Blast of Giant Atom Created Our Universe (Dec, 1932)

This is a pretty amazing article. It’s a concise summary of the big bang theory published only 3 years after Edwin Hubble made his famous observations about the redshifts of distant galaxies. Yet it’s pretty much identical to one you’d see today. Only a few details like the size of the initial “atom” and the age of the universe seem off. Keep in mind it took another 35 years or so before the scientific community came to accept that the big bang really happened.

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Blast of Giant Atom Created Our Universe

By Donald H. Menzel
Harvard Observatory

OUT of a single, bursting atom came all the suns and planets of our universe!

That is the sensational theory advanced by the famous Abbe G. Lemaitre, Belgian mathematician. It has aroused the interest of astronomers throughout the world because, startling as the hypothesis is, it explains many observed and puzzling facts.

According to Lemaitre’s theory, all the matter in the universe was once packed within a single, gigantic atom, which, until ten thousand millions years ago, lay dormant. Then, like a sky-rocket touched off on the Fourth of July after having remained quietly for months on a store shelf, the atom burst, its far-flung fragments forming the stars of which our universe is built.

The manner in which certain kinds of atoms explode can be seen easily in a simple experiment. If you take a radium watch into a dark room and look at the dial through a magnifying glass, you see what appears to be a brilliant display of miscroscopic fireworks. While you are looking at the showering sparks, remember that each flash comes from an exploding atom. In each spark, you see a small-scale reproduction of the new theory of the birth of our universe.

On the average, every radium atom lies dormant for about 1,730 years, after which time it explodes and shoots out particles in much the same way as the parent atom gave birth to the stars.

The new theory provides an explanation for one of the most extraordinary scientific facts ever discovered. Our telescopes show us that there are, out in space, millions of disk-shaped star-clusters known as extra-galactic nebulae. It is generally believed that our Milky Way is such an object and that our sun is but one of billions of stars that go to form it. One of the larger members of the class, the spiral nebula in Canes Venatici, is so far away that light from it takes almost a million years to reach us. Furthermore, observations indicate that every second it moves still farther away from our solar system by some 170 miles.

For every large, bright nebula there are thousands of small, faint, and presumably much more distant ones. Surveys out to one hundred million light years are in progress. The extraordinary feature referred to above is not, however, the magnitude of the figures, but the discovery that the more distant the nebula the more rapid is its motion in a direction away from us! The present record-holder is a tiny nebula whose cosmic speedometer registers in excess of twelve thousand miles a second!

Why, astronomers have asked, are the more distant objects moving faster? Why does the motion always seem to be away from us? If the motion is one of simple expansion, why should we find ourselves so nearly at the center, looking outward? Exponents of the theory of relativity have been inclined to accept the view that the universe is actually expanding. But the apparent central position of our earth, they believe, is an illusion, that may be illustrated by an analogy. Suppose that, during the night, the earth were to double in size, while everything upon its surface were to remain unchanged. In the morning you would awake to find that your neighbor, who previously lived only fifty feet away, was now one hundred feet away. The Smiths, who lived a mile away, would be two miles away. In every direction, there would be an apparent withdrawal, which would be greater for more distant objects. Everybody would be similarly affected and each would believe himself to be the center away from which the other objects had moved.

The case of the universe is analogous, except that the expansion, being of a three-dimensional volume, cannot be visualized. The phenomena are, however, comparable. The nebulae are not running away from us. Their recession is due to expansion of space. This may, perhaps, seem to be quibbling over terms, since it amounts to the same thing in the end. Nevertheless, the distinction is worth keeping. According to the relativity theory, there is a difference between the running away of the nebulae and expansion of the medium in which they are imbedded.

The hypothesis, however, is not without difficulties. The expansion is so rapid that, going back only ten thousand million years, we find the stars more closely packed than automobiles are in Times Square in New York City at the theater hour. Ten thousand million years may seem too long to cause us to worry about parking places for prehistoric stars. Nevertheless, geologists tell us that the earth is at least a billion years old and we have come to regard this period as but a minute fraction of the entire lifetime of the universe. Hence the difficulty!

In a sense, this belief is a heritage from the nineteenth century. The great French astronomer, Pierre de Laplace, suggested that the sun and planets might have condensed from a fine mist much as droplets of water condense in a rain cloud. Although this theory, the well-known nebular hypothesis, has long since been abandoned so far as the origin of the earth and solar system is concerned, astronomers have been inclined to accept it in explaining the birth of stars.

One intuitively feels that the self building up of stars from cosmic dust is a process that would take an infinitely greater time to complete than the mere formation of planetary systems—a feeling that precise calculation confirms. If the expanding-universe conception is correct, we must revise our ideas about the birth of stars. Slow evolution is out of the question. A fireworks theory is exactly what we need!

DR. LAMAITRE’S hypothesis does away with the old query as to the state of affairs before the beginning of things. Going back to the parent atom we may inquire about what happened before the cosmic explosion took place. The answer is: “Nothing.” Computation shows that space would have closed up around the massive atom and, certainly, nothing can happen where there is no room for it to happen. Time has no meaning in a perfectly static world. The age of the universe is to be reckoned from that prehistoric Fourth of July, when space came into existence. Since then, space has been continually expanding before the onrushing stars, sweeping the way for them, forming a sort of motorcycle squadron to make room for the star-procession to follow.

Lemaitre’s theory does not tell us how our earth was formed —whether the planets were born at the time of the original explosion or whether they came into existence at some later date. If his hypothesis is true, however, it is more attractive to believe the former, speculative as it may be. At least this assumption will provide consolation for those who have lamented the failure of the generally accepted theory to provide for more than a handful of possibly habitable worlds.

SO MUCH for the present. What of the future? Einstein and the noted Dutch astronomer, Willem de Setter, have talked of some future contraction, which might sweep up the stars along with cosmic dust and eventually bring the world back to its original state. Dr. Lemaitre thinks that such a contraction cannot occur. He prefers to believe that the whole universe was born in the flash of a cosmic sky-rocket and that it will keep expanding until the showering sparks which form the stars have burned to cinders and ashes.

  1. jayessell says: January 11, 200710:52 am

    Excellent find.
    I always thought it was radio astronomy which led to the theory of “The Big Bang”.
    But… that’s the 1960s!

    I see that even that article mentions the possibly of extra-solar habitable worlds, but not the possibility of inhabited habitable worlds.

    Just when did the nebuleua graduate from ‘clouds of dust’ to ‘clouds of stars’? The 1920s?

  2. Stannous says: January 12, 20072:44 am

    Fr. George Lemaitre’s struggle to convince the scientific establishment (including Einstein) is documented on this wiki page:…

  3. […] of which springs to mind because the Modern Mechanix blog has unearthed a Popular Science article from 1932 by Donald Menzel, an astronomer at Harvard, that explains Lemaître’s ideas. (The time […]

  4. […] read more | digg story […]

  5. Gina says: November 23, 20075:35 pm


  6. Rich Bergmann says: October 7, 20086:22 pm

    Read Ernest J. Sternglass’ “Before the Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe.” He is quite a proponent of Le Maitre’s primeval atom theory.

  7. […] Donald H. Menzel, Blast of Giant Atom Created Our Universe (amazing reprint of an article first published in 1933, just 3 years after Edwin Hubble observed the redshifts of distant galaxy clusters) […]

  8. Roger says: May 3, 20097:50 pm

    I was a boy before the CMB was discovered. Science books for boys back down dutifully mentioned Lemaitre and his Big Bang hypothesis. That Lemaitre was a Belgian priest was mentioned without comment. But when the Big Bang became ccanonical science, Lemaitre’s name faded from my reading, and the Big Bang was attributed to Friedmann took over. That is unfair; the Big Bang is Lemaitre’s brainchild. BTW, he died knowing that Penzias and Wilson had vindicated him.

    It’s not just the Big Bang. Lemaitre apparently guessed right that the universe is open. He also believed that our universe is unique, so that the Big Bang is also a Creation.

    I am looking for the French original which Menzel paraphrased as:

    “He prefers to believe that the whole universe was born in the flash of a cosmic sky-rocket and that it will keep expanding until the showering sparks which form the stars have burned to cinders and ashes.”

    If you know where Menzel took that from, Email me at [email protected] .

  9. […] critic and wrote several books on the subject. He also wrote widely on stellar matters. Check out this Big Bang article he wrote back in 1932 and published in that year’s Popular Science magazine. Courtesy of the […]

  10. Roger says: October 16, 20096:48 pm

    Here is the passage from Lemaitre that I sought:

    “The evolution of the universe may be compared to a display of fireworks that has just ended: some few red wisps, ashes, and smoke. Standing on a cooled cinder, we see the slow fading of the suns and try to recall the vanished brilliance of the origin of the worlds.” Lemaitre, G (1951) The Primeval Atom. Van Nostrand: 78. Quoted in Harrison 2000, p. 529, and Barrow and Tipler 1986, p. 329.

  11. Charlie says: October 16, 20097:08 pm

    Roger: Wow, that’s a really good description of the universe.

  12. Emad Eldieb says: January 8, 201010:19 am

    The theory published in advanced studies in theoretical physcs under the title, the giant atom like system needs further team work

  13. Firebrand38 says: January 8, 201011:05 am

    Emad Eldieb: Thanks, that was a BIG help.

  14. Emad Eldieb says: October 16, 20108:26 pm

    It is very useful to read the created giant charge published in frontier science as extention work for the giant atom like system published in advanced stdies in theoretical physics

  15. Jari says: October 17, 20103:56 pm

    Emad Eldieb: That was even bigger help. Sigh….where the heck do these people come from?…

  16. Firebrand38 says: October 17, 20104:43 pm

    Jari: In his case I’m guessing Egypt

  17. Jari says: October 18, 201010:03 am

    Firebrand38: Maybe, except there’s no “University of Quena” in Egypt. However, there’s a South Valley University, which have large campus in Qena (=same city). But oddly enough, our good doctor isn’t in their telephone index.

  18. Emad Eldieb says: October 29, 20108:44 am

    You can not understand the giant atom like system without the created giant charge

  19. Firebrand38 says: October 29, 20109:08 am

    Emad Eldieb: I’ll just have to struggle to go on living without understanding. Now go away.

  20. Don says: October 29, 201011:14 am

    From a friend:

    A boxer named Edwin Hubble
    Tried stargazing to stay out of trouble
    With amazement he noted
    The universe exploded
    And we are just part of the rubble

  21. Emad Eldieb says: November 23, 20107:29 am

    The scientists are invited to cooperate with me to create a lab- giant charge

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