Dr. Edwin Hubble examines the photographic plate on which a super nova was found, June 1936. Associated Press

According to a recent Associated Press poll a majority of Americans—51%—do not believe the universe began with the “big bang.”

The skepticism of half the country may seem startling, given how essential the big-bang theory is to modern cosmology, but there is a good reason for it. The big bang is at first hard to swallow. I am a physics writer, and yet I remember how perplexed I was many years ago when I heard MIT cosmologist Alan Guth describe the universe expanding within a fraction of a second from the size of an atom to “as big as a marble.” My initial thought was: How could he possibly know the size of the entire universe when it was less than a second old? Believing in the big bang seemed to require a leap of faith.

And if you feel uncomfortable with big-bang cosmology, you’re in excellent company: The greatest physicist of the 20th century, Albert Einstein, stubbornly refused to believe in it. Ironically, it was a Catholic priest who first came up with the big-bang idea in 1927. The Belgian priest Georges Lemaître, who was also an astronomer and physicist, theoretically deduced the expansion of the universe and proposed that it was launched from a “primeval atom”—the process later known as the big bang.

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