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A Recent Big Bang Debate: Sheer Politeness Underscores Shakeup

Takehome point: “Everyone would be keen to abandon the theory if there’s a better alternative, nobody’s married to the Big Bang theory”

Scientific American told readers recently that the James Webb Space Telescope is “breaking the Big Bang paradigm” so we can be fairly sure that astrophysicists have a lot of questions.

Big Bang

The October 1 debate at the HowTheLightGetsIn festival in London represented a variety of views:

There are those, like Sabine Hossenfelder, who think that physics will probably never be able to tell us how the universe came about and argue that we should think of the Big Bang theory as little more than another creation myth. And then there is Eric Lerner. The author of a recent article “The Big Bang Didn’t Happen” that went viral, Lerner articulated a challenge to the current scientific consensus in cosmology that caused quite a stir. On October 1st, at the HowTheLightGetsIn festival in London, Lerner took part in a debate with theoretical physicist Julian Barbour and astrophysicist Claudia Maraston, putting some challenges to the Big Bang theory to the test, in front of a live audience. Despite the explosiveness of the topic, the debate was civil, even if heated.

Alexis Papazoglou, “The Big Bang Bust-Up” at IAI.TV (October 4, 2022)

Oxford’s Julian Barbour tended to agree more with Maraston (that the Big Bang happened) than with Lerner (that it didn’t). But, in a new wrinkle, he doesn’t think the universe is expanding:

In fact, in an exchange with the astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, Barbour famously declared that he thought the idea of an expanding universe “stinks!” Martin Rees, by Barbour’s own telling, wasn’t impressed. The main reason for Barbour’s reluctance to accept the idea of an expanding universe is conceptual. Size is always relative: we can only tell whether an object is big or small, or in fact expanding, by reference to the fixed size of another object. But when it comes to the entire universe, there is no fixed object outside it we can compare it to, so the very idea of an expanding universe doesn’t seem to make sense. Instead, Barbour suggested, we should think of the universe as changing shape – that we would be able to detect as observers within the universe. Even if Barbour didn’t want to align himself with Lerner, it sounded like his view of a shape-changing universe is closer to Lerner’s suggestion that the universe is evolving, not expanding. Indeed, Barbour has recently put forward the idea that the universe is acquiring complexity and order with time. That sounds rather close to evolution.

Alexis Papazoglou, “The Big Bang Bust-Up” at IAI.TV (October 4, 2022)

The takehome point from the discussion is surely the one made by University of Portsmouth’s Claudia Maraston: “Everyone would be keen to abandon the theory if there’s a better alternative, nobody’s married to the Big Bang theory.”

Everyone? Just like that? Steve Meyer, author of The Return of the God Hypothesis, points out that a philosophical issue, as much as anything, may underlie the readiness to discredit the Big Bang on the basis of problematic Webb findings about galaxy formation:

Many scientists, including Albert Einstein, have understandably found the Big Bang theory philosophically unpalatable. If the physical universe of matter, energy, space and time had a beginning – as observational astronomy and theoretical physics suggest – it’s hard to envision a physical cause for such an event. After all, it was matter and energy that first came into existence at the Big Bang. Before that, no matter or energy — no physics — would have yet existed that could have caused the universe to begin.

Stephen Meyer, “Here’s Why James Webb Telescope Discoveries Are Causing Scientists To Rethink Galaxy Formation (But Not The Big Bang)” at DailyWire (Stephen Meyer) (September 22, 2022)

As Meyer points out, the Big Bang has caused a number of scientists to conclude that there must be a Creator beyond the universe. But then, any beginning of the universe at all — or even of a succession of universes — raises the same question.

In any event, such sudden, widespread cosmological doubt is bound to have a major cultural impact even if it is too soon to be sure how it will play out in areas like science fiction.

You may also wish to read: Re the Webb findings uproar: Who owns the Big Bang anyhow? Researcher and science writer Eric Lerner would never have attracted the attention he has in recent weeks if the Webb findings were not disturbing to many cosmologists. To avoid absurd “infinity” math, we just assume our universe has a beginning. But then the Webb shook up many details, creating distress and anger.

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A Recent Big Bang Debate: Sheer Politeness Underscores Shakeup