Photos Spare Cycles MythBusters

Talk: Simon Singh, The Big Bang

Amazon Image

Simon Singh Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe

Singh gave a great talk on his book, The Big Bang. It was very easy to see how he could be so successful in writing popular science books. Who would have thought to use a backwards Led Zeppelin clip to explain how two competing scientific theories might both find support within a set of empirical data? Singh had a great ability throughout the talk to take a history and a scientific theory which are both dry and complicated, and make them both humorous and understandable, whether it be by analogy or by finding that Willow-esque nerd humor -- in discussing Fritz Zwicky's tired light theory, he brought up Zwicky's favorite insult: 'spherical bastard' (looks like a bastard no matter what direction you look at him). I appreciate that anecdote enough that you shouldn't be surprised if I refer to you as a 'spherical bastard' the next time you see me.

More notes in the extended.

Introduction by Roger Blandford, Stanford. (Pimped for his institute)

Simon Singh


Singh started work on the book 2-3 years ago. "Big Bang" was the most obvious title for the work. Little did he anticipate that three months ago another book would be published with the same title: "The Big Bang: Nerve's Guide to the New Sexual Universe" (semi-NSFW) Wanted to write about the Big Bang because it's a compelling, verifiable theory (though not complete) about the origins of the universe. Intrigue by how a maverick idea can take over and become mainstream theory (theme of talk).


1930 Sir James Jeans (representing "the establishment"). Jeans wrote The Mysterious Universe in which he tried to explain what cosmologists thought about universe. It was a big hit and even Tallulah Bankhead (actress) read it and called it "What every girl should know." Jeans' view was that we live in an eternal and static universe (establishment view).

Big bang is contradictory: the BB universe was created and is evolving.

Where did this competing theory come from?

Georges Lemaitre * Belgian cosmologist * One of scientists responsible for bbt * Lemaitre said that according to physics, it is possible that universe could have started as primeval super atom, and that the super atom could explode and throw matter outward (and still be expanding) * People did not like this idea when they heard it, partly because there are less worries with static universe (e.g. "when did the explosion occur?", "what rate are things expanding at?", etc...) * The establishment thought that Lemaitre (a priest) was trying to smuggle God into physics by promoting a theory that has an act of creation. * Lemaitre: "There are two ways of arriving at the truth. I decided to follow them both." (religion and science) * Einstein on Lemaitre's theory: "Your calculations are correct, but your physics is abominable."

Segue: demonstration that proofs are easy (Singh's reinterpretation of the time x money proof)

Proof: teletubbies are evil * teletubbies are a BBC program, the BBC invests time and money, therefore: * teletubbies = time x money * time = money * tt = money x money * tt = money^2 * money = root(evil) * money^2 = evil

Hubble's role

Los Angeles Observatory (Mount Wilson) * Had a great telescope * Had one of the best astronomers (Hubble) * People would come to see the telescope and Hubble

Measuring galaxy movement with the Doppler Effect * Do galaxies move? Do they move systematically? * Singh did a Doppler Shift demonstration with sound * Doppler Shift for galaxies: * moving away: redder * moving towards: bluer * Singh played the cosmic doppler song,

That's the Doppler Shift - you see it, it's true Doppler Shift - to the red or the blue

When a star is approaching and it's coming our way Its spectrum seems bluer, won't you hear what I say And when a star's retreating way out of range And the scientist measures its frequency change Well that's a redshift, redshift If the star is moving away

Hubble looked at various galaxies (NGC 221, NGC 379, Gemini Cluster): all moving away. First evidence in support of the Big Bang

Assuming speeds constant, using distance/speed = time, worked out that the three galaxies that they were all "here" roughly 1.3-1.6 bilion years ago

Summary: * 1927: BB Theory * 1929: BB Proof * 1930s: James book shows establishment has not adopted theory

Hubbles data implies BB happened 1-2B years ago


Radioactive dating says earth is 3.5B years old

"Stairway to Heaven" (a demonstration on filling in an interpretation for incomplete data) * Singh played a clip from "Stairway" played forward and backward. * Source: * Singh asked, "Who heard the word 'Satan'?" (about 1 in 3 in the audience). * Singh then asked, "Who heard, 'It's my sweet Satan, The one whose little path would make me sad whose power is Satan. Oh he'll give you, give you 666. There was a little toolshed where he made us suffer, sad Satan.'?" (No one in the audience) * Singh replayed the backwards clip after he read the quote. Everyone heard it the second time around (his slide highlighted the words as they were said). * This was an example of priming the brain. The brain is good at pattern recognition, and its even better at filling in patterns when data is poor (e.g. tin-ny speakers vs. Kepler's sound system). * Hubble's data was vague and inadequate. People who liked the BBT saw what they wanted to see in it. People who didn't could also find what they needed from Hubble's data.

Fritz Zwicky's theory of tired light

  • Asked, "Do the red shifts imply receding galaxies?"
  • tired light theory for red shift: light scattering off dust travelling through universe, loses energy, results in red shift (supports eternal universe idea)
  • Fun note: Zwicky's his favorite insult was "Spherical Bastard": looks the same whichever way you look at them

Hoyle, Gold and Bonde (Steady State universe)

New theory: Universe changes, but stays the same. * Got theory from Dead of Night (1945) (first horror film after war) * Man has long, long dream, wakes up, drives into countryside, car breaks down, goes to house for help, doesn't know anyone there but says that he recognizes them all from his dream. Strangers tell him story, then at the end strangle him, then he wakes up, drives into countryside... (changing but stays the same) * cells in body constantly dying and being replaced, even when all cells have eventually been replaced still same person even though made of different cells

Competing theories (Big Bang vs. Steady State): * BB universe: everything moving apart * SS universe: galaxies move apart, but new matter forms inbetween, keeping the same density. universe is infinite, so twice infinity still infinity (growth doesn't matter)

The term "Big Bang"

Fred Hoyle, great critic of theory, derisively coined term "Big Bang" during a radio broadcast: "this big bang idea seemed to me to be unsatisfactory" (approx. transcription)

An alternate naming from Calvin and Hobbes * Brief recoining in the 1990s: "The Horrendous Space Kablooie" (aka "HSK theory of creation")

Rise of Big Bang theory over Steady State theory

Observations over the past century continued to reaffirm BBT over SST.

"slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact"

Herman, WHO? WHO (alfa)? * Contributed two empirically verifiable ideas about BBT:

  1. In the heat of the big bang, hydrogen should have been fused into helium. can work out how much hydrogen should eventuallhave been converted into helium (3/4 hydrogen, 1/4 helium) -- verified by empirical observation of universe.
  2. Microwave radiation: there should have been blast of microwave radiation following the Big Bang, and it should still be around.

Microwave radiation * Verified by Wilson and Penzias(?) using radio telescope pointed at "nothing." Got microwaves whenever they pointed it at "nothing." Found pigeons roosting in telescope, cleaned out their "white dielectric substance," killed pigeons when they returned, and still the microwaves kept on coming. Wavelength was exactly consistent with the theory. * 1-2% of energy your radio is picking up is from Big Bang.


Going back to an earlier slide where actress Tallulah Bankhead praises Sir James Jean's book on The Mysterious Universe. Singh notes that it is his dream that in the future, Cameron Diaz will say of *The Big Bang": it contains "what every girl should know"

Q & A

The Q&A session demonstrated Singh's ability to be humorous and understandable even off the cuff (though I'm sure the questions were commonly asked).

Dark Matter answer: two competing theorys, MATCHOs and WIBs, which both fall under DUNNOs (really need to look up these acronyms, much funnier if you know what they are)

Inflation, clumpiness

Q: Multiple universe's A: There is a theory for multiverses where one universe can give birth to another, and that each of these births has mutations so that you have infinite universes that are each unique. Sir Martin Reese is a fan of this theory because it means we live in a universe that is tuned for life. For example, take G, the gravitational constant: * If gravity too weak: no stars form, no life * If gravity too strong: stars burn out too fast, no life * We live in "Goldilocks gravity"

Q: What was there before the Big Bang A: Singh felt this was best related through a diagram (my best attempt at translating)

nothing FOOM! something

He also referred to St. Augustine's answer to "What was God doing before the creation?": "He was preparing hell, for those prying into such deep subjects"

Comments (3)


Was this his talk at Kepler's last night? I heard him on NPR as I was driving to work yesterday, and he sounded like an interesting speaker.


Yeah, this was a Kepler's talk

Barbarina Zwicky:

Simon Singh sadly seeks to represent himself as an authority on my father, Dr. Fritz Zwicky. My father never knew him nor was he a professional associate. He is among the many authors my family encounters, who parrot partial, embellished anecdotes about one of the greatest astronomers of our time. Mediocrity often seeks to associate with genius and scientific accomplishment.

The spherical metaphor my father was referring to was his scientific colleages spherical nescience to truth. My father's theories are now being verified as scientific fact so many years after his death. He can rest assured that as a scientific prophet and courageous trailblazer, his theories and predictions were amazingly correct. The scientific establishment that rejected them during his lifetime, has taken over 50 years to confirm them. The unbelievable incompetence and ineptitude of his colleagues and their subsequent rage, has resulted in rabid attempts using literary assault against a decedent. They remain the spherical nuisance to scientific advancement, just as my father identified and labeled them so many years ago.

Barbarina Zwicky

Post a comment


related entries.

what is this?

This page contains a single entry from kwc blog posted on January 31, 2005 9:31 PM.

The previous post was Ooopsy.

The next post is It has begun.

Current entries can be found on the main page.