Posts Tagged ‘Willem de Sitter’

With the announcement earlier in the week of what appears to be direct evidence for cosmic inflation, I ended up getting involved in a discussion on one of John Gribbin‘s FaceBook posts with a gentleman who said “the Big Bang theory will be discredited in the next few years” (or words to that effect), and that the “Steady State theory” was the correct cosmological model.

I was a little surprised that there were even (presumably intelligent and informed) people who still felt that the steady state theory had any credence left. So, rather than answer this gentleman in private, I thought I would do a brief series of blogs on why we think that the big bang theory provides a more correct model of the Universe than the steady state theory.

I should remind readers (all two of you!), a theory is never complete. It is always a work in progress, and this is as true of the big bang theory as of any other theory. As Karl Popper said, it does not matter how many times a theory is confirmed, one robust refutation of that theory and it needs to be revised and/or abandoned. Cosmologists have been trying to test predictions of the big bang theory since Lemaître first proposed it in the 1920s, and they will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

The expanding Universe

The expansion of the Universe was observationally discovered by Edwin Hubble and his observing assistant Milton Humason in 1929. What Hubble and Humason found was that more distant galaxies appeared to be moving away faster than nearer galaxies. The recession velocity was determined by the Doppler shift in the spectral lines of the galaxies and was a pretty robust result. The distances were a little less robust, as there was no reliable way to determine the distances to the galaxies Hubble included in his study. However, since then we have been able to use the reliable method of Cepheid variables to determine the distances to a large number of galaxies. For example, the Hubble Space Telescope (named, of course, after Edwin Hubble) was able to observe Cepheid variable stars out to large distances in the 1990s. This was a Hubble Key Project. The relationship between the distance of a galaxy and how quickly it is moving away from us, the so-called Hubble law, is now well established.

Edwin Hubble (left) and Milton Humason, who discovered the expansion of the Universe.

Edwin Hubble (left) and Milton Humason, who discovered the expansion of the Universe.

In the 1910s Vesto Slipher, working at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff Arizona had found that from a sample of 25 “spiral nebulae” (as they were then known), 22 appeared to be moving away from us with 3 moving towards us, based on the Doppler shift in their spectral lines. Slipher noted that there was something strange about this, but never made the connection to an expanding Universe.

The diagram of distance (x-axis) versus recession velocity (y-axis) from Hubble's original 1929 paper from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

The diagram of distance (x-axis) versus recession velocity (y-axis) from Hubble’s original 1929 paper from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Although Hubble himself never actually said it, the most natural interpretation of the Hubble law is that the Universe is expanding. It is not that the galaxies are rushing through space, but rather that space itself is expanding. A galaxy which is twice as far away as a given galaxy will move away twice as quickly if space is uniformly expanding. Naturally, if space is getting bigger then it would have been smaller in the past – so Hubble’s discovery lent natural support to the emerging idea of a Universe which started out small and is getting bigger.

In an expanding Universe, more distant galaxies move away quicker than nearer ones because of the expansion of space. The galaxies themselves are not moving through space, it is space which is expanding.

In an expanding Universe, more distant galaxies move away quicker than nearer ones because of the expansion of space. The galaxies themselves are not moving through space, it is space itself which is expanding.

Einstein’s biggest blunder

Einstein developed his General Theory of Relativity, a radically different approach to understanding gravity, in 1916. This theory describes gravity as a bending of space and time, rather than the classical idea of gravity that Newton had developed in 1666. In 1917, when Einstein applied his new equations to the Universe, he found that it predicted a dynamic (expanding or contracting) Universe. But, at the time the general consensus was that the Universe was static, so Einstein introduced a fudge-factor, the “cosmological constant”, to give his equations a static solution. When the expansion of the Universe was later discovered by Hubble and Humason, Einstein purportedly said that the cosmological constant was “the biggest blunder of my life”, as he could have predicted the expansion of the Universe some 12 years before hand.

de Sitter, Friedmann and Lemaître

Two years after Einstein introduced his cosmological constant, in 1919, Dutch mathematician and physicist Willem de Sitter produced a solution to Einstein’s equations which had no matter but just the cosmological constant. This predicted an expanding Universe, but nobody took much notice as everyone knew the Universe contained matter.

In 1922, Russian cosmologist Alexander Friedmann produced the first solutions to Einstein’s equations which contained matter but which also predicted that the Universe might expand. Unfortunately for Friedmann, he died in 1925 and his work went largely unnoticed at the time, probably because he only published in Russian.

A few years later, in 1927, Belgian cosmologist and Catholic priest Georges Lemaître independently came up with the same idea as Friedmann. He was aware of Slipher’s work on the redshift of spiral nebulae, and conjectured that it might be a sign of the Universe expanding. He published his work in an obscure Belgian scientific journal, so it too was ignored. But then, renowned cosmologist Sir Arthur Eddington published a long commentary of Lemaître’s paper in the widely read Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, propelling Lemaître’s work to prominence. Einstein became aware of Lemaître’s work, but was not convinced by it.

Then, in 1931, Lemaître published a letter in the most prestigious scientific journal, Nature, outlining his ideas on cosmic expansion in some detail. In this letter he suggested that the Universe had begun in what he called a primordial atom.


Newspapers around the World picked up on the story, and the New York Times ran a front page story with the headline

Lemaître suggests one, single, great atom, embracing all energy, started the Universe.

Einstein was won over, and in 1932 he and de Sitter published a paper of a model we now call the Einstein-de Sitter model, in which they stated that the correct cosmological model was one which would just about keep on expanding to infinity, but would take an infinite amount of time to do so and would never re-collapse.

The Steady State Theory

In the 1940s a fierce opponent to Lemaître’s “primordial atom” theory would emerge, Sir Fred Hoyle. In part 2 of this blog next week I will talk about his competing theory, the “Steady State theory”, and Hoyle’s on-going battle in the 1940s and 1950s with George Gamow, who became the chief champion of the “primordial atom” theory.

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