Modern cosmology--the scientific study of the universe as a whole longer sees the universe as an infinite changeless arena in which events take place, the way Isaac Newton did. The universe is an evolving, expanding being, and its origin is the oldest mystery. For the first time in possibly a million years of human wondering, we are not simply imagining the beginning: We are observing it, in radiation that has been traveling to us since the Big Bang, possibly bearing information generated even earlier. Theorists are piecing the data together into humanity's first verifiable creation story.
Most educated people today have an essentially Newtonian picture of the universe as a place, devoid of all human meaning, in which we happen to find ourselves. If people come to understand the emerging scientific cosmology, however, they may see from what we know of i the early universe that we actually are part of an I extraordinary adventure. With its mind expanding I imagery, this emerging cosmology gives us a new cosmic I perspective, a powerful source of awe, and a potential I source of meaning in our everyday lives.
We will present the cosmological theory first directly, and then as if it were a creation myth, which it is. But here we encounter the limitations of the English language for the task: the universe is like nothing else. It's not a thing that exists at any point in time but includes within it all time and all concepts. We will therefore turn to Kabbalah, medieval Jewish mysticism, as a possible source of language and metaphor, because certain kabbalistic concepts fit our picture amazingly well. Moreover, Kabbalah's cosmology gave meaning and purpose to the everyday lives of its adherents, which we hope may become possible with the scientific cosmology emerging today.
The Large-Scale Sructure
of the Universe
While Newton believed that stars are randomly distributed through space, we now know that stars are organized into galaxies, and distant galaxies are lying away from each other as space expands. About 10 percent of galaxies are in dense clusters, with many clusters linked by sheets or fine filaments of galaxies. Our own galaxy, the Milky Way, is located in a small group of galaxies on the outskirts of the large sheet of galaxies (the local super cluster) in which the Virgo Cluster is embedded. On the scale of billions of light years, there are millions of these enormous superclusters of galaxies; between them are great voids containing hardly any visible matter. Furthermore, vast flows of galaxies have been observed as a perturbation to the overall expansion of the universe. This is what astronomers call the "large-scale structure" of the universe, and much of it has been discovered only in the past decade.
As the universe expands, our neighboring galaxies will remain our neighbors forever, but farther out the expansion of space is carrying galaxies away so fast that we see their light stretched and reddened. The greater distance of expanding space we look across to see any particular galaxy, the faster that galaxy will be moving away from us. At last there is a distance where galaxies are being carried away by expanding space at the speed of light. This is our cosmic horizon. It is a spherical wall, and we are inside. Countless galaxies no doubt exist beyond, but they are whisked away by expansion. Their light cannot reach us, so we cannot see them. Every galaxy has its own horizon, its own "visible universe."
But visible matter, on scales of individual galaxies and larger, does not move as it should if it is all that exists out there. Stars in galaxies, and galaxies themselves in groups and clusters, move too rapidly to be held together by the visible matter. Something invisible is exercising enormous gravitational effects on visible matter. After eliminating all other possibilities, astronomers have, in the last fifteen years, accepted the weird idea that over ninety percent of the mass of the universe is not stars, dust, gas or anything we know, but instead some invisible substance called "dark matter. …