Many astronomers have co-opted the term “holy grail” to refer to difficult-to-achieve potential discoveries that would catapult our understanding of the universe. The biggest of all holy grails for astronomers is the quest to observationally affirm a cornerstone of the biblically predicted big bang creation model.1 That cornerstone is that the universe’s first stars will be comprised of 76% hydrogen, 24% helium, a trace amount of lithium, and no other elements.
Failed Big Bang Prediction?
In the big bang creation model, the universe begins with only one element: hydrogen, consisting of a single proton. As the universe expands from the cosmic creation event, it gets colder. (The second law of thermodynamics implies that any system that expands will become cooler in proportion to the degree of expansion that occurs.) Between 3 and 4 minutes after the cosmic creation event, the universe spends about 20 seconds passing through the temperature window when nuclear fusion can occur.
The standard big bang creation model predicts that 24.5% of the primordial hydrogen by mass will be fused into helium and a trace amount of lithium by the time the universe is 4 minutes old and too cold for any further nuclear fusion to occur. Therefore, the first stars to form in the universe, according to the big bang model, will be devoid of any elements heavier than lithium.
For different reasons, atheists and young-earth creationists have cited the failure of astronomers to find any stars that are comprised of only hydrogen, helium, and lithium as evidence that the big bang model has been falsified. To sustain their belief in strict naturalism, atheists need the universe to be at least thousands of times older than the 14-billion-year age the big bang creation model predicts. Atheist plasma physicist, Eric Lerner, author of the book, The Big Bang Never Happened,2 claims that all the helium in the universe came from the nuclear furnaces of stars and that stars have been burning not just for billions of years but for infinite time. In his and other atheistic cosmic models where the universe is much older than 14 billion years, there will be no stars with a high ratio of helium to elements heavier than helium. The reason is that for every kilogram of helium produced by stellar burning, about 0.3 kilograms of elements heavier than helium are produced.
To sustain their interpretation of Genesis, young-earth creationists need the universe to be a million times younger than the big bang age. John Hartnett, Rod Bernitt, and Jonathan Sarfati, respectively, have written: “These original stars have never been observed, hence they were nothing more than hypothetical . . . It [the big bang model] vitally needs those Population III stars or there is no story.”3 “Their existence [of Population III stars] remains a matter of conjecture, not fact.”4 “The total absence of these stars counts as a falsified prediction of Big Bang cosmology.”5
Successful Big Bang Prediction
What these and other atheists and young-earth creationists fail to acknowledge to their readers is that the big bang creation model predicts that the spectra of the universe’s firstborn stars, aka Population III stars, that would reveal a composition of 75.5% hydrogen, 24.5% helium, a trace amount of lithium, and nothing else would be undetectable by present-day telescope power. The model predicts that detecting such spectra will be challenging even for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).
For all stars, the formation time is inversely proportional to the star’s mass. Stars greater than 20 times the Sun’s mass will form in less than 100,000 years. Stars as massive as the Sun will take millions of years to form. Stars 8–80% of the Sun’s mass will take tens of millions to hundreds of millions of years to form. Similarly, the length of time it takes for a star to burn through all its nuclear fuel is inversely proportional to the star’s mass. Stars bigger than 100 times the Sun’s mass will burn up in just a few tens of thousands of years. Stars 20–60 times the Sun’s mass consume all their nuclear fuel within a million to a few tens of millions of years. The Sun’s nuclear furnace has been burning for the past 4.57 billion years and has 4.57 billion years of nuclear fuel remaining. The smallest stars will take more than a trillion years to burn through all their nuclear fuel.
In the big bang creation model, stars will begin to form when the universe is about 200 million years old. The first of these first stars will be the most massive stars. These most massive stars will burn up and become very faint in less than a million years after they form. Thus, the only way they can be detected is by observing them at distances that correspond to the epoch in the universe’s history when they would have been undergoing nuclear burning. Those distances are at 13.6 billion light-years. Not even the JWST can detect and measure the spectrum of an individual star at that distance, at least not without help.
Finding the First Stars
With the help of a gravitational lens, the JWST may be able to detect and measure the spectrum of an individual star 13.6 billion light-years away, especially if that star is undergoing a supernova eruption.6 It will take a just-right cluster of galaxies located at the just-right distance along a straight line connecting the JWST with the distant star. The gravity of such a cluster of galaxies will bend the light from the distant star in such a manner as to create a gravitational lens that can increase the magnification power of the JWST by a factor of several thousand times (see figure 1).
Figure 1: Schematic of a Gravitational Lens
The JWST is powerful enough by itself to detect and measure the spectrum of a large, compact cluster of very massive firstborn stars 13.6 billion light-years away. However, the stars would all need to be the same mass and form at the same time.
Forming the First Stars
Both atheists and young-earth creationists have asserted that star formation is impossible in an environment devoid of elements heavier than helium and that the minuscule amount of lithium produced in the big bang will be of no help. Big bang theorists agree that the trace amount of lithium produced by the big bang cannot play a significant role in star formation.7
While it’s difficult to form stars starting with only hydrogen and helium, it’s not impossible. The challenge is how to get primordial gas clouds—without the benefit of elements heavier than helium to form dust—to cool sufficiently so that they can condense to form stars. Heat tends to disperse the gas. For a star to form, gravitational collapse must overcome thermal expansion within a particular gas cloud. Thus, two circumstances must occur: (1) the mass of gas must be sufficient to generate a strong gravitational collapse, and (2) some means, independent of dust, must exist to cool the gas.
Calculations show that where only hydrogen and helium exist, the only possible cooling factor is molecular hydrogen (H2). This H2 will permit only very massive stars to form. However, all big bang creation models predict that some of the primordial hydrogen will be deuterium (HD, heavy hydrogen atoms comprised of a proton and a neutron). HD molecules provide much more efficient cooling than H2 molecules. Thus, the combination of cooling by H2 and HD molecules permits stars as small as 70–80% of the Sun’s mass to form.
Stars just 80% of the Sun’s mass will sustain nuclear burning for 17.5 billion years. Therefore, no matter how early in the universe’s history such stars form, they will still be burning today. This nuclear-burning longevity means that astronomers need not look billions of light-years away to find such stars. Some should exist in or near our galaxy.
Discovery of Firstborn Stars
As noted, stars less massive than the Sun will take tens of millions of years to form. During this formation time, they will become slightly polluted by the ashes of very massive firstborn stars that form, burn up, and explode all within less than a million years. Additional pollution will occur thereafter. A low-mass firstborn star that is now 13.6 billion years old will accrete—over its 13.6-billion-year history—a small quantity of heavy elements from the interstellar medium. The ashes from the exploded remains of supergiant stars pollute the interstellar medium.
In high stellar-density regions, the present-day pollution level is too high for astronomers to reliably detect the difference between a polluted firstborn star and a relatively unpolluted second-generation star. However, for a low-mass firstborn star residing in a very low stellar density region, pollution from the interstellar medium will be so low that there will be no doubt that astronomers are observing an old firstborn star rather than any kind of second-generation star.
Calculations by three Japanese astronomers8 showed that an old firstborn star in a region of low stellar density can accumulate up to, but not more than, 1/100,000th as much iron per unit mass as the Sun presently possesses, while it would be impossible for any kind of second-generation star to possess so little iron. The halo of our galaxy is where the stellar density is low enough to make unmistakable identifications of firstborn stars.
So far, astronomers have discovered seven firstborn stars in our galaxy’s halo. These stars are HE 0107-5240, J0815+4729, J0023+0307, HE 1327-2326, SMSS J160540.18-144323.1, SDSS J102915+172927, and SMSS J031300.36-670839. Relative to the Sun, they possess, respectively, 250,000, 300,000, 400,000, 500,000, 1,600,000, 10,000,000, and 38,000,000 times less iron per unit mass as the Sun.
Resolving the Calcium Abundance Anomaly
In firstborn stars, where astronomers have a measurement of the calcium abundance, the amount of calcium is anomalously high. It is so high that the only possible explanation for its abundance, if the star is indeed a firstborn star, is if the star formed in close proximity to another firstborn star where that star’s mass exceeded 45 times the Sun’s mass and that star had a supernova eruption where both the star’s outer layers and its metal-rich core was ejected.9 If the small-mass firstborn star is polluted by the high-mass firstborn star’s outer layers and metal-rich core before the small-mass firstborn star fully forms, then the small-mass firstborn star’s calcium abundance can be accounted for. However, this pollution scenario is so improbable that it caused some astronomers to doubt whether the star SMSS J031300.36-670839, which possesses an indisputably high calcium abundance, really is a firstborn star.
An international team of 36 nuclear physicists and astronomers led by Liyong Zhang suggested another possible explanation for the calcium abundance anomaly.10 They pointed out that the nuclear furnaces of very massive firstborn stars, long before small-mass firstborn stars fully form, will fuse hydrogen into helium not only by the proton-proton cycle but also by the carbon-nitrogen-oxygen (CNO) cycle. They noted that experimental measurements of the nuclear 19F(p, γ)20Ne breakout reaction rate had only been determined at relatively high energy levels. They explained that if there was a substantial nuclear 19F(p, γ)20Ne breakout reaction occurring below a million electron volts, that CNO breakout reaction would explain SMSS J031300.36-670839’s calcium abundance via pollution from a single high-mass firstborn star’s scattered outer layers alone.
The reason why experimental measurements of the nuclear 19F(p, γ)20Ne breakout reaction rate have not been done at energy levels below a million electron volts is that the cosmic gamma-ray background radiation at those energy levels overwhelms any possible signal from the nuclear 19F(p, γ)20Ne breakout reaction. Zhang’s team overcame this limitation by measuring the nuclear 19F(p, γ)20Ne breakout reaction rate in the China JinPing Underground Laboratory (CJPUL). The CJPUL is the best cosmic-ray-shielded underground laboratory in the world. It’s located under 2,400 meters (7,900 feet) of overbearing rock. The cosmic-ray-induced background is about a hundred times less at CJPUL than it is at the second-best cosmic-ray-shielded physics laboratory, the Laboratori Nazionali del Gran Sasso under the Gran Sasso mountain in Italy.
Zhang’s team discovered that an important CNO nuclear 19F(p, γ)20Ne breakout reaction occurs at 225 kiloelectron volts. Nuclear physicists had previously estimated from their calculations that a nuclear 19F(p, γ)20Ne breakout reaction likely occurred at 225 kiloelectron volts, but that it would not produce much calcium. Zhang and his colleagues’ measurements revealed that the nuclear 19F(p, γ)20Ne breakout reaction at 225 kiloelectron volts is 5.4–7.4 times the rate that nuclear physicists had previously estimated. This additional factor of 5.4–7.4 times explains the calcium observed in the oldest, extremely iron-poor stars under the assumption that these stars are firstborn stars that have been polluted during their formation by the outer layers exploded off high-mass firstborn stars during supernova eruptions.
The CJPUL is still under construction. When completed, the lab will have 50 times the physics laboratory space that it currently possesses. It will be poised to make precision measurements of nucleosynthesis reactions presently hidden by the cosmic ray background.
Meanwhile, the highest priority mission targets for the JWST are to determine the elemental abundance levels and ratios of the oldest stars and the most distant—hence, the first to form—galaxies in the universe. The combination of a more detailed understanding of stellar nucleosynthesis and comprehensive measurements of the elemental abundances of the oldest stars and earliest galaxies will yield the most definitive and finely detailed tests of the big bang creation model.
The combination of CJPUL measurements and JWST observations will not only yield yet another definitive test of the big bang creation model, but it will also determine which of the several currently viable big bang creation models correctly explains the origin and history of the universe. Astronomers’ confidence in the reliability of the big bang model has increased through a series of observational tests. Those tests show a progression from confirmation of a hot big bang model to confirmation of an inflationary hot big bang model to confirmation of a ΛCDM inflationary hot big bang model (an inflationary hot big bang model where the universe’s most dominant component is dark energy and its second most dominant component is cold dark matter).
The combination of CJPUL measurements and JWST observations will inform astronomers which of the several ΛCDM inflationary hot big bang models correctly explains the origin, history, and structure of the universe. Though the quest for a holy grail is admirable, we at RTB see more. Such an advance will make an even stronger case that for thousands of years the Bible alone accurately predicted the fundamental characteristics of the universe. It should remove any rational doubt that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant message from the One who created and designed the universe so that billions of humans can know his purposes for creating the universe and human beings.
Hugh Ross and John Rea, “Big Bang—The Bible Taught It First!” Reasons to Believe, July 1, 2000; Hugh Ross, “Does the Bible Teach Big Bang Cosmology?” Today’s New Reason to Believe (blog), Reasons to Believe, August 26, 2019.
John G. Hartnett, “Have Population III Stars Finally Been Discovered?” Creation Ministries International (blog), March 3, 2016.
Rod Bernitt, “Stellar Evolution and the Problem of the ‘First’ Stars,” Journal of Creation 16, no. 1 (April 2002): 12–14.
Jonathan Sarfati, Refuting Compromise: A Biblical and Scientific Refutation of “Progressive Creationism” (Billions of Years) as Popularized by Astronomer Hugh Ross, 2nd ed. (Atlanta: Creation Book Publishers, 2011), 161.
Eric Lerner, The Big Bang Never Happened: A Startling Refutation of the Dominant Theory of the Origin of the Universe (New York: Times Books, 1991).
Kenneth C. Wong et al., “Searches for Population III Pair-Instability Supernovae: Impact of Gravitational Lensing Magnification,” Publications of the Astronomical Society of Japan 71, no. 3 (June 2019): id. 60, doi:10.1093/pasj/psz037.
Boyuan Liu and Volker Bromm, “Effect of Lithium Hydride on the Cooling of Primordial Gas,” Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 476, no. 2 (May 2018): 1826–1834, doi:10.1093/mnras/sty350.
Yutaka Komiya, Takuma Suda, and Masayuki Y. Fujimoto, “The Most Iron-Deficient Stars as the Polluted Population III Stars,” Astrophysical Journal Letters 808, no. 2 (July 30, 2015): id. L47, doi:10.1088/2041-8205/808/2/L47.
O. Clarkson, F. Herwig, and M. Pignatari, “Erratum: Pop. III i-Process Nucleosynthesis and the Elemental Abundances of SMSS J0313-6708 the Most-Iron Poor Stars,” Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 488, no. 1 (September 2019): 222–223, doi:10.1093/mnras/stz1676.
Liyong Zhang et al., “Measurement of 19F(p, γ)20 Ne Reaction Suggests CNO Breakout in First Stars,” Nature 610 (October 26, 2022): 656–660, doi:10.1038/s41586-022-05230-x.
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