The Cosmos

30
May

The Big Bang’s Identity Crisis

Think of the Big Bang, and you probably imagine a moment in time when matter, energy and space itself all burst into existence at once. Yet many astrophysicists now believe that the “Big Bang” was actually two distinct events: first the inaugural instant of space and time, and second the generation of most of the “stuff” that populates that space. So, which really deserves to be called the Big Bang?

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More bang for the buck? Credit: jeff_golden/Flickr, adapted under a Creative Commons license.

Ambiguity has plagued the expression “Big Bang” since its origin. When British astronomer Fred Hoyle coined it during a radio interview in 1948, he meant it as the ultimate put down. Hoyle refused to believe that the universe had a beginning, a first moment of time and a genesis of all matter and energy. Rather, he thought that the cosmos maintained itself in a “steady state” through a slow trickle of particles into reality. He hypothesized a “creation field” that would gradually generate new matter to fill the gaps between galaxies moving away from each other, keeping the overall density of the universe the same.

Hoyle had a point: Science rightly eschews processes without clear mechanisms, and at the time, no one could explain how the whole cosmos could emerge instantly out of nothing. Nevertheless, his alternative steady state approach could not match up with mounting evidence that the observable universe was once extremely hot and dense. In 1964, Bell Laboratory researchers Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson found the smoking gun: cooled-down radiation from the early universe, known as the cosmic microwave background (CMB), which convinced almost everyone in the scientific community that the universe started with a bang.

The discovery of the CMB was a victory for the Big Bang theory, yet it also presented a puzzle: The radiation was strikingly uniform across the sky. While later studies identified tiny variations of less than one part in 10,000, the standard Big Bang model couldn’t justify such uniformity. There simply wasn’t enough time in early cosmic history, when the universe was small, for energy to have traveled across space and evened out its temperature.

Enter the brilliant concept of inflation, proposed in 1981 by Alan Guth, and later modified by Andrei Linde, Paul Steinhardt, Andreas Albrecht, and others. Guth realized that a sudden, ultra-rapid stretching of the universe could take a tiny uniform patch and expand it to a size where it ultimately would grow and become the observable universe. During the fleeting instant of inflation, any irregularities in the primordial cosmos would be propelled beyond detection, offering a kind of blank slate. It is like taking a crinkled tablecloth and stretching it out so quickly that it appears flat on a tabletop and any wrinkles left are off the table and out of view. Only tiny, jiggling quantum fluctuations would disturb the uniformity; these fluctuations would be the seeds of the galaxies and galaxy clusters we see today.

Inflation solved critical problems in cosmology, but it also split the Big Bang into distinct phases: In the inflationary portrait, the creation of almost all of the matter and energy in the universe takes place at the close of the inflationary period, through a process called “reheating,” rather than before inflation. Reheating involves a massive release of energy from inflation’s driving engine: an entity called the “inflaton,” thought to be a fluctuating energy field that ignited ultra-rapid cosmic expansion. Theorists think that at the end of inflation, the inflaton field released an enormous reservoir of potential energy into space—which, following Einstein’s famous equivalence between energy and mass, converted into a deluge of particles. Before then, because stretching causes cooling, the universe was actually relatively cold. As the cosmos rapidly expanded, its hot initial temperature dropped by a factor of many thousand (the precise amount depends on the particular model), becoming extraordinarily hot only after reheating. If you feel that an event should be fiery if it’s going to be called the “Big Bang,” then reheating, not the cosmic dawn, was the true “bang.” (Max Tegmark has made this case in a recent blog post.)

So, science is faced with a dilemma. Which moment should the term “Big Bang” refer to: cosmic genesis, when space emerged, or the time of reheating, when most of the matter and energy was created? If the Big Bang denotes post-inflationary reheating, then we’ll have to talk about pre-Big Bang cosmology, which makes cosmologists squirm. Also, reheating occurred at slightly different times in various parts of the universe, making it more of a process than a sudden burst. On the other hand, if the Big Bang refers to the first moment of time, it was not much of a “bang.” That’s because the energy fields created then wouldn’t have been very hot.

Furthermore, in some versions of inflation, the seeds of rapid growth developed from the loam of an eternal cosmos. In that case, there could have been no initial moment of creation.

Perhaps it is time to replace the expression “Big Bang” with more precise nomenclature. Could there be a better way of distinguishing the idea of an initial cosmic moment from the concept that a field caused sudden expansion that tapered off and led to the generation of matter and structure?

Unfortunately, past attempts to find a replacement term for “Big Bang” have met with failure. Most famously, in 1993 Sky and Telescope magazine sponsored a contest to identify a new name. Astronomer and science writer Timothy Ferris, who called for a better designation, served as one of the judges. Ferris said in an interview that the term was “inappropriately bellicose” and unsuitable for conveying “the event thought to have spawned the starry skies.”

Despite more than 13,000 submissions from participants in 41 countries, including colorful suggestions such as “The Grand Expansion,” “The Hubble Bubble,” and “The First Fireball,” the contest was declared a bust. The judges did not find any of the entries as simple and evocative as “Big Bang.” Consequently, they announced that nobody had won and that the old name would remain.

More than 20 years later, “Big Bang” still doesn’t seem quite right, especially as cosmology has declared the nascent history of the cosmos more complex than once believed. Perhaps as our picture of the early universe continues to become more refined, new names will emerge to mark the complexity of its initial development. Just as we talk about an ovum, zygote, embryo and fetus in the process of human development, maybe we will someday have precise terms for early phases in the emergence of space, time, energy and matter.

Go Deeper
Editor’s picks for further reading

The Inflationary Universe
Alan Guth’s accessible “diary” of the birth of inflation theory.

Wikipedia: Chronology of the universe
10150 years of cosmic history, from the inflationary epoch to the heat death of the universe, all on one Wikipedia page.

Tell us what you think on Twitter, Facebook, or email.

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Paul Halpern

    Paul Halpern is Professor of Physics at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia. A prolific author, he has written thirteen science books and dozens of articles. His interests range from space, time and higher dimensions to cultural aspects of science. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, Fulbright Scholarship, and an Athenaeum Literary Award, he has appeared on the History Channel, the Discovery Channel, the PBS series "Future Quest," and "The Simpsons 20th Anniversary Special." Halpern's books include "Time Journeys," "Cosmic Wormholes," "The Cyclical Serpent," "Faraway Worlds," "The Great Beyond," "Brave New Universe," "What's Science Ever Done for Us?," "Collider," and most recently "Edge of the Universe: A Voyage to the Cosmic Horizon and Beyond" (Wiley 2012). More information about his writings can be found at phalpern.com.

    • Hominid

      Nonsense!

    • nisar rathod

      Big bang theory was tabled after researchers were trying to conclude the beginning of cosmos ; solar system and start of life ,– the word big bang was just an opted word to cover abyss insight of this mystery. Other theories of inflating of universe caused due to enormous heat and Einstein theory of mass ; energy and particles dispersing in cosmos were inconsistent with the big bang accepted theory , while more researches then concluded the Big bang theory cannot sustain the ever inflating mass paticles in Universe inflating into multiverse,– now as we proceed further with the theorists may prove the unfolding of upcoming researches may have new turns and twists to beginning yet to start up with dazzling eye opening colorful life near to the world.

      • Zaoldyeck

        “Big bang theory was tabled after researchers were trying to conclude the beginning of cosmos”

        … Sadly, as the stunning persistence of the name remains, no, Hoyle’s ‘big bang’ seems to be a forever linked misnomer to the expansion of the universe from a smaller state.

        ” the word big bang was just an opted word to cover abyss insight of this mystery.”

        Or to denigrate it, you know, same thing? To quote the article, “When British astronomer Fred Hoyle coined it during a radio interview in 1948, he meant it as the ultimate put down.”

        “Other theories of inflating of universe caused due to enormous heat”….

        …. Ηuh?

        “Einstein theory of mass ; energy and ****particles****”

        HUH??

        “dispersing in cosmos were inconsistent with the big bang accepted theory”….

        HUH?!?!

        “while more researches then concluded the Big bang theory cannot sustain
        the ever inflating mass paticles in Universe inflating into multiverse”

        Why is it that people who say things like this only seem to actually know the name of one physicist? So, we’re just going to pretend that Friedman, Lemitre, Robertson, Walker were all failures as physicists because they apparently didn’t use Einstein’s… whatever you called it… properly when deriving big bang cosmology?

        Where do you think Guth went horribly wrong and do you expect Planck’s survey to overturn the BICEP B-mode result?

        I’m not really sure what model of cosmology you are proposing here.

        • nisar rathod

          even the researchers have no final theories till now , that could’ve perfected this start of life phenomena of nature, or the begin of Cosmos.– whatever the picture framed to date is in consonance to the reality of now belief of Astrophysicist theories as of today’s find….. —and this onward research would be carried on indefinitely with no final perspective as it’ll be carried on as the life goes on till doomsday.

    • newsens

      Big Bang is religion disguised as science.

      • Rogoraeck

        No! Big Bang is a big FART!

    • Adriaan

      first created was time and space, fire, water, male/female (seventh dimension) so then forms or matter were able to manifest expanding through 6th, 5th, 4th dimensions to here the third dimension where eventually we appeared as planned.

    • Bluetides

      The big bang theory is embarrassingly bad science and only the lack of imagination or observations keeps this worn out crap in play.

      We have 200 Lab trials proving that precious elements are formed in LENR condition by mimicking nature’s processes optimizing for duration and yields from barren seed ores (patent pending). See: http://vimeo.com/90037448

      Reason’s why its bad science… too many to list.
      http://metaresearch.org/cosmology/BB-top-30.asp

      and http://www.thescienceforum.com/pseudoscience/27489-big-bang-theory-wrong-33-top-scientists-object.html
      and
      http://www.physicsmyths.org.uk/cosmology.htm

    • Texas Arcane

      Junk science. It has to be forced down people’s throats or natural attrition would have abandoned this stupidity a long time ago.

      It is a political theory which is an extension of the tribal mythological gibberish in the Talmud.

      Fred Hoyle was the greatest astrophysicist who ever lived. The other 90% of the “science” are just people unfit for real day jobs. Basically, they don’t have the brains, endurance or self-discipline to mow lawns and clean leaves out of gutters.

    • sigmaalgebra

      > Reheating involves a massive release of energy from inflation’s driving engine: an entity called the “inflaton,”
      thought to be a fluctuating energy field that ignited ultra-rapid
      cosmic expansion. Theorists think that at the end of inflation, the
      inflaton field released an enormous reservoir of potential energy into
      space—which, following Einstein’s famous equivalence between energy and
      mass, converted into a deluge of particles.

      > an entity called the “inflaton

      An “entity”? What the heck? “Inflaton”, is that a misspelling?

      “energy field”? Come ON. You got this from, what, the movie ‘Star Wars’? What the heck are you talking about?

      > released an enormous reservoir of potential energy into
      space

      Some supporting physics and some details here, please?

    • abc1

      Going with the description given in the post, I don’t see a problem with the term as long as it is not assumed to be scientifically precise. There are plenty of cosmological processes that take eons to which we ascribe terms which in everyday usage connote briefer singular events (e.g., “birth” and “death” of stars). I think our concern results from our bias that a bang should be something quick…per our definition of quick.

      It is interesting. I wonder if all the energy in the universe began as dark energy…the energy of accelerating expansion… a portion of which later crystallized into dark matter and ordinary matter in the reheating phase. (Could the four forces be derivatives of the dark energy/ inflation force)? If this is the case perhaps it is incorrect to not include the energy of inflation…inflatons…in our tally of the “heat” of the universe when it first began, prior to reheating.

    • seedy

      I’ve heard it referred to as the only “White Hole” in existence.

    • bill

      The renaming the “Big Bang” discussion above is very curious. Einstein’s theory is not called “The Theory of Relativity” without connecting it with Einstein. But, who first postulated the “Big Bang” theory? And why is his name suppressed, censored and removed from the Scientific literature, as Paul Halpern has done? The Big Bang was first postulated by Georges Lemaitre, back in 1927, based on Einstein’s work. Lemaitre first stated the universe arose from a small singularity. At the time, Lemaitre was ridiculed by the entire Scientific Establishment – the eminent scientists of the time stated it was a laughable theory. Fred Hoyle called it the “Big Bang’, in derision. Lemaitre did have the satisfaction of having his Theory verified, while on his deathbed.
      So, Mr. Halpern, question: Why does the Scientific establishment avoid this issue? It’s clear that the “Big Bang” should be called the Lemaitre Theory of Cosmology.
      Why the waffling?

    • milhouse

      How about ‘The Beginning’

      • Nathaniel Finch

        I don’t think that “The Beginning” is a good idea… Technically, this is not the beginning. It was the beginning of our universe, but time was going on forever before that. So “The Beginning” is sort of false. Think of time before this “Big Bang” as BC times, and after is AD. Time was still going on in BC times, but people just weren’t recording history then. So it’s sort of the same concept. I believe, actually, that someday society will simply begin to refer to it as something other than the Big Bang, and the major group of society will simply accept that.