Around 13.8 billion years ago, a single event gave birth to an extremely hot and dense sea of neutrons and electrons. Over time, these particles started to combine together, and, eventually, an atom was born — hydrogen.
That hydrogen began to combine, too, slowly forming stars and galaxies out of the cosmic primordial soup. As time went on, this opaque vastness started to cool, expand, turn transparent, and become the universe we exist in today.
The singular event that triggered it all is known as the Big Bang.
The Big Bang is so widely accepted as the origin story of the universe that most people forget it is still a theory, and not proven fact. But new research led by astronomer Eric Lerner disputes the Big Bang, claiming that recent observations of light elements in the universe contradict the assumptions that support the theory.
The research was presented by Lerner on Wednesday at the 235th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Honolulu, Hawaii.
The Big Bang: A fraught history
This isn’t the first time that astronomers have disputed the Big Bang theory. That’s in part because the hypothesis is hard to study in real time. Instead, scientists depend on mathematical models and other theories, including Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, to back up the origin story.
Lerner’s new research picks holes in one of the fundamental elements of the Big Bang theory — that there is an abundance of light chemical elements in the universe.
According to the theory, light chemical elements such as helium, deuterium, and lithium began to form within the first few minutes of the ‘bang,’ while heavier elements originated in stars much later in the history of the universe.
But Lerner claims that exact observations of light elements show a notable gap between the predicted amount of elements in the universe according to the Big Bang theory, and how much is actually there.
For example, the Big Bang nucleosynthesis theory predicts that roughly 25 percent of the mass of the universe consists of helium. But stars formed in the early universe appear to have less than half the helium and less than one tenth the lithium than that predicted by that theory, according to the study.
The research suggests that the lowest lithium levels observed are less than 1 percent than those predicted by the theory. That in turn suggests that these light elements could not have existed before stars started forming in the universe.
The Galactic Origin of Light Elements hypothesis
So what explains the origin of the universe is not the Big Bang? Lerner suggests an alternative model he calls the Galactic Origin of Light Elements hypothesis.
In this alternative theory, light elements were created within the stars during the early stages of the evolution of galaxies, an idea Lerner based on observations of the oldest stars in the universe.
“The correct predictions of the GOLE model not only fit the observations far better than does the Big Bang model” Lerner said in a statement. “The production of the light elements by stars must occur — and if there was also production by a Big Bang, we would observe far more of these light elements than we do.”
Lerner is a long-time critic of the Big Bang theory. In 1991, he wrote a book titled, The Big Bang Never Happened, in which he criticizes the popular theory and suggests a model of an infinitely old universe instead.
Lerner’s alternative is just one of many models to rival the Big Bang, but none have quite caught on. For example, the Steady State Universe hypothesis suggests that matter is still being created in the universe and that it is therefore infinite with no beginning nor end, while the Black Hole theory suggests that the universe originated from a black hole and that there are different universes in every black hole.
Of course, there are also those who believe that the entire universe a computer simulation. But scientists could soon suss out who, if anyone, is right. NASA plans to launch a mission in 2023 to trace the origins of the universe. The SPHEREx mission (Spectro-Photometer for the History of the Universe, Epoch of Reionization, and Ices Explorer). As Inverse reported in February 2019 when the mission was announced, the goal of SPHEREx is to examine the structures that this map of light will reveal, the idea being that we can tell something about how the universe was created by the shapes that emerge.
“Looking at the early history of the universe is a way to test our ideas about how the galaxies are formed, why dark energy is pushing them apart from each other, and other things that we don’t yet understand,” Linda Sparke, NASA’s Astrophysics Explorers Program Scientist, told Inverse at the time. “NASA is about exploration, and there’s no bigger scale to explore than the whole cosmos!”