INTERVIEW OF THE WEEK
For this week’s session, Day Star’s president, Fred Heeren, sought out the two scientists who finally turned the consensus against all theories of an eternal universe (steady state, plasma cosmology, etc.) to a belief that the universe had a “creation event,” commonly known today as “the big bang.”
ARNO PENZIAS, co-winner of the 1978 Nobel prize for physics, co-discoverer of
the cosmic background radiation, 1965. Vice-President, Research, AT&T Bell
ROBERT WILSON, co-winner of the 1978 Nobel prize for physics for his
co-discovery of the cosmic background radiation, 1965. Astronomer, Smithsonian
Microwave Background—Remnant of the Big Bang?
In 1927, George Lemaître, who first predicted the early dense state, predicted that his "primeval atom" might still be detected in the form of remnant radiation. Early big bang theorists George Gamow, Ralph Alpher and Robert Herman wrote that the heat radiating from the primeval explosion must still exist, since, unlike the heat from any other heat source, there is nowhere to which this primeval heat can escape. The heat from an oven escapes into the surrounding air; the heat from a volcano escapes into the atmosphere; but there is nowhere “outside” the universe to which the big bang radiation can escape.
Alpher and Herman even calculated in 1948 that this radiation should now be expected to be present everywhere in space at a temperature of about 5 degrees Kelvin (above absolute zero, the lowest possible temperature). They talked to several experimentalists about looking for this big bang left-over radiation, but could find no takers.
In 1965, without looking for it, two physicists at AT&T Bell Laboratories in New Jersey found it. At first, Bell's Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson were perturbed because, while trying to refine the world's most sensitive radio receiving device (a large horn-shaped antenna cooled down to nearly absolute zero so that it would be sensitive to extremely low-temperature radiation), they couldn't eliminate an unknown source of noise that corresponded to a temperature of about 3 degrees Kelvin.
Other researchers had used the antenna to track the Echo I and Telstar communication satellites. They had ignored the small level of background hiss and had simply reset their zeros. But Penzias and Wilson wanted to be sure they could accurately detect microwave radiation from the Milky Way Galaxy. Moreover, they were just plain curious. No matter where they pointed the receiver in the sky, this level of radiation remained constant.
HEEREN: Could you tell me something about what you and Robert Wilson were looking for in 1965 and what you actually found?
PENZIAS: We were attempting to measure the high latitude radiation of the Milky Way at about 22 centimeters. In order to make sure our equipment was actually working, we first wanted to get a zero by measuring at a higher frequency, a shorter wavelength—7 centimeters—at which we expected no galactic component whatsoever. And if we got a zero there, then our other measurement would at least be meaningful. So we were attempting to make sure that we could in fact measure the absence of radiation from the Milky Way, when we in fact found radiation, which was coming, evidently, from beyond the Milky Way. And what we found was radiation for which there is no known source in the universe.
HEEREN: I understand that Robert Wilson had been a student of Fred Hoyle and was probably disposed to believing in a steady state theory before 1965.
PENZIAS: He, like most physicists, would rather attempt to describe the universe in ways which require no explanation; there's the economy of physics. And since science can't explain anything—it can only describe things—that's perfectly sensible. If every time you wanted to describe a new phenomenon and you found an explanation for it, you'd be in a lot of trouble. Because you'd say the tree gets green because it wants to. Or it gets green because nature wanted it that way. Or a fairy comes there every March, or something like that. Each one of those are explanations. Whereas in fact all you describe, you describe capillary action which is the way molecules behave based on some deeper description.
Now, on the other hand, if you have a universe which has always been there, you don't explain it, right? Somebody asks you, "How come all the secretaries in your company are women?," you can say, "Well, it's always been that way." That's a way of not having to explain it. So in the same way, theories which don't require explanation tend to be the ones accepted by science, which is perfectly respectable and the best way to make science work. And science works in all cases except those issues where description is inadequate.
HEEREN: That's the way you can keep the theories within the realm of science: by making sure you're only talking about descriptions.
HEEREN: But then having said all that, then what happened to his view and to yours to change them?
PENZIAS: Well, the steady state theory turned out to be so ugly that people dismissed it. . . . The easiest way to fit the observations with the least number of parameters was one in which the universe was created out of nothing, in an instant, and continues to expand. Physicists normally would like a model in which there are no external parameters. So what we find—the simplest theory—the one that the astronomers normally espouse, is a creation out of nothing, the appearance out of nothing of a universe.
What does Robert Wilson say about all this? How long did it take him to acknowledge that the background radiation was actually a remnant of the big bang? And was the cosmic background radiation actually attributed first to bird droppings?
HEEREN: Now in some of the books I've read it actually talks about you folks going out there and scraping off some bird droppings, because you thought, "Well, it must be something that's hanging in there no matter where we point it in the sky." Is that true?
WILSON: We looked at several things relating to the telescope itself. And cleaning up after the birds was one of them. In fact that did knock a little bit off our measured temperature. There was some radiation from the bird droppings.
HEEREN: I understand that you had been a student of Fred Hoyle and were probably disposed, as so many people were then, to believing in a steady state theory before 1965. Is that true?
WILSON: Well, I really didn't actually take a course from Fred Hoyle. Fred was around at Caltech. I guess I was a student in the sense that I sat in on a course in cosmology that he taught. But yes, that connection was there. That was true, that I philosophically liked the steady state. And clearly I've had to give that up.
HEEREN: What kind of period of time was involved in giving that up?
WILSON: Oh, this whole thing was spread out a lot, because we had the original problem, so to speak. And then along came this wacky idea from Princeton. They were actually thinking about multiple big bangs. Arnold and I were very happy to have some explanation of what was going on, but neither one of us, I think, bought the exact cosmology right away. So it was a matter of at least some months and probably more like a year.
HEEREN: In general, some people feel that evidence for a beginning for the universe also provides evidence for some kind of—something outside of nature to have created nature. It seems that if you compare the steady state with the big bang, there's one theory that has the universe that's here eternally—and so maybe there's no need for anything else—then you have the other theory that says that everything started at one point, which would then require that something came out of nothing. And that makes me wonder if this then would be indicative of a Creator.
WILSON: Certainly there was something that set it all off. Certainly, if you are religious, I can't think of a better theory of the origin of the universe to match with Genesis. It may be the creation stories are a bit anthropomorphic: you know, people are created and live and die, and so the creation stories probably follow the same general pattern.
HEEREN: But that is a very big difference between Genesis and the other creation stories. I'm probably a better student of history than I am of science. If you go back into comparative religions, in primitive religions, you find that the Hebrews alone had a concept of a creation event, whereas all the other religions seemed to have this amorphous blob that always was, this watery mass that everything then came out of, including the gods, after that. So there's a very big difference there.
WILSON: There is a big difference there, isn't there? Well, it [the big bang] certainly fits with that.
Since Penzias’s and Wilson’s discovery of the microwave background radiation, much more has been learned about it to show that it is indeed the remnant or afterglow from the big bang (proved especially by its characteristic curve fitting the predicted “blackbody curve” and the recent finding of the predicted “ripples” or “seeds” for galaxy superclusters found in it).
At the end of my talk with Robert Wilson, I pointed out what I find to be the most fascinating thing about what he discovered: it fits ancient Hebrew revelation uniquely. Of all the ancient writings about creation, only the ancient Hebrew account got it right. Human tradition has always assumed that the universe had no particular beginning (the sole exception being the Bible and those religions influenced by it). The ancients didn't believe that the gods created the universe out of nothing, but that the gods formed it out of an eternal, watery mush that existed before them. And from Aristotle to Einstein, the scientific view was that the universe has simply always been here, thus relieving scientists of the burden of having to deal with the question of ultimate origins.
In the words of Berkeley Lab’s George Smoot (who discovered the cosmic “seeds” in the microwave background in 1992), "there is no doubt that a parallel exists between the big bang as an event and the Christian notion of creation from nothing." In the foreword to my book, Show Me God, he says: “Until the late 1910’s, humans were as ignorant of cosmic origins as they had ever been. Those who didn’t take Genesis literally had no reason to believe there had been a beginning.”
Einstein first taught us that space, time, mass and energy are inextricably linked. The expansion of the universe is not a matter of galaxies being flung out into a larger void, but of space itself stretching and taking galaxies along for the ride. This means that if our backward journey through time ends with the disappearance of matter, then time and space must disappear too.
Logic tells us that causes must precede their effects. So what should we think about the cause for this universe when there is no time before the beginning? A cause must be separate from its effect, meaning that the cause of our universe must be placed squarely outside of it. And this is the first thing these discoveries in cosmology suggest about the universe's greatest mystery, the greatest whodunit of all time: it was an outside job.
You'll find the whole history of these twentieth century cosmological discoveries, and the bigger implications for everyday life, in Day Star's new book, Show Me God.
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