Our parable of the importance of evidence stars the enfant terrible of dissenting scientists Fred Hoyle — an honour sure to compensate the late space-head for the lack of a Nobel Prize for his part in the development of the concept of stella-nucleosynthesis. Our faithful Sun fuses hydrogen atoms into helium atoms, and Hoyle and others realised that to consummate the alchemy of the heavier elements we need a bang from a bigger sun — much bigger — a super-sun or supernova, and when that goes off all Hell lets loose, with the biggest mother-farting bang outside of George W Bush’s underpants.
We swing back to the sixties and discover the author a stripling astrophysicist with a wee plastic telescope and espying the celestial movements of the blonde next door. Two rival theories lock horns for the origin of the universe: the gang of Steady Staters led by Hermann Bondi, Thomas Gold, Fred Hoyle et al maintain a stable universe the same yesterday, today and for ever in a ‘steady state’. The gritty west-Yorkshire way-out-there-on-the-moors avuncular voice of Fred Hoyle gushed from the radiogram a sixties’ gospel of the Steady State. The rival, gestate theory of an expanding universe was christened the Big Bang by Hoyle not particularly as a spiteful term of derision but simply to explain the difference between the two competing theories:
‘Perhaps like me you grew up with the notion that the whole of the matter in the universe was created in one Big Bang at a particular time in the remote past. What I’m now going to tell you is that this is wrong.’ Professor Fred Hoyle, radio broadcast
Abandoned alone in a big unfriendly universe built on probabilities we find a brazen, brave scientist burning her or his breaches and willing to declare that so-and-so is definitely right or wrong. And so bold a prediction must be backed by a bucketload of evidence.
‘This Big Bang assumption is much the less palatable of the two. For it’s an irrational process that can’t be described in scientific terms. On philosophical grounds too I can’t see any good reason for preferring the Big Bang idea ... It can never be challenged by a direct appeal to observation.’ Professor Fred Hoyle, radio broadcast 1950 The Nature of the Universe
Every Jill and Jack of us is vulnerable to magical thinking and the temptation of magical language (the universe isn’t ‘built’ on probability). The spell-bound religious victim longs to believe a logical God has built a logical universe. But to prophesy that a scientific theory can ‘never be challenged by a direct appeal to observation’ is boldly to burn one’s pocket-marbles where no blow-torch has burnt before. Fred Hoyle believed that the conception of a universe having a beginning was voodoo science and smacking of a Creator.
Belgium priest and professor of physics Georges Lamaitre proposed in 1927 the prospect of an expanding universe, although at first the paper had little impact.
The scrambled-custard calculations of Albert Einstein were leading the foremost star-stirrer to the disturbing conclusion of an expanding universe. Einstein’s cosmological constant was later to haunt him as a quasar mistake, but the volte-face to recognise the custard on the wall was a relative triumph for human reason and science.
Twinkling high atop our heaven-tree of scientific stars hangs the blue-suited pipe-smoking Edwin Hubble. Hubble beadily eye-spied through the Mount Wilson Observatory California telescope in the red spectrum of light a rebellion of galaxies rip-roaring away from the Milky Way at a rude rate of knots. A fleet of physicists led by George Gamow grappled with the Gordian knot of expanding space between the galaxies to contend that the space between the galaxies must have been smaller in the past. The universe — ‘the king of infinite space’ — shrunken to a conclusion will have been ‘bounded in a nut-shell’, confined in an incredibly compact hot-spot, and when that kick-blasts ker-bang, it crackerjacks the biggest bad-boy Kilimanjaro of a johnny-come-lately universe.
‘This is the Holy Grail of Physics. We want to know why it banged; we want to know what banged; we want to know what was there before the bang.’ Professor Michio Kaku, author Physics of the Impossible, interview How the Universe Works
From 1946 Robert Dicke et al were predicting that along with the matter condensed into galaxies, the Big Bang must have scattered a tremendous amount of background radiation.
Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson were two affable scientists working at Bell Labs, New Jersey 1964 on a modest twenty-foot horn antennae built to detect radio waves bouncing off satellites. Their first task was to eliminate all Earth-bound interference but they found wherever they pointed the antenna a strange, steady confounding hum more than a hundred times stronger than the signal they expected.
On checking their equipment Penzias and Wilson found a family of pigeons nesting inside the antenna — intent less on the science but more on coating the insides with a thick layer of dickie doo-doos. Now, any documentary covering the Big Bang will fill you with a nice, warm story that the horn-loving pigeons were posted to a new home nearby.
The ploppies had dropped and I had fallen on a blue-ribbon plan for a high-flying doctorate: if I could track down the descendants of the pigeon family, maybe interview them, I would have sufficient filling for a doctorate of tremendous value to science. But as my research delved deeper and darker and down into a devil’s den of dastardly scientific secrets I discovered that these highrollers of science had lied to us. The pigeons were shot. There lies the truth of the matter. The reader knows from Chapter One the softness of the author’s brain-matter. I can’t tell you the sleepless nights I’ve cried. Not so much over the shot pigeons as over the loss of my doctorate — one small step for man — and the loss of knowledge — one giant leap for pigeonkind.
Professor Robert H Dicke rushed to Bell Labs to confirm Penzias’ and Wilson’s evidence of background cosmic radiation — ubiquitous and detectable proof of the Big Bang.
‘The universe was an expanding structure — galaxies flying away from each other, flying away from each other ever more rapidly the further away they were. The implication of course of all this if you simply send Time backwards — everything is closer together in the past. So there’s the idea of something blowing up or flying apart.’ Professor Bob Dicke, interview BBC
Where were you, and do you remember the first time your virgin eyes beheld Hubble Telescope’s star-spangled pictures of baby galaxies and towering gaseous nurseries? The less romantic, lesser remembered 1990s COBE satellite and Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe of 2001 detected unevenness in the microwave background of the early universe:
‘The cosmic microwave background is the echo of creation itself. It’s the embers, the afterglow of the original shock-wave that created the universe. If we had microwave eyes, eyes that could see microwave radiation, then every night we would see the Big Bang coming out. Looking at the heavens, we would actually see an explosion ... The discovery of the microwave background radiation ranks as one of the greatest discoveries in all of science.’ Professor Michio Kaku
But the Steady Staters, underscored by the cosmic trail of evidence, stood firm and refused to accept the match result. Behold in bold array the brass-necked brave-new-world refuseniks of cosmic science!
‘In the beginning I thought this was pretty bad for the theory ... It’s a completely open question today I believe as to whether this background really comes from the general universe or whether it comes from sources in the general manner of radio-astronomy.’ Professor Fred Hoyle, The Violent Universe, BBC 1969
Would the Steady Staters have listened to you and me and our parable of the importance of evidence? No they would not.