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No Bang?

October 3, 2022

A very old proverb states that "Time and tide wait for no man."[1] This proverb expresses two different concepts of time; namely, the linear march of time, as shown on a clock, and cyclic time of things repeating. The ancient Greeks embraced two time deities corresponding to these two concepts. There was Chronos (Χρόνος, from which we get our word, "chronology") the personification of linear time; and, there was also Aion (Αιών, the deity representing cyclic time often depicted with a zodiac wheel representing the annual cycle. Our word, "aeon/eon," comes from his name.

Heraclitus, Fragment 30, Greek text image.

The ancient Greek philosophers believed that the universe and time had neither beginning nor end. This is expressed by Heraclitus (c. 535 - c. 475 BC), as shown above. It reads in translation, "This universe, which is the same for all, has not been made by any god or man, but it always has been, is, and will be an ever-living fire, kindling itself by regular measures and going out by regular measures." (Fragment 30 of Heraclitus, Greek text and English translation via Wikiquote.

The Greek idea of a universe that's always existed was supplanted in Western culture by the Judeo-Christian idea that God created the universe at a time not too far in the past, and the age of the universe was essentially the same as the age of the Earth.[2] Archbishop of the Church of Ireland, James Ussher (1581-1656), added up all the dates in the Bible in 1650 to produce his chronology that placed the beginning of the world in 4004 BC.

As I wrote in an earlier article (Newton's Chronology, March 6, 2013), renowned physicist, Isaac Newton (1642-1726), wrote his own timeline of history. This 1728 chronology, "The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms,"[3] relied on many sources from the classical literature, such as the the works of Herodotus, Hesiod, Homer, Pliny, and Plutarch. The earliest date that Newton could verify was a 1125 BC reference to an Egyptian Pharaoh, possibly Ramesses IX. Newton also used numerous astronomical references in classical literature to set dates.[4]

At the start of the 20th century, astronomers believed that the full extent of the universe was our Milky Way galaxy. The Milky Way, 150-200 thousand light year in extent and hosting 100-400 billion stars, was thought to exist as an island of light in a vast empty space. The first evidence pointing to something that might spoil this simple model was the observation of unusual objects that were known as spiral nebulae. These nebulae were found to be large and distant galaxies outside the Milky Way.

Further observation of these galaxies showed that the universe exists, not in a steady state, but in a state of expansion. American astronomer, Edwin Hubble (1889-1953) quantified this expansion in the eponymous Hubble's law, which expresses the rate of expansion of the universe. If the universe is expanding, there's the simple idea that we can extrapolate backwards in time to a point of creation.

Edwin Hubble (1889-1953) and Georges Lemaître (1894-1966)

Edwin Hubble (1889-1953) and Georges Lemaître (1894-1966). While Hubble is renowned for discovery of universal expansion, Belgian priest and astronomer, Georges Lemaître, discovered this law before Hubble. However, he published his 1927 paper on this idea in French in a lesser known journal where it was ignored.[5] As I wrote in a previous article (Hubble and His Law, July 31, 2013), noted astronomer, Virginia Trimble (b. 1943), listed quite a few precursors other than Lemaître to Hubble's law in an arXiv article.[6] (Hubble photograph via Wikimedia Commons, modified for artistic effect. Lemaître photograph via Wikimedia Commons, modified for artistic effect.)

Further evidence that the universe was created at a particular moment was the discovery in 1964 of cosmic microwave background radiation by Arno Penzias (b. 1933) and Robert Wilson (b. 1936). This radiation at microwave frequencies is the remnant of a very early stage of the universe that occurred about 0.4 million years after the Big Bang; that is, 0.03% into the present age of the universe. This microwave background radiation has been measured in great detail by the Cosmic Background Explorer space observatory and the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, and it corresponds to a thermal black body spectrum at a temperature of about 2.725 K.

Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson in 1978

Arno Penzias (b. 1933) (left) and Robert Wilson (b. 1936) (right), standing at the horn antenna with which they discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation.

This image was taken in 1978 at the time of their award of the Nobel Prize in Physics.

(Image compliments of the Bell Labs archives. Click for larger image.)

Precise observation has shown that the universe is not just expanding, but that the expansion is accelerating. This is contrary to the prior view that the expansion should be decelerating as a consequence of gravitation. A dark energy component of the universe is presumed to be the cause for this expansion.

Such evidence has persuaded nearly every scientist, myself included, that the universe was created in a Big Bang 13.787 ± 0.020 billion years ago. However, the Big Bang had some problems. Why is the universe so isotropic, and why is the cosmic microwave background radiation so uniform? The is all explained by the idea that there was an exponential expansion of the universe that occurred in an inflationary epoch during which the universe increased in extent by a factor of at least 1026 and in volume by a factor of at least 1078 in a period lasting just 10-8 yactoseconds; that is 10-32 seconds. Cosmic inflation has been criticized as being not testable.

I've argued in previous articles that science advances in step with the quality of scientific instruments. This is quite true for cosmology, as numerous examples from Galileo's telescope to the Hubble Space Telescope and the recently launched James Webb Space Telescope[7] have shown. The Webb Telescope has imaged the universe as it was just 250 million years after the Big Bang, and what it showed us was indeed surprising. Massive galaxies appear to have existed at that time when no such thing was expected, since not enough time would have passed for their formation.[8] Can it be possible that our idea of a Big Bang is actually wrong? As one paper posted on arXiv notes, "Neither the high number of such objects found nor the high redshifts they reside at are expected from the previously favored predictions."[9]

James Webb Space Telescope deep field image

The edge of the universe, as seen by the James Webb Space Telescope.

The orange arcs are galaxy images distorted as a result of gravitational lensing by closer galaxies of the SMACS 0723 galaxy cluster.

(NASA image. Click for larger image.)

Georges Lemaître (1894-1966), as pictured earlier in the article, proposed the idea of the Big Bang in 1931 as the explosion of the primeval atom, but there was not much evidence for this until the 1964 discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation. There were alternative theories even then, including the Alfvén-Klein plasma cosmology in which repulsion between regions of matter and antimatter was the cause of the expansion, an idea that also explained the dearth of antimatter in our particular region.

This plasma cosmology was developed by Hannes Alfvén (1908-1995), who was awarded the 1970 Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery of magnetohydrodynamic Alfvén waves, an important part of heat conduction to the solar corona, and Oskar Klein (1894-1977). Klein is also famous for the Kaluza–Klein theory that the universe has extra dimensions that exist in undetected curled-up states, an idea that's now a part of string theory.

One arXiv posting includes the word, "Panic," in its title.[10] The panic arises because these galaxies correspond to a time just 400-500 million years after the Big Bang, but they appear to host stars that are more than a billion years old. The universe keeps surprising us, as the discoveries of dark matter and dark energy have shown. My money is still on the Big Bang until much more observation and analysis disproves it.


  1. Origin of: Time and tide wait for no man, idiomorigins.org.
  2. How Old is the Universe? at History of Scientific Cosmology AIP Website.
  3. Isaac Newton, "The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms" (Project Gutenberg).
  4. Yaël Nazé, "Astronomical arguments in Newton's Chronology," arXiv, December 20, 2012.
  5. Jean-Pierre Luminet, "Editorial note to "A Homogeneous Universe of Constant Mass and Increasing Radius accounting for the Radial Velocity of Extra--Galactic Nebulae" by Georges Lemaître (1927)," arXiv, May 28, 2013.
  6. Virginia Trimble, "Anybody but Hubble!" arXiv, July 8, 2013.
  7. James Webb Space Telescope, Goddard Space Flight Center.
  8. Govert Schilling, "Webb Telescope Shatters Distance Records, Challenges Astronomers," Sky and Telescope, August 10, 2022.
  9. Haojing Yan, Zhiyuan Ma, Chenxiaoji Ling, Cheng Cheng, Jia-sheng Huang, and Adi Zitrin, "First Batch of Candidate Galaxies at Redshifts 11 to 20 Revealed by the James Webb Space Telescope Early Release Observations," arXiv, July 23, 2022.
  10. Leonardo Ferreira, Nathan Adams, Christopher J. Conselice, Elizaveta Sazonova, Duncan Austin, Joseph Caruana, Fabricio Ferrari, Aprajita Verma, James Trussler, Tom Broadhurst, Jose Diego, Brenda L. Frye, Massimo Pascale, Stephen M. Wilkins, Rogier A. Windhorst, Adi Zitrin, "Panic! At the Disks: First Rest-frame Optical Observations of Galaxy Structure at z > 3 with JWST in the SMACS 0723 Field," arXiv, July 28, 2022.

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