The Space Review: Revue: Éclairs de Création

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Flashs of Creation: George Gamow, Fred Hoyle and the Big Bang Debate
by Paul Halpern
Basic Books, 2021
hardcover, 304 pp., ill.
ISBN 978-1-5416-7359-5
30 USD

On Saturday, controllers completed the last of the major deployments of the James Webb Space Telescope when the second of two “wings” holding segments of its main mirror fell into place. Months of work still await us to align the telescope’s optics and commission the instruments, but astronomers were both relieved that the deployments went so well and confident that the telescope will meet its lofty science goals. “The basic science of this telescope was to see the very first light in the universe: the first galaxies that formed, maybe even the first stars,” said Heidi Hammel, vice president for science at the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, at a press conference on Saturday. “That’s why it was built the way it was built. ”

The idea that the universe had a debut marked by its first stars and galaxies was controversial not so long ago in the grand scheme of things. Barely 60 years ago, there was still heated debate within the astronomical community as to whether the universe began in a Big Bang or existed indefinitely in a stable state. Two of the astronomers at the forefront of these debates at the time, George Gamow and Fred Hoyle, are featured in Paul Halpern’s latest book, Flashes of creation.

Gamow and Hoyle had something else in common: The two found themselves, at the end of their careers, on the fringes of their domain, in large part due to self-inflicted causes.

Halpern interweaves the lives of Gamow and Hoyle with the advancement of cosmology in the 20th century. They came from different backgrounds – Odessa in Russia controlled Ukraine for Gamow and a small town in England for Hoyle – and had different personalities. Yet they both shared an interest in astronomy, as well as a passion for communicating their research to a wider audience. They could also be iconoclasts.

They were also the leaders of opposing views on the origins of the universe in the middle of the century. Gamow was a major proponent of an expanding universe that had its origin in an event that created the elemental abundances seen today. Hoyle led the development of an alternative steady-state model. Hoyle also famously coined the name “Big Bang” for this other model, a term intended to be dismissive – proof of what Halpern called Hoyle’s “drier, more cynical mind” – but which remained nonetheless.

The Big Bang model prevailed: it was already enjoying growing support among astronomers when Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson discovered the cosmic diffuse background in 1964, a signature of the early universe explained by the Big Bang but not by stationary models (although Hoyle and others have tried.) Yet the Big Bang could not explain the elemental abundances of the universe beyond helium. This required separate research on stellar nucleosynthesis, research conducted by Hoyle with Willy Fowler and Margaret and Geoffrey Burbidge.

Gamow and Hoyle had something else in common: The two found themselves, at the end of their careers, on the fringes of their domain, in large part due to self-inflicted causes. Gamow had a drinking problem and spent his later years in Colorado, trying to remind the community of his earlier work on the Big Bang models once the diffuse cosmic background was discovered. Hoyle quit his teaching post at Cambridge in a fit of vexation when a rival was chosen to head a new astronomical institute there. He spent his last decades in the countryside, gaining a reputation for supporting ideas like panspermia.

Flashes of creation is something of an effort to rehabilitate the reputation of Gamow and Hoyle, whose work in astrophysics decades ago was either forgotten or overshadowed by other factors. (Halpern speculates that Hoyle’s promotion of fringe ideas may be a reason he was overlooked for a Nobel Prize for his work on stellar nucleosynthesis which instead went to Fowler.) They had their flaws, as did some of their flaws. research, but their work has helped advance astrophysics and popularize it to the public. Astronomers are now ready to use the James Webb Space Telescope to peer into this primitive universe created by the Big Bang.


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