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The Big Bang is not a Myth



Christian de Quincey claims that the Big Bang is a myth - is he wrong?

Alec MacAndrew

The CMB anisotropy in false colour


Well informed, well argued, detailed challenges to standard scientific models such as neo-Darwinism or the Big Bang hypothesis abound. We should welcome them, because new findings are often stimulated by such challenges.  But there is another class of challenge to mainstream scientific ideas that is primarily motivated by religious, political or ideological opinions.  Such criticisms are often ill-informed, poorly presented and lacking in merit. We expect these challenges, which are chiefly directed at modern cosmology, evolution theory and geology, to emanate from fundamentalist creationists, and from their fellow travelers in camouflage, the proponents of Intelligent Design.  We do not expect high standards of scholarship from these sources. But it is surprising to encounter poorly researched, ill informed challenges from those who claim to be members of the academic community.

Christian de Quincey is on the academic staff of the John F Kennedy University, California, where he teaches philosophy and consciousness studies. Dr de Quincey manages a personal website (1) .  De Quincey has published a number of essays on his website, one of which is titled 'Deep Spirit: Big Bang: A Modern Myth?'  (2)

In this essay, he claims that the Big Bang is a modern myth.  He takes a firm position against the standard cosmological model, characterising it as myth and dogma.  His stated intention in the essay is to 'challenge that dogma'.   The essay contains a peculiar mixture of rapt scene setting, unremarkable history, unjustified and inaccurate analogies between modern scientists and shamans, and a poorly researched and presented set of challenges to the Big Bang theory.  His bias against modern science, particularly science that has a reductionist flavour, is plain.

De Quincey expresses this opinion: 'The Big Bang is under suspicion, there is evidence of illegitimacy, and the case should be brought to trial for open, public scrutiny'  Just what is de Quincey advocating?  It seems to me that he is suggesting a kangaroo court to determine whether the Big Bang is supported by the scientific evidence. Who is this public that he suggests should scrutinise the Big Bang hypothesis?  The value and legitimacy of the Big Bang hypothesis is properly tried by the self-correcting processes of the scientific community every time new data comes to light (83), and that is the way it should be. Suppose the lay public were to engage in what would inevitably be a poorly informed debate on the legitimacy of the Big Bang hypothesis, and suppose that the overwhelming majority concluded that the observable universe did not begin in a Big Bang-like phenomenon, what then? This unlikely scenario would have no influence on the thinking of professional scientists (nor should it), nor would it influence by one iota the correctness of the hypothesis. Truth in science is not determined democratically: we can no more change the speed of light by poll, than we can determine that the Big Bang did not happen by voting or by popular dissent.

Why am I taking time to respond to this essay? If a high school student or an undergraduate had written it, I would not have given it a second glance. But it is written by an academic, who is presumably offering it as a serious contribution to the debates about cosmology and the role modern science should play in society.  I believe that the essay fails rather badly to make a telling case, and I explain why below. It has also provided me with an opportunity to set out some of the recent evidence for the modern concordance model of cosmology, a subject which is developing rapidly with new exciting data and thinking emerging almost daily.

So, in what ways is the essay unconvincing?  

The de Quincey essay is technically flawed and ill-researched

It appears to be based on his reading of just two books

De Quincey seems to have based his essay challenging the 'dogma' of the standard cosmological model on his reading of just two books.  Certainly, he refers to no primary source other than these and seems to be unaware of huge swathes of cosmological research.  The books he relies on are Ramon Mendoza's 'The Acentric Labyrinth: Giordano Bruno's Prelude to Contemporary Cosmology' (3) and Eric J Lerner's 'The Big Bang Never Happened' (4). Let us look at them in a little more detail.

Mendoza tells the story of the philosopher, Giordano Bruno, burned as a heretic by the Inquisition for his cosmology. Bruno proposed an infinite cosmos, a non-fixed planet Earth and the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe.  Mendoza tells the story of Bruno's martyrdom for daring to think outside the existing religious paradigm. Bruno, even more than Galileo, suffered for his views, and their stories should inspire us to defend scientific thinking and reason against ideological and religious dogma.  Nevertheless, Bruno's belief that the universe is infinite in extent and scope offers little support to de Quincey's own preference for that model.  Bruno's belief in such a cosmology was not supported by direct evidence (or even by the modern scientific method) and was held by Bruno much more in the nature of a faith position than as a scientific hypothesis - Bruno was not a scientist but a philosopher. As such, his views on the cosmology are entirely irrelevant to modern scientific thinking except as an historical footnote. There is nothing more to say about Bruno, since Bruno's beliefs have no direct contribution to make to the modern scientific debate on cosmological origins.

Eric Lerner's book wears its heart on its sleeve.  Its purpose is evident in its title. It sets out to prove that the Big Bang never happened.  As far as I can see, de Quincey bases most of his arguments that call the Big Bang into question on Lerner's book.  It was originally published in 1991 and so is rather out-of-date, given the rapid developments in cosmology since then, but, worse, it takes a strong and ultimately unjustifiable stance against the standard model, which I will expose in some detail below.  I am surprised that an academic should base his entire research for an essay on the reading of a single quirky book.

Lerner's claimed problems for Big Bang are not problems at all

De Quincey relies for the most part on the errors that Lerner in ‘The Big Bang Never Happened’ promulgated.  He seems to be unaware of the findings of the COBE satellite, never mind the more recent measurements from WMAP satellite, and the BOOMERANG and MAXIMA balloon experiments which provide convincing evidence in favour of the standard model (5) - (12), (26), (27)

To be fair, WMAP data post-dates his essay, so it is unreasonable to expect him to acknowledge it.  However the COBE data pre-dates the essay by several years, so the fact that he does not seem to be aware of it and certainly does not acknowledge it, is remarkable in someone who has chosen to comment on cosmological hypotheses.

In fact, de Quincey summarily dismissed WMAP data as follows, in an e-mail to me, also posted on his web-site, after I had brought it to his attention: 'I do not dispute the data you cite -- in fact, from what I know they are accurate. But your conclusion that the big bang is "not a myth" doesn't follow from the data. Other cosmological models can provide alternative explanations for the data you cite, without invoking the idea that it "all" started in a big bang' (13).  But the data in references (5) -  (12) strongly support the Big Bang cosmology and provide little support for the alternative models (for example, alternatives such as the plasma cosmology, or Hoyle, Bondi and Gold's steady state generation hypothesis).  In fact his statement above reveals little understanding of the implications of the microwave background anisotropy.

The Cosmic Microwave Background is the most perfect blackbody spectrum ever measured. The temperature of the CMB is uniform to better than one part in 10,000 - the tiny non-uniformity in the CMB is known as the CMB anisotropy.  The properties of the CMB anisotropy tells us a huge amount about the universe. Read on.

Let us look at the supposed problems that Lerner cites as evidence that Big Bang cosmology is flawed.  De Quincey, in his essay, after listing these 'problems', concludes: 'Faced with the test of scientific observation - not just ivory tower speculation - the Big Bang theory fails'.  He relies on Lerner here, and since Lerner was wrong, then so is he.

1. The Universe is Homogeneous

This problem is known as the Horizon Problem.  The universe is homogeneous in all directions.  Given that the universe is so big that information could not flow across it in the time since the Big Bang, and therefore information cannot be exchanged between widely separated regions, why is it homogeneous?  De Quincey characterises the problem as follows:

'Observation shows that the 3°K background radiation is uniform in all directions. Yet, according to the theory, the background radiation formed when the universe was only 300,000 years old. Since light is the fastest mode of communication, any parts of the universe separated by more than 300,000 light-years would not have had sufficient time to influence each other to equalize their temperatures. Yet there are regions of the universe separated by hundreds of millions of light-years.'

This is actually an inaccurate characterisation of the problem. In particular, the statement that parts of the universe separated by more than 300,000 light years lie outside the region of communication (known as the Hubble horizon) completely ignores the fact that the CMB was formed at z (redshift) ~1000 and that therefore the comoving Hubble horizon would be 300 million light years across today (WMAP measures, more accurately, decoupling at 379,000 years after Big Bang, at z = 1089 (10)).  However, since the universe is at least 10's of billion of light years across, the Horizon Problem is real.

z is the redshift of light arriving from a distant source.  The CMB has a blackbody temperature of 2.75°K and a redshift of 1089. Space has expanded by a factor of z+1 since the light was emitted from an object at redshift, z.

Actually, de Quincey cannot make up his mind whether the Horizon Problem is a problem for the Big Bang hypothesis or not.  He writes:

' I’m not convinced that this is a really serious threat to Big Bang theory. It strikes me that the assumption of spontaneous thermodynamic gradients appearing randomly over time, while perhaps true on quantum or microscopic scales, is unlikely to hold for macroscopic dimensions. I think that entropic annihilation or evening out of thermodynamic gradients over time is far more likely. Thus, if the initial “flare up” of radiation at the 300,000 year mark of cosmic evolution (when free electrons were captured by atomic formations making matter transparent to primordial radiation for the first time), if this radiation began homogeneously, then what reason do we have for not believing it would continue to be so?'

But then he also writes: ' Given the enormous explosive reactions between the primordial particles constantly happening throughout the nascent universe form its first moment to its 300,000 year anniversary, it seems too much to expect homogeneity across 300,000 light-years. So perhaps, after all, Thuan’s “problem” remains a difficulty for Big Bang theory?'

(The observed CMB anisotropy - the tiny fluctuations in temperature in the CMB - is almost scale invariant and this is in agreement with the models of the origin of the CMB anisotropy in quantum fluctuations in the scalar field during inflation - in direct contradiction to de Quincey's statement above preferring microscopic fluctuations over larger scale ones).

The fact is that homogeneity was a real problem for Big Bang and one that has been resolved.  In the first statement above de Quincey fails to acknowledge that information exchange is essential for homogeneity and that information exchange between widely separated regions of our universe cannot happen in the time available since the Big Bang.  (He says: ' I think that entropic annihilation or evening out of thermodynamic gradients over time is far more likely' - entirely missing the point that evening out of thermodynamic gradients - or any other physical process - cannot occur at faster than the speed of light.) In his second (Thuan) quote he seems unaware that the Horizon Problem (and the Flatness Problem) has been resolved by the concept of inflation (14) (15) (16) and that the signature of inflation is seen in the data of COBE and WMAP quoted above (17). Inflation is a very rapid expansion of space by a factor of 1028 that allows the entire observable universe to have been in causal contact before inflation. The main evidence for inflation is in the homogeneity of the CMB and in the flatness of the geometry of the universe, neither of which can be adequately explained without an inflationary epoch. There is evidence that the slight running of the spectral index (the deviation from scale invariance of the temperature fluctuation distribution in the CMB) supports an inflationary model (18). Furthermore, inflation has great credence because it is consistent with Grand Unified Theories that integrate quantum scale phenomena with cosmological scale phenomena.  It predicts Gaussian, adiabatic, and almost scale invariant fluctuations just as observed.  These fluctuations are a necessary consequence of quantum fluctuations in the scalar field during the period of rapid expansion.

Gaussian fluctuations are random. The probability of finding a particular temperature at a point in the CMB follows a Gaussian random distribution

Adiabatic fluctuations have no fluctuation in entropy and the fluctuations in radiation and matter are in phase - the alternative situation is called isocurvature and has entropy fluctuations and the matter and radiation fluctuations are in antiphase and cancel one another out.  Isocurvature starting conditions are not supported by the observed CMB fluctuations

Scale invariant fluctuations are those where the fluctuations occur at all scales - they are fractal

So much for problem #1.

2.  The Universe has Large-Scale Structure

De Quincey sets great store by this 'problem', following Lerner closely.  He stresses this one argument in his email to me posted on his website defending his essay: 'For example, modern cosmology has revealed massive structures in the cosmos, far bigger than galactic clusters -- for example, something called "The Great Wall." Mathematical calculations show that given what we know about the force of gravity, and relativity theory, it would have taken somewhere between 80 -100 billion years for structures of such magnitude to have coalesced!' (13). He, of course, fails to provide good references to those calculations that demand a period of 80 - 100 billion years for very large structures, over 300 Mpc in size, to develop.  I wonder why that is?

He bases his thoughts here entirely on Lerner and repeats Lerner's argument as follows:

'The problem is this: Given the known mass density of the universe, and the force of gravity, 20 billion years is just not enough time for such immensely large objects to form.
From observations of red-shifts, as well as from other methods of measurement, “Galaxies almost never move much faster than a thousand kilometers per second, about one-three-hundredth as fast as the speed of light” (Lerner, p. 23). Since the Big Bang, therefore, (at most 20 billion years ago) galaxies could have moved only about 65 million light-years.
However, in 1986 Brent Tully, an astronomer from the University of Hawaii, discovered that “almost all the galaxies within a distance of a billion light-years of earth are concentrated into huge ribbons of matter about a billion light-years long, three hundred million light-years wide, and one hundred million light-years thick” (Lerner, 1991, p. 15).

These are big objects by any reckoning, dwarfing the 65 million light-years maximum imposed by the Big Bang theory. In order for Tully’s supercluster complexes to form, matter must have moved at least 270 million light-years. That would take between 80-100 billion years (conservatively).

“There is no energetic process vigorous enough either to create, in twenty billion years, the large-scale structures astronomers have observed or to stop their headlong motions once they were created” (Lerner, 1991, p. 31).'

Lerner's first mistake is to ignore the fact of expansion. Re-ionisation occurred and the first stars formed at z = 20 and at 180 Myr after Big Bang (10). At that time everything was 20 times closer together, so conglomerations of matter would have to move 20 times less far to achieve the same clustering.  In fact, as we will see below, the fluctuations that would seed the structure were already present with the predicted fluctuation power spectrum at z=1000, when the structure that would have seeded the Great Wall would have had linear dimensions of 1/1000th its current dimensions. Lerner's fallacy is based on his attempting to create the observed structures in the current scale of spacetime starting from homogeneity. That is a fundamental error of perception. In fact the seeds for the structures were already present at z=1000.

Lerner ignores the fact that large scale structure is explained by the observed anisotropy in the CMB.  It has been known since 1980, after Peebles carried out seminal calculations, that a 6µK quadrupole RMS anisotropy in the CMB is sufficient to explain the large scale structure for a Hubble constant of H0 = 100km s-1Mpc-1, and if H0 = 50km s-1Mpc-1 then 12 µK will do it (19) (20).  The Hubble constant is determined by data from WMAP to be 72+/-5km s-1Mpc-1 so a quadrupole anisotropy on the scale of 10µK is sufficient. This is detected by WMAP and confirms earlier measurements. The amplitude at the first acoustic peak occurs at multipole l = 220 and has an amplitude of 74.7µK.  The quadrupole RMS amplitude as measured by WMAP is 8 ± 2µK (21).  This is consistent with Peebles calculations.

The anisotropy in the CMB can be described by spherical harmonic multipoles derived from Fourier decomposition:


where  represents the scale of multipole moments.

The RMS angular temperature fluctuation for a given angular scale is then:

 where is the angle subtended by that scale on the surface of last scattering and is the variance of the multipole components  at multipole in the angular power spectrum.

The CMB power spectrum.  Angular scale and multipole scales are both shown. The TT spectrum is the power spectrum of temperature and the TE spectrum is the temperature polarisation cross power.  The first acoustic peak in the temperature spectrum  occurs at l=220 and 0.6°.  After ref 31.


The Hubble constant is determined by how fast the universe is expanding.  Hubble determined that the further away a galaxy is the faster it would be receding from us. The Hubble constant, H0, tells us how much in kilometers per second per megaparsec. So a galaxy at a distance of 2Mpc will be receding at 200 km s-1 for H0 = 100 km s-1 Mpc-1

In fact the lack of power in the angular spectrum at very large scales, first seen in COBE and confirmed in WMAP, (certainly at the quadrupole, l = 2, and to some extent at the octopole) has been remarked on by a number of observers (22).  However for multipole l › 4, agreement with the standard model is remarkable.  (The Integrated Sachs-Wolfe effect predicts enhanced power at low values of the multipole and WMAP and COBE data trend in the opposite sense, but otherwise the power spectrum of fluctuations in the CMB absolutely supports an adiabatic, scale invariant or fractal structure). (Recently an explanation for the unexpected lack of power at large scales has been proposed (85) - go here for more information). Structures such as the Great Wall occur on a scale of ~ 250 h-1Mpc (where h is Hubble's constant measured in 100km s-1Mpc-1).  Such a scale would subtend of the order of 2° in the CMB and that is equivalent to l ~ 80.  At this angular scale the amplitude of the fluctuations in the CMB is about 50µK according to the WMAP measurements.  So there is more than enough power in the temperature fluctuations to seed the large scale structure that we see, including up to and beyond structures of the size of the Great Wall (23) - indeed structures larger than the Great Wall can be explained by the fluctuations in the CMB since the CMB is essentially scale invariant, at least out to very large scales.  There is some evidence that as the scale increases the structure eventually becomes homogeneous and non fractal.  Wu et al present data in a review article from a number of sources (CMB, galaxy surveys, radio galaxies, X-ray background - XRB, Quasars and high-z galaxies and the Lyman-alpha forest) that indicate that the fractal dimension D2 approaches a value of 3 (indicating homogeneity) for scales above 100 h-1Mpc (25) throughout the universe from z=0 to z=3.

Miller et al compared the power spectrum of the CMB fluctuations with the fluctuations in matter density observed today (24). The CMB data was derived from the BOOMERANG (26) and MAXIMA (27) balloon experiments. The matter density data was derived from the Abell/ACO Cluster Survey, the IRAS Point Source Redshift catalogue and the Automated Plate Measuring Machine cluster catalogue.  The data from these surveys goes out to z = 0.1 and traces scales up to gigaparsecs (larger than the Great Wall). The correlation between CMB and the matter density in the universe fits the data so well that Miller et al can accurately predict the CMB structure (originating at z=1000) using the matter density data (at z=0.1) and a value for Ωvacuum = 0.8 derived from supernova SN1a data at z=1 using the concordance or standard cosmological model.

In October 2003, Max Tegmark and colleagues analysed a survey of 200,000 galaxies from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (86), (87).  They used the measured matter density power spectrum to derive cosmological parameters. The authors commented:

'Note that these numbers are in substantial agreement with the results of the WMAP team, despite a completely independent analysis and independent redshift survey data; this is a powerful confirmation of their results and the emerging standard model of cosmology. Equally impressive is the fact that we get similar results and error bars when replacing WMAP by the combined pre-WMAP CMB data. In other words, the concordance model and the tight constraints on its parameters are no longer dependent on any one data set — everything still stands even if we discard either WMAP or pre-WMAP CMB data and either SDSS or 2dFGRS galaxy data. No single data set is indispensable.'


'The fact that any simple model fits such accurate and diverse measurements is impressive evidence that the basic theoretical framework of modern cosmology is correct.'

In other words, the fluctuations in the CMB and the clustering of galaxies both support the same cosmological model and we can derive one from the other. Lerner and de Quincey are wrong about this.

So much for Big Bang being a myth.

And so much for problem #2.

3. Chemical Composition of the Cosmos

de Quincey now turns to his third 'problem' which he, following Lerner, describes as follows:

' "If we accept the idea that there is a great deal more ordinary matter than we see, the basic predictions of the Big Bang as to how much helium, lithium and deuterium are produced are wrong" '

de Quincey then comments: 'In short, for the Big Bang theory to account for the unmistakable fact that the universe has large-scale structure, it is forced to invent the hypothetical “patch” of additional ordinary matter. But the observed ratios of primordial chemical elements rules out there being any more ordinary matter.'

Well first of all, let us be clear that there is more ordinary matter than we can see in luminous objects: in fact we can only see about 25% of the ordinary matter or baryons that we know exist. But both Lerner and de Quincey have got things horribly mixed up here.

To begin with, the baryon density in the Universe is not derived from a need to explain large scale structure as de Quincey would have it.  One wonders where he got that notion from.  There are two independent ways to determine the baryon density in the universe.

a) The first of these uses the ratios of abundances of particular isotopes of light elements, hydrogen, helium and lithium created in the nucleosynthesis stage of the Big Bang, and the neutron mean life time. The ratio, η, of baryon number density (ordinary matter) to the photon number density strongly determines the era in which deuterium can fuse into heavier species before it is photonically destroyed.  This determines the era in which nucleosynthesis starts and determines how many neutrons are left to form helium-4 and lithium.  The Burles-Tytler deuterium measurement gives (D/H)p = (3.4 ± 0.3) × 10-5 which in turn yields a baryon to photon ration, η = 5.1 x 10-10 (28), (29), (30).  In order to determine the current baryon density, one must convert the primordial η to primordial baryon density by multiplying η by the photon number density at nucleosynthesis and the mean mass per baryon and then by reducing the density by the volume increase in the universe since Big Bang nucleosynthesis (BBN). We have to make the assumption of adiabacity (that the electromagnetic energy density has remained constant within the scale factor since BBN to complete this conversion; and adiabacity is strongly supported in WMAP data).  This results in a baryon density Ωbh2 = 0.020. This can be cross-checked by the abundances of other light elements.  For example, the abundance of primordial He-4 increases with increasing η.  (Actually Lerner gets this completely back to front saying :'as the number of photons per nucleus increases, so does the production of helium'.  Perhaps he was thinking of deuterium!)

b) The second approach to determining baryon density relies on the power spectrum of temperature fluctuations in the CMB.  The state of matter-energy at the surface of last scattering was a baryon-photon plasma that behaved as a fluid.  Gravity driven acoustic oscillations were present in this fluid and the greatest amplitude of fluctuation that we observe was where the frequency corresponds exactly to a single compression between Big Bang and the surface of last scattering.  This results in the first (and major) peak in the CMB temperature power spectrum, at multipole l = 220, which corresponds to an acoustic horizon scale of 300 ± 3, a comoving acoustic horizon size of 143 ± 4 Mpc and characteristic angular scale of fluctuations of θA = 0.601 ± 0.005° (31) .  Since the presence of baryons affects both the spring rate and the damping of the oscillations in a precisely determined way, by measuring the ratio of the amplitude of the first peak (maximum compression) to the second peak (maximum compression followed by maximum rarefaction) in the angular power spectrum of the CMB, we can determine the baryon density.  This method yields a baryon density Ωbh2 =  0.0224 ± 0.0009 according to WMAP data (11).

Before decoupling, the photons and baryons form a classical fluid.  There are pre-existing fluctuations in the primordial field caused by quantum effects in the scalar field of inflation. Gravity acts to compress the fluid and this compression is counteracted by pressure in the fluid. Oscillations are therefore set up in the photon-baryon fluid.  These are acoustic oscillations and the speed of sound in this fluid is very high at c/√3 ≈  0.6c where c is the speed of light. Now, we can see that the mode with the maximum amplitude must have a scale such that the fluid has compressed exactly once in the lifetime of the universe up to the time of decoupling.  This corresponds to the first peak in the CMB spectrum.  The second peak corresponds to the mode where the fluid has experienced exactly one compression and rarefaction cycle in that time. The acoustic horizon - ie the distance sound can travel in the fluid in the time between Big Bang and decoupling corresponds to the angular scale of the first peak. The scale at the time of decoupling is given by the time available multiplied by the speed of sound in the fluid.  The current or co-moving scale of the same mode is larger by the expansion of space since decoupling, approximately 1000 times, and is 143Mpc in diameter. In a flat universe, the angular scale is the angle subtended by the co-moving size of the sound horizon on the surface of last scattering. This corresponds to spherical multimode l = 220 in the spectrum or 0.6°. The predictions and results provide excellent support for the concordance model.


Surface of Last Scattering:  The photons that we observe in the Cosmic Background Radiation have been streaming through the cosmos since the time of decoupling more than 13.3 billion years ago. These photons, therefore, can be considered to arise on a spherical shell or surface at a distance approximately 13.3 billion light-years from us.  This is the surface of last scattering.  Since decoupling was not an instantaneous event but took place over a period of time, this shell has a finite thickness. An angular scale θ of 1° coresponds to a linear scale on the surface of last scattering of the order of 200Mpc

That two entirely independent measures of the same parameter, based on the same model but using entirely different basic data (the abundance of the light elements and the ratio of the first and second peak in the angular power spectrum of the CMB), should yield results in such close agreement is very strong supporting evidence for the validity of the model.

So the inferred baryon density in the universe is not derived or deduced from large structure considerations, contrary to de Quincey's claim.

Furthermore he makes additional errors. He says: 'the observed ratios of primordial chemical elements rules out there being any more ordinary matter'. This is wrong.  On what basis can he possibly claim that the ratio of primordial chemical elements rules out the existence of non-luminous ordinary matter when in fact the ratio of primordial chemical elements is one of the two major sources of data for deriving the number density of baryons in the universe. In other words, the very thing that he claims rules out the existence of three times non-luminous ordinary matter compared with luminous ordinary matter is the one of the ways that scientists actually use to determine the existence of non-luminous ordinary matter.

Lerner's statements are equally wrong.  He says ' "If we accept the idea that there is a great deal more ordinary matter than we see, the basic predictions of the Big Bang as to how much helium, lithium and deuterium are produced are wrong" , but this is not so as we have seen.

So much for problem #3.

4.The existence of Dark Matter

De Quincey claims that the existence of dark matter is somehow a problem for the Big Bang theory - or rather that the inference that dark matter exists (and that actually, we know quite precisely how much there is) somehow turns the theory into a myth. On the contrary, there is no problem whatsoever with inferring a conclusion from data derived from indirect observations of the phenomenon. Let us take a very common and familiar example: the existence of band gaps and the behaviour of electrons in semiconductors is very well known to solid state physicists. Doped semiconductors have free electrons or holes at energy levels in the band gap. Transistors depend on it. Computers would not exist were it not for this, and you would not be reading this, yet no-one has 'seen' an electron cross a band gap from the valence to the conduction band. We understand exactly how electrons behave in doped semiconductors by the influence that they have on other matter and on photons that we can observe. In fact, no-one has ever 'seen' an electron in any circumstance.

In the same way that the existence of electrons and their behaviour is inferred from the influence that electrons have on things that we can see and sense, the existence of dark matter is inferred from its influence on things that we can see and sense.  

Another example is the structure of DNA:  Watson and Crick inferred the double helix structure of DNA in 1953 from indirect evidence such as the X-ray diffraction pattern of the molecule. It was the first step in understanding the structure and function of the code of life on earth and molecular biology rests on the shoulders of these giants ( and of Rosalind Franklin). There have been literally tens of thousands of papers since published on these subjects. The fact that very little that was known in 1953 about DNA and the way it works, in no way diminishes the accuracy of Watson and Crick's observations. Similarly the fact that we do not, as yet, know the exact composition of all of dark matter and the way it works in no way diminishes the powerful evidence for its existence.  To pretend that it does diminish or invalidate it reveals a very basic misunderstanding about the process and role of science in general and of astrophysics in particular.  We cannot know everything at once. We don't have to know everything to have a high confidence in what we do know.

So let us see how we know that dark matter exists and how much there is in the universe.

The evidence for dark matter can be characterised as follows:

So, based on this evidence, we are absolutely justified in concluding that dark matter exists. The observations leave no room for other interpretations (hypothesised exotic phenomena such as non-Newtonian gravitation - for example MOND - fail terminally on other observations ). We can be quite sure that the universe contains a substantial contribution of non-baryonic dark matter (we have seen above how the density of baryonic or ordinary dark matter is derived) and the total density of gravitationally acting matter according to the measures above is about five times as much as the density of baryons. So there must be about five times as much non-baryonic dark matter as ordinary matter.

In the period before decoupling, non-baryonic dark matter was able to form gravitational fluctuations since, unlike baryons, it was not coupled to photons. Ordinary matter remained uniform until decoupling, at which point it was free to fall into the gravitational potential wells formed by the dark matter thus creating the seeds for the visible structure that we see today (51).

What is this non-baryonic dark matter? Well, at the moment we don't know. There is a number of candidates (several or all of which could well turn out to exist and some that we already know exist) including collisionless cold dark matter - CCDM, (a subset of which is weakly interacting massive particles or WIMPs), strongly self-interacting dark matter, warm dark matter, repulsive dark matter, self-annihilating dark matter, supermassive black holes, primordial black holes, etc.  The standard model works well with collisionless cold dark matter at predicting the largest scale structures in the universe including the biggest sheets of supergalaxies.  However it tends to overproduce structure at the scale of galaxies and below as well as predicting a rather sharp increase in density in the centre of halos of dwarf galaxies that is not observed.  So CCDM does not, on its own appear to be capable of explaining the detailed observations and so different models of dark matter are being developed.  More detailed observations of the cosmos, such as that which will become available from even more sophisticated satellite observatories, such as Planck, will help us to distinguish more accurately the nature of non-baryonic dark matter.  For example WMAP rules out a significant contribution from warm dark matter (11), since reionisation occurs early at z>10.

Since we now know of the existence of dark energy which seems to take the form of a cosmological constant Λ  (from observations of very distant SN1a supernovae (52) (53) (54) and from observations of the late Integrated Sachs-Wolfe effect in the CMB (45) ), we are able with the sum of baryons, non-baryonic dark matter and dark energy to obtain the critical mass-energy density required by the Big Bang model plus inflation, which is a flat geometry universe as observed. The density of dark energy is derived from the observed epoch at which the universe transitioned from being matter dominated to being Λ dominated. This happened about 2 billion years ago and we now live in a universe where the expansion is accelerating and will continue to accelerate exponentially as the influence of Λ, the dark energy, becomes more prominent and the matter density becomes less with expansion.  This leads us to the concordance model developed in the last four years that is accepted as an extremely good hypothesis by the vast majority of cosmologists and astrophysicists. Competing models cannot fit the detailed observations with anything like the precision offered by the concordance model.  Our confidence is boosted by the fact that parameters can be derived consistently in different ways. Also predictions, such as the age of the Universe, using entirely different methods converge on consistent values.

It is only since 1997 that Riess and Perlmutter announced that their survey of supernovae indicated accelerating expansion of the universe.  Type 1a supernovae are good standard candles, because they explode in the same way.  It is therefore straightforward to determine how far away they are and how fast they are moving.  To everyone's surprise, they found that the expansion was slower in the past and is accelerating now. This result has been confirmed by observations of the way the energy of photons arising immediately after decoupling is affected by falling into and climbing out of the gravitational wells of galaxies, as those wells become shallower during the time the photons are in their influence (the late Integrated Sachs-Wolfe effect).  An accelerating expansion for the universe can be explained by a dark energy or cosmological constant, Λ, which exerts an expanding pressure on the cosmos independent of expansion.  The strong constraint of the observed flat universe also requires this, since Ωm, the density of matter is insufficient to result in a closed universe.  As the universe becomes more Λ-dominated, its expansion will accelerate.

The concordance model now consists of three elements of mass-energy with densities measured by WMAP (10)

 So much for problem #4.

Suggested cosmological alternatives have serious problems

I have no commitment to the Big Bang model and if some hypothesis that better fits the evidence were to be put forward I would be happy to acknowledge it. The fact is that the Big Bang theory has its dominant position in the scientific community because it fits our observations very well and because the alternatives really do not fit, however interesting they might be.

De Quincey suggests two models that he claims are credible alternatives to the concordance (Big Bang) model.  These are Lerner's Plasma Cosmology (based on the work of Hannes Alfvén and others), and the Steady State model of Hoyle, Bondi and Gold in its updated form.

Alfvén, Gold, Bondi and Hoyle are extremely well respected scientists whose work we should take seriously.  They are not cranks. It might well be that some of the ideas they have generated will contribute to our understanding of the history of our cosmos. That would not make the Big Bang a modern 'myth' any more than these hypotheses are myths.  However, what is clear is that things are not looking good for them, which is why the Big Bang in its concordance form remains the dominant hypothesis.

1. Generic problems with infinite age infinite extent models

Let's start by pointing out that there is a serious problem with any hypothesis that postulates a static universe of infinite age and of infinite dimensions. The entire sky in a such a universe would appear as bright as the surface of the sun appears to us since there would be an infinite number of observable stars covering the entire sky.  This is known as Olbers' paradox and was formulated by Heinrich Olbers in 1823.  But we know that the night sky is dark.  Olbers' paradox is, of course, no longer a paradox, having been resolved by the knowledge that the universe has a finite age (putting a strict finite limit on the volume of the universe and the number of stars that we can observe) and by the expansion of space time which stretches out and reduces the energy of light waves from distant sources in proportion to their distance, and which puts a finite limit to the observable extent of the universe. Nevertheless, Olbers' paradox remains an insurmountable problem for steady state hypotheses.

2. Problems with Lerner's plasma universe

Lerner bases his plasma theory on work previously conducted by Alfvén, Peratt and others.  The basic hypothesis is described accurately and simply in de Quincey's essay as follows: 'Many billions of years ago the small corner of the infinite universe that we can observe started to contract, under the influence of its own gravity. When it was about a tenth its present size, matter and antimatter started to mix, annihilating each other and generating huge quantities of energetic electrons and positrons. Trapped in magnetic fields, these particles drove the plasma apart over hundreds of millions of years. The explosions were small enough not to disrupt previously formed filaments of plasma, so these far more ancient objects still exist today, in expanded form—just as designs printed on a balloon persist while it is inflated. . . . But this was in no way a Big Bang that created matter, space, and time. It was just a big bang, an explosion in one par [sic] of the universe (Lerner, 1991, p. 52)'

What's wrong with this?  Well, it simply doesn't work. As Ned Wright, Professor of Astronomy at UCLA, and science editor of the Astrophysical Journal points out (55): 'What causes the reversal from collapse to re-expansion? Lerner claims that it is the pressure caused by the annihilation of matter and antimatter during the collapse....But only pressure differences cause forces. A pressure gradient is needed to generate an acceleration. In the case of a large region of collapse, which is needed to match the observations, a larger acceleration requires a larger pressure gradient, and this gradient exists over a larger distance, leading to a greatly increased pressure.

But in relativity pressure has "weight" and causes stronger gravitational attraction. This can be seen using work W = PdV, so the pressure is similar to an energy density. Then through E = mc2, this energy density is similar to a mass density. If the collapsing region is big enough to match the observations, then the pressure must be so large that a black hole forms and the region does not re-expand. Peebles discusses this problem with the plasma cosmology in his book "Principles of Physical Cosmology" '. (56)

So Lerner's cosmology cannot explain the observed Hubble redshift.

Here are some other problems with Lerner's plasma cosmology:

a) It does not explain the cosmic microwave background.

Lerner claims that the CMB arises from the supernovae of massive stars. But the CMB is the most perfect black body spectrum ever measured and its temperature is isotropic to one part in 10,000.  Although the thickness of the decoupling surface is finite (so that photons in the CMB became free to stream across the universe at different times and therefore at different temperatures), the red-shift at the specific time of decoupling exactly compensates for this so that the CMB appears to arise from a body at a single temperature. If the CMB originated in supernovae, as Lerner claims, we should expect to see much greater anisotropy and a much poorer fit to the black body spectrum.  Supernovae are not isothermal and so cannot produce a black body spectrum. Lerner claims that the isotropy and the black body spectrum of the CMB can be explained by absorption of the primary radiation by interstellar dust and re-emission.  But there is absolutely no evidence for this absorbing curtain.  Observations of the intensity of extended radio sources as a function of distance fail to produce any evidence for the existence of the absorbing material.  

Furthermore the final data from the FIRAS (Far-Infrared Absolute Spectrophotometer) instrument on board COBE (56) (57) show that Lerner's attempt to create a model for the deviations from black body simply fail to match the data.

And it certainly cannot explain the power spectrum of the anisotropy, with the first peak at l=220, which supports the model that predicted it several years prior to it being measured.

b) It does not explain the abundance of light elements

Lerner's idea is that helium is made in the same massive stars that eventually go supernova (and create the CMB in his model). The 24% observed abundance of helium can be explained this way, except that stars that make helium also make metals in amounts that are simply not observed in old stars. What is even more damning is that stars do not make deuterium and lithium (see (58), for example: 'We conclude that the observed Galactic Centre deuterium is cosmological, with an abundance reduced by stellar processing and mixing, and that there is no significant Galactic source of deuterium'.)  All lithium however does not originate in the Big Bang, some being made in the intergalactic space in the current epoch, making it a poorer measure for determining the density of baryons (59).

c) A credible model that predicts significant effects of electromagnetism at cosmic scales is lacking

Simply put, gravity is the only force which has sufficient influence over sufficiently long scales (up to 300 MPc) to influence the formation and maintenance of superclusters.

3. Problems with the Steady State model

A major problem with the steady state model is that there are fewer weak radio sources per unit volume near to us compared with far away. This contradicts the Steady State model (60)

A second major problem is the existence of quasars. Quasars are only seen at great distances (and thus greatly distant times).  They are never local and so the universe is not uniform but very different in the past and this also contradicts the Steady State theory.

But the death knell for the Steady State theory was the discovery of the CMB by Penzias and Wilson, which cannot be explained by the Steady State hypothesis. The universe is currently neither isothermal nor opaque so it cannot produce the perfect black body of the CMB.  Finally in measuring the temperature of the CMB in the past, by looking at the absorption spectra of quasars by neutral carbon atoms close by and at z up to 3 (84), we find that the CMB temperature (currently 2.7°K) increases in the past, so that at z=3 the temperature of the CMB was about 10°K as predicted by the Big Bang model (TCMB=T0(1+z) )  The Steady State model cannot explain the CMB, but if it could, the temperature of the CMB would be constant at 2.7°K and would not increase with increasing z as observed.  These observations completely reject the Steady State hypothesis.

These are the reasons it was abandoned. They are good scientific reasons and there is no irrational attachment to Big Bang here.  Unfortunately for de Quincey's thesis, the Steady State just doesn't stand up to the evidence.

4.  Problems with the Quasi-steady state theory

The Quasi-steady State hypothesis (QSSC) is an attempt by Hoyle, Burbridge and Narlikar to explain the change in the CMB temperature and the excess of old radio sources.  The hypothesis postulates a pulsing universe which is superimposed on an exponential change in the scale factor (not very steady state is it?) . Unfortunately for the hypothesis it predicts blue-shifted faint radio sources.  No blue shifted faint radio sources have ever been observed - they just don't exist.

Furthermore  the QSSC predicts a universe with decelerating expansion but as we now know the expansion of the universe is accelerating (52) (54).

And as was the case with the plasma universe and the Steady State model, the CMB itself and the structure of the anisotropy cannot be explained.

So, like the plasma universe hypothesis, the Steady State hypothesis in all it manifestations simply fails to fit the evidence. That is why it (and the plasma universe) are rejected by the scientific community.  This is in direct contradiction de Quincey's claim that the Big Bang hypothesis is preferred dogmatically. In fact, it is preferred because it fits the evidence and the alternatives he presents simply do not.

The de Quincey essay contains logical fallacies

The de Quincey essay contains logical fallacies and other errors

As de Quincey develops his overall thesis, he puts forward arguments which are logically fallacious.  His overall thrust or argument is fallacious, as are many of the supporting arguments that he makes throughout the essay.  It is not difficult to identify these fallacies as several of them are blatant.  So what are they?

1         His overall argument relies on 'begging the question'

In the first paragraph of his essay, de Quincey refers to the Big Bang hypothesis as a ‘myth’ and consistently does so throughout the essay.  He does so without justification. In fact he relies on this characterisation as his argument develops. So in assuming his conclusion in his premises, he is indulging in the common logical fallacy of begging the question – this can be a powerful rhetorical device but it is unworthy of an intellectual argument that is designed to persuade through force of evidence and logic.

2         His overall argument fails because it relies on a false premise

His overall argument can be simply summarised as follows:

This argument is fallacious because it relies on a false second premise.  For as we have seen, the fact is that the observational data overwhelmingly support the Big Bang hypothesis in its concordance form, the alternatives actually have far greater problems in explaining what we observe and have been rejected for that reason, and that those conclusions are based on vast quantities of data and research conducted over the last ten to fifteen years (and not because cosmologists have a vested interest in supporting the concordance model).

Myths are stories that are arbitrary – stories that a community finds comforting, or in some way life-enhancing.  De Quincey himself promotes a myth about consciousness permeating all levels of matter (panpsychism) that I assume he finds comforting.  It is a myth because it is an arbitrary and untestable idea that is unsupported by any kind of evidence.  But neither the Big Bang hypothesis, nor, in fact, its scientific rivals, are arbitrary or untestable.  They can be and have been tested, they make predictions and they fall firmly within the framework of modern science.  Scientific hypotheses have enormously higher value in explaining the natural world than do the arbitrary stories of myth and superstition. By all measures, as we have seen above, the Big Bang hypothesis is well supported by observation and data and cannot logically be characterised as a myth.

This is not to claim, of course, absolute truth for the Big Bang hypothesis (or indeed for any scientific hypothesis).  It might well be that at some time in the future, as more data about the Universe becomes available, a different and better hypothesis will emerge that better fits the data.  This is the way science works.  The fact is that the concordance model is the best hypothesis that we have at the moment.  It is a model in which we are gaining more confidence as we accumulate data and as we are able to cross check predictions in a number of different ways.  It is not a myth.

3         He argues for rejection of Big Bang for philosophical reasons

His argument can be summarised as follows:

The logical fallacy here is that de Quincey makes an assumption or an assertion in the first premise that is false. He assumes that philosophical and scientific considerations carry equal weight as we seek to determine the cosmological origins of the natural universe.  But this is a false assertion.  Philosophy and science are not equivalent ways of viewing the natural universe and they do not carry equal weight when it comes to determining the way the universe works.  Modern science has been successful in unraveling the way the universe works.  Philosophy, on the other hand, has little or nothing of value to say about the natural universe and natural processes.  Science is based on observations of the external objective universe and results in clear and measurable increases in knowledge.  Philosophical ideas, in contrast, arise from inward contemplation and contribute little directly to our knowledge of the natural world.

If the scientific evidence supports an idea that any person finds unsatisfactory or distasteful from a philosophical point of view, history tells us that we should back the science.  For example, Ptolemaic geo-centrism, based on a philosophical idea, was challenged, ultimately successfully, by Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler using observations and the scientific method.  Darwin successfully challenged the concept of immutability of the species in the face of considerable philosophical opposition from those who found the concept of common descent, particularly with regard to the origins of the human species, unsatisfactory.  Quantum physics, especially in concepts such as the Uncertainty Principle, tunnelling, entanglement and the superposition of states has had its fair share of philosophical opposition.  In all cases, the science emerges triumphant, because it can be rationally and objectively tested.

In the same vein, some people object to the Big Bang hypothesis because it describes a closed universe and an ultimate end in Big Crunch or heat death.  Well, it now seems certain that the expansion of the Universe is accelerating, that the expansion will continue to accelerate and end in heat death or a Big Rip.  That’s just the way it is, and all the distaste and philosophical angst focused on this scenario will not change the facts.  Desiring that something should be so, does not make it so.  The philosophical objections to the common descent of man and chimpanzee have evaporated in the light of overwhelming evidence.  Similarly the philosophical objections to the end-game of the Big Bang are entirely irrelevant when we are considering what the truth is.  Frankly, scientists should ignore these philosophical considerations  And they do.  Their job is to determine the way the universe actually works, uninfluenced, so far as they can be, by philosophical, religious or political considerations.

4         He argues that the evidence is indirect and hence unreliable

This argument can be summarised as follows:

de Quincey uses the example of gravitational lensing to illustrate this, writing: ‘For example, in 1919 Arthur Eddington (1882-1944) confirmed Einstein's prediction that light, passing a massive body such as a star, would bend due to the gravitational warping of spacetime. Of course, no-one actually saw the spacetime warp. All that was seen was a light source which deviated from where it should have been had the geometry of space followed Euclidean dimensions as Newton had assumed. The “observation” derived its persuasiveness from rigorous mathematical abstractions, not from direct empirical evidence'  This statement is misleading - observations of gravitational lensing do not persuade because of mathematical abstractions but because of direct observation of this effect.  We can conclude with as much certainty that light in transit from distant galaxies is being affected by the gravitational field of closer masses, as we can conclude that light is refracted by transparent lenses in the laboratory.  What is more, the effects we observe can be used to infer significant information about the cosmos.

I am going to treat this in some detail, as an illustration of how de Quincey's lack of in-depth knowledge of science leads him to dismiss the relevance and persuasive force that comes from observations of a phenomenon such as gravitational lensing. He seems to be labouring under the bizarre misapprehension that for something to be directly observed it must be seen like a beach ball in front of us, emitting, absorbing or reflecting photons in the visible.  He rejects the notion that an object observed by other physical effects can be said to be directly observed.  Of course, he is wrong in this, but the most absurd aspect of his statement about Eddington's observations is that he rejects the notion that an object can be directly observed by refracting or bending the path of photons.  So, in his mind, emission, absorption or reflection of photons constitutes direct observation, but light bending does not.  This is just silly.  Furthermore, he claims that Eddington simply "observed" [his quotes] that the light source deviated from the position that it would have occupied in a Euclidean space (actually forgetting the time element introduced by Einstein between 1911 and 1916 in the full deflection prediction of General Relativity) - of course Eddington did no such thing because there is no way of telling where that would have been - what Eddington observed was a change of position of stellar objects when the light from them passed close to the sun compared with when it did not.  (Eddington, by the way confirmed Einstein's full deflection prediction of 1916 rather than the earlier half-deflection prediction of 1911)

The observations of gravitational lensing are very detailed and include observations of variations in deflection as a result of parallax as the earth orbits the sun, multiple images of quasars, Einstein rings, arcs on the caustic of deflection, distortions and convergences of the star-field (cosmic shear and cosmic magnification) and different delays in the light curves of multiple images and different intensities in those images. Wambsganss presents an excellent overview of gravitational lensing (61).  The literature is extensive with more than 2,400 papers available in one bibliography (62). Here is some more detail on the different effects of gravitational lensing:

So de Quincey's odd statement that 'the “observation” derived its persuasiveness from rigorous mathematical abstractions, not from direct empirical evidence' can be seen to be absurd in the light of all this vast quantity of observational data. I have reviewed gravitational lensing in some detail, because de Quincey used that as his main example, presumably because he felt that it best made his case.  We could do the same for black holes, dark matter and other phenomena that he would like to suggest are 'indirect' and thus poor evidence for the standard cosmological view.

5   He argues that scientists are modern shamans

He writes:

'First of all, even the mere knowledge of the existence of such entities as dark matter, black holes, and cosmic strings, requires an initiation into the "priesthood” of mathematical physics. Modern physicists and cosmologists must undergo years of disciplined training in how to look (through electron-microscopes and astronomical telescopes), and how to manipulate mathematical hieroglyphics. This is not so very different from the years of training and discipline that ancient shamans and priests had to endure to learn to “see” supernatural events, and to manipulate ritualistic symbols and hieroglyphics.'

His argument goes thus:

De Quincey indulges in several fallacies. He starts off with a weak analogy comparing shamans and scientists. In fact, scientists and shamans differ vastly in far more respects than they are similar. Scientists undergo years of education because science is a complex and difficult subject that repays study and hard work. There is a considerable amount to learn before one can begin to build on the foundation.  The shaman undergoes years of study because - well, who knows why - it is certainly not to acquire anything that we would recognise as 'knowledge'.  Science is rational, acultural, international, and practised by those of all religions and beliefs. It is self-correcting and focuses on external observation,  objectivity and predictability . Shamanism is arbitrary, culturally specific, local, and, for a particular set of beliefs, practised only by those of a single religious persuasion.  There is no mechanism for correction, and it focuses on internal interpretation, subjectivity and fortune telling.  Science illuminates.  Shamanism obfuscates. Science has an unsurpassed track record in revealing knowledge about the natural universe. Shamanism has failed to reveal any knowledge about the natural universe, being based on superstition and myth.  Its beliefs are often bizarre and wrong-headed particularly in its failed attempts to explain natural phenomena.

In almost every important respect, science and shamanism are dissimilar.

But we are not done. Having woven a weak analogy, he proceeds to serve up the fallacy of 'poisoning the well'.  In order to persuade his readers not to consider the views of scientists in support of the concordance, he tries to equate the methods of science with that of shamans. He draws a parallel between the ritualistic symbols and hieroglyphics of the priestly caste and what he calls mathematical hieroglyphics. Anyone who doubts the value and veracity of superstition and is suspicious of the assumed authority of priests is invited to apply analogous views to modern cosmology.  He uses the undoubted fact that thinking people should rightly be wary of bell, book and candle, of magic and superstition, to tar the science of cosmology with the same brush. But again his analogy is too strained to be valid.  The symbols and hieroglyphs of the priests are designed to mystify, confuse and overawe, and deliberately to cloud understanding. Their meaning, such as it is, is kept under a veil of great secrecy and communicated only to the initiated. Mathematical symbols, on the other hand (not hieroglyphs as de Quincey would have it - his attitude to mathematics is rather telling) form part of the language of mathematics.  Since physics is a mathematical science, its principles can best be communicated in mathematical expressions.  The language of mathematics, unlike shamanistic symbolism, is open to anyone who is willing to make the effort to learn it.  It is a universal language that is used to communicate.  I have previously encountered the view in the mouths of the ignorant and the lazy that the mathematical treatment of scientific concepts is designed to confuse the laity - but I have never before this occasion heard it expressed by someone who is an academic and a university teacher.

Next, he produces a non-sequitur: 'And to the extent that modern cosmology is remote from laypeople, it ceases to have any felt meaning...The current cosmological story based on the hypothesis of the Big Bang may fall short both as science and as story—failing to provide coherent understanding compatible with observation or to provide satisfactory meaning'. (We have already dealt with the erroneous challenge to Big Bang as science, so we'll set that aside).  In other words, he claims that the Big Bang cosmology has no value as an explanation of origins because it is not understood by laypeople. This is a non sequitur - the conclusion doesn't follow the antecedents.  Scientific explanations do not rely on the understanding of non-scientists for their veracity, meaning and value. Contemporary discoveries and hypotheses now and in the past have often failed to be understood by the vast majority of people. Scientific knowledge has often been misinterpreted or partly understood (de Quincey's essay itself is shot through with just such partial understanding of the science).  None of this affects the veracity, value or meaning of scientific ideas in the slightest. It does not matter, with regard to these considerations, whether a scientific concept is understood by the layperson or not.  The value and meaning of a scientific idea is not determined by whether de Quincey or his students or his tailor or his washerwoman can understand it.  It is not even determined by whether a scientist trained in another field can understand it - it is determined solely by whether it matches the evidence and makes good predictions.  His non-sequitur does even support his main thesis - that the Big Bang cosmology in particular is flawed - because all modern cosmological hypotheses, including the ones he enthusiastically promotes are the same in this respect.  If we were to accept his illogic, we would have to reject all scientific cosmological hypotheses, which, of course, is nonsense. Fortunately, there is no need to contemplate that.

What is science for?

Some commentators appear to believe that it is the purpose of science to provide a story which uplifts them  They are disturbed by the idea that the universe might one day become a place where life, intelligence and consciousness cannot survive.  They seem to need to believe in an eternal universe (perhaps even one which becomes steadily more complex and organised).  They berate scientific thinking for putting forward a 'mechanistic' perspective on natural processes, on the stochastic character of cosmological and biological evolution.  They go so far as to imply that we should give credence to cosmological concepts to the extent that they satisfy the need for 'felt meaning'.

This is not the purpose of science.  It is not the object of science to tell comforting stories, to create hypotheses which fit some pre-conceived empirically empty idea that 'there is something other than an "accidental collocation of atoms" at work in the universe'. Scientists strive to uncover how the universe and things in it work.  In doing so, they should leave their philosophical, religious, social and political prejudices at the door, and they should let the evidence take them where it will.  They should be unmoved by the protestation of critics and observers who object to their conclusions on anything other than scientific grounds. History is strewn with examples of failed challenges to scientific thought based on peripheral arguments. Science has the overwhelming advantage of being externally and objectively verifiable.  Non-scientific fads come and go, but the truth about natural laws and processes survives.

The time when the universe is unable to sustain complexity and consciousness is likely to be billions of years (perhaps thousands of billions of years) in the future.  It seems inconceivable that one's spirit could be damaged by contemplating such a remote event when one's personal death is a mere handful of years away -  the briefest instant in cosmological time.  We humans have, for at least 50,000 years, had to come to terms with our own death. Adults face the prospect with more or less equanimity, more or less fear.  Similarly, adults are going to have to come to terms with the ultimate (but very distant) demise of the universe as a place fit for intelligence, and it seems to me a far easier task than facing my own death.


So we have seen that, far from being a modern myth, the Big Bang is a good scientific hypothesis, well supported by data. Whether it survives and how it develops will depend on findings from the vast number of astronomical observations and surveys, satellites and balloons, telescopes and bolometers.  But in any case, it has none of the characteristics of myth.  Dr de Quincey has produced an essay that is fundamentally flawed, scientifically, factually and logically.  

In his conclusion de Quincey suggests: 'Anyone interested in pursuing further either aspect of the controversy—scientific or philosophical—should go to the sources mentioned at the beginning of this essay. For the scientific argument, read Lerner’s The Big Bang Never Happened, and for the philosophical context, read Mendoza’s The Acentric Labyrinth. Each book presents a superb historical context for its respective subject matter.'  

The Lerner book, at least, is quirky and badly flawed. Anyone who is really interested in understanding the science needs to read much more widely than that. Hawking's 'A Brief History of Time' and Adams' and Laughlin's 'The Five Ages of the Universe' are good introductions to cosmology. Also try this: 'The Accelerating Universe: Infinite Expansion, The Cosmological Constant, And The Beauty Of The Cosmos', Mario Livio and Allan Sandage, John Wiley & Sons, 2000. On-line, NASA has a good website here: http://map.gsfc.nasa.gov/m_uni.html . Try, also, the Hubble Space Telescope website that has some marvellous photographs: http://hubblesite.org/ .

Finally I refer the reader to the references and resources below, which is a far richer, more recent and better researched set than simply reading and being misled by Eric Lerner's book.

 1. Dr Christian de Quincey's personal website homepage:


 2. Big Bang: A modern myth? by C de Quincey. Essay can be found at:


 3. The Acentric Labyrinth: Giordano Bruno's Prelude to Contemporary Cosmology; Ramon G Mendoza; Harper-Collins; 1995; ASIN: 1852306408

 4.  The Big Bang never happened; Eric J Lerner; Vintage Books; 1992 (paperback edition); ISBN: 067974049X

 5.  Mather et al, A Preliminary Measurement of the Cosmic Microwave Background Spectrum by the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) Satellite, Astrophysical Journal 354, L37 (1991): On-line here

 6.  Mather et al, Early Results from the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE), Advances Space Research 11, 181, (1991): Abstract on line here

 7. Smoot et al, Preliminary Results From The Cobe Differential Microwave Radiometers: Large-angular-scale Isotropy Of The Cosmic Microwave Background, Astrophysical Journal 371, L1, (1991): On-line here

 8.  Smoot et al, Structure In The Cobe Differential Microwave Radiometer First-year Maps, Astrophysical Journal 396, L1, (1992), On-line here

 9.  Wright et al, Interpretation Of The CMB Anisotropy Detected By The Cobe DMR, Astrophysical Journal 396, L13, (1992);  On-line here

 10. Bennett et al, First Year Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe(WMAP) Observations: Preliminary Maps and Basic Results, accepted by the Astrophysical Journal, available on line here:


11. Spergel et al, First Year Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) Observations: Determination of Cosmological Parameters, accepted by the Astrophysical Journal, available on line here:


 12. Komatsu et al, First Year Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) Observations: Tests of Gaussianity, accepted by the Astrophysical Journal, available on line here:


 13. Website posting available here:


 14. Guth, Phys Rev D 23, 347 (1981)

 15. Linde, Phys  Lett, B108, 389 (1982)

 16. S Hawking, Phys Lett, B115, 295, (1982)

 17. Peiris et al, First Year Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe(WMAP) Observations: Implications For Inflation, accepted by the Astrophysical Journal, available on-line here:


 18. Seife, With its Ingredients MAPped, Universe's Recipe Beckons, Science 300, 730 -731

 19. Peebles, App JLett 263, L1 (1982)

 20. Peebles, P. J. E. The Large-Scale Structure of the Universe (Princeton Univ. Press, (1980)).

 21. Hinshaw et al, First Year Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) Observations: The Angular Power Spectrum Peaks, accepted by the Astrophysical Journal, available on-line here:


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56. Problems with Lerner's cosmology:


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68. Photographs of a range of multiple images produced by gravitational lensing is available on-line here:


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70.  A popular explanation of Einstein rings is available here:


71. Go here for mpegs of how rings develop based on spherical and elliptical lens masses:


72.  For a further catalogue of multiple images, go here:


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78. Here is the  website for the OGLE microlens experiment:


79. Here is real time updated information on microlensing transit events in the bulge, from OGLE III:


80. Here is a website on the MACHO microlens project:


81. Here is a website with summary information on microlensing


82. Mao S, Gravitational Microlensing: Past, Present and Future, Invited review for "Gravitational Lensing: Recent Progress and Future Goals", Boston University, July 1999, ed. T.G. Brainerd and C.S. Kochanek, available on-line here:


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87. Tegmark et al, Cosmological parameters from SDSS and WMAP, submitted to ApJ, (2003) available on line here:



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Version of 10th November 2003


Original version 4th October 2003

Modified 9th October 2003 to include a reference to Luminet et al's dodecahedral universe hypothesis

Modified 10th November 2003, to include references to Tegmark et al's work on the cosmological implications of SDSS measurements

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