When the Big Bang Was Just a Theory

George Gamow, Fred Hoyle and the Big Big Bang Debate
by Paul Halpern

The universe is changing. But scientists didn’t realize this a century ago, when astronomers like Edwin Hubble and Henrietta Leavitt realized that other galaxies existed and were moving away from the Milky Way at incredible speeds. This monumental discovery ignited decades-long epic debates about the vastness and origins of the universe and included the collision of giants, Russian-American nuclear physicist George Gamow and British astrophysicist Fred Hoyle.

In his new book, The Flashes of Creation, Paul Halpern describes the rise of Gamow and Hoyle to become leaders of often opposing views of cosmology, discussing whether it all started with a Big Bang billions of years ago.

Halpern, a physicist at the University of Sciences in Philadelphia, expertly brings their fascinating stories to light from the shadows of the overlapping quantum physics debates between Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr that Halpern mentioned in an earlier book. Halpern also asks fundamental questions about how science should be done. For example, when do you decide to abandon a theory? As a result, his book tries to justify Hoyle, who does not admit that he lost his mind in later years.

Until these two brave theorists arrived, astrophysics was in a deadlock. Scientists were unsure how to interpret Hubble’s observations, and no one understood how the universe created and formed chemical elements. “It’s clear that the intuitive, pant-fitting styles shared by Gamow and Hoyle are definitely needed in their time,” writes Halpern.

Halpern admits that Gamow and Hoyle formed a formidable “joint biography,” in part because their parallel stories so rarely intersect. In the summer of 1956, they held just one important face-to-face meeting in La Jolla, California, where Gamow briefly served as a consultant for the aerospace and defense company General Dynamics. Hanging out in Gamow’s white Cadillac in that seaside town, they debated many ideas, but most of their discussion appeared on the pages of physics journals, newspapers, and magazines, including Scientific American.

They also appeared frequently on early television and radio programs, were among the first prominent science communicators, and paved the way for Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, Carolyn Porco, Pamela Gay, and others today. Hoyle wrote the sci-fi novel “The Black Cloud” and the television screenplay “A for Andromeda,” while Gamow produced “One, Two, Three… Infinity” and the Mr. Tompkins series, which showcases aspects of modern science to the predicament of its main character.

Over the years, their theory of dueling – against the Big Bang origin of matter and energy – versus a steady-state universe that creates matter and energy via quantum fluctuations (posted by Gamow) has remained highly speculative (led by Hoyle). Initially, the Big Bang theory predicted a universe only a few billion years old, and this contradicted observations of the sun and other known stars to be much older. Physicists were equally divided between the two.

But that changed as more evidence emerged, and an important discovery seemed to have finally settled the controversy. In 1964, astronomers Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson noticed a stable radio static signal with the Holmdel Horn Antenna in New Jersey. After ignoring possible experimental noise sources (including pigeons and their dung on the antenna), they concluded that radio hissing had a cosmic origin. They and their colleagues eventually realized that the signal came from residual radiation from the hot fireball of the early universe.

After that, the Big Bang theory quickly gained consensus in this area. Although Hoyle’s idea of ​​a steady state eventually failed, he made many important contributions, notably including stellar processes and supernova explosions, where he demonstrated that he could fuse chemical elements into heavier atoms and produce nitrogen, oxygen, carbon, and more. Halpern provides many useful metaphors and analogies in explaining this and throughout the book. It also reminds readers that Hoyle, Gamow, and other theoretical physicists made these achievements long before the heyday of supercomputers.

Halpern doesn’t shy away from the characters’ flaws. In particular, it shows how Hoyle’s work in later life was at the frontiers of physics, including the controversial “panspermia” hypothesis, unsuccessful attempts to revive the steady-state theory that organic matter and even life on Earth came from colliding comets. But that shouldn’t overshadow his legacy.

Hoyle’s investment in theory raises important philosophical and sociological questions about when we should consider a proven idea. It’s also a kind of dilemma that sparks contemporary debate among physicists: altered theories of gravity versus dark matter; about what dark energy is and how the “inflation” of the universe occurred a few minutes after the Big Bang; and about a persistent inconsistency in measurements of the expansion rate of the universe known as the “Hubble tension.” Halpern gives only a brief mention of these active areas of research, which unfortunately owes much to Gamow and Hoyle.

At one point in the book, Halpern describes a conversation he had with Geoff Burbidge, a colleague of Hoyle’s who also continues to support the steady-state model. He argued that cosmology needed alternatives, not lemmings who followed their leaders over a cliff.

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