WHAT'S UP: Cosmology is big science

Nov 11, 2011


How did the universe come into existence, or has it always been here?

What is its ultimate fate, or will the universe always be here?

These are grand questions. How shall we seek answers to these questions?

Shall we turn our thoughts inward as philosophers and theologians because questions of cosmology are questions of perception, and because the universe can only be exactly as we perceive it to be? Or shall we scrutinize the bits of matter in the space at our fingertips as engineers and physicists with microscopes and particle accelerators, poking and prodding what we can close to home?

Or do we look outward to the stars, with telescopes and other instruments that extend our senses, forming and testing theories, seeking objective truths as mathematicians and scientists — as astronomers?

I believe we must do all three — because questions of cosmology are so grand, so profound, that a clear path to their answers is not even apparent.

Human cultures as far back as history has kept records have contemplated questions of cosmology. But why?

Of all philosophical, scientific and religious endeavors that are far removed from the demands of everyday life, cosmology must be among the most distant. Cosmology peaks the interest of just about anyone who has ever had some small amount of time to contemplate a look to the heavens.

Carl Sagan — the famous astronomer and author who passed away in 1996 — is more eloquent: “The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be. Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us — there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation of a distant memory, as if we were falling from a great height.”

Nov. 9 would have been Sagan’s 77th birthday, and annually the day is recognized by many organizations as “Carl Sagan Day.” Sagan was a champion of scientifically skeptical inquiry; and he told the story of our cosmology, our creation myth, in an entertaining and compelling way.

Do you remember seeing the PBS production of his book, “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage,” back in the 1980s? At the time, according to online sources, “Cosmos” was the most watched PBS series in the world. “Cosmos” brought cosmology to you and I.

Our cosmology is big science.

The 2011 Nobel Prize in physics was awarded to three observational cosmologists: Saul Perlmutter of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of California, Berkeley; Brian Schmidt of the Australian National University; and Adam Riess of Johns Hopkins University. The prize was awarded “for the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the universe through observations of distant supernovae.”

The 2006 Nobel Prize in physics was also awarded to a team of observational cosmologists: John Mather of the NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center; and George Smoot of the University of California, Berkeley, for “for their discovery of the blackbody form and anisotropy of the cosmic microwave background radiation.”

It is true that our cosmology — the “big bang theory” and the so-called lambda-CDM model — is not accessible to many of us because it is rooted in difficult mathematics, and that our cosmology is not as colorful as ancient creation myths.

Yet, as for all that have come before us, our cosmology is our attempt to understand the universe and our place within it.

— By Doug Furton, a member of the physics faculty at GVSU. Send questions and suggestions to dgf@inbox.com.


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