The first book that I read about cosmology was my Father’s copy of “The Nature of the Universe” by Fred Hoyle. In that book Fred Hoyle explains his theory of a steady state universe, continually expanding and with new matter slowly created in the gaps between existing matter. The theory is appealing as it avoids the need for a prime cause, and it explains the growing distances between objects. In other words it was an alternative theory to the big bang. (The term “big bang” was invented by Hoyle, potentially as a way of highlighting its absurdity.)
It was therefore quite interesting, having swallowed that theory first, to come across the big bang theory a little while later, and to learn about the evidence that eventually killed off the steady state idea (eg cosmic background radiation). Looking back it was probably quite a formative experience as I had to reject a previously held theory and as such it was a very practical induction into the scientific method.
I would be very tempted to let that book be my son’s introduction to cosmology precisely so that he could go through the same process – although he’s already aware of the big bang idea. We’ll just have to settle for the Santa Claus disillusionment event to have the same effect.
Reading around this a bit (during which, incidentally, I found this very good paper about genetic algorithms) it’s clear that the debate between the big bang protagonists and the steady staters was being played out in the public realm as well as within the journals and corridors of science. And as this article shows there was much ideological input to the debate too with the Vatican coming out in favour of the big bang theory, precisely because it left a door open for an overall creator.
The only comparable debate I can think of being played out currently is that around the existence and human causation of climate change – but I don’t think the analogy works: I’m not seeing a scientific debate about the fact or causation of climate change. And that leaves me wondering whether we will see any other fundamental scientific debates played out publicly – I am sure there are differing views on a wealth of ideas being tested and developed within the scientific community but they are on relatively small issues understood only to those discussing them. Which is a shame, because perhaps it would be good for us all to see a scientific hypothesis overturned by science itself, every once in a while – just to remember that it happens.