Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Big bang of inflated news

Variations in the polarization of radiation in the Cosmic Microwave
Background, supposedly indicative of gravitational waves formed by early
expansion of the universe.  Credit: BICEP2.  Image source.
The Big Bang has been proven!

...or so many news outlets claimed yesterday.  With all of the reports from various levels of technicality, it is difficult to discern exactly what was found that has supposedly nailed down the origins of our universe.  I will do my best to try to clear things up.

First, some background about the Big Bang theory.  Many people picture the Big Bang like a giant bomb going off somewhere in space, flinging out matter that eventually congealed into the galaxies as we know them.  However, that is inaccurate.  Rather, picture the universe as the two-dimensional surface of a balloon, with all the matter drawn on the rubber.  The Big Bang would be like suddenly blowing into the balloon, stretching out the surface and causing all points on the balloon to move away from each other equally.  The Big Bang is not proposed as a massive event in space; rather, it was the expansion of space itself.

However, there were certain problems with the Big Bang as originally proposed.  Contrary to our balloon model, scientists found that space is not curved like the surface of the balloon, but flat, like an infinitely large sheet of rubber (of course, these are two-dimensional analogies of three-dimensional concepts, which are more difficult to visualize).  Apparently, the density of matter and energy in the universe is at just the right value so as to make space extremely flat.  While this does not necessarily contradict the Big Bang, it would be extremely unlikely in a random natural event, and such "finely-tuned" space made cosmologists uncomfortable in their naturalistic worldviews.  Another problem often pointed out by creationists, called the Horizon Problem, was discovered when scientists analyzed the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB).  The CMB is the most distant light that we can detect from earth and is detectable in all directions, so many scientists believe it to be the light that was emitted from the universe about 380,000 years after the Big Bang.  However, the CMB was much more uniform than expected.  Light and temperature should not have been able to distribute so evenly over such a large region of space in only 380,000 years.

In an attempt to solve these and other problems, some scientists, most notably theoretical physicist and cosmologist Alan Guth, proposed the Inflation hypothesis, which postulates that the universe expanded extremely rapidly within a tiny tiny fraction of the first second after the Big Bang.  This would allow energy a minuscule amount of time to distribute evenly across the universe before it was expanded to a much greater size.  Additionally, the inflation is proposed to take place within a hypothetical energy field that served as a sort of template for the flatness of the universe.

The problem with the Inflation hypothesis was that it was very difficult to prove and remained entirely theoretical.  However, the work of Albert Einstein and others predicted that if space expanded at such a rapid rate, it would form ripples in space called gravitational waves.  As the waves were stretched, they would be made very large but very very subtle.  In hopes of finding evidence for these waves, a collaboration of various educational institutions set up a series of instruments at the South Pole in a project called BICEP (Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization).  Since 2006, scientists have been using these instruments to scrutinize the CMB for the "stretch marks" of the birth of the universe.

Yesterday, the news was announced that BICEP found variations in the polarity of the light from the CMB that may have been caused by the proposed gravitational waves.  The variations were actually found previously, but it took some time to verify that they were not caused by instrument error or by interference from closer objects.  The "polarity" of light describes the orientation of the light waves as they move (do they move up and down, side to side, diagonally?), and it is thought that the gravitational waves produced by the stretching of space would cluster the polarity instead of having it evenly or randomly spread.

So did this find prove Inflation?  Not exactly.  It will take more time for others to critically analyze the data to see if the claim is even legitimate.  Furthermore, in the scientific method, hypotheses and theories are never actually "proven."  Rather, experiments are repeated until no alternative explanation remains.  In this case, some variations on the Inflation model have been ruled out, but claiming that Inflation has been proven would be a great exaggeration, if not outright false.

How does creationism account for this find?  Interestingly, Dr. Humphreys' model of starlight creation, which I have referenced several times previously, involves rapid stretching of space as well during Day 4 of Creation Week.  According to Dr. Humphreys, God could have stretched and loosened the fabric of space in such a way that time would temporarily stop on earth while the distant stars were created, allowing them to be seen by the first humans.  I am certainly no astronomer or cosmologist, but these polarization variations and possibly the CMB itself may be a relic of such activity.  Either way, be assured that the Big Bang theory and its variations have not at all been proven, despite the media's claim to the contrary.

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