9 September 2013 Comments Off on The Big Bang

The Big Bang

This was an early draft, addressed to a secular minded audience. It was not published by Express Tribune — they wanted to take out the references to the Quran. Later it was expanded and revised to address a Muslim audience, and published in the Intellect Magazine.

The Big Bang
Asad Zaman

Is there design in the creation of the universe, or did we come into being due to a cosmic accident? So much hinges on the answer that only ostriches would refuse to face it. If we were created by a random evolutionary process following a chance combination of atoms in a primordial soup, then our lives have no meaning. We live in a cold and callous universe, and all our struggles, passions, sacrifice, and devotion make no difference in the end. Contemplating the ultimate futility of all human effort, Bertrand Russell, one of the founding fathers of atheism as a philosophy, said that “only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.”

This is in stark contrast to a universe created by God, where the trees and the stars worship their Creator, and the sun and the moon follow exquisitely designed laws. Even an atom’s worth of good that we do will be rewarded, while evil will meet with either the Mercy or the Justice of God.

Scientists were as firmly committed to the idea of an eternal uncreated universe as believers were to the creation of the Universe by God. This being a theological dispute, neither side expected to find supporting empirical evidence for their beliefs. The emergence of convincing evidence for the creation of the universe from nothing was the most surprising discovery of the twentieth century.

Einstein’s celebrated theory of General Relativity led to the puzzling prediction that an eternal and static universe would collapse to nothingness under the forces of gravitation. To resolve this difficulty, Einstein posited a ‘cosmological constant,’ a force that opposes gravity and keeps the universe from collapsing. Russian physicist Alexander Friedmann and Belgian Georges Lemaître both independently discovered that if the universe was expanding, instead of being static, there would be no need for this arbitrary assumption, which had no empirical support. Einstein was so committed to the idea of a static and eternal universe that he publicly ridiculed both of these scientists, who were then ignored and forgotten.

Strong evidence for an expanding universe came from observations by astronomer Edwin Hubble that distant galaxies were racing away from us at higher speeds, in conflict with the idea of a static universe. Hubble’s Law not only showed that the universe was expanding, but also that it must have had an origin – a point in time at which it was created. Einstein was so surprised that he visited Hubble at Mt. Wilson observatory, and looked for himself before admitting his mistake. He later stated that the “cosmological constant” had been the biggest blunder of his career.

Other scientists were not so easily converted. British scientist Fred Hoyle fanatically strove to develop models of an eternal and static universe consistent with the empirical evidence. He labeled the alternative theories as ‘irrational and unscientific,’ saying that the  idea that the universe originated in a “Big Bang” was ridiculous. It is ironic that his term of ridicule went on to become the accepted name of this theory. Scientists strongly resisted the big bang because it creates uncomfortable questions about who created the expanding universe. The Quran answers this question clearly: “And it is We who created the universe with [Our] power; and, verily, it is We who are steadily expanding it.”

In the meantime, evidence in favor of the Big Bang continued to accumulate. George Gamow had calculated that an explosion which created the universe would leave its marks in the form of a detectible and pervasive microwave radiation. When this radiation was eventually discovered, New York Times published the news in 1965 as the discovery of the century. A satellite launched in 1989 brought in even more convincing evidence. There were variations in this microwave radiation, exactly as predicted by the Big Bang model of the universe’s origin. The famous physicist Stephen Hawking praised it as “the greatest discovery of the century, if not of all time.”

At this time, the universally accepted cosmological model posits the existence of a void – no matter, no light, no energy, no space-time continuum, nothing at all. Suddenly, from nowhere, in an explosion emanating from a single point, the entire universe, together with space, time, and the laws of physics came into existence. Why? Scientists don’t have a clue. Islam, on the other hand, provides an answer: “God said Be, and It is.”

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