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History of The Big Bang Theory

The Big Bang theory developed from observations and theoretical considerations. Observationally, in the 1910s, Vesto Slipher and later Carl Wilhelm Wirtz determined that most spiral nebulae were receding from Earth, but they weren't aware of the cosmological implications, nor that the supposed nebulae were actually galaxies outside our own Milky Way.

Also in the 1910s, Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity was found to admit no static cosmological solutions given the basic assumptions of cosmology described below. The universe was described by a metric tensor that was either expanding or shrinking, a result that Einstein himself considered wrong and he tried to fix by adding a cosmological constant. The first person to seriously apply general relativity to cosmology without the stabilizing cosmological constant was Alexander Friedmann, whose equations describe the Friedmann-Lemaître-Robertson-Walker universe.

Georges Lemaître and the Explosion of a Primeval Atom
In 1927, the Belgian Jesuit priest Georges Lemaître independently derived the Friedmann-Lemaître-Robertson-Walker equations and proposed, on the basis of the recession of spiral nebulae, that the universe began with the "explosion" of a "primeval atom"—what was later called the Big Bang.

In 1929, Edwin Hubble provided an observational basis for Lemaître's theory. Hubble proved that the spiral nebulae were galaxies and measured their distances by observing Cepheid variable stars. He discovered that the galaxies are receding in every direction at speeds (relative to the Earth) directly proportional to their distance. This fact is now known as Hubble's law (see Edwin Hubble: Mariner of the Nebulae by Edward Christianson).

Hubble’s Law and the Expanding Universe
Given the cosmological principle, Hubble's law suggested that the universe was expanding. This idea allowed for two opposing possibilities. One was Lemaître's Big Bang theory, advocated and developed by George Gamow. The other possibility was Fred Hoyle's steady state model in which new matter would be created as the galaxies moved away from each other. In this model, the universe is roughly the same at any point in time. It was actually Hoyle who coined the name of Lemaître's theory, referring to it sarcastically as "this 'big bang' idea" during a 1949 BBC radio program, The Nature of Things, the text of which was published in 1950.

For a number of years the support for these theories was evenly divided. However, the observational evidence began to support the idea that the universe evolved from a hot dense state. Since the discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation in 1965 it has been regarded as the best theory of the origin and evolution of the cosmos.

Before the late 1960s, many cosmologists thought the infinitely dense and physically paradoxical singularity at the starting time of Friedmann's cosmological model could be avoided by allowing for a universe which was contracting before entering the hot dense state and starting to expand again. This was formalized as Richard Tolman's oscillating universe. In the sixties, Stephen Hawking and others demonstrated that this idea was unworkable, and the singularity is an essential feature of the physics described by Einstein's gravity. This led the majority of cosmologists to accept the notion that the universe as currently described by the physics of general relativity has a finite age. However, due to a lack of a theory of quantum gravity, there is no way to say whether the singularity is an actual origin point for the universe or whether the physical processes that govern the regime cause the universe to be effectively eternal in character.

Virtually all theoretical work in cosmology now involves extensions and refinements to the basic Big Bang theory. Much of the current work in cosmology includes understanding how galaxies form in the context of the Big Bang, understanding what happened at the Big Bang, and reconciling observations with the basic theory.

Huge advances in Big Bang cosmology were made in the late 1990s and the early 21st century as a result of major advances in telescope technology in combination with large amounts of satellite data such as that from COBE, the Hubble Space Telescope and WMAP. These data have allowed cosmologists to calculate many of the parameters of the Big Bang to a new level of precision and led to the unexpected discovery that the expansion of the universe appears to be accelerating.


This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License.

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