“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.”