Still the 'Big Bang'

February 07, 1994

Ever since Edwin Hubble discovered early in this century that the universe is expanding, astronomers have been trying to account for the origin of all things. Running the clock backward for Hubble's observation that the galaxies are moving apart from each other, theorists speculated that sometime in the distant past all the matter in the universe must have been packed tightly together. Today most scientists believe the universe exploded into being some 15 billion years ago out of an incredibly dense "primeval atom" billions of times smaller than the diameter of a proton.

Ironically, it was an unbeliever who gave this modern-day genesis the name by which we know it today. In the 1950s, British astronomer Fred Hoyle, author of a rival theory, sought to discredit the cosmic explosion hypothesis by nicknaming it "the Big Bang." The joke backfired, however, when his colleagues adopted the phrase as a euphonious shorthand. "Big Bang" has been a staple of the scientific lexicon ever since.

Still, the label is misleading. For one thing, common sense suggests that if the universe is expanding, it must be expanding into something. In fact, the Big Bang was the origin of space as well as of matter; the universe is not expanding into anything. Similarly, one might ask what came before the Big Bang. Again, the answer is: nothing. By definition, time didn't exist before the Big Bang.

Recognizing that such concepts seem counterintuitive, Sky & Telescope magazine recently ran a contest to rename the "Big Bang" and received more than 13,000 entries.

Some readers submitted acronyms like MOM (Mother of all Matter), NICK (Nature's Initial Cosmic Kickstart) or the Big TOE (Theory of Everything). Others came up with concoctions like "Out of the Misty Mystery" or "What Happens If I Press This Button?" There was also Berthe D. Universe.

We wish we could report Sky & Telescope's readers succeeded in inventing a phrase as felicitous as that dreamed up by one of the "Calvin & Hobbs" cartoon characters, who mischievously dubbed the primeval event "the big kabloowie." But after surveying all the entries, a panel of judges decided that none beat "Big Bang" for concision and accuracy. So Mr. Hoyle was declared the winner by default. Said astronomer Carl Sagan, one of the judges: "The idea of space-time and matter expanding together and not 'into' anything may be permanently beyond reach in the universe of short and lucid phrases."

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