The Big Bang theory is the idea that our universe began in a giant “explosion,” where a primeval singularity suddenly and rapidly began expanding, creating space, time, and matter/energy with it. This happened approximately 13 billion years ago. Throughout the history of the theory, there as been a playful streak exhibited by its proponents, silly names and puns associated with the Big Bang abound.
The name Big Bang was originally a derisive one, coined by astronomer Fred Hoyle who was one of the chief opponents of the theory. But the name caught on and was adopted by proponents, losing its derisive edge.
The idea of the universe rapidly expanding was first promulgated by Georges Lemaître, a Belgian astronomer, in 1927. In 1929, American astronomer Edwin Hubble provided the observational evidence for this expansion when he showed that light from distant galaxies was shifted to the red end of the spectrum, indicating that they were receding from us. In 1931, Lemaître first suggested the idea of the universe beginning at a single point, a “primeval atom.”
In 1948, George Gamow and Ralph Alpher published a paper in which they outlined the primary tenets of the modern Big Bang theory and predicted the strength of the cosmic microwave background radiation that would exist if the theory were true. This prediction was later demonstrated to be correct. As a linguistic aside, Alpher and Gamow included the name of physicist Hans Bethe as an author of the paper, although Bethe had nothing to do with the work. But it allowed them to make an alpha-beta-gamma pun.
The name Big Bang, was coined in 1950 by Fred Hoyle on the BBC radio program, The Nature of Things. The program was later published as a book The Nature of the Universe:
One [idea] was that the Universe started its life a finite time ago in a single huge explosion...This big bang idea seemed to me to be unsatisfactory.
Hoyle was an advocate of the steady-state theory of the universe, which held that the universe had always existed much as it looks today and that matter and energy were continuously being created to fill the void created by expansion. The steady-state theory is rejected now and the Big Bang universally accepted by astronomers as being the better model for the creation of the universe.
For a while, a theory of a Big Crunch was promulgated. It was thought that the expansion of the universe would eventually slow and gravitational attraction would bring all matter and energy back into another singularity. But it has since been demonstrated that the expansion of the universe is actually accelerating, propelled by dark energy, pretty much a place-holder name for a force we do not yet understand.
(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)
Copyright 1997-2014, by David Wilton