The Origin of the Universe
by Richard Milne
"If you’re religious, this is like looking at God."(1)
A mystic, describing his vision in a trance? A poet, looking at the beauty of nature and seeing God? No, a Berkeley astrophysicist, commenting on the data he was making public in 1992 that seemed to confirm a basic expectation of the Big Bang theory.
Just what is the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe? One scientist summed it up succinctly by saying: "The explosion from zero volume at zero time of a corpuscle of energy equivalent to the mass and radiation that now constitute the Universe."(2) What does that mean? It means that everything we now see or know about was once compacted into an unimaginably small blip that suddenly expanded in a huge explosion that created the very space and time it was expanding into. Or as Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes put it, "The Horrendous Space Kablooie."
The Big Bang has become as much a part of our common science knowledge as dinosaurs, something we speak about with the same sense of familiarity we talk about atoms. But, like atoms, how much do we really know about this wondrous explosion of everything?
In this essay we’ll talk about what scientists mean by the Big Bang theory, why it’s often in the news, why some scientists oppose it, what it tells us about our home the universe, and what we as Christians can learn from all of this.
Science is often seen as attacking the God of the Bible, but in this case scientific discoveries seem to be revealing God’s work. The Bible begins with the statement that God created the heavens and the earth, leaving no doubt that all we see had a beginning and had a Creator.
But by the 1700s many people accepted an earlier theory that Immanuel Kant made more popular. The theory held that the universe is an infinite expanse with no beginning and no end. This fit the philosophy of the time, as people did not want to think that they might have to face judgment by a God who had the power to both begin and end the universe.
In the roaring twenties, Edwin Hubble had begun to investigate mysterious masses of stars called nebulae. Some thought we were all part of one giant galaxy; others thought there might be a whole world of galaxies outside our own. Hubble was able to show that there are many galaxies besides our own. In 1929 he announced we were in a huge universe, so big it would take light billions of years to travel across it. Not only was it immense, but every part was moving away from every other part at incredible speeds, some receding at 100 million miles an hour!
Priests do not enter into this story very often, but in the late 20s and early 30s a Belgian priest and mathematics teacher by the name of Georges Lemaître (who was fond of saying "There is no conflict between science and religion") first constructed and then published a theory that changed the course of cosmology in the twentieth century. Taking Hubble’s observation that the galaxies were rapidly receding from one another, he ran the theory backwards to a time when all the matter in the universe was very close together. He called this the "primordial atom" and imagined a beginning when the whole universe exploded like "fireworks of unimaginable beauty" with a "big noise."(3) Thus was born the Big Bang theory…
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