Why the Big Bang is Wrong…

I suspect that I’m not the only physicist who has a filing cabinet filled with unsolicited correspondence from people with wacky views on everything from UFOs to Dark Matter. Being a cosmologist, I probably get more of this stuff than those working in less speculative branches of physics. Because I’ve written a few things that appeared in the public domain (and even appeared on TV and radio a few times), I probably even get more than most cosmologists (except the really  famous ones of course).

I would estimate that I get two or three items of correspondence of this kind per week. Many “alternative” cosmologists have now discovered email, but there are still a lot who send their ideas through regular post. In fact, whenever I get a envelope with an address on it that has been typed by an old-fashioned typewriter it’s usually a dead giveaway that it’s going to be one of  those. Sometimes they are just letters (typed or handwritten), but sometimes they are complete manuscripts often with wonderfully batty illustrations. I have one in front of me now called Dark Matter, The Great Pyramid and the Theory of Crystal Healing. I might even go so far as to call that one bogus. I have an entire filing cabinet in my office at work filled with things like it. I could make a fortune if I set up a journal for these people. Alarmingly, electrical engineers figure prominently in my files. They seem particularly keen to explain why Einstein was wrong…

I never reply, of course. I don’t have time, for one thing.  I’m also doubtful whether there’s anything useful to be gained by trying to engage in a scientific argument with people whose grip on the basic concepts is so tenuous (as perhaps it is on reality). Even if they have some scientific training, their knowledge and understanding of physics is usually pretty poor.

I should explain that, whenever I can, if someone writes or emails with a genuine question about physics or astronomy – which often happens – I always reply. I think that’s a responsibility for anyone who gets taxpayers’ money. However, I don’t reply to letters that are confrontational or aggressive or which imply that modern science is some sort of conspiracy to conceal the real truth.

One particular correspondent started writing to me after the publication of my little book, Cosmology: A Very Short Introduction. I won’t gave his name, but he was an individual who had some scientific training (not an electrical engineer, I hasten to add). This chap sent a terse letter to me pointing out that the Big Bang theory was obviously completely wrong.  The reason was  obvious to anyone who understood thermodynamics. He had spent a lifetime designing high-quality refrigeration equipment  and therefore knew what he was talking about (or so he said).

His point was that, according to  the Big Bang theory, the Universe cools as it expands. Its current temperature is about 3 Kelvin (-270 Celsius or therabouts) but it is now expanding. Turning the clock back gives a Universe that was hotter when it was younger. He thought this was all wrong.

The argument is false, my correspondent asserted, because the Universe – by definition –  hasn’t got any surroundings and therefore isn’t expanding into anything. Since it isn’t pushing against anything it can’t do any work. The internal energy of the gas must therefore remain constant and since the internal energy of an ideal gas is only a function of its temperature, the expansion of the Universe must therefore be at a constant temperature (i.e. isothermal, rather than adiabatic, as in the Big Bang theory). He backed up his argument with bona fide experimental results on the free expansion of gases.

I didn’t reply and filed the letter away. Another came, and I did likewise. Increasingly overcome by some form of apoplexy his letters got ruder and ruder, eventually blaming me for the decline of the British education system and demanding that I be fired from my job. Finally, he wrote to the President of the Royal Society demanding that I be “struck off” – not that I’ve ever been “struck on” – and forbidden (on grounds of incompetence) ever to teach thermodynamics in a University.

Actually, I’ve never taught thermodynamics in any University anyway, but I’ve kept the letter (which was cc-ed to me) in case I am ever asked. It’s much better than a sick note….

This is a good example of a little knowledge being a dangerous thing. My correspondent clearly knew something about thermodynamics. But, obviously, I don’t agree with him that the Big Bang is wrong.

Although I never actually replied to this question myself, I thought it might be fun to turn this into a little competition, so here’s a challenge for you: provide the clearest and most succint explanation of why the temperature of the expanding Universe does fall with time, despite what my correspondent thought.

Answers via the comment box please, in language suitable for a nutter non-physicist.

23 Responses to “Why the Big Bang is Wrong…”

  1. Chris Crowe Says:

    Because Maxwell’s Demon made it that way.

  2. Anton Garrett Says:

    A long time ago I was closely involved with the Skeptics in Britain – the UK version of CSICOP (Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal) in the USA. As a physicist rather than a psychologist I didn’t get involved in the ghostbusting side of it, but rather with the defence of mainstream science in the face of claims of the sort you describe. Since then I have changed from being secular to a Bible-believer and take a different view of ghostbusting (although some mediums can be explained by subconscious cold-reading and Houdini found that a minority were outright tricksters). But I still support the defence and advocacy of science against fringe claims, although I have lost interest in doing it myself. One man whom I let into my office with a perpetual motion proposal had a very good intuitive grasp of Newton’s third law, but his design for a machine was so complicated that it was very hard to see where the fallacy was. When I told him that if he agreed with Newton’s third law in gravitational systems (which he did) then a consequence of it was conservation of energy (as a first integral), so that he had to be wrong, he would not accept it and wanted to know what was wrong with *his* machine. At that stage I told him that (a) I welcomed his interest in physics and suggested he take a formal course; (b) he would be welcome back when he’d built it and got it to work. He’d travelled more than halfway up the country to see me, and I hope he took up proposal (a).

    Engineers gain, as part of their job, a more highly developed intuition about Newtonian mechanics than physicists. That is why they tend to be anti-relativity – and also have cleverer arguments against it than laymen. Many of them are simply using their intuition to extrapolate into regions of parameter space where the laws they have learned do not in fact hold. They are reasoning rationally and are often open to correction. (They are often retired because that is when they gain the time for this sort of thing.) If you tell them it is a observed fact that velocities do not add up linearly, and ask whether they had taken that into account, you stand a good chance of educating them that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in their philosophy.


  3. telescoper Says:


    Not surprisingly, perpetual motion machines also appear to be a preoccupation with people who write these letters.

    I think you’re right that many are reasoning on the basis of higher-level laws that have often been learned empirically but which work well in their domain of applicability (i.e. where some parameters are fixed). The error is to assume that these are literally universal. There might be a lesson in this for physicists that close their minds to the possibility that even those laws we consider to be fundamental may also be approximations, valid only in certain situations


    P.S. Did you spot the flaw in the argument about the temperature staying constant?

  4. Anton Garrett Says:

    Energy is conserved, so as the volume of the universe increases the energy density decreases, and temperature is a measure of energy density.

  5. telescoper Says:

    let me put it a different way. For a fixed number of atoms, the temperature is essentially just PV where P is the pressure and V the volume. In a free expansion energy is conserved so PV is constant. As V goes up P goes down in such a way that T is constant. Why doesn’t this happen in the Big Bang?

  6. Anton Garrett Says:

    Equation of state is different for photons and atoms.

  7. In expanding you are doing work against gravity. This converts kinetic energy into potential energy and cools down the universe.

  8. telescoper Says:

    Bingo! The main thing that’s missing in the case of a fridge is that you can neglect the self-gravity of the contents.

    Anton: the equation of state is different for photons and atoms, so they cool at diferent rates but they do both cool.

  9. Rhodri Evans Says:

    I seem to remember a very clear explanation of why the Universe cools as it expands in Weinberg’s “First 3 minutes”, but I may be mis-remembering…

    • telescoper Says:

      I don’t remember that but there’s a very clear explanation of most things in that book so you could be right!

      There’s a related question that I sometimes get asked after popular talks, which is to do with photon redshift. The question is when a photon is redshifted by the expansion of the Universe, it clearly loses energy: where does the energy go?

  10. Thomas D Says:

    Into (the curvature of) empty spacetime I guess. Which is another way to say gravity.

    This reminds me of the book I picked up at a junk shop – ‘The Final Theory’ by an author whose name escapes me. It’s on the level of considering the existence of fridge magnets and the stability of planetary orbits to be a violation of the conventional laws of physics – because they need a continuous supply of energy from to stay up. The solution he gives is that everything, including electrons and atoms, is expanding at a rate proportional to its size.

    Alas, I put it in the 3rd floor tearoom for entertainment purposes and within a few days it had been abducted. Should be possible to find a cheap second-hand copy very easily, as it was a best-seller a few years ago.

  11. hey, it’s simple. Think of the stars as electric heaters and the universe is the room. In the beginning, the room was very small and contained millions of electric heaters. Very hot! As the room expanded, the heaters, which were bolted to the floor of the room, moved with the ever expanding carpet. As the heaters moved further apart, the heat in the room fell to an acceptable enough level that humans appeared. However, as the expansion continued, the light from the glowing heaters also dimmed in the vastness of the room and the humans began to bump into other things that were too dim to see in the feeble light of expansion. They said “ouch”, “what’s the matter?”, “I stubbed my toe on something”, “must be dark matter then”!

  12. John Peacock Says:

    This “free expansion is isothermal” argument is a nice apparent paradox. I don’t think the answer has anything to do with gravity, but with reversibility. The expansion of the cosmic fluid is, to a good approximation, reversible and adiabatic, whereas free expansion is strongly irreversible. The argument for this is isotropy: there can’t be an entropy flow in any given direction, so isotropic expansion must be adiabatic. This argument fails if there is an outside to the fluid – i.e. a vacuum into which free expansion can take place. But no such outside exists for cosmology.

  13. Like with everything else, there is a good discussion of “where does the energy go during the expansion of the universe” in Edward Harrison’s excellent textbook COSMOLOGY: THE SCIENCE OF THE UNIVERSE.

  14. Bryn Jones Says:

    Letters containing strange theories that were sent to the University of London Observatory used to be consigned to a box file in the observatory’s library labelled “Eccentric Communications”.

    Years ago the eccentric communications box contained a pamphlet entitled
    “Careers in Astronomy”.

    It must have seemed an appropriate place to file it. And that was probably a sensible decision.

  15. I would like to hear more compassion for those who question the accepted conventional wisdom. It is more often than not those exact people who make the big leaps in science because they chose to question the obvious.
    Whether or not the Big Bang is right is not the question. People should be encouraged to question things….not be made fools of.
    I believe that the Big Bang theory is wrong. I am a simple artist …so how could anyone place any value on my opinion. Experience is better than philosophy every time and my experience has taught me to trust Aucums Razor, the simplest explanation is the best. That is why I favor the idea that the universe is simply cycling through from an energy state to matter over and over again.
    The Big Bang does not match observation according to many cosmolgists. There always seems to be a need to invent “props” such as “Dark” matter to make the Big Bang theory work. It amazes me that people would hang onto a theory despite what is staring them in the face.

  16. The modern physicist’s theory of creation continually requires adjustment, which is never a healthy sign for any theory.
    The cornerstone of the big bang is the Michelson and Morley experiment of 1887 which proved by exhaustive experiment, that light travelled at the same speed through air irrespective of the direction or velocity of the source.
    There were many failed attempts to discredit this result. These largely took the form of arguments claiming that the measuring stick would also vary with the velocity of the light source or receiver and therefore corrupt the results. These objections eventually ran out of puff. Never the less the experiment was flawed in two ways.
    1) Firstly there should have been two conclusions:
    a) The aether doesn’t exist.
    b) What is there, be it real or virtual, does not affect the speed of light.
    Indeed it is option ‘b’ that is exciting many physicists today as they investigate virtual particles, antimatter, Casimir plates, etc. Some are working on theories which collapse space in front of spaceships and reinflate it behind them.
    The most damaging aspect of option ‘b’ to modern astro-physics is the possibly that space itself, if it has properties, could red-shift the wavelength of light rays on intergalactic journeys. Scholastic policing of Einstein’s absolute certitude in option ‘a’ has so far successfully obfuscated this possibility.
    2) The second flaw is that the experiment was only two dimensional.
    • Had M&M turned their table vertically they would have observed a variation in the interference pattern caused by the Earth’s pull on the light rays which moved in the horizontal plane.
    • Had they repeated the vertical experiment on a mountain they would have observed the interference to be less.
    They would then postulate that:
    a) The aether was present in some form which didn’t affect the speed of light.
    b) That its density decreases with distance from a mass, Therefore planets and stars are surrounded by an aether lens which bends light as it passes by.
    c) Since space, i.e. the aether, is denser in and about a mass than ambient space, masses would then sink towards one another just as heavy matter sinks to the core of magma planets, gas giants and stars.

    Signed:- Blake Taylor – author of ‘me-flow’ (www.yowahbooks.com)

  17. SAD Subasinghe Says:


    • please do not quote or write on borrowed intelligence. you have your own free mind & your developed intelligence to write what you sincerely & reasonably believe in. -sad subasinghe

      • Present Big Bang Theory is completely misleading, I believe. It is more of a Cause & Effect theory. Because of a seed, a tree is born. Because of tree, a seed is born. Big Bang also a similar product of a condition born of a previous condition and it goes on and on in infinity. -sad subasinghe

      • telescoper Says:

        I’ll write what I want to write, thank you very much.

  18. I say it’s likely wrong (The Big Bang Theory). My reasoning is that the universe is constant. Now what does this mean? It means that the universe (all which is) operates in a perfectly equally-facilitating manner among all the different energies and their actions within the universe (all supposedly non-energy existents actually correspond to and derive their physical identity from energy initializers [initial as in directing the complete functions of through its own identity]). Hereby, no expanding or retracting is possible within an entirely force-conflict-constant system. Rather, the universe is eternal.

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