Astronomy 101: Theoretically speaking


Hubble Space Telescope and Spitzer Space Telescope composite image of Messier 104, aka the Sombrero galaxy, 2003. Image by NASA, WikiMedia.Org, public domain.

By Wyatt Frazee

“The Big Bang Theory” — great TV show right? The actual scientific theory it’s named for is even wittier.

The Big Bang theory is a model that explains how everything, absolutely everything, came into existence.

Though illustrative — Bang! Universe! — the name itself doesn’t sound particularly scientific. (It kinda sounds like something you’d say to a toddler who falls down or throws a toy.) That’s because the name was born of sarcasm.

A few centuries ago there were two competing scientific theories about how the universe came into being and what it was doing.

The rule of the day, the so-called Steady State theory, stated the universe was neither contracting nor expanding. It was, well, static. Albert Einstein himself backed this theory, ultimately leading to his ill-fated cosmological constant.

The competing theory stated the universe started as an infinitely small, infinitely hot, infinitely dense matter squished into infinite density, called a singularity. After the singularity’s appearance it began inflating and cooling off, and continues to do so. This idea, the Expanding Universe theory, was pioneered by astronomer Edwin Hubble.

As the 20th century wore on, the notion of an expanding universe eclipsed the static model.

British astrophysicist Sir Fred Hoyle wasn’t convinced. In the 1950s, while taping a series of TV lectures called “The Nature of the Universe,” Hoyle tried to explain that the universe had no beginning or end, that it came from a continual pattern of development.

Hoyle had been coming under a lot of fire from scientists who’d converted to the expansion theory, so he decided to fight back. In the final episode of the series, he delivered the zinger “Big Bang” as a tongue-in-cheek term for the idea behind his opponents’ theory. He was making fun of it.

“Big Bang” stuck, but not the way Hoyle intended. Essentially, he gave the Expanding Universe series a catchy shorthand, a dynamic slogan that made it easier to understand than the obscure idea of static infinity.

Soon “Big Bang” became a household term divorced from its lampooning coiner.
There’s a lesson here: Don’t waste your best insults on your enemies because you may inadvertently give them top-notch marketing advice for free.


Wyatt Frazee is manager at Think4Inc, vice president of the Prescott Astronomy Club, a science student at Yavapai College, and a hopeful future science teacher.

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