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In the late 1950s, roughly half the astronomers who voted on whether the universe began with a Big Bang said “No.”

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July 11, 1959 | Vol. 76 | No. 2

Discuss Origin of Universe

THE WORLD’S top astronomers do not agree on the origin of the universe. Of 33 participating in a SCIENCE SERVICE Grand Jury on this subject, there was a virtually equal division on whether or not the universe started with a “big bang” several billion years ago. To this question, 11 (33.3%) voted “Yes,” and 12 (36.4%) voted “No,” while 10 (30.3%) were counted as “Not Voting.” Concerning the more recent theory that matter is being continually created and destroyed, opinion was more sharply divided among the 33. More than half of those responding, 18, or 54.5%, said they did not agree. Eight, or 24.2%, replied they did believe matter is being continually created, and seven, or 21.2%, did not vote. Of the 33 experts, 23, or 69.7%, showed high hopes that one or the other of these opposing theories would be proved right within the next 41 years, while three, or 9.1%, thought they would never be solved.

Besides answering questions, the 33 astronomers polled were given an opportunity to make any comment they desired, with assurances of anonymity for their remarks. Not all astronomers agreed with the idea of a poll. One said, “I do not believe that polls such as this one serve any useful scientific purpose and in fact are apt to be misleading. I prefer, therefore, not to participate.” Another astronomer said that much of the “fun of astronomical research” would be removed if a sure answer to the question of the origin were ever found.

UPDATE | June 4, 2011

Big Bang wins despite hung jury

Arno Penzias (left) and Robert Wilson, in 1993 with the horn antenna they used to discover the cosmic background radiation.

Even the most respected scientists can’t always tell what’s coming. A “grand jury” conducted by Science News in 1959 polled 33 top astronomers to get their take on the origin of the universe. More than half of those who took a stab did not agree that the universe began with a “big bang” — a phrase previously defined in the magazine as “the creation of the universe with a finite past of only five to ten billion years.”

The answer came as an accident just five years later. In 1964, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson picked up a persistent microwave “noise” on an antenna intended to detect radio waves. Over subsequent decades, study of that radiation helped establish today’s consensus that the universe began with a bang about 13.7 billion years ago. But like turtles on the backs of turtles, bigger questions await; there is still fun to be had. Today, scientists are looking to the very same signal — the cosmic microwave background — for clues to what came before the Big Bang, a start before the start.

Perhaps potential jurors who opted out (“I do not believe that polls such as this one serve any useful scientific purpose … ”) had the right idea all along. This time around Science News will pass on sending out the summons, instead waiting for the new evidence that inevitably comes as a surprise as science runs its course. — Elizabeth Quill

Credit: Penzias and Wilson: Roger Ressmeyer/Corbis; paper: paphia/Istockphoto