never have achieved its present prominence. And it is here that we see most clearly how, under the necessities of funding, scientists are eager to “confirm” a theory that, according to many critics, has already failed. Editors, in turn, desiring to retain valued relationships with the spokesmen for established science, only rarely dig deeper than the latest news release delivered to them.

In popular discussion of the Big Bang, the most frequent statement made is that discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMBR) “confirmed” the hypothesis. But this interpretation requires a gross distortion of history—

In 1964 physicists Robert Wilson and Arno Penzias, while working on a new type of antenna at Bell Labs in Holmdel, New Jersey, detected an unexplained noise. By removing all other potential sources of noise, they determined that it was the cosmic microwave background, with a calculated temperature of 3.5 K. For this discovery they received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1978.

Later, in 1992, based on COBE satellite data, a team of scientists reported a refined [or revised] temperature—2.73 K— for the cosmic microwave background.

So how did various scientific institutions deal with the issue?
Here are a few historical examples (some taken from a Bell Labs web page):

  • The authors of the Bell Labs web page tell us, “The discovery in 1963 by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson of the cosmic microwave background of the Big Bang set the seal of approval on the theory, and brought cosmology to the forefront as a scientific discipline. It was proof that the universe was born at a definite moment, some 15 billion years ago.”

  • Principal investigator of the COBE team, Dr. John Mather: "The Big Bang Theory comes out a winner. This is the ultimate in tracing one's cosmic roots."

  • Project leader George Smoot: "What we have found is evidence for the birth of the universe ... It's like looking at God."

  • John Huchra, a professor of astronomy at Harvard University: ‘The discovery of the 2.7 degree background was the clincher for the current cosmological model, the hot Big Bang.”

  • Tony Tyson of Bell Labs: “Its precise black-body spectrum and uniformity over the sky have ruled out many theories of the evolution of the Universe.”

  • John Bahcall, a leading astrophysicist and professor of natural sciences at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study: "The discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation changed forever the nature of cosmology, from a subject that had many elements in common with theology to a fantastically exciting empirical study of the origins and evolution of the things that populate the physical universe."

  • Astrophysicist Michael Turner: "The significance of this cannot be overstated. They have found the Holy Grail of cosmology."

  • Astronomer Carlos Frenk: "It's the most exciting thing that's happened in my life as a cosmologist."

One would certainly think from such pronouncements that the Big Bang theory had predicted the temperature with a reasonable degree of accuracy. But George Gamow, credited with the prediction from Big Bang assumptions, estimated 5K in 1948. In the 1950s he raised that estimate to 10K, and by 1961 he was predicting 50K.

Robert Dicke’s microwave radiometer was key to the discoveries of Wilson and Penzias. In 1946 Dick predicted a microwave background radiation temperature of 20 K. Later he revised the predictions to 45 K.

When the COBE satellite measured it to be only 2.7K, the Big Bang proponents claimed victory.

But the fact is that predictions by other theorists, who did not base their estimates on the Big Bang, were a good deal closer. Based on the study of narrow absorption line features in the spectra of stars, astronomer Andrew McKellar wrote in 1941: "It can be calculated that the ‘rotational temperature’ of interstellar space is 2 K."

The first astronomer to collect observations from which the temperature of space could be calculated was Andrew McKellar. In 1941 he announced a temperature of 2.3K from radiative excitation of certain molecules. But World War II occupied everyone's attention and his paper was ignored. In1954, Finlay-Freundlich predicted 1.9K to 6K on the basis of "tired light" assumptions. Tigran Shmaonov estimated 3K by in 1955.

In 1896, Charles Edouard Guillaume predicted a temperature of 5.6K from heating by starlight. Arthur Eddington refined the calculations in 1926 and predicted a temperature of 3K. Eric Regener predicted 2.8 in 1933.

In the course of two decade’s Gamow’s predictions were the most inconsistent and included the single guess farthest from the mark. One must keep in mind as well that the “temperature” of interstellar space does not give you the energy density of the universe. The “temperature” is the square root of a square root of energy density. So as a measure of the energy of the universe, Gamow's estimate of 50 degrees K is 12,000 times too high.

(It should be noted that, in 1956, Gamow adjusted his prediction to 6 K, which is certainly better than his worst guess, but others were considerably closer without reference to the Big Bang.)

So what are we to think of the well-publicized statements noted above, by those invested in the Big Bang hypothesis? It is for good reason that critics have called this response “science by news release”—a convenient cover for the fact that Big Bang cosmology failed to anticipate any of the landmark discoveries of the space age.


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