UNIVERSEA Report from the Frontier on the
Origin, Nature, and Destiny
of the UniverseMarcia Bartusiak
"In answer to the question of why it happened, I offer the modest proposal that our Universe is simply one of those things which happen from time to time..."--- Edward P. Tryon
Ms. Bartusiak says that as recently as fifty years ago astronomy was considered a dead-end career. You were better off flipping burgers or going to work for Merrill Lynch. It was thought that most everything of importance had already been discovered --- and that the remaining work would be a tedious mapping, nipping, and noodling. It was an accountant's dream until they started inventing all these quasars, pulsars, quarks, narks and darks --- along with K mesons, nebulae, space clouds, voids, black holes, white holes, blue holes, green holes, all Gods' chillen got holes, and all of a sudden, there was reason to put the touch on the National Science Foundation, astronomers were being quoted in Ann Landers, and people like Whipple, Kohoutek, Skjellerup, Hubble, Lick, Temple and Gunn were appearing on "Good Night America" which was renamed "Wake Up, America" for the occasion.These stars went into orbit, and their fame spread. Not just Hubble, Bubble and Gunn (who decided to leave the universe business and start a law firm because of the rightness of their names); we are here talking about the stars of the show --- namely, the stars.No longer were they content to placidly shine or take naps or belch forth with an occasional mustard-and-pickle-juice nova of the first magnitude. No --- they began to get noisy (despite the landlady's complaint, her banging on the cosmos next door, shouting, "Hey. You out there. Shut up! Can't you see we are trying to sleep for once in a light-year!" And she would tell them to turn off their big bangs, even sending over her nephew, a white dwarf named Otto 231, to turn down their speakers.)
Bleeping, blinking and blurping were in. It was like the invention of the Lindy. Cosmic denizens dancing around in strange half-circles, letting their hair down, going crazy! They found a dozen (or perhaps a million) visible and invisible rays: x-rays and infrared rays, z-rays, sting-rays, Man Rays and Ray Charles rays so darn mysterious that we haven't even figured out how to begin to think about wanting to start to try to figure them out. Suddenly things were getting dire...
the full story may not be revealed until astronomers unravel what has come to be known as cosmology's "dire secret": Most of the mass of the universe, perhaps more than 90 percent, cannot be directly seen by astronomers, not even with the most sensitive radio, infrared, or x-ray instrumention...
And, if that isn't enough for you to worry about, there are all these microparticles that are turning up everywhere, I mean everywhere: in our living rooms, behind the television, next to the kids' Barbie Dolls, under the kitty litter --- what turns up? The Neutrino:
These "little neutral ones" are physic's most indifferent particles; they can travel through light-years of lead without being stopped....Trillions are passing through you right now as you read this sentence,
The boogers are everywhere, probably ten million million of them perched on your upper lip --- even as you curl it up reading The Neutrino News. Neutrinos are, obviously, not unlike bureaucrats. In fact, neutrinos are known by those who know them intimately as the Civil Servants of the Universe. Not only are they indifferent, and invisible --- they are everywhere, indecently so, and are always taking long lunch breaks. They are so pervasive that they might well have the mass "to provide enough of a gravitational tug to bring our expanding universe to a screeching halt uncountable eons from now..." Obviously, we'll have to pass a Neutrino Civil Service Act to keep them from stealing all the marmalade, taking all the available jobs.
Bartusiak has written for Science News and Omni and she's a crackerjack writer, unraveling a fine tale in a series of cosmic leaps, taking us not only out to the Furtherest Reaches but, at the same time (time and space getting all tangled up in each other, as this non-orderly universe is wont to do) moving, ultimately, back, all the way back, twenty billion years or so, to the Initial Twitch --- The Big Bang --- which has recently been proved, more or less by accident, in what was thought to be a malfunctioning of equipment measuring the traffic flow on the New Jersey Turnpike, the number of Nedicks orange drinks served during holidays, and the residual heat of the universe:
During their initial tests...the antenna's liquid-helium-cooled receiver consistently registered excess noise, no matter where the instrument was pointed. Converting the energy of that excess microwave radiation into an equivalent temperature, it appeared as if the entire sky were weakly heated to nearly three degrees above absolute zero. Over a year's time, [the investigators] ruled out innumerable candidates for the spurious three-degree signal, from atmospheric radiation to man-made interference emanating from nearby New York City.
At one point, the tenacious astronomers, who refused to dismiss the problem as simply system noise, even considered a biological explanation. "There were a couple of pigeons living in the antenna that had deposited the usual pigeon droppings...But only a minor improvement occurred when we cleaned up the droppings and disposed of the pigeons."
Those three degrees were determined to be a "faint, remnant echo of the Big Bang," what Bartusiak calls so nicely "the fossil whisper of creation."
Ultimately, of course, what we know when we study all this --- is that we know, have known, and always will know...next to nothing. Dig? Or as Bartusiak says a bit more elegantly:
The volume of space covered by the original CfA [redshift] survey is huge, about ten trillion trillion cubic light-years. But that's still only one hundred- thousandth of the volume of the visible universe...The astronomers working on this equate it to trying to detect the presence of the Gobi Desert, the polar ice-caps, or the deep sea trenches adjacent to the Phillipines --- all gleaned somehow by studying, intensively, the state of Rhode Island.
All people who even think for a moment beyond the next installment of Vanna White's wheel must have a favorite stellar object. The moon, Venus, the Crab Nebula, the Orionids of October. Maybe it's a particular star. Perhaps a neutron star, or radio pulsars, which emit a beep so regularly that it was once thought they were sending signals to the planet earth and which, according to astrophysicist Jonathan Grindlay, have a density "roughly what would be achieved by packing all the automobiles in the world into a thimble..." There's a nice, orderly companion for you --- won't stain the carpet or spill ice cream down your front: just sits there, beeping away, without a care in the world, or in the universe.
On the other hand, some of us have decided that The Black Hole is it. It's not just the appropriate symbolism of it (they say "a black hole has no hair" --- referring to its elegant simplicity); it is the absolute silliness of it, where all matter comes to be crushed, where there is no light, because light rays cannot escape the gravity of it; best of all, where time itself comes to a halt, or even gets dragged backwards. What better paradigm for the mysterious universe than to have this...huge, garish hole up there where absolutely nothing is happening: no time, nor space, nor light; no winter Olympics, no Casper Weinberger, no Korean elections, no Straits of Hormuz, no Bloody Marys, no bloody dratted Johnny Carson even. A place, indeed, described in frustration by the astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington, who said: "There should be a law of nature to prevent a star from behaving in this absurd way..."
If all this nonsense isn't enough to spin your head, according to Ms. Bartusiak, and recent discoveries from the Hubble Telescope, we now think that "this particular universe is just one of several billion." In other words, our universe, which we are just beginning to poke about in with its hundred billion galaxies, each containing a hundred billion stars, and intergalactic spaces filled with a hundred billion hectares of absolutely nothing, may just be the first universe that we have discovered because we happen to be sitting over in one corner of it. Because, according to some astronomers, there may be a
billion billion (billion!)
universes more. Out there. Next to the furtherest reaches of this particular universe.
You think last night's spat, the unpaid mortgage, the kids' dope-smoking ways, those wrinkles on your behind: you think those are important?
--- E. A. Rosewald