Astronomy

The Big Freeze

The Big Freeze

Like most landmark discoveries, the history of our universe was stumbled upon by accident.  It seems most game-changing, earth-shattering discoveries are a product of proper planning giving opportunity to dumb luck.  (The discoveries of radiation, the electromagnetic force and penicillin to name a few.)

Albert Einstein once said, “Education is what is left after we have forgotten all we have learned in school.”

And it seems similarly, scientific break-throughs are what is left after the scientific method breaks down.

The discovery that revealed our universe’s rich history was the detection of cosmic background radiation, and it was found in a horn shaped antenna in New Jersey.  Bell Laboratories was home to two very persistent astrophysicists, Arno Penzias and Robert Woodrow Wilson, who were just about ready to absolutely lose their minds.

Penzias and Wilson could not get rid of the background noise from their telescopic antenna.

They tried adjusting the wiring, pointing it in a different direction, and super-cooling the receiver but the noise remained.  The two astrophysicists even chased a family of birds out of the horn shaped antenna to get that darn noise out of their data and out of their heads.

However, it turned out that that omnipresent hum was in fact the reverberating echo of the Big Bang.  The radiation left over from the largest explosion in of all existence; the explosion that started existence itself.

And of all the discoveries that have been made, this one might be the most profound.  For the first time ever we had proof of a beginning, a victory for religion and science alike.   Scientists claimed it as proof that the universe could have spontaneously erupted into existence, arguably nullifying the need for a creator. And at the same time creationists gained solace in the fact that the first three words of Genesis were confirmed;  “In the Beginning.”  Now there truly was a beginning, a start date for the cosmic calendar, and inevitably science soon turned its eyes to the end.

The Universe is ridiculously gigantic. So large that a human mind cannot even truly comprehend the titanic distances involved.

If the universe were the size of the planet Earth, the Earth would only take up 180th of an atom.  This can easily give people an uncomfortable feeling of insignificance.

However; around 600 years ago, man had thought the universe much smaller and himself a much larger part of it.  In fact, man was considered the focal point and it was a large shot at the human ego when Copernicus proved that instead of being the center of the universe, we were actually revolving around a star.

We had moved from an egocentric world-view to a heliocentric universe, but this was not accepted well by those who thought themselves a centerpiece.  And when he added that we were also spinning on an axis, people scowled and argued that if our world were spinning, all the water of the oceans would slosh up on one side, making Al Gore at least half right.

(This was one of man’s first encounters with what would later be coined the general theory of relativity made famous by Albert Einstein and man did not handle it very well.)

It seemed such an obvious fact that the world could not be spinning; that the earth must be stationary.  And because of this logical disconnect the paradigm shift took the better part of the 16th century.  Man so easily changes his home, his friends, and his clothes but so rarely do men change their minds.

Maxwell Plank once remarked that, “new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather its opponents eventually die.”

Unfortunately, Copernicus died along with his opponents so he was unable to truly bask in the glory of scientific victory.  But this was a very dramatic change for the minds of humanity to deal with as they were humbled by their new non-central role in the universe.

So man was left to take comfort in the fact that we are apart of a unique galaxy.  But even that was short lived, because in an absolute stroke of genius (now known as the Hubble Deep Field) the Hubble Telescope pointed its lens at an empty, black and seemingly barren portion of the sky.  This image was exposed an image over time and found the emptiness of space to be littered with glowing, distant galaxies.

A portion of space thought to be empty was instead a cosmic crowd of galaxies dancing through the night.  Over 125 billion galaxies occupy our universe and most of them contain around 100 billion stars.

Humanity begrudgingly grins and commemorates the discovery as they once again shrink into the expanse of the universe.

However; in order to win back its central role in the universe, all humanity’s ego must do is wait.  As I stated earlier, the discovery of the big bang caused scientists to race to find the answer to the question of how the universe will in turn, end.

If the universe were found to be expanding at a decelerating rate, it would suggest that all the matter in the universe would eventually coalesce and the force of the gravity would crush all matter once again into a single point of infinite density called a singularity.

But if the Universe were found to be expanding at an accelerating rate, then all the matter in the universe would eventually separate and we would drift off into the expanse in opposite directions.

This was the great question of death by fire or ice.

The answer was found in the redshift of distant galaxies by the astronomer, Alexander Freidman.  Much like how the pitch of a sound gets higher as it’s source moves towards you and lower as it moves away.  Light gets bluer as it’s source moves towards you and redder as it moves away.  This is known as the Doppler Effect.  Freidman found that the further a galaxy was from us, the redder it was.  This indicated that the universe was in fact expanding and at an accelerated rate, we will surely die icy deaths.

Winter is coming…

This discovery predicts that eventually all the distant galaxies will drift away from us and move out of our observable horizon; so far away that we will never again be able to detect them.

One day man will look up to the sky and find the much removed comfort of being the center of his universe restored, once again we will be the only show in town.

And no matter the length of exposure, nothing but black will be seen beyond the arms of the Milky Way. And ironically, the only way a scientist could be convinced of the existence of these distant unreachable galaxies is by passed down knowledge, perhaps from the fading words of a tattered book.  The experimental method will fail them and give false conclusions of an empty universe as the knowledge of these distant galaxies slowly becomes the ranting’s of aging mad scientists.  Those scientists who still remember the light from our neighboring galaxies might plead with the astronomers and physicists to believe them.  They might describe the gallery of galaxies that was the night sky, but weighed down by the burden of proof their pleas may fall on deaf ears and be brushed aside for concrete truths.

Oh what a strange age it will be when scientists ask men to have faith.

 

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