In a way, the steady state theory built on a very old foundation. The notion of an eternal universe has been around since the ancient Greeks. Greek philosophers and natural scientists had a wide range of views on the origin of the world, but they all generally agreed on the principle that something cannot be produced out of nothing: ex nihilo, nihil: “out of nothing there is nothing.” It takes matter to give shape to matter. Therefore, as the material universe could not possibly have arisen out of “thin it has always been there. Matter is forever. Newton’s discoveries in the eighteenth century generally supported the idea of an eternal universe. For Newton, space was a three-dimensional volume stretching without limit in every direction, and time was a single dimension extending indefinitely into the past and into the future. It was this concept of the eternal universe that the steady state theory sought to confirm, as an alternative to the Big Bang theory.
The implications of the steady state theory, its advocates freely conceded, were largely atheistic. If the universe has always existed, then no one created it. It has simply been there all along. Newton himself sought to avoid this implication. While the universe may operate according to mechanical laws, perhaps even laws that have always existed, Newton argued that there was an external creator of those laws and he “certainly is not mechanical” but rather “incorporeal, living, intelligent, omnipresent.” But by the early twentieth century most scientists viewed Newton’s argument as the special pleading of areligious man who simply could not abide the full significance of his own laws. The scientific consensus seemed to incline toward the view of Pierre-Simon Laplace, who was asked by Napoleon what place his nebular theories had for God and reportedly replied, “I have no need of that hypothesis.” The steady state theory had the virtue for many scientists of dispensing with the God hypothesis.
In the 1960s, however, the steady state theory suffered a devastating blow when two radio engineers working at Bell Labs, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, discovered some mysterious radiation coming from space. This radiation was not coming from a particular direction; rather, it was coming equally from all directions. In fact, it appeared to be coming from the universe itself. Penzias and Wilson soon learned that scientists had been predicting that, if the universe began in a single explosion around fifteen billion years ago, then some of the radiation from that fiery blast would still be around. This radiation was expected to have a temperature of around a few degrees above absolute zero. Penzias and Wilson’s radiation measured slightly less than this number, and they realized to their astonishment that they had encountered a ghostly whisper from the original moment of creation.
Numerous other findings—including data from NASAs Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) satellite—have now confirmed the existence of this primordial background radiation. Based on the Big Bang theory, scientists are able to predict how much hydrogen, lithium, deuterium, and helium should exist in the universe. These predictions are in remarkable congruence with the actual amounts of those elements that we find today. In 1970 physicist Stephen Hawking and mathematician Roger Penrose wrote a famous paper that proved that, given general relativity and the amount of matter in the universe, the universe must have had a beginning. As Hawking states in A Brief History of Time, “There must have been a Big Bang singularity.” Astronomer Martin Rees notes that numerous lines of evidence have now converged that have discredited the steady state theory and confirmed the Big Bang theory.”