Measuring the Cosmos: How Scientists Discovered the Dimensions of the Universe

Measuring the Cosmos: How Scientists Discovered the Dimensions of the Universe

Measuring the Cosmos: How Scientists Discovered the Dimensions of the Universe

Measuring the Cosmos: How Scientists Discovered the Dimensions of the Universe

Synopsis

Humans have always viewed the heavens with wonder and awe. The skies have inspired reflection on the vastness of space, the wonder of creation, and humankind's role in the universe. In just over one hundred years, science has moved from almost total ignorance about the actual distances to the stars and earth's place in the galaxy to our present knowledge about the enormous size, mass, and age of the universe. We are reaching the limits of observation, and therefore the limits of human understanding. Beyond lies only our imagination, seeded by the theories of physics. In Measuring the Cosmos, science writers David and Matthew Clark tell the stories of both the well-known and the unsung heroes who played key roles in these discoveries. These true accounts reveal ambitions, conflicts, failures, as well as successes, as the astonishing scale and age of the universe were finally established. Few areas of scientific research have witnessed such drama in the form of ego clashes, priority claims, or failed (or even,falsified) theories as that resulting from attempts to measure the universe. Besides giving credit where long overdue, Measuring the Cosmos explains the science behind these achievements in accessible language sure to appeal to astronomers, science buffs, and historians.

Excerpt

Humans have always viewed the heavens with wonder and with awe, sensing, as they looked out into the night sky, the vastness of space, the power of the creation, and perhaps even something of their own origins. The importance of the heavens in the lives of primitive peoples is demonstrated by depictions of the Sun and stars in cave paintings and on ancient monuments, the emergence of Sun and Moon worship, the development of simple calendars based on the changing patterns of the skies, the use of the stars for navigation, and the development of astrology.

Classical civilizations sought an improved understanding of the changing patterns in the heavens through logic. Thales of Miletus in the sixth century b.c.e. was the first to explain natural phenomena through philosophical reason, correctly predicting the occurrence of a solar eclipse. Anaximander, one of Thales' most noted successors from Miletus, introduced the notion of the “infinite”— a universe that was infinite in time and space, with things being brought into being and passing away. In modern times Anaximander's notion would reemerge as the so-called steady state theory of the universe. By contrast the philosopher Anaxagoras believed that at some time “all things were together,” an idea that would be presented in the twentieth century as the big bang theory for the origin of the universe. Thus the ancient forebears of modern cosmologists were already grappling with the issues of the scale and origin of the cosmos.

Aristotle forged the notion of a perfect universe centered on . . .

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