This week’s guest Dr. Lucianne Walkowicz is an Astronomer at the Adler Planetarium. She studies stellar magnetic activity and how stars influence a planet’s suitability as a host for alien life. She is also an artist and works in a variety of media, from oil paint to sound.
Dr. Walkowicz holds a B.S. in Physics from Johns Hopkins University, and a M.S. and Ph. D. from University of Washington. She was the Kepler Fellow at UC Berkeley, and the Henry Norris Russell Fellow at Princeton University, before joining the Astronomy Department at Adler Planetarium in 2014. She is a 2012 TED Senior Fellow, a 2011 National Academy of Sciences Kavli Fellow, and has been internationally recognized for her advocacy for conservation of dark night skies.
From October 2017 to October 2018, Dr. Walkowicz served as the fifth Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology in the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress.
Additionally, you may have seen in numerous episodes of the documentary The Universe, as well as the current National Geographic series, Mars.
The Big Bang. The discovery that the Universe has been expanding for billions of years is one of the biggest revelations in the history of science. In a single moment, the entire Universe popped into existence, and has been expanding ever since.
We know this because of multiple lines of evidence: the cosmic microwave background radiation, the ratio of elements in the Universe, etc. But the most compelling one is just the simple fact that everything is expanding away from everything else. Which means, that if you run the clock backwards, the Universe was once an extremely hot dense region
Let’s go backwards in time, billions of years. The closer you get to the Big Bang, the closer everything was, and the hotter it was. When you reach about 380,000 years after the Big Bang, the entire Universe was so hot that all matter was ionized, with atomic nuclei and electrons buzzing around each other.
Keep going backwards, and the entire Universe was the temperature and density of a star, which fused together the primordial helium and other elements that we see to this day.
Continue to the beginning of time, and there was a point where everything was so hot that atoms themselves couldn’t hold together, breaking into their constituent protons and neutrons. Further back still and even atoms break apart into quarks. And before that, it’s just a big question mark. An infinitely dense Universe cosmologists called the singularity.
When you look out into the Universe in all directions, you see the cosmic microwave background radiation. That’s that point when the Universe cooled down so that light could travel freely through space.
And the temperature of this radiation is almost exactly the same in all directions that you look. There are tiny tiny variations, detectable only by the most sensitive instruments.
When two things are the same temperature, like a spoon in your coffee, it means that those two things have had an opportunity to interact. The coffee transferred heat to the spoon, and now their temperatures have equalized.
When we see this in opposite sides of the Universe, that means that at some point, in the ancient past, those two regions were touching. That spot where the light left 13.8 billion years ago on your left, was once directly touching that spot on your right that also emitted its light 13.8 billion years ago.
This is a great theory, but there’s a problem: The Universe never had time for those opposite regions to touch. For the Universe to have the uniform temperature we see today, it would have needed to spend enough time mixing together. But it didn’t have enough time, in fact, the Universe didn’t have any time to exchange temperature.
Imagine you dipped that spoon into the coffee and then pulled it out moments later before the heat could transfer, and yet the coffee and spoon are exactly the same temperature. What’s going on?
To address this problem, the cosmologist Alan Guth proposed the idea of cosmic inflation in 1980. That moments after the Big Bang, the entire Universe expanded dramatically.
And by “moments”, I mean that the inflationary period started when the Universe was only 10^-36 seconds old, and ended when the Universe was 10^-32 seconds old.
And by “expanded dramatically”, I mean that it got 10^26 times larger. That’s a 1 followed by 26 zeroes.
Before inflation, the observable Universe was smaller than an atom. After inflation, it was about 0.88 millimeters. Today, those regions have been stretched 93 billion light-years apart.
This concept of inflation was further developed by cosmologists Andrei Linde, Paul Steinhardt, Andy Albrecht and others.
Inflation resolved some of the shortcomings of the Big Bang Theory.
The first is known as the flatness problem. The most sensitive satellites we have today measure the Universe as flat. Not like a piece-of-paper-flat, but flat in the sense that parallel lines will remain parallel forever as they travel through the Universe. Under the original Big Bang cosmology, you would expect the curvature of the Universe to grow with time.
The second is the horizon problem. And this is the problem I mentioned above, that two regions of the Universe shouldn’t have been able to see each other and interact long enough to be the same temperature.
The third is the monopole problem. According to the original Big Bang theory, there should be a vast number of heavy, stable “monopoles”, or a magnetic particle with only a single pole. Inflation diluted the number of monopoles in the Universe so don’t detect them today.
Although the cosmic microwave background radiation appears mostly even across the sky, there could still be evidence of that inflationary period baked into it.
In order to do this, astronomers have been focusing on searching for primordial gravitational waves. These are different from the gravitational waves generated through the collision of massive objects. Primordial gravitational waves are the echoes from that inflationary period which should be theoretically detectable through the polarization, or orientation, of light in the cosmic microwave background radiation.
A collaboration of scientists used an instrument known as the Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization (or BICEP2) to search for this polarization, and in 2014, they announced that maybe, just maybe, they had detected it, proving the theory of cosmic inflation was correct.
Unfortunately, another team working with the space-based Planck telescope posted evidence that the fluctuations they saw could be fully explained by intervening dust in the Milky Way.
The problem is that BICEP2 and Planck are designed to search for different frequencies. In order to really get to the bottom of this question, more searches need to be done, scanning a series of overlapping frequencies. And that’s in the works now.
BICEP2 and Planck and the newly developed South Pole Telescope as well as some observatories in Chile are all scanning the skies at different frequencies at the same time. Distortion from various types of foreground objects, like dust or radiation should be brighter or dimmer in the different frequencies, while the light from the cosmic microwave background radiation should remain constant throughout.
There are more telescopes, searching more wavelengths of light, searching more of the sky. We could know the answer to this question with more certainty shortly.
One of the most interesting implications of cosmic inflation, if proven, is that our Universe is actually just one in a vast multiverse. While the Universe was undergoing that dramatic expansion, it could have created bubbles of spacetime that spawned other universes, with different laws of physics.
In fact, the father of inflation, Alan Guth, said, “It’s hard to build models of inflation that don’t lead to a multiverse.”
And so, if inflation does eventually get confirmed, then we’ll have a whole multiverse to search for in the cosmic microwave background radiation.
The Big Bang was one of the greatest theories in the history of science. Although it did have a few problems, cosmic inflation was developed to address them. Although there have been a few false starts, astronomers are now performing a sensitive enough search that they might find evidence of this amazing inflationary period. And then it’ll be Nobel Prizes all around.
What is the Universe? That is one immensely loaded question! No matter what angle one took to answer that question, one could spend years answering that question and still barely scratch the surface. In terms of time and space, it is unfathomably large (and possibly even infinite) and incredibly old by human standards. Describing it in detail is therefore a monumental task. But we here at Universe Today are determined to try!
So what is the Universe? Well, the short answer is that it is the sum total of all existence. It is the entirety of time, space, matter and energy that began expanding some 13.8 billion years ago and has continued to expand ever since. No one is entirely certain how extensive the Universe truly is, and no one is entirely sure how it will all end. But ongoing research and study has taught us a great deal in the course of human history.
The term “the Universe” is derived from the Latin word “universum”, which was used by Roman statesman Cicero and later Roman authors to refer to the world and the cosmos as they knew it. This consisted of the Earth and all living creatures that dwelt therein, as well as the Moon, the Sun, the then-known planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn) and the stars.
The term “cosmos” is often used interchangeably with the Universe. It is derived from the Greek word kosmos, which literally means “the world”. Other words commonly used to define the entirety of existence include “Nature” (derived from the Germanic word natur) and the English word “everything”, who’s use can be seen in scientific terminology – i.e. “Theory Of Everything” (TOE).
Today, this term is often to used to refer to all things that exist within the known Universe – the Solar System, the Milky Way, and all known galaxies and superstructures. In the context of modern science, astronomy and astrophysics, it also refers to all spacetime, all forms of energy (i.e. electromagnetic radiation and matter) and the physical laws that bind them.
Origin of the Universe:
The current scientific consensus is that the Universe expanded from a point of super high matter and energy density roughly 13.8 billion years ago. This theory, known as the Big Bang Theory, is not the only cosmological model for explaining the origins of the Universe and its evolution – for example, there is the Steady State Theory or the Oscillating Universe Theory.
It is, however, the most widely-accepted and popular. This is due to the fact that the Big Bang theory alone is able to explain the origin of all known matter, the laws of physics, and the large scale structure of the Universe. It also accounts for the expansion of the Universe, the existence of the Cosmic Microwave Background, and a broad range of other phenomena.
Working backwards from the current state of the Universe, scientists have theorized that it must have originated at a single point of infinite density and finite time that began to expand. After the initial expansion, the theory maintains that Universe cooled sufficiently to allow for the formation of subatomic particles, and later simple atoms. Giant clouds of these primordial elements later coalesced through gravity to form stars and galaxies.
This all began roughly 13.8 billion years ago, and is thus considered to be the age of the Universe. Through the testing of theoretical principles, experiments involving particle accelerators and high-energy states, and astronomical studies that have observed the deep Universe, scientists have constructed a timeline of events that began with the Big Bang and has led to the current state of cosmic evolution.
However, the earliest times of the Universe – lasting from approximately 10-43 to 10-11 seconds after the Big Bang – are the subject of extensive speculation. Given that the laws of physics as we know them could not have existed at this time, it is difficult to fathom how the Universe could have been governed. What’s more, experiments that can create the kinds of energies involved are in their infancy.
Still, many theories prevail as to what took place in this initial instant in time, many of which are compatible. In accordance with many of these theories, the instant following the Big Bang can be broken down into the following time periods: the Singularity Epoch, the Inflation Epoch, and the Cooling Epoch.
Also known as the Planck Epoch (or Planck Era), the Singularity Epoch was the earliest known period of the Universe. At this time, all matter was condensed on a single point of infinite density and extreme heat. During this period, it is believed that the quantum effects of gravity dominated physical interactions and that no other physical forces were of equal strength to gravitation.
This Planck period of time extends from point 0 to approximately 10-43 seconds, and is so named because it can only be measured in Planck time. Due to the extreme heat and density of matter, the state of the Universe was highly unstable. It thus began to expand and cool, leading to the manifestation of the fundamental forces of physics. From approximately 10-43 second and 10-36, the Universe began to cross transition temperatures.
It is here that the fundamental forces that govern the Universe are believed to have began separating from each other. The first step in this was the force of gravitation separating from gauge forces, which account for strong and weak nuclear forces and electromagnetism. Then, from 10-36 to 10-32 seconds after the Big Bang, the temperature of the Universe was low enough (1028 K) that electromagnetism and weak nuclear force were able to separate as well.
With the creation of the first fundamental forces of the Universe, the Inflation Epoch began, lasting from 10-32 seconds in Planck time to an unknown point. Most cosmological models suggest that the Universe at this point was filled homogeneously with a high-energy density, and that the incredibly high temperatures and pressure gave rise to rapid expansion and cooling.
This began at 10-37 seconds, where the phase transition that caused for the separation of forces also led to a period where the Universe grew exponentially. It was also at this point in time that baryogenesis occurred, which refers to a hypothetical event where temperatures were so high that the random motions of particles occurred at relativistic speeds.
As a result of this, particle–antiparticle pairs of all kinds were being continuously created and destroyed in collisions, which is believed to have led to the predominance of matter over antimatter in the present Universe. After inflation stopped, the Universe consisted of a quark–gluon plasma, as well as all other elementary particles. From this point onward, the Universe began to cool and matter coalesced and formed.
As the Universe continued to decrease in density and temperature, the Cooling Epoch began. This was characterized by the energy of particles decreasing and phase transitions continuing until the fundamental forces of physics and elementary particles changed into their present form. Since particle energies would have dropped to values that can be obtained by particle physics experiments, this period onward is subject to less speculation.
For example, scientists believe that about 10-11 seconds after the Big Bang, particle energies dropped considerably. At about 10-6 seconds, quarks and gluons combined to form baryons such as protons and neutrons, and a small excess of quarks over antiquarks led to a small excess of baryons over antibaryons.
Since temperatures were not high enough to create new proton-antiproton pairs (or neutron-anitneutron pairs), mass annihilation immediately followed, leaving just one in 1010 of the original protons and neutrons and none of their antiparticles. A similar process happened at about 1 second after the Big Bang for electrons and positrons.
After these annihilations, the remaining protons, neutrons and electrons were no longer moving relativistically and the energy density of the Universe was dominated by photons – and to a lesser extent, neutrinos. A few minutes into the expansion, the period known as Big Bang nucleosynthesis also began.
Thanks to temperatures dropping to 1 billion kelvin and energy densities dropping to about the equivalent of air, neutrons and protons began to combine to form the Universe’s first deuterium (a stable isotope of hydrogen) and helium atoms. However, most of the Universe’s protons remained uncombined as hydrogen nuclei.
After about 379,000 years, electrons combined with these nuclei to form atoms (again, mostly hydrogen), while the radiation decoupled from matter and continued to expand through space, largely unimpeded. This radiation is now known to be what constitutes the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), which today is the oldest light in the Universe.
As the CMB expanded, it gradually lost density and energy, and is currently estimated to have a temperature of 2.7260 ± 0.0013 K (-270.424 °C/ -454.763 °F ) and an energy density of 0.25 eV/cm3 (or 4.005×10-14 J/m3; 400–500 photons/cm3). The CMB can be seen in all directions at a distance of roughly 13.8 billion light years, but estimates of its actual distance place it at about 46 billion light years from the center of the Universe.
Evolution of the Universe:
Over the course of the several billion years that followed, the slightly denser regions of the Universe’s matter (which was almost uniformly distributed) began to become gravitationally attracted to each other. They therefore grew even denser, forming gas clouds, stars, galaxies, and the other astronomical structures that we regularly observe today.
This is what is known as the Structure Epoch, since it was during this time that the modern Universe began to take shape. This consisted of visible matter distributed in structures of various sizes (i.e. stars and planets to galaxies, galaxy clusters, and super clusters) where matter is concentrated, and which are separated by enormous gulfs containing few galaxies.
The details of this process depend on the amount and type of matter in the Universe. Cold dark matter, warm dark matter, hot dark matter, and baryonic matter are the four suggested types. However, the Lambda-Cold Dark Matter model (Lambda-CDM), in which the dark matter particles moved slowly compared to the speed of light, is the considered to be the standard model of Big Bang cosmology, as it best fits the available data.
In this model, cold dark matter is estimated to make up about 23% of the matter/energy of the Universe, while baryonic matter makes up about 4.6%. The Lambda refers to the Cosmological Constant, a theory originally proposed by Albert Einstein that attempted to show that the balance of mass-energy in the Universe remains static.
In this case, it is associated with dark energy, which served to accelerate the expansion of the Universe and keep its large-scale structure largely uniform. The existence of dark energy is based on multiple lines of evidence, all of which indicate that the Universe is permeated by it. Based on observations, it is estimated that 73% of the Universe is made up of this energy.
During the earliest phases of the Universe, when all of the baryonic matter was more closely space together, gravity predominated. However, after billions of years of expansion, the growing abundance of dark energy led it to begin dominating interactions between galaxies. This triggered an acceleration, which is known as the Cosmic Acceleration Epoch.
When this period began is subject to debate, but it is estimated to have began roughly 8.8 billion years after the Big Bang (5 billion years ago). Cosmologists rely on both quantum mechanics and Einstein’s General Relativity to describe the process of cosmic evolution that took place during this period and any time after the Inflationary Epoch.
Through a rigorous process of observations and modeling, scientists have determined that this evolutionary period does accord with Einstein’s field equations, though the true nature of dark energy remains illusive. What’s more, there are no well-supported models that are capable of determining what took place in the Universe prior to the period predating 10-15 seconds after the Big Bang.
However, ongoing experiments using CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) seek to recreate the energy conditions that would have existed during the Big Bang, which is also expected to reveal physics that go beyond the realm of the Standard Model.
Any breakthroughs in this area will likely lead to a unified theory of quantum gravitation, where scientists will finally be able to understand how gravity interacts with the three other fundamental forces of the physics – electromagnetism, weak nuclear force and strong nuclear force. This, in turn, will also help us to understand what truly happened during the earliest epochs of the Universe.
Structure of the Universe:
The actual size, shape and large-scale structure of the Universe has been the subject of ongoing research. Whereas the oldest light in the Universe that can be observed is 13.8 billion light years away (the CMB), this is not the actual extent of the Universe. Given that the Universe has been in a state of expansion for billion of years, and at velocities that exceed the speed of light, the actual boundary extends far beyond what we can see.
Our current cosmological models indicate that the Universe measures some 91 billion light years (28 billion parsecs) in diameter. In other words, the observable Universe extends outwards from our Solar System to a distance of roughly 46 billion light years in all directions. However, given that the edge of the Universe is not observable, it is not yet clear whether the Universe actually has an edge. For all we know, it goes on forever!
Within the observable Universe, matter is distributed in a highly structured fashion. Within galaxies, this consists of large concentrations – i.e. planets, stars, and nebulas – interspersed with large areas of empty space (i.e. interplanetary space and the interstellar medium).
Things are much the same at larger scales, with galaxies being separated by volumes of space filled with gas and dust. At the largest scale, where galaxy clusters and superclusters exist, you have a wispy network of large-scale structures consisting of dense filaments of matter and gigantic cosmic voids.
In terms of its shape, spacetime may exist in one of three possible configurations – positively-curved, negatively-curved and flat. These possibilities are based on the existence of at least four dimensions of space-time (an x-coordinate, a y-coordinate, a z-coordinate, and time), and depend upon the nature of cosmic expansion and whether or not the Universe is finite or infinite.
A positively-curved (or closed) Universe would resemble a four-dimensional sphere that would be finite in space and with no discernible edge. A negatively-curved (or open) Universe would look like a four-dimensional “saddle” and would have no boundaries in space or time.
In the former scenario, the Universe would have to stop expanding due to an overabundance of energy. In the latter, it would contain too little energy to ever stop expanding. In the third and final scenario – a flat Universe – a critical amount of energy would exist and its expansion woudl only halt after an infinite amount of time.
Fate of the Universe:
Hypothesizing that the Universe had a starting point naturally gives rise to questions about a possible end point. If the Universe began as a tiny point of infinite density that started to expand, does that mean it will continue to expand indefinitely? Or will it one day run out of expansive force, and begin retreating inward until all matter crunches back into a tiny ball?
Answering this question has been a major focus of cosmologists ever since the debate about which model of the Universe was the correct one began. With the acceptance of the Big Bang Theory, but prior to the observation of dark energy in the 1990s, cosmologists had come to agree on two scenarios as being the most likely outcomes for our Universe.
In the first, commonly known as the “Big Crunch” scenario, the Universe will reach a maximum size and then begin to collapse in on itself. This will only be possible if the mass density of the Universe is greater than the critical density. In other words, as long as the density of matter remains at or above a certain value (1-3 ×10-26 kg of matter per m³), the Universe will eventually contract.
Alternatively, if the density in the Universe were equal to or below the critical density, the expansion would slow down but never stop. In this scenario, known as the “Big Freeze”, the Universe would go on until star formation eventually ceased with the consumption of all the interstellar gas in each galaxy. Meanwhile, all existing stars would burn out and become white dwarfs, neutron stars, and black holes.
Very gradually, collisions between these black holes would result in mass accumulating into larger and larger black holes. The average temperature of the Universe would approach absolute zero, and black holes would evaporate after emitting the last of their Hawking radiation. Finally, the entropy of the Universe would increase to the point where no organized form of energy could be extracted from it (a scenarios known as “heat death”).
Modern observations, which include the existence of dark energy and its influence on cosmic expansion, have led to the conclusion that more and more of the currently visible Universe will pass beyond our event horizon (i.e. the CMB, the edge of what we can see) and become invisible to us. The eventual result of this is not currently known, but “heat death” is considered a likely end point in this scenario too.
Other explanations of dark energy, called phantom energy theories, suggest that ultimately galaxy clusters, stars, planets, atoms, nuclei, and matter itself will be torn apart by the ever-increasing expansion. This scenario is known as the “Big Rip”, in which the expansion of the Universe itself will eventually be its undoing.
History of Study:
Strictly speaking, human beings have been contemplating and studying the nature of the Universe since prehistoric times. As such, the earliest accounts of how the Universe came to be were mythological in nature and passed down orally from one generation to the next. In these stories, the world, space, time, and all life began with a creation event, where a God or Gods were responsible for creating everything.
Astronomy also began to emerge as a field of study by the time of the Ancient Babylonians. Systems of constellations and astrological calendars prepared by Babylonian scholars as early as the 2nd millennium BCE would go on to inform the cosmological and astrological traditions of cultures for thousands of years to come.
By Classical Antiquity, the notion of a Universe that was dictated by physical laws began to emerge. Between Greek and Indian scholars, explanations for creation began to become philosophical in nature, emphasizing cause and effect rather than divine agency. The earliest examples include Thales and Anaximander, two pre-Socratic Greek scholars who argued that everything was born of a primordial form of matter.
By the 5th century BCE, pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles became the first western scholar to propose a Universe composed of four elements – earth, air, water and fire. This philosophy became very popular in western circles, and was similar to the Chinese system of five elements – metal, wood, water, fire, and earth – that emerged around the same time.
It was not until Democritus, the 5th/4th century BCE Greek philosopher, that a Universe composed of indivisible particles (atoms) was proposed. The Indian philosopher Kanada (who lived in the 6th or 2nd century BCE) took this philosophy further by proposing that light and heat were the same substance in different form. The 5th century CE Buddhist philosopher Dignana took this even further, proposing that all matter was made up of energy.
The notion of finite time was also a key feature of the Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Perhaps inspired by the Zoroastrian concept of the Day of Judgement, the belief that the Universe had a beginning and end would go on to inform western concepts of cosmology even to the present day.
Between the 2nd millennium BCE and the 2nd century CE, astronomy and astrology continued to develop and evolve. In addition to monitoring the proper motions of the planets and the movement of the constellations through the Zodiac, Greek astronomers also articulated the geocentric model of the Universe, where the Sun, planets and stars revolve around the Earth.
These traditions are best described in the 2nd century CE mathematical and astronomical treatise, the Almagest, which was written by Greek-Egyptian astronomer Claudius Ptolemaeus (aka. Ptolemy). This treatise and the cosmological model it espoused would be considered canon by medieval European and Islamic scholars for over a thousand years to come.
However, even before the Scientific Revolution (ca. 16th to 18th centuries), there were astronomers who proposed a heliocentric model of the Universe – where the Earth, planets and stars revolved around the Sun. These included Greek astronomer Aristarchus of Samos (ca. 310 – 230 BCE), and Hellenistic astronomer and philosopher Seleucus of Seleucia (190 – 150 BCE).
During the Middle Ages, Indian, Persian and Arabic philosophers and scholars maintained and expanded on Classical astronomy. In addition to keeping Ptolemaic and non-Aristotelian ideas alive, they also proposed revolutionary ideas like the rotation of the Earth. Some scholars – such as Indian astronomer Aryabhata and Persian astronomers Albumasar and Al-Sijzi – even advanced versions of a heliocentric Universe.
By the 16th century, Nicolaus Copernicus proposed the most complete concept of a heliocentric Universe by resolving lingering mathematical problems with the theory. His ideas were first expressed in the 40-page manuscript titled Commentariolus (“Little Commentary”), which described a heliocentric model based on seven general principles. These seven principles stated that:
Celestial bodies do not all revolve around a single point
The center of Earth is the center of the lunar sphere—the orbit of the moon around Earth; all the spheres rotate around the Sun, which is near the center of the Universe
The distance between Earth and the Sun is an insignificant fraction of the distance from Earth and Sun to the stars, so parallax is not observed in the stars
The stars are immovable – their apparent daily motion is caused by the daily rotation of Earth
Earth is moved in a sphere around the Sun, causing the apparent annual migration of the Sun
Earth has more than one motion
Earth’s orbital motion around the Sun causes the seeming reverse in direction of the motions of the planets.
A more comprehensive treatment of his ideas was released in 1532, when Copernicus completed his magnum opus – De revolutionibus orbium coelestium(On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres). In it, he advanced his seven major arguments, but in more detailed form and with detailed computations to back them up. Due to fears of persecution and backlash, this volume was not released until his death in 1542.
His ideas would be further refined by 16th/17th century mathematicians, astronomer and inventor Galileo Galilei. Using a telescope of his own creation, Galileo would make recorded observations of the Moon, the Sun, and Jupiter which demonstrated flaws in the geocentric model of the Universe while also showcasing the internal consistency of the Copernican model.
His observations were published in several different volumes throughout the early 17th century. His observations of the cratered surface of the Moon and his observations of Jupiter and its largest moons were detailed in 1610 with his Sidereus Nuncius (The Starry Messenger) while his observations were sunspots were described in On the Spots Observed in the Sun (1610).
Galileo also recorded his observations about the Milky Way in the Starry Messenger, which was previously believed to be nebulous. Instead, Galileo found that it was a multitude of stars packed so densely together that it appeared from a distance to look like clouds, but which were actually stars that were much farther away than previously thought.
In 1632, Galileo finally addressed the “Great Debate” in his treatise Dialogo sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo (Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems), in which he advocated the heliocentric model over the geocentric. Using his own telescopic observations, modern physics and rigorous logic, Galileo’s arguments effectively undermined the basis of Aristotle’s and Ptolemy’s system for a growing and receptive audience.
Johannes Kepler advanced the model further with his theory of the elliptical orbits of the planets. Combined with accurate tables that predicted the positions of the planets, the Copernican model was effectively proven. From the middle of the seventeenth century onward, there were few astronomers who were not Copernicans.
When viewed in an inertial reference frame, an object either remains at rest or continues to move at a constant velocity, unless acted upon by an external force.
The vector sum of the external forces (F) on an object is equal to the mass (m) of that object multiplied by the acceleration vector (a) of the object. In mathematical form, this is expressed as: F=ma
When one body exerts a force on a second body, the second body simultaneously exerts a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction on the first body.
Together, these laws described the relationship between any object, the forces acting upon it, and the resulting motion, thus laying the foundation for classical mechanics. The laws also allowed Newton to calculate the mass of each planet, calculate the flattening of the Earth at the poles and the bulge at the equator, and how the gravitational pull of the Sun and Moon create the Earth’s tides.
His calculus-like method of geometrical analysis was also able to account for the speed of sound in air (based on Boyle’s Law), the precession of the equinoxes – which he showed were a result of the Moon’s gravitational attraction to the Earth – and determine the orbits of the comets. This volume would have a profound effect on the sciences, with its principles remaining canon for the following 200 years.
Another major discovery took place in 1755, when Immanuel Kant proposed that the Milky Way was a large collection of stars held together by mutual gravity. Just like the Solar System, this collection of stars would be rotating and flattened out as a disk, with the Solar System embedded within it.
Astronomer William Herschel attempted to actually map out the shape of the Milky Way in 1785, but he didn’t realize that large portions of the galaxy are obscured by gas and dust, which hides its true shape. The next great leap in the study of the Universe and the laws that govern it did not come until the 20th century, with the development of Einstein’s theories of Special and General Relativity.
Einstein’s groundbreaking theories about space and time (summed up simply as E=mc²) were in part the result of his attempts to resolve Newton’s laws of mechanics with the laws of electromagnetism (as characterized by Maxwell’s equations and the Lorentz force law). Eventually, Einstein would resolve the inconsistency between these two fields by proposing Special Relativity in his 1905 paper, “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies“.
Basically, this theory stated that the speed of light is the same in all inertial reference frames. This broke with the previously-held consensus that light traveling through a moving medium would be dragged along by that medium, which meant that the speed of the light is the sum of its speed through a medium plus the speed of that medium. This theory led to multiple issues that proved insurmountable prior to Einstein’s theory.
Special Relativity not only reconciled Maxwell’s equations for electricity and magnetism with the laws of mechanics, but also simplified the mathematical calculations by doing away with extraneous explanations used by other scientists. It also made the existence of a medium entirely superfluous, accorded with the directly observed speed of light, and accounted for the observed aberrations.
Between 1907 and 1911, Einstein began considering how Special Relativity could be applied to gravity fields – what would come to be known as the Theory of General Relativity. This culminated in 1911 with the publications of “On the Influence of Gravitation on the Propagation of Light“, in which he predicted that time is relative to the observer and dependent on their position within a gravity field.
He also advanced what is known as the Equivalence Principle, which states that gravitational mass is identical to inertial mass. Einstein also predicted the phenomenon of gravitational time dilation – where two observers situated at varying distances from a gravitating mass perceive a difference in the amount of time between two events. Another major outgrowth of his theories were the existence of Black Holes and an expanding Universe.
In 1915, a few months after Einstein had published his Theory of General Relativity, German physicist and astronomer Karl Schwarzschild found a solution to the Einstein field equations that described the gravitational field of a point and spherical mass. This solution, now called the Schwarzschild radius, describes a point where the mass of a sphere is so compressed that the escape velocity from the surface would equal the speed of light.
In 1931, Indian-American astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar calculated, using Special Relativity, that a non-rotating body of electron-degenerate matter above a certain limiting mass would collapse in on itself. In 1939, Robert Oppenheimer and others concurred with Chandrasekhar’s analysis, claiming that neutron stars above a prescribed limit would collapse into black holes.
Another consequence of General Relativity was the prediction that the Universe was either in a state of expansion or contraction. In 1929, Edwin Hubble confirmed that the former was the case. At the time, this appeared to disprove Einstein’s theory of a Cosmological Constant, which was a force which “held back gravity” to ensure that the distribution of matter in the Universe remained uniform over time.
To this, Edwin Hubble demonstrated using redshift measurements that galaxies were moving away from the Milky Way. What’s more, he showed that the galaxies that were farther from Earth appeared to be receding faster – a phenomena that would come to be known as Hubble’s Law. Hubble attempted to constrain the value of the expansion factor – which he estimated at 500 km/sec per Megaparsec of space (which has since been revised).
And then in 1931, Georges Lemaitre, a Belgian physicist and Roman Catholic priest, articulated an idea that would give rise to the Big Bang Theory. After confirming independently that the Universe was in a state of expansion, he suggested that the current expansion of the Universe meant that the father back in time one went, the smaller the Universe would be.
In other words, at some point in the past, the entire mass of the Universe would have been concentrated on a single point. These discoveries triggered a debate between physicists throughout the 1920s and 30s, with the majority advocating that the Universe was in a steady state (i.e. the Steady State Theory). In this model, new matter is continuously created as the Universe expands, thus preserving the uniformity and density of matter over time.
After World War II, the debate came to a head between proponents of the Steady State Model and proponents of the Big Bang Theory – which was growing in popularity. Eventually, the observational evidence began to favor the Big Bang over the Steady State, which included the discovery and confirmation of the CMB in 1965. Since that time, astronomers and cosmologists have sought to resolve theoretical problems arising from this model.
In the 1960s, for example, Dark Matter (originally proposed in 1932 by Jan Oort) was proposed as an explanation for the apparent “missing mass” of the Universe. In addition, papers submitted by Stephen Hawking and other physicists showed that singularities were an inevitable initial condition of general relativity and a Big Bang model of cosmology.
In 1981, physicist Alan Guth theorized a period of rapid cosmic expansion (aka. the “Inflation” Epoch) that resolved other theoretical problems. The 1990s also saw the rise of Dark Energy as an attempt to resolve outstanding issues in cosmology. In addition to providing an explanation as to the Universe’s missing mass (along with Dark Matter) it also provided an explanation as to why the Universe is still accelerating, and offered a resolution to Einstein’s Cosmological Constant.
Significant progress has been made in our study of the Universe thanks to advances in telescopes, satellites, and computer simulations. These have allowed astronomers and cosmologists to see farther into the Universe (and hence, farther back in time). This has in turn helped them to gain a better understanding of its true age, and make more precise calculations of its matter-energy density.
For example, in June of 2016, NASA announced findings that indicate that the Universe is expanding even faster than previously thought. Based on new data provided by the Hubble Space Telescope (which was then compared to data from the WMAP and the Planck Observatory) it appeared that the Hubble Constant was 5% to 9% greater than expected.
Next-generation telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and ground-based telescopes like the Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) are also expected to allow for additional breakthroughs in our understanding of the Universe in the coming years and decades.
Without a doubt, the Universe is beyond the reckoning of our minds. Our best estimates say hat it is unfathomably vast, but for all we know, it could very well extend to infinity. What’s more, its age in almost impossible to contemplate in strictly human terms. In the end, our understanding of it is nothing less than the result of thousands of years of constant and progressive study.
And in spite of that, we’ve only really begun to scratch the surface of the grand enigma that it is the Universe. Perhaps some day we will be able to see to the edge of it (assuming it has one) and be able to resolve the most fundamental questions about how all things in the Universe interact. Until that time, all we can do is measure what we don’t know by what we do, and keep exploring!
To speed you on your way, here is a list of topics we hope you will enjoy and that will answer your questions. Good luck with your exploration!
Whenever I do a new livestream on Instagram (hint hint, @universetoday on Instagram), it’s generally with an audience that doesn’t have a lot of experience with my work here on Universe Today or YouTube.
They’re enthusiastic about space, but they haven’t been exposed to a lot of the modern ideas about astrobiology and the search for extraterrestrials. They have, however, seen a lot of TV and movies.
And so, the most common question I get, by a long shot is, “do you believe in aliens?”
That’s actually a more complicated question. On the one hand, the question could be: do I believe that aliens are visiting Earth, creating crop circles, infiltrating our government, and experimenting on human/alien hybrids for the eventual overthrow of human civilization?
The answer to that question, is no.
I believe in UFOs, in that, I believe there are unidentified objects flying in the air, which haven’t gotten a definitive categorization. And when they do get an explanation, it’s weather balloons, or Venus, or airplanes, or fireworks, or drones, or a hoax.
It’s never aliens.
Because if it was aliens, we would have some kind of evidence. There would be something, anything, that gave definitive proof that aliens were here.
What I’m talking about is some kind of monument, or machine, or vehicle, or factory. Something that’s been around here on Earth for as long as human history, and has no explanation for how it could have been created.
UFO researchers point to things like the pyramids, or the statues on Easter Island, or the Nazca lines, when there’s plenty of evidence these things could be created by humans and their tools of the age. Even when the hoaxers who created crop circles with a plank on a rope and a little planning tried to explain how they did it, people didn’t really believe them.
I want to show you a series of amazing visualizations created by Sam Monfort, a data researcher in the Human Factors and Applied Cognition program at George Mason University. Sam pulled in data from the National UFO Reporting Center or NUFORC which has been collecting reports all the way back to 1905.
Since its inception, NUFORC has received almost 105,000 UFO reports. And sighting are at an all time high.
But what’s really fascinating is how the trends of what people see have changed over time. A century ago, the vast majority of UFOs were spheres or cigar shaped. But then saucers showed up in the 20s, and that’s all anyone saw.
Cigars have dropped down to almost nothing, while lights in the sky have grown in prominence to become almost 50% of the UFOs that people see these days.
Clearly spaceship design took a turn away from cigars, to saucers to glowing lights. Oh, fickle aliens spacecraft designers, following the latest fashions.
The timing is interesting too. There’s a rise in sightings around July 4th in the US every year. Fireworks maybe?
The other piece of data that’s pretty interesting is that people in the US are 300 times more likely to report a UFO sighting than any other country in the world. My own Canada is number 2.
Here’s the thing. A huge percentage of the population is now carrying around their own personal tricorder, which will record audio, video and take amazing pictures, even in a dimly lit alien spaceship. And yet, there still hasn’t been any definitive, scientifically proven evidence for aliens.
Google is watching everywhere I go, and reminds me that I visited Home Depot last week, but you think the occasional trip to an orbital research facility would get picked up.
I feel pretty confident when I say, there’s no evidence that aliens are visiting Earth.
But the deeper question is a little more unsettling. Do I believe there are aliens in the Universe?
The Universe is huge. The very edge of the Universe we can see is known as the observable Universe. The first light in the Universe has been traveling through space for 13.8 billion years to reach our eyes. And because of the expansion of the Universe, those regions are now more than 46 billion light years away from us.
That’s just the observable Universe. The actual physical Universe is much larger. Hundreds of billions, trillions, quadrillions or more light years across. Maybe it’s even infinite.
Forever is a long way.
And we know that the Universe is old. It’s been around for 13.8 billion years. Our Milky Way has been around for almost that entire period. The Solar System showed up a relatively recent 4.5 billion years ago. We’re late to a party that’s been raging for almost 10 billion years already.
Fossil evidence tells us that life formed here on Earth pretty much as quickly as it was possible to do so. Just a few hundred million years after the Earth formed, and it wasn’t entirely a ball of molten rock, life popped up and started evolving.
Multiply the Universe’s age by its size and you get a place that really should be teeming with life, and yet we don’t see any evidence of aliens. Not in cigars nor saucers.
This is of course, the Fermi Paradox, and we’ve talked about this several times in the past. We can’t seem to find evidence of aliens, or their robotic spacecraft which should be busily colonizing the Milky Way turning every planet they reach into more robots.
The Fermi Paradox has been the source of arguments and existential terror for many.
In fact, if the Fermi Paradox doesn’t bother you in an existential way, then I don’t think you’ve thought about the Fermi Paradox enough.
Are there aliens? There might be single-celled, simple organisms across the Universe. But more complex animals like we have here on Earth might be incredibly uncommon.
This is the idea of the Rare Earth hypothesis, which was put forward in the year 2000 in a book by paleontologist Peter Ward and astrobiologist Donald Brownlee. If you have any interest in this subject, I highly recommend you give it a read.
In Rare Earth, Ward and Brownlee argue that Earth was lucky in many factors that we never really thought about before.
The Earth is the right distance from the center of the Milky Way so we’re not bombarded by radiation, but not too far so that we’re in the outskirts, with no heavy elements.
We orbit the right kind of star, and the right configuration of other planets in the Solar System. No big bully super-Jupiters that caused havoc with our planet or kicked us out of the Solar System entirely.
The orbit of the Earth has been stable for a long time, following a roughly circular orbit around the Sun. Our planet is the right size and density for life to survive and thrive. With plate tectonics, which help recycle our rocks and atmospheric gasses, so we don’t become a hellworld like Venus.
With a single large Moon that helped regulate our tides and provided an environment where some lifeforms could have been forced to find a better way.
And then some kind of secret sauce that helped give Earth life the kick it needed to go from simple to complex lifeforms.
Maybe there’s life everywhere, but we’ll never find anything more complex than bacteria. Or maybe we’ll never find anything anywhere. Ever.
I understand why the search for UFOs is so fascinating for people, and why many think that’s a reasonable default answer for seeing glowing lights in the sky. But for me, I want to know for sure that we’re not alone, that there are other aliens lifeforms and maybe even civilizations out there among the stars.
I don’t believe UFOs are aliens, and I’m not entirely convinced there’s anyone else in the entire Universe.
And that’s why I think we should dedicate ourselves to finding out the answer. Listen to stars for signals from extraterrestrial civilizations, search planets for the chemical signatures of alien life. Scour our own Solar System for anything. Under the rocks on Mars or under the oceans of Europa.
If it does turn out that we’re alone? What then? Do we have a greater responsibility to take care of ourselves and our planet, to make sure the candlelight of life and intelligence doesn’t flicker out?
Now you know how I feel about aliens, what about you? Do you think we’re being visited on a regular basis? Do you think there are aliens out there, somewhere, waiting to be discovered? Or do you think we’re all alone in the Universe. I’d like to know your thoughts.
In our next episode, we’re going to talk about one of the biggest current mysteries in astronomy: Fast Radio Bursts. They were only recently discovered, and they’re a total mystery. No answers next time, only questions.
What would we do if aliens actually visited us here on Earth? How prepared are our governments to deal with them? It turns out, there are some specific plans and preparations, and I detail them in this video.
This article was originally published in 2008, but has been updated several times now to keep track with our advancing knowledge of the cosmos!
My six-year old daughter is a question-asking machine. We were driving home from school a couple of days ago, and she was grilling me about the nature of the Universe. One of her zingers was, “What’s the Biggest Star in the Universe”? I had an easy answer. “The Universe is a big place,” I said, “and there’s no way we can possibly know what the biggest star is”. But that’s not a real answer.
So she refined the question. “What’s the biggest star that we know of?” Of course, I was stuck in the car, and without access to the Internet. But once I got back home, and was able to do some research, I learned the answer and thought I’d share it with the rest of you But to answer it fully, some basic background information needs to be covered first. Ready?
Solar Radius and Mass:
When talking about the size of stars, it’s important to first take a look at our own Sun for a sense of scale. Our familiar star is a mighty 1.4 million km across (870,000 miles). That’s such a huge number that it’s hard to get a sense of scale. Speaking of which, the Sun also accounts for 99.9% of all the matter in our Solar System. In fact, you could fit one million planet Earths inside the Sun.
Using these values, astronomers have created the terms “solar radius” and “solar mass”, which they use to compare stars of greater or smaller size and mass to our own. A solar radius is 690,000 km (432,000 miles) and 1 solar mass is 2 x 1030 kilograms (4.3 x 1030 pounds). That’s 2 nonillion kilograms, or 2,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 kg.
Another thing worth considering is the fact that our Sun is pretty small, as stars go. As a G-type main-sequence star (specifically, a G2V star), which is commonly known as a yellow dwarf, its on the smaller end of the size chart (see above). While it is certainly larger than the most common type of star – M-type, or Red Dwarfs – it is itself dwarfed (no pun!) by the likes of blue giants and other spectral classes.
To break it all down, stars are grouped based on their essential characteristics, which can be their spectral class (i.e. color), temperature, size, and brightness. The most common method of classification is known as the Morgan–Keenan (MK) system, which classifies stars based on temperature using the letters O, B, A, F, G, K, and M, – O being the hottest and M the coolest. Each letter class is then subdivided using a numeric digit with 0 being hottest and 9 being coolest (e.g. O1 to M9 are the hottest to coldest stars).
In the MK system, a luminosity class is added using Roman numerals. These are based on the width of certain absorption lines in the star’s spectrum (which vary with the density of the atmosphere), thus distinguishing giant stars from dwarfs. Luminosity classes 0 and I apply to hyper- or supergiants; classes II, III and IV apply to bright, regular giants, and subgiants, respectively; class V is for main-sequence stars; and class VI and VII apply to subdwarfs and dwarf stars.
There is also the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram, which relates stellar classification to absolute magnitude (i.e. intrinsic brightness), luminosity, and surface temperature. The same classification for spectral types are used, ranging from blue and white at one end to red at the other, which is then combined with the stars Absolute Visual Magnitude (expressed as Mv) to place them on a 2-dimensional chart (see above).
On average, stars in the O-range are hotter than other classes, reaching effective temperatures of up to 30,000 K. At the same time, they are also larger and more massive, reaching sizes of over 6 and a half solar radii and up to 16 solar masses. At the lower end, K and M type stars (orange and red dwarfs) tend to be cooler (ranging from 2400 to 5700 K), measuring 0.7 to 0.96 times that of our Sun, and being anywhere from 0.08 to 0.8 as massive.
Based on the full of classification of our Sun (G2V), we can therefore say that it a main-sequence star with a temperature around 5,800K. Now consider another famous star system in our galaxy – Eta Carinae, a system containing at least two stars located around 7500 light-years away in the direction of the constellation Carina. The primary of this system is estimated to be 250 times the size of our Sun, a minimum of 120 solar masses, and a million times as bright – making it one of the biggest and brightest stars ever observed.
There is some controversy over this world’s size though. Most stars blow with a solar wind, losing mass over time. But Eta Carinae is so large that it casts off 500 times the mass of the Earth every year. With so much mass lost, it’s very difficult for astronomers to accurately measure where the star ends, and its stellar wind begins. Also, it is believed that Eta Carinae will explode in the not-too-distant future, and it will be the most spectacular supernovae humans have ever seen.
In terms of sheer mass, the top spot goes to R136a1, a star located in the Large Magellanic Cloud, some 163,000 light-years away. It is believed that this star may contain as much as 315 times the mass of the Sun, which presents a conundrum to astronomers since it was believed that the largest stars could only contain 150 solar masses. The answer to this is that R136a1 was probably formed when several massive stars merged together. Needless to say, R136a1 is set to detonate as a hypernova, any day now.
In terms of large stars, Betelgeuse serves as a good (and popular) example. Located in the shoulder of Orion, this familiar red supergiant has a radius of 950-1200 times the size of the Sun, and would engulf the orbit of Jupiter if placed in our Solar System. In fact, whenever we want to put our Sun’s size into perspective, we often use Betelgeuse to do it (see below)!
Yet, even after we use this hulking Red Giant to put us in our place, we are still just scratching the surface in the game of “who’s the biggest star”. Consider WOH G64, a red supergiant star located in the Large Magellanic Cloud, approximately 168,000 light years from Earth. At 1.540 solar radii in diameter, this star is currently one of the largest in the known universe.
But there’s also RW Cephei, an orange hypergiant star in the constellation Cepheus, located 3,500 light years from Earth and measuring 1,535 solar radii in diameter. Westerlund 1-26 is also pretty huge, a red supergiant (or hypergiant) located within the Westerlund 1 super star cluster 11,500 light-years away that measures 1,530 solar radii in diameter. Meanwhile, V354 Cephei and VX Sagittarii are tied when it comes to size, with both measuring an estimated 1,520 solar radii in diameter.
The Largest Star: UY Scuti
As it stands, the title of the largest star in the Universe (that we know of) comes down to two contenders. For example, UY Scuti is currently at the top of the list. Located 9.500 light years away in the constellation Scutum, this bright red supergiant and pulsating variable star has an estimated average median radius of 1,708 solar radii – or 2.4 billion km (1.5 billion mi; 15.9 AU), thus giving it a volume 5 billion times that of the Sun.
However, this average estimate includes a margin of error of ± 192 solar radii, which means that it could be as large as 1900 solar radii or as small as 1516. This lower estimate places it beneath stars like as V354 Cephei and VX Sagittarii. Meanwhile, the second star on the list of the largest possible stars is NML Cygni, a semiregular variable red hypergiant located in the Cygnus constellation some 5,300 light-years from Earth.
Due to the location of this star within a circumstellar nebula, it is heavily obscured by dust extinction. As a result, astronomers estimate that its size could be anywhere from 1,642 to 2,775 solar radii, which means it could either be the largest star in the known Universe (with a margin of 1000 solar radii) or indeed the second largest, ranking not far behind UY Scuti.
And up until a few years ago, the title of biggest star went to VY Canis Majoris; a red hypergiant star in the Canis Major constellation, located about 5,000 light-years from Earth. Back in 2006, professor Roberta Humphrey of the University of Minnesota calculated its upper size and estimated that it could be more than 1,540 times the size of the Sun. Its average estimated mass, however, is 1420, placing it in the no. 8 spot behind V354 Cephei and VX Sagittarii.
These are the biggest star that we know of, but the Milky way probably has dozens of stars that are even larger, obscured by gas and dust so we can’t see them. But even if we cannot find these stars, it is possible to theorize about their likely size and mass. So just how big can stars get? Once again, Professor Roberta Humphreys of the University of Minnesota provided the answer.
As she explained when contacted, the largest stars in the Universe are the coolest. So even though Eta Carinae is the most luminous star we know of, it’s extremely hot – 25,000 Kelvin – and therefore only 250 solar radii big. The largest stars, in contrast, will be cool supergiants. Case in point, VY Canis Majoris is only 3,500 Kelvin, and a really big star would be even cooler.
At 3,000 Kelvin, Humphreys estimates that cool supergiant would be as big as 2,600 times the size of the Sun. This is below the upper estimates for NML Cygni, but above the average estimates for both it and UY Scutii. Hence, this is the upper limit of a star (at least theoretically and based on all the information we have to date).
But as we continue to peer into the Universe with all of our instruments, and explore it up close through robotic spacecraft and crewed missions, we are sure to find new and exciting things that will confound us further!
And be sure to check out this great animation that shows the size of various objects in space, starting with our Solar System’s tiny planets and finally getting to UY Scuti. Enjoy!
Let us discuss the very nature of the cosmos. What you may find in this discussion is not what you expect. Going into a conversation about the universe as a whole, you would imagine a story full of wondrous events such as stellar collapse, galactic collisions, strange occurrences with particles, and even cataclysmic eruptions of energy. You may be expecting a story stretching the breadth of time as we understand it, starting from the Big Bang and landing you here, your eyes soaking in the photons being emitted from your screen. Of course, the story is grand. But there is an additional side to this amazing assortment of events that oftentimes is overlooked; that is until you truly attempt to understand what is going on. Behind all of those fantastic realizations, there is a mechanism at work that allows for us to discover all that you enjoy learning about. That mechanism is mathematics, and without it the universe would still be shrouded in darkness. In this article, I will attempt to persuade you that math isn’t some arbitrary and sometimes pointless mental task that society makes it out to be, and instead show you that it is a language we use to communicate with the stars.
We are currently bound to our solar system. This statement is actually better than it sounds, as being bound to our solar system is one major step up from being bound simply to our planet, as we were
before some very important minds elected to turn their geniuses toward the heavens. Before those like Galileo, who aimed his spyglass towards the sky, or Kepler discovering that planets move about the sun in ellipses, or Newton discovering a gravitational constant, mathematics was somewhat limited, and our understanding of the universe rather ignorant. At its core, mathematics allows a species bound to its solar system to probe the depths of the cosmos from behind a desk. Now, in order to appreciate the wonder that is mathematics, we must first step back and briefly look at its beginnings and how it is integrally tied into our very existence.
Mathematics almost certainly came about from very early human tribes (predating Babylonian culture which is attributed to some of the first organized mathematics in recorded history), that may have used math as a way of keeping track of lunar or solar cycles, and keeping count of animals, food and/or people by leaders. It is as natural as when you are a young child and you can see that you have
one toy plus one other toy, meaning you have more than one toy. As you get older, you develop the ability to see that 1+1=2, and thus simple arithmetic seems to be interwoven into our very nature. Those that profess that they don’t have a mind for math are sadly mistaken because just as we all have a mind for breathing, or blinking, we all have this innate ability to understand arithmetic. Mathematics is both a natural occurrence and a human designed system. It would appear that nature grants us this ability to recognize patterns in the form of arithmetic, and then we systematically construct more complex mathematical systems that aren’t obvious in nature but let us further communicate with nature.
All this aside, mathematics developed alongside of human development, and carried on similarly with each culture that was developing it simultaneously. It’s a wonderful observation to see that cultures that had no contact with one another were developing similar mathematical constructs without conversing. However, it wasn’t until mankind decidedly turned their mathematical wonder towards the sky that math truly began to develop in an astonishing way. It is by no mere coincidence that our scientific revolution was spurred by the development of more advanced mathematics built not to tally sheep or people, but rather to further our understandings of our place within the universe. Once Galileo began measuring the rates at which objects fell in an attempt to show mathematically that the mass of an object had little to do with the speed in which it fell, mankind’s future would forever be altered.
This is where the cosmic perspective ties in to our want to further our mathematical knowledge. If it were not for math, we would still think we were on one of a few planets orbiting a star amidst the backdrop of seemingly motionless lights. This is a rather bleak outlook today compared to what we now know
about the awesomely large universe we reside in. This idea of the universe motivating us to understand more about mathematics can be inscribed in how Johannes Kepler used what he observed the planets doing, and then applied mathematics to it to develop a fairly accurate model (and method for predicting planetary motion) of the solar system. This is one of many demonstrations that illustrate the importance of mathematics within our history, especially within astronomy and physics.
The story of mathematics becomes even more amazing as we push forward to one of the most advanced thinkers humanity has ever known. Sir Isaac Newton, when pondering the motions of Halley’s Comet, came to the realization that the math that had been used thus far to describe physical motion of massive
bodies, simply would not suffice if we were to ever understand anything beyond that of our seemingly limited celestial nook. In a show of pure brilliance that lends validity to my earlier statement about how we can take what we naturally have and then construct a more complex system upon it, Newton developed the Calculus in which this way of approaching moving bodies, he was able to accurately model the motion of not only Halley’s comet, but also any other heavenly body that moved across the sky.
In one instant, our entire universe opened up before us, unlocking almost unlimited abilities for us to converse with the cosmos as never before. Newton also expanded upon what Kepler started. Newton recognized that Kepler’s mathematical equation for planetary motion, Kepler’s 3rd Law ( P2=A3 ), was purely based on empirical observation, and was only meant to measure what we observed within our solar system. Newton’s mathematical brilliance was in realizing that this basic equation could be made universal by applying a gravitational constant to the equation, in which gave birth to perhaps one of the most important equations to ever be derived by mankind; Newton’s Version of Kepler’s Third Law.
What Newton realized was that when things move in non-linear ways, using basic Algebra would not produce the correct answer. Herein lays one of the main differences between Algebra and Calculus. Algebra allows one to find the slope (rate of change) of straight lines (constant rate of change), whereas Calculus allows one to find the slope of curved lines (variable rate of change). There are obviously many more applications of Calculus than just this, but I am merely illustrating a fundamental difference between the two in order to show you just how revolutionary this new concept was. All at once, the motions of planets and other objects that orbit the sun became more accurately measurable, and thus we gained the ability to understand the universe a little deeper. Referring back to Netwon’s Version of Kepler’s Third Law, we were now able to apply (and still do) this incredible physics equation to almost anything that is orbiting something else. From this equation, we can determine the mass of either of the objects, the distance apart they are from each other, the force of gravity that is exerted between the two, and other physical qualities built from these simple calculations.
With his understanding of mathematics, Newton was able to derive the aforementioned gravitational constant for all objects in the universe ( G = 6.672×10-11 N m2 kg-2 ). This constant allowed him to unify astronomy and physics which then permitted predictions about how things moved in the universe. We could now measure the masses of planets (and the sun) more accurately, simply according to Newtonian physics (aptly named to honor just how important Newton was within physics and mathematics). We could now apply this newfound language to the cosmos, and begin coercing it to divulge its secrets. This was a defining moment for humanity, in that all of those things that prohibited our understandings prior to this new form of math were now at our fingertips, ready to be discovered. This is the brilliance of understanding Calculus, in that you are speaking the language of the stars.
There perhaps is no better illustration of the power that mathematics awarded us then in the discovery of the planet Neptune. Up until its discovery in September of 1846, planets were discovered simply by observing certain “stars” that were moving against the backdrop of all the other stars in odd ways. The term planet is Greek for “wanderer”, in that these peculiar stars wandered across the sky in noticeable patterns at different times of the year. Once the telescope was first turned upwards towards the sky by Galileo, these wanderers resolved into other worlds that appeared to be like ours. If fact, some of these worlds appeared to be little solar systems themselves, as Galileo discovered when he began recording the moons of Jupiter as they orbited around it.
After Newton presented his physics equations to the world, mathematicians were ready and excited to begin applying them to what we had been keeping track of for years. It was as if we were thirsty for the knowledge, and finally someone turned on the faucet. We began measuring the motions of the planets and gaining more accurate models for how they behaved. We used these equations to approximate the mass of the Sun. We were able to make remarkable predictions that were validated time and again simply by observation. What we were doing was unprecedented, as we were using mathematics to make almost impossible to know predictions that you would think we could never make without actually going to these planets, and then using actual observation to prove the math correct. However, what we also did was begin to figure out some odd discrepancies with certain things. Uranus, for instance, was behaving not as it should according to Newton’s laws.
What makes the discovery of Neptune so wonderful was the manner in which it was discovered. What Newton had done was uncover a deeper language of the cosmos, in which the universe was able to reveal more to us. And this is exactly what happened when we applied this language to the orbit of Uranus. The manner in which Uranus orbited was curious and did not fit what it should have if it was the only planet that far out from the sun. Looking at the numbers, there had to be something else out there perturbing its orbit. Now, before Newton’s mathematical insights and laws, we would have had no reason to suspect anything was wrong in what we observed. Uranus orbited in the way Uranus orbited; it was just how it was. But, again revisiting that notion of mathematics being an ever increasing dialogue with the universe, once we asked the question in the right format, we realized that there really must be something else beyond what we couldn’t see. This is the beauty of mathematics writ large; an ongoing conversation with the universe in which more than we may expect is revealed.
It came to a French mathematician Urbain Le Verrier who sat down and painstakingly worked through the mathematical equations of the orbit of Uranus. What he was doing was using Newton’s mathematical equations backwards, realizing that there must be an object out there beyond the orbit of Uranus that was also orbiting the sun,
and then looking to apply the right mass and distance that this unseen object required for perturbing the orbit of Uranus in the way we were observing it was. This was phenomenal, as we were using parchment and ink to find a planet that nobody had ever actually observed. What he found was that an object, soon to be Neptune, had to be orbiting at a specific distance from the sun, with the specific mass that would cause the irregularities in the orbital path of Uranus. Confident of his mathematical calculations, he took his numbers to the New Berlin Observatory, where the astronomer Johann Gottfried Galle looked exactly where Verrier’s calculations told him to look, and there lay the 8th and final planet of our solar system, less than 1 degree off from where Verrier’s calculations said for him to look. What had just happened was an incredible confirmation of Newton’s gravitational theory and proved that his mathematics were correct.
These types of mathematical insights continued on long after Newton. Eventually, we began to learn much more about the universe with the advent of better technology (brought about by advances in mathematics). As we moved into the 20th century, quantum theory began to take shape, and we soon realized that Newtonian physics and mathematics seemed to hold no sway over what we observed on the quantum level. In another momentous event in human history, yet again brought forth by the advancement in mathematics, Albert Einstein unveiled his theories of General and Special Relativity, which was a new way to look not only at gravity, but
also on energy and the universe in general. What Einstein’s mathematics did was allow for us to yet again uncover an even deeper dialogue with the universe, in which we began to understand its origins.
Continuing this trend of advancing our understandings, what we have realized is that now there are two sects of physics that do not entirely align. Newtonian or “classical” physics, that works extraordinarily well with the very large (motions of planets, galaxies, etc…) and quantum physics that explains the extremely small (the interactions of sub-atomic particles, light, etc…). Currently, these two areas of physics are not in alignment, much like two different dialects of a language. They are similar and they both work, but they are not easily reconcilable with one another. One of the greatest challenges we face today is attempting to create a mathematical grand “theory of everything” which either unites the laws in the quantum world with that of the macroscopic world, or to work to explain everything solely in terms of quantum mechanics. This is no easy task, but we are striving forward nonetheless.
As you can see, mathematics is more than just a set of vague equations and complex rules that you are required to memorize. Mathematics is the language of the universe, and in learning this language, you are opening yourself up the core mechanisms by which the cosmos operates. It is the same as traveling to a new land, and slowly picking up on the native language so that you may begin to learn from them. This mathematical endeavor is what allows us, a species bound to our solar system, to explore the depths of the universe. As of now, there simply is no way for us to travel to the center of our galaxy and observe the supermassive black hole there to visually confirm its existence. There is no way for us to venture out into a Dark Nebula and watch in real time a star being born. Yet, through mathematics, we are able to understand how these things exist and work. When you set about to learn math, you are not only expanding your mind, but you are connecting with the universe on a fundamental level. You can, from your desk, explore the awesome physics at the event horizon of a black hole, or bear witness to the destructive fury behind a supernova. All of those things that I mentioned at the beginning of this article come into focus through mathematics. The grand story of the universe is written in mathematics, and our ability to translate those numbers into the events that we all love to learn about is nothing short of amazing. So remember, when you are presented with the opportunity to learn math, accept every bit of it because math connects us to the stars.
Every now and then, someone takes Carl Sagan’s wonderful reading of his iconic “Pale Blue Dot” narrative and turns it into an animated presentation, usually combining images and video footage of space exploration and Earthly vistas to create something undeniably spellbinding (Sagan’s narratives do have a tendency to have that effect!) Artist Adam Winnik went a slightly different route, however, creating an illustrated animation to go along with Sagan’s reading for his thesis project in 2011. The result is no less poignant… check it out above.
The Blu-ray edition of the History Channel’s The Universe consists of 10 episodes from the first season, and uses cutting-edge computer-generated imagery to bring distant planets and faraway stars up close. We’ve long been fascinated with the sky and outerspace, and in this series, history and science collide to investigate all we know about the Universe.
To win, send an email to [email protected] with “Solar System” in the subject line. Fraser will randomly pick one email as the winner. Deadline is Monday, August 30 at 12 pm PDT.
And by the way, the winner of the new book about the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, “The Grand and Bold Thing” by Ann Finkbeiner, was Irfaan Hamdulay from Cape Town, South Africa. Congrats!
This is a two-disc set:
DISC 1: Secrets of the Sun / Mars: The Red Planet / The End of the Earth: Deep Space Threats To Our Planet / Jupiter: The Giant Planet / The Moon
DISC 2: Spaceship Earth / The Inner Planets: Mercury & Venus / Saturn: Lord of the Rings / Alien Galaxies / Life and Death of a Star
In this series you can witness the sun’s birth at the dawn of our solar system, and its death, billions of years in the future; explore the possibility of a human settlement on Mars; and learn about the devastating threats posed by the meteorites, comets, and asteroids that routinely collide with Earth.
Each of the 44-minute episodes begins with a general introduction of subjects ranging from the sun to individual planets. Each topic is then broken down into a series of segments that detail specific ideas, theories, or components integral to the understanding of the main topic as well as historical material, current studies and theories, and projections of potential future events and scientific advances.
Via the Bad Astronomer, check out this incredible interactive Flash animation from NewGrounds that provides a scale of the Universe, from the very small (0.0000000001 yoctometers) to as large as we know, the estimated size of the Universe. Click on the image, or here to access, and after it loads, use the slider at the bottom to zoom in and out. Gives you a new appreciation for all that’s out there, big and small!
Take a 6 minute tour of the known universe in this video from the American Museum of Natural History. Start on Mt. Everest, and get pulled through the Earth’s atmosphere to glimpse the inky black of space. Then zoom through the solar system and the Milky Way to mysterious quasars and supernovae, all the way back to the to the afterglow of the Big Bang. The Known Universe is based on precise, scientifically-accurate observations and research. Continue reading “The Known Universe (Video)”