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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Before the Big Bang -- Review

Before the Big Bang: The Prehistory of Our Universe. By Brian Clegg. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2009. 320 Pages.

Brian Clegg takes on a formable task in attempting to describe what happened Before the Big Bang. After all, according to most cosmologists and accepted dogma, the universe is around 13.7 billion years old and by the accepted historical record, human beings have only be on the "historical scene" for about 10,000 years. The task appears to be not only formable, but also impossible. Yet Clegg does not attempt to do what the title teases. Instead, he begins with a primar on the "big bang" and explores causality. He notes in Chapter 1, "We know that things have causes and seek them out. This urge to discover causality has some interesting consequences when we ask what came before the Big Bang." He goes on to explain that if a person accepts the Big Bang theory (he himself stresses that it is an unproven theory) then one accepts that time and space came into existence with the "Big Bang," therefore, "there isn't a 'before' in which the cause could have taken place... We have a situation without case." He comments that it is theology not science that takes reasoning outside of time and space.

On that note, the chapter continues with a brief history on how the concept of the Big Bang developed. The idea of an expanding universe was developed by Georges Lemaître, a Belgian scientist, physicist, and Roman Catholic priest.  Lemaître did not call his idea the "big bang," but rather The Primeval Atom Hypothesis. He described his theory as the Cosmic Egg exploding at the moment of the creation." Lemaître's idea initially was not well received as being perceived to be "too religious" and too compatible with the Creation account in Genesis, most notably in regards to the universe having a "beginning." The prevalent theory of the time held that the universe always was, that the universe was static. Later, this became known as the steady state view of the universe (a view Clegg himself admits being partial towards, "In my teens I much preferred the Steady State theory of one of my scientific heroes, Fred Hoyle. I was highly disappointed when Steady State was discarded."). Fred Hoyle, a proponent of the steady state model of the universe, is credited with coining the term the "Big Bang." Nonetheless, with the detection of cosmic microwave background radiation in the 1960s, which is understood to be the remnants of the Big Bang, the Steady State theory was all but abandoned by most cosmologists.

Representation of the Big Bang model
In chapter 2 entitled, "Enter the Creator," Clegg surveys 10,000 years of speculation regarding the origin of the universe. He notes that "the attempts to explain the origins of the universe fall into three categories: the religious, the philosophical, and the scientific." Since human beings are not comfortable with events occurring without a cause, many have answered that "God made it" to answer the question how the universe originated. Here Clegg surveys the "Genesis Myths"as well as other creation myths such as a Chinese myth of the god P'an Ku. He distinguishes between religious views which see God as the causative agent and philosophy which separates the creator from the mechanism of creation. This allows for the discussion of the ancient Greek philosophers. He concludes the chapter with "The Goldilocks Universe," which broaches the anthropocentric question of why the universe is just right not only for life but in particular for human beings to live. He presents how if the four forces of nature (gravity, electromagnetism, the strong and the weak force)  were slightly different than they are not only would life be impossible but also matter, chemical compounds, stars, planets, et al. He writes, "We live in such a 'Goldilocks' environment -- not too hot, not too cold, just right -- that it has seemed natural to many that we live in a designed universe, one where our surroundings have been engineered to meet human requirements. This is certainly the understanding of Christian creationists, who believe that the creation story in Genesis is literally true." This view is known was the strong anthropocentric principle. He notes that many cosmologists reject the strong view but do not deny the weak anthropocentric principle simply because "We have to be able to be here, because we are here."

Chapter 3 is entitled "What and How Big?" It seeks to explain what the universe is and describes attempts through history beginning with the ancient Greeks to understand the cosmos. He identified Archimedes as a Greek who had some conception regarding the size of the universe. Since the Greeks typically only counted to a myriad (10,000) Archimedes had to devise a way to count higher, which led him to develop a way to count to a myriad myriads or 108. Archimedes was even aware of the theories that held that the earth moved around the sun. In any case, Archimedes conceived of a universe much larger than most of his contemporaries (See the Sand Reckoner). Clegg discusses how the Greeks really did not do science as much as they practiced rhetoric. By this he means that a theory about the universe would be proposed and then argued among the philosophers. The matter would be decided not on the basis of scientific evidence but on the basis of what seem most reasonable. He then notes that this is the way matters are still determined in the court of law. One gets the feeling that Clegg believes the legal system to be much less reliable than the scientific method. Clegg's other hero is Roger Bacon, who although a deeply committed Christian, "restored to logic rather than theological pronouncements in deciding whether the universe was infinite." Next the contributions of Sir Isaac Newton are considered, particularly his ideas of gravitational attraction. As early as 1690, Richard Bentley suggested on the basis of Newton's law of gravity the entire universe should come crashing into itself. This sets the stage for two cosmological questions that arose post 1960: will the universe continue to expand forever and eventually die cold and energy-less or will it come crashing into itself in the "Big Crunch," that results in another Big Bang (a cyclical view of the universe).  Clegg also describes the various methods used to determine the size of the universe.

Representation of the Big Crunch

In chapter 3, Clegg raises a significant point when he discusses the work of William Herschel (November 1738 – 25 August 1822). Herschel besides discovering the planet Uranus in 1781 and writing twenty-four symphonies, he was the first to suggest that the Milky Way was one of many "nebulae." Apparently, Immanuel Kant also independently developed this idea.  In this connection, Clegg quotes Ernest Rutherford who said, "All science is either physics or stamp collecting." The point of this quote is that until fairly recently, science observed and cataloged the natural world. The avent of modern physics began to suggest why things were the way they were. Herschel marks a transition between "stamp collecting" and "physics" when he suggested the Milky Way was one of many nebulae. As his suggestion required that the universe take a long time in forming, contrary to the few days described in the Bible. Clegg writes, "It was thought that this was something best left to theologians, rather than allowing scientists to trample into the arena." Clegg suggests that since astronomy was dominated by theologians, Herschel's views of an old universe were suppressed by fellow astronomers who held to theological views rather than scientific views. Whether or not one agrees with Clegg's views, it is important to note that he acknowledges there is a line that in times past theology, the queen of the sciences, ruled, but with the rise of rationalism, science encroached more and more into these realms, including items once regarded as primarily theological such as the question of free will. (Indeed, various "scientific" cosmological models argue in favor or against the question of free will in human beings.)

Sir Frederick William Herschel
Chapter 4 deals with the age of the universe. Clegg begins by reporting that many ancient Greek philosophers "believed the universe had gone on forever." In fact, Aristotle held this view. The ancient debate among the philosophers regarding the universe involved three ideas: 1) the universe has a beginning and an end, 2) the universe is eternal, 3) the universe is cyclical, having many births and deaths. Ironically, the more things change, the more they remain the same. Most modern scientific cosmological theories regarding the origin of the universe involve one of the above mention three options, perhaps with some variation. In contrast to James Usher (4 January 1581 – 21 March 1656), who held that the world was about 6,000 years old, Herschel believed the universe to be at least 2 million years old. Clegg also acknowledges how during the 19th century, the geologists and astronomers had dates out of sync. For instance, geologists found the earth to be older than the date astronomers gave for the universe. By the early 20th century, geologists had determined that the earth was around 4.5 billion years old. It was not until the early 1950s that astronomers suggested the universe was at least 5.5 billion years old. By the late 1950s, astronomers had determined the universe to be between 10 and 20 billion years old, an estimate that stood until the final decade of the 20th century, when astronomers concluded the universe was 13.73 billion years old. Again, Clegg is honest in that he admits this number relies upon "significant assumptions about the nature of the universe."

In Chapter 5 entitled "A Bang or a Whimper?" Clegg outlines how although the Big Bang theory is the most widely accepted theory among scientists, "it is a patched theory, one where the initial idea didn't match what was later observed, so extra components had to be thrown in to try to keep the theory working with what was known." This is a significant admission that the current Big Bang theory is based on circumstantial evidence. Clegg notes, "it is so circumstantial that it would have little hope of standing up even in a court of law." Here Clegg offers an apology for scientists when he says, "Rightly or wrongly, scientists add confusion to this picture by referring to the components of today's popular cosmological theories as if they were absolute truths." Among the things taken as "absolute truth" that are based on inference: black holes, dark matter, dark energy, wormholes and even the Big Bang. Most of the components of the most popular theory regarding the origin of the universe are identified as not fact but based on inference, that is, never observed.

One of the philosophical objections to the Big Bang when Lemaître conceived the idea involved what scientists perceived as a model compatible with Lemaître's religious beliefs ("And God said, 'Let there be light...'"), expansion of the universe, and infinities. For instance, the Big Bang theory posits that at the moment the universe began, it consisted of a point (something with zero volume) of infinite mass. Infinities in mathematical formulae usually indicate that there is an error. According to all known science, there was no way to have a point of infinite mass as all the laws of physics break down. Einstein called Lemaître's idea "abominable physics." Another problem with the Big Bang theory that still has not been solved is that according to the theory equal amounts of matter and anti-matter should have been created, resulting in the total annihilation of all matter into energy -- hence, the universe should not exist.

In Chapter 6, "Keep Things Steady," Clegg explores the theory, and the one he favored in his early years, that challenged the Big Bang theory. This theory is known as the Steady State theory. The main "philosophical" advantage to this theory is that the universe does not have a beginning but simply always was and held in a constant condition. In some ways, this is a return to Aristotle's idea regarding the eternal universe. Stephen Hawking remarking on the objections to the Big Bang theory said, "Many people do not like the idea that time has a beginning, probably because it smacks of divine intervention." What is of interest is that ideas regarding the origin of the universe seem to emerge in part simply to find alternatives to divine intervention. While Clegg finds the notion of a Steady State universe appealing, he does note how observed data does not match the original theory. Again various patches have been applied to the Steady State theory to help it align with the observed data, but most of the scientific establishment has abandoned the idea of a Steady State theory. Today the Steady State theory is seen as old fashioned, whereas in the early 1930s the Big Bang theory was seen as old fashioned because many thought it harkened back to Genesis. Clegg notes, "Steady State was a uniformitarian theory, whereas Big Bang was a catastrophist theory." Geology was uniformitarian as was the theory of evolution. In the 19th and early 20th century, scientists favored uniformitarian models.

At the end of the chapter in a very telling observation, Clegg writes, "the Steady State model has been sidelined and ignored because of the way in which big science works, but because of specific issues with the model." The point (although not explicitly asked by Clegg), a Steady State model can be made to work within the parameters of observed data. The Big Bang model doesn't necessarily answer questions better than Steady State. The larger point and question to be asked is how many other models, perhaps even a Creationist model could work within the parameters of observed data if "big science" could set aside preferred theories to consider them?

In Chapter 7, entitled "Inflating the Truth," Clegg writes regarding the Big Bang's "point of zero size with infinite temperature and energy," that "we are certainly talking something crammed with mass and energy in a tiny space, something that appears out of nothing for reasons that are no better explained than they are by Genesis." In a sense, Clegg seems to suggest that whatever cosmological theory one accepts is accepted in part on faith. This chapter primarily deals with the discovery and mapping of cosmic microwave background radiation. Clegg notes "how indirect the links are between what's observed and the theories that are based on those observation." He then cites a cosmologist who said regarding the theory of "inflation," "It might last for ten years, but it won't last forever." It seems that there is a growing minority of scientists who are beginning to challenge the presuppositions of the Big Bang theory. Clegg also notes that the observed data does not have the level of certainty necessary to be sure the theory is correct. He quips, "it's enough to get supporters of inflation worried." Toward the end of the chapter, Clegg reports that some are brave enough to consider that "the Big Bang theory is simply incorrect." He even suggests that the gaps in the Big Bang theory are not negligible holes but "huge chasms you could drive a cosmological coach and horse through." He recalls how scientists at the turn of the 20th century used the concept of "ether" to explain how light and electricity worked. Regarding the latest "patches" to the Big Bang theory such as "dark matter," Clegg suggests these are nothing more than a 21st century version of ether.

In Chapter 8, Clegg deals with the concept of "time," and begins by quoting St. Augustine of Hippo, who understood that before "Creation" there was no time. Clegg suggests that "there really is no need to go past Augustine in looking at the basic concept of a beginning of time coinciding with the beginning of space." It would seem that Augustine was nearly seventeen centuries ahead of most people, as these ideas were not re-expressed until the early 20th century. The main point that Clegg wants to make in this chapter before exploring other theories (that he seems to feel might have more merit than the Big Bang theory) is that there is no "before" the universe existed because when the universe started time also started. However, some of the alternative theories will propose that there is something before the creation of at least the universe we are living in now.

Groundhog Day Movie
(Groundhog Day from Amazon)
Chapter 9 is titled, "Groundhog Universe," based upon the movie Groundhog Day, where the characters live a single day over and over again. Here Clegg, outlines the cyclical view of the universe that it undergoes multiple big bangs and big crunches in a perpetual, never ending cycle. Of course, this view does not lack certain problems such as the fact that there is no such thing as a perpetual motion machine. If the universe is cyclic, one would expect it to loose a little bit of energy each go around. The so-called Big Crunch also would have to reduce the entire universe, all 13.7 billion years of it, into a point of zero size and infinite energy to begin a new Big Bang. In this chapter, Clegg also explores "string theory" which seeks to unify all the fundamental forces.

Representation of the Four Fundamental Forces
Clegg seems to be attracted to String Theory and its varient M theory, but acknowledges that despite the fact that more physicists are working on string theory and M theory than any other now, it is a theory based in mathematics and not in observation. In a nutshell M theory holds that there are multiple universes and things such as the Big Bang happen when two universes collide into each other. It also requires that the universe have eleven dimensions instead of four. Why eleven instead of four, Clegg notes that this is somewhat arbitrary. Regarding the origins of of M theory and String theory Clegg writes, "String theory first emerged from an accidental observation that an abstract mathematical equation first used in the nineteenth century happened to reflect very closed what was observed in a particle interaction." He notices that it is a "mathematical abstraction." Clegg notes that many scientists simply assume that string theory must be true. He quotes Michio Kaku, "If string theory itself is wrong, then millions of hours, thousands of papers, hundreds of conferences and scores of books (mine included) will have been in vain." Clegg notes that some scientists consider string theory to be "a mathematical dead-end."  Chapter 10 notes other theories that propose to answer the origins of the universe, each more fanciful than the previous.

Representation of Super String Theory
Chapter 11 is titled, "Welcome to the Matrix." This model suggests that the universe is a giant quantum computer or a giant hologram. A well respected physicists named John Wheeler proposed that we might live in a Matrix-style universe. 

The Matrix
(The Matrix from Amazon)
One of the attractions philosophers have to a Matrix-style universe is that of free will. Newton's universe was seen as too deterministic. Everything could be calculated if not in reality at least in theory. Complete knowledge of the universe, it is argued, takes away free will. Since a Matrix-style universe is a simulation on a giant quantum computer, reality is not deterministic but probabilistic. Some believe that this preserves free will better than a Newtonian style universe. One aspect of the Matrix-style universe challenges certain presuppositions of the Big Bang theory, namely, that of age. Clegg writes that if the universe is a simulation on a quantum computer, "The universe could have started yesterday, last month, last year, or 14 billion years ago as appears to be the case." He continues, "If our universe were created yesterday in a quantum universe simulator, then there would be absolutely no difference between this and it actually having existed for 14 billion years." In other words, under this scenario the universe would only appear to be a certain age but in fact could be even one day old (or for that matter six days old).

Chapter 12, the final chapter entitled, "Snapshot Universe." Here he discusses the possibility of a holographic universe as well as highlighting some difficulties with other theories such as quantum mechanics. He quotes Arthur Eddington who said that a person can formulate a pet theory about the universe and it can disagree with nearly all known laws of the universe except the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Eddington wrote, "But if your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in the deepest humiliation." Clegg then notes how some have used the second law of thermodynamics to argue against evolution and for the existence of God. Clegg concludes this is an invalid argument because most people using the second law of thermodynamics do not really understand that law. Here Clegg's observation is probably correct that most people making the argument really do not understand the physics, hence they argue badly. Clegg maintains that the second law of thermodynamics speaks about a closed system, which the universe is not. (To me this seems to go back to the argument whether the universe is infinite or finite -- eternal or temporal.) 

A Representation of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics
As a side note, in the second to last section of his book, Clegg takes on postmodernism. He writes, "Postmodernism has always disliked science, because this almost meaningless philosophy doesn't accept the value of reductionism." Postmodernism is the reaction to modernism, on which much of science has been built. While many have complained that postmodernism leads to relativism, in regards to morals, virtue, and religion, it is also the enemy of modernism and hence science.

POST-MODERNISM: You may have two degrees, but
I read an article once on Wikipedia.
Clegg concludes his book by asking, "What happened before the Big Bang?" He concludes that "we can never be sure that we will have a certain answer." He concedes that science may never be able to provide a satisfactory answer. "It seems whichever way you turn, there is no easy answer when it comes to the earliest moments of the universe." He suggests that in the future the current theories may be discarded and new ones created. His other alternative is that the current theories will be refined until we have more certainty that they are correct. Yet either way, he acknowledges that we might "never [be] able to break through those final barriers of certainty." His conclusion is that the quest for the answer is a delight in itself.

Brian Clegg is a gifted writer who had the ability to explain complicated ideas in an understandable way. I also appreciated his honesty in clearly stating that the various cosmological explanations to the origin of the universe were unproven theories. While he made known his own personal views at various times, his views did not overshadow the material he presented. He also approached religious and theological questions respectfully, while clearly not being sympathetic towards them. Over all, if the subject of cosmology interests you or you want to better understand how the current theories developed, Brian Clegg's Before the Big Bang: The Prehistory of the Universe is a worthy read.

Before the Big Bang: The Prehistory of the Universe

Of particular interest to me, is how science has begun to ask and attempts to answer questions that previously had been regarded as belonging to theology or philosophy. Although Clegg did not state this clearly or bluntly, one gets the impression that Clegg thinks science might do better sticking to what it can empirically observe rather than speculate on things it cannot test. No matter what theory science concocts regarding the origin of the universe, it always will remain as untestable as what is recorded in Genesis, "And God say, 'Let there be light...'" It finally comes down to what a person puts his trust in, that is, what a person trusts in is in fact his god. As reliable as the "laws of nature" appear to be, in a theory such as that of the Big Bang, even those laws fail at the point of zero space of infinite energy and mass. As to what happened before the Big Bang, that is in fact Creation, those of the Christian faith have a Word from the Scriptures. Ephesians 1:4, "even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him."


  1. The awareness of age in astronomical observations comes from a number of Lutheran contributions to astronomy beyond that of Georg Rheticus, Tycho Brache, and Johannes Kepler. They also included Ole Christiansen Roemer, a Danish Lutheran astronomer, whose measurements demonstrating the finite speed of light during the 1660s turned the telescope into a time machine for looking into the past. (Roemer's discovery, like the Copernicus model, was so revolutionary, that for almost 60 years, only a handful of people accepted his conclusion until it was confirmed in 1727.)

    And then there was a doctoral student of the German Lutheran scientist and noted Princeps mathematicorum (the "Prince of Mathematicians"), Johann Carl Friedrich Gauss - the Lutheran astronomer and famed mathematician himself, Friedrich Wihelm Bessel. In 1838, Bessel finally achieved what Brache, Galileo, and many other preceding astronomers had tried to do, but failed - Bessel determined the distance to a nearby star using parallax measurements based on the fact that the earth actually orbits the sun. This distance, equivalent to 11 light-years, and soon-measured distances to other nearby stars, forced astronomers to realize the apparent immensity in distance to many of the vast number of stars in the universe, and, from Ole Roemer's discovery, the apparent immensity in age of those stars that were seen.

    Today the sensitivity of telescopes is good enough to measure star distance out to about 1600 light-years. Beyond that astronomers use a technique of measuring the apparent brightness of a star compared to an absolute brightness of a star in a Hertzsprung-Russell diagram, developed in 1913 by Ejnar Hertzsprung, a Danish Lutheran astronomer, and Henry Russell, an American astronomer. Distances beyond the Milky Way can also be measured by the redshift using Hubble's Law.

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