How Human Curiosity Revealed the Scientific Secrets of the Universe

How Human Curiosity Revealed the Scientific Secrets of the Universe

The green sign advertised Siskiyou Peak as the highest point on I-5, which implied that the entire west coast of North America was mine. Sir Isaac Newton’s theory of universal gravitation claimed that if air drag could be eliminated along with all friction from tires and ball bearings, I could glide to Tacoma without gas.

In fact, I would reach Tacoma with such speed that I could glide through southern British Columbia and up the Fraser River Canyon to the end of the highway several miles north of Lillooet. The same would be true if I turned my car around and headed south through California’s Central Valley, continuing along the Baja California Peninsula to the end point in Cabo San Lucas.

To feel the power of this gravitational force, I switched to neutral. As Earth pulled the car down the mountain, a human inside pondered the cosmic dynamics at work. I conjured up the forested hills of southern Oregon and saw my little car hovering above them in response to Earth’s gravity.

This imaginary journey has its roots in the works of Galileo and Newton. Their theories had found their way into modern consciousness so that even with something as ordinary as driving on a highway, humans could understand their actions as congruent with the processes of the universe.

How strange that at distinct times in the 20th century, the dynamics of cosmogenesis began to surface in the human imagination.

So will our discovery of a time-developing universe, a universe that expands through time from plasma to galaxies to living planets to human consciousness. We will see our minds restructured as we learn to think and live in alignment with the creativity of the universe. Feelings of expansion overwhelmed me when I realized this. How strange that at distinct times in the 20th century, the dynamics of cosmogenesis began to surface in the human imagination. Our universe had been created over billions of years and suddenly, thanks to the work of a handful of human beings, the universe found a way to reflect on itself, on the way it had developed over billions of years.

Who were these humans who allowed this awareness? Who were the key scientists who became the eyes that saw cosmic evolution? As I sailed through the night, my mind sifted through its knowledge in an effort to name it.

Albert Einstein would be the first candidate for the title of primary discoverer of the development of the universe. His field equations, published in 1916, predicted cosmic expansion and became the basis for mathematical cosmologists around the planet. Indeed, its sixteen partial differential equations can be considered the theoretical core of the new evolutionary cosmology. But as important as this accomplishment may be, there are problems with choosing Einstein as the source. Einstein adamantly opposed the idea that the universe had an origin in time. Do we want to name Einstein as the discoverer of the expanding universe when he himself insisted, for a time, that the universe as a whole had not changed?

If Einstein is not the main discoverer, the next competitor would be the Russian mathematician Alexander Friedman. It was Friedman who tried to convince Einstein that his equations held the secret to an expanding universe. Even in 1922 he could show that Einstein’s field equations allowed for three distinctly different worlds, each with a different mathematical curvature. One of these three was the model of a time-expanding universe. But Friedman had no way of deciding which of his mathematical worlds corresponded to reality.

To settle the question of the curvature of the universe, scientists needed direct evidence. An experience had to be imagined by someone. And that someone was observational cosmologist Edwin Hubble, who, working in California, collected data from an expanding universe of galaxies. Hubble was not the first. Vesto Slipher, working in Arizona, the neighboring state of California, discovered the so-called galactic redshifts more than a decade before Hubble. But Slipher was only able to identify these redshifts because he studied the work of Henrietta Leavitt. Leavitt had found a way to use Cepheid stars to determine the distance from Earth to stars.

The real question, the most fundamental question, was this: who brought it all together?

Each of these scientists must be included if I was going to honor any of them. Einstein, Friedman, Leavitt, Hubble and Slipher. The first two, Einstein and Friedman, provided the theoretical framework for cosmogenesis. The next three, Leavitt and Hubble and Slipher, captured the data. But the real question, the most fundamental question, was this: who brought it all together? It was a question that was easy to answer.

Georges Lemaître, the Belgian mathematician cosmologist, came up with the theory which envisioned the expansion of the cosmos from a powerful explosion at the beginning of time. His 1931 paper speculated that a “primeval atom” had burst in the distant past and sent expanding matter outward. Indeed, it was Lemaître’s article, combined with Hubble’s data, that finally convinced Einstein.

If only Einstein had seen that his mathematical equations had predicted all of this. A bittersweet moment. If he had had more confidence in his own abstractions, he could have been the one who heralded the great beginning of everything. Instead of this triumphant declaration, Einstein had to admit defeat, and did so with wonderful courtesy. The day he and Lemaître visited Edwin Hubble at Mount Wilson, Einstein summed up the situation with a simple announcement: “Lemaître shattered my idea of ​​a static universe with the blow of a hammer.

I saw that the fuel gauge was empty. I could probably drive to Medford, but to be sure I stopped at Ashland, the premier West Coast venue for plays by William Shakespeare. Even though the theatrical season was drawing to a close, Elizabethan banners hung from poles in Main Street. Many companies have tied themselves to Shakespeare. The Bard’s Inn displayed a flashing vacancy sign with red neon lights. A window advertised Juliet’s Finest, a women’s clothing store. I drove through the dark downtown, past the Ashland Hotel, and up the slow incline out of town before finding an open gas station.

When the attendant approached, I rolled down the window and smiled hearing his British accent. Perhaps he was an Oregon Shakespeare Festival actor earning extra money. He turned on the gas pump, opened the windshield wipers and squirted out of his blue plastic bottle. He used a squeegee long enough to reach the entire windshield. I wanted to ask him if he had acted in any of the plays, and if so, if he could say a few lines. Or maybe tell me about his love for Shakespeare that drove him across an ocean and a continent to the West Coast, just to have the opportunity to be in one of the plays. But I didn’t say anything, not wanting to disturb him.

Through these six humans, the creative universe made its dramatic appearance. They formed the nucleus that brought this new revelation.

For most of the 20th century, Shakespeare’s plays were performed in late spring, summer, and early fall here in Ashland and dozens of other cities across North America. Not to mention the UK, Australia, New Zealand, wherever a nation spoke the English language. And in translations in fifty countries. Stories of Scottish kings, Italian nobles, Danish aristocrats. Tales from the History of England.

Stories that had worked their way so deep into the fabric of a planet that four hundred years later I could find myself at an Oregon gas station, remembering the words of Shakespeare’s death contestant of Shakespeare, that his works should never be forgotten because he was “not of an age but for all time.” A day will come when something similar will be said of these six scholars, notably of Georges Lemaître. Although Lemaître did not write in Shakespeare’s vivid iambic pentameter, his mathematical statements will be remembered for millennia. It took humans a million years to see the large-scale dynamics of the universe. Lemaître’s awareness of the fundamental mathematical harmony in the expansion of galaxies has allowed mankind to determine where, in an empirical sense, is the birthplace of the universe.

Lemaître’s work led scientists there. After thousands of years of wondering about the origin of the universe, we discovered this trillion-degree event that erupted with such intensity fourteen billion years later that we can still feel it, still touching it, now in the form of cosmic microwave background radiation. , the afterglow of the birth of the universe.

Through these six humans, the creative universe made its dramatic appearance. They formed the nucleus that brought this new revelation. To honor their work, I would reject any attempt to impose an ideology on them. The universe itself should tell us what it was. As I continued to wait for the gas tank to fill up, I wanted to scream with joy, but I didn’t have the freedom to release my joy. Still, an irrepressible smile worked its way through my ties as the gas attendant handed over my credit card. His most satisfied customer of the week. I roared, barely noticing that I bottomed out on the asphalt.


Extract of Cosmogenesis: An Unveiling of the Expanding Universe by Brian Thomas Swimme. Copyright © 2022. Available from Counterpoint Press.

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