Sunday, April 10, 2005

The Universe is Actually "Shrinking"

My grandaddy used to love to tell me funny stories. "You see the sunlight?" he would say. I would nod in agreement. "Well, this isn't happening now, this is old sunlight, it is at least eight minutes old. For all we know, the sun could be gone and we won't know this for eight minutes!"

Ah, how reassuring that is for a child to hear! OK! The sun is shining, seemingly! His point was, the sun is a star and we are always doomed to see what has already happened, not what is presently happening. He would point to distant stars. "We have no idea what they look like today," he would tell me.

Aside from having a rather psychotic childhood, this forced me to never take any information for granted. All data was corrupted by time. The greater the distance, the greater the corruption of the incoming information. He explained red shift to me, too. It was still rather a new concept for him, it was first explained back when he was in middle age, after all. Thanks to the new fangled observatories at Mt. Wilson, his home, and Mt. Palomar, both activated before the Great Depression, the values of redshift were observed and analysed. So for him, it was always an amazing thing. When my pioneer astronomer grandaddy was dying of extreme old age, black holes were "discovered".

I remember well, my astronomer parents struggling to understand this new fangled idea. It helps to get a little drunk, first, but they were teetotalers, thanks to my great grandmother's absolute nixing of any drinking (a long story behind that).

I grew up, listening to this debate rage in the sixties onwards. I am not an astronomer. I have no physics degrees. I just hobnob with those who have the magic keys to the Universe.

Well....along came the Hubble Space Telescope. I wrote, for Congress, "With this telescope, we will be able to see the Hand of God at the Moment of Creation". And so it was. As we look at the incoming data that this great telescope and the other great telescopes in space are assembling, each using a different wave length, suddenly, the harsh facts of our universe come increasingly into focus.

First, the universe is very complex. There are many kinds of galaxies and other entities in this Universe. It is very dense in places and it isn't even in quality or surface. Indeed, the physical aspects of it are very warped. Space/time isn't linear nor straight as the crow flies nor easily navigated by mere calculations from humans and computers. It is incredibly complex.