Beginnings Reporting on science and intelligent design

Big hype about the Big Bang

Science | Stephen Hawking makes headlines with his theory of how the universe began
by Lynde Langdon
Posted 3/08/18, 12:28 pm

“Stephen Hawking knows what happened before the Big Bang,” a headline in USA Today proclaimed after an interview with the famous astrophysicist aired Sunday on Neil deGrasse Tyson’s television show, Star Talk. The newspaper and other media made it sound like Hawking cried “Eureka!” and solved one of cosmology’s biggest mysteries.

In reality, Hawking described to Tyson a theory he and a colleague, Jim Hartle, developed decades ago and presented in his 1988 book A Brief History of Time. In the most simplistic terms, Hawking proposes that time is finite but has no boundaries. He compares space-time before the Big Bang to a sphere such as the Earth and the beginning of time to a single point on the sphere such as the South Pole.

“There is nothing south of the South Pole, so there was nothing around before the Big Bang,” he told Tyson. 

Many religious groups, including the Catholic Church, have accepted the Big Bang theory because it proposes that time had a beginning and therefore could also have had a beginner or creator. But Hawking says the no-boundary theory refutes the possibility of a creator. Although time had a beginning, the laws of physics existed before time, he argues. 

“One wouldn’t have to appeal to something outside the universe, to determine how the universe began,” he said in a lecture.

Hawking and Tyson are some of the best-known astrophysicists because of their efforts to make the fundamentals of the field accessible to the general public. Perhaps that’s why media like USA Today accept their theories as settled science. But the no-boundary theory has many caveats, and there are some competing theories, too. For example, Young Earth creationists have developed theoretical explanations for why the light of distant stars seems so old to us when the world, according to a literal reading of Genesis, is very young.

Others caution against assuming an exciting working theory is a proven fact.

“Although many of the caveats are noted in the book, there is the danger that Hawking’s enthusiasm for his proposal may lead the less-cautious reader to become more convinced of its correctness than there is yet evidence to warrant,” wrote University of Alberta astrophysicist Don Page, a self-described evangelical Christian, in a 1988 review of A Brief History of Time.

Astrophysicist George Ellis from the University of Cape Town in South Africa has written about the horizons of cosmology, or the points beyond which science cannot observe what’s really going on.

“You will find various people trying to tell you they have got the theory of how the universe began,” Ellis told me. “You’ve got those theories, but none of them are proven science. … In the end, the mature view of cosmology will be we will run into uncertainty at larger scales.”

Ellis believes the universe had a creator, as does Page.

“I don’t think whether the universe had a beginning in time is directly relevant to the question of whether or not it was created,” he told me. God created the laws of physics and is not limited by them, he noted. That leaves room for God to intervene in creation with acts such as the resurrection of Jesus, Page said: “I personally think the resurrection was an occasion in which God really did do something different.”

The shape of our ears

New research on the shape of the human ear reveals a masterful design. A paper published Monday in the Journal of Neuroscience explains that the brain learns the ridges of the outer ear, and uses that information to pinpoint the location of sounds. When researchers filled in an external part of volunteers’ ears with silicone, it drastically changed their ability to tell the height of a sound.

Scientists already understood how the brain detects whether a sound comes from one side or the other based on whether it reaches the right or left ear first. But they weren’t sure how the brain determines the height of a sound. It turns out, our brains decide if a sound is high or low—like whether a missing cell phone is ringing from atop a bookshelf or under the couch—based on how the sound waves bounce off the outer parts of the ear. 

When the researchers fitted participants with a small piece of silicon in their ears, changing their natural ridge patterns, their hearing suffered. 

“We would put a sound above the participant’s head, and he would say it’s below,” Regis Trapeau, a neuroscientist at the University of Montreal and the author of the new paper, told The New York Times

But remarkably, after a week of wearing the silicon insert, the volunteers’ brains learned the new ridges of their ears, adapted to the change, and could correctly locate sound again. —Kiley Crossland

Creative Commons/Johsua Mayer Creative Commons/Johsua Mayer

Backspin experts

It turns out the hairyflower wild petunia has God-given athletic skills. The unassuming purple flower shoots seeds that spin up to 1,660 times per second—the fastest known rotation of any plant or animal—according to research published this week. The spin helps the petunia seeds fly farther, increasing the plant’s ability to reproduce and spread. A team of researchers from Pomona College in California used high-speed cameras that record 20,000 frames per second to analyze the seed flinging. They found little hooks inside the flower’s podlike fruit help fling the tiny disc-shaped seeds at speeds of more than 30 feet per second. And while the scientists assumed the seeds would travel like a Frisbee—horizontally with forward spin—they discovered they actually travel vertically with backspin, a trait studies concluded actually stabilizes the seeds and reduces drag. —K.C.

Running behind

A political dispute between Serbia and Kosovo means millions of Europeans this week are running six minutes behind schedule. The quarrel, which centers on unpaid energy bills in Kosovo, is sapping a small amount of energy from the local grid. That grid is connected to a 25-nation electrical network called the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity (ENTSO-E), causing a small deviation from Europe’s standard 50 Hz frequency in countries across Europe. The result: electric clocks that keep time by the power system’s frequency, rather than built-in quartz crystals—think radio alarms and oven clocks—have fallen behind by about six minutes since mid-January. ENTSO-E is working on a technical solution, but has encouraged European officials to address the political problem at the heart of the deviation. Thankfully, slow clocks seem to be the only risk if the deviation continues, according to ENTSO-E spokeswoman Claire Camus. —K.C.

Lynde Langdon

Lynde is a WORLD Digital’s managing editor and reports on popular and fine arts. She lives in Wichita, Kan., with her husband and two daughters. Follow Lynde on Twitter @lmlangdon.

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  • VSKluth's picture
    Posted: Thu, 03/08/2018 04:53 pm

    Hawkings' proposition that "that time is finite but has no boundaries" is patently flawed, as the very definition of "finite" requires a boundary. Einstein taught us that time requires matter; thus, no time means no matter, either.  Upon what would some pre-existent laws of physics operate?  Again - nonsense.  Too many secular scientists readily endorse such contradictions; in fact, it seems the PhD candidate with the most obfuscated explanation of contradictory ideas is a genius. Foolishness prevails under the guise of great insight and wisdom.

  • Vista48
    Posted: Thu, 03/08/2018 06:41 pm

    Pure drivel. The problem with astrophysicists is that they are not true scientists. They are more postulationists, and what they postulate does not even qualify as theory since they are not falsifiable and do not predict anything that can be measured. The more that is uncovered by real observation and backed up by logical explanation, the more esoteric their arguments become. To say that there is nothing south of the South Pole proves nothing about the origin of the universe, and stands in ignorance of things like the magnetosphere. My prediction: they will continue to proffer more complex and unintelligible ideas because it gives them something to hide behind, while they tell us we are too stupid to understand it. 

  • John Cogan's picture
    John Cogan
    Posted: Fri, 03/09/2018 12:54 am

    I do not understand why Hawking thinks he has proven anything. He gave us an analogy. Analogies are not proofs. And VSKluth is correct. The laws of physics describe the actions of astronomical bodies, they don't tell the bodies how to act. They are descriptive, not prescriptive. So, no heavenly bodies, no laws of physics. I suspect Hawking and Tyson are frantically scrambling to evade the existence of a Creator, a God before whom they must one day stand in judgment.

  • vantil
    Posted: Fri, 03/09/2018 08:31 am

    As briefly noted in the article, claiming the "the laws of physics" guided what happened AtThe Beginning seems to be downright silly as one must wonder Where The Laws of Physics came from.  To paraphrase from Chesterton:  "When a man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything."

  • Laura W
    Posted: Sat, 03/10/2018 02:53 am

    You all are probably right in principle, but be careful about assuming too much about the merits of a theory based on a highly simplified summary written by someone else. Sometimes real science doesn't lend itself well to concise summaries either.

  • DakotaLutheran
    Posted: Sat, 03/10/2018 03:29 pm

    "Hawking says the no-boundary theory refutes the possibility of a creator. Although time had a beginning, the laws of physics existed before time, he argues." Wow! That's quite an assertion. If we can take this to accurately reflect Hawking's position, it is closely alligned with some form of Axiarchism or Platonism. The Laws (or Ideals) somehow "exist" prior to their instantiation. What is meant by their "existence"? Are they what we would call immaterial, and as immaterial, then eternal? In what way and in what manner do the eternal forms and truths communicate with the instaniated world? From whence comes the "material," or does it somehow emerge from the eternal law? If Hawking actually holds this position, he is not far from theism. What is significantly lacking is any teleology, something still possible without speaking of a "personal" deity.