A Different Cosmology

By Braffman-Miller, Judith | USA TODAY, September 2013 | Go to article overview

A Different Cosmology


Braffman-Miller, Judith, USA TODAY


"AT THE LAST DIM horizon, we search among ghostly errors of observations for landmarks that are scarcely more substantial. The search will continue. The urge is older than history. It is not satisfied and it will not be oppressed," said astronomer Edwin Powell Hubble many years ago.

Hubble--yes, the famous telescope is named after him--is considered to be the father of modem observational astronomy. He was the first to show that the universe is expanding--that it began with the Big Bang and has been cooling (and expanding) ever since. Hubble based his discovery on his observations that the light from distant galaxies was being redshifted--stretched--to longer and longer electromagnetic wavelengths, indicating that they were rushing away from us as the universe expanded.

This discovery also added credibility to the Big Bang Theory that suggests our universe burst into existence as an exquisitely tiny patch, and relentlessly has been cooling (and expanding) ever since. Hence, according to the Big Bang Theory, the universe had a definite beginning, and it was not eternal and unchanging as previously thought--and because it had a definite beginning, it also could have a definite ending. For almost a century, this has been the generally accepted view of the birth and evolution of the cosmos.

In July, however, Christof Wetterich, a theoretical physicist at Germany's University of Heidelberg, announced that he had devised a different cosmology in which the universe is not expanding. Instead, it is the mass of everything that progressively has been increasing. According to Wetterich, the evolving masses of particles could explain why distant galaxies appear to be galloping away.

The prevailing "Patch" theory states that the universe once was tinier than an elementary particle--then suddenly began to inflate like a balloon on steroids, ultimately to evolve and grow into the bizarre, beautiful, and enticingly mysterious cosmos that we now know. It all started with a Bang almost 14,000,000,000 years ago, when that remarkable little Patch expanded exponentially to attain macroscopic size in a fraction of a second.

Something--scientists do not know precisely what--made that Patch undergo this runaway inflation. This Patch was so extraordinarily hot and dense that all that we are and all that we ever can know came into existence from it. The infant universe seethed with extremely energetic radiation, a writhing and turbulent sea of searing-hot particles of light (photons). The entire neonatal universe glared with extraordinary brilliance, much like the surface of a star like our own sun. What we now observe, billions of years later, is the fading, cooling, greatly expanded (and expanding) aftermath of that initial burst of brilliance.

Georges Henri Joseph Edouard Lemaitre was a Belgian priest, astronomer, and professor of physics at the Catholic University of Louvain. He was one of the first to suggest that our universe is expanding. He also formulated the theory that eventually would be called the Big Bang Universe. Once Lemaitre observed that "the evolution of the world may be compared to a display of fireworks that has just ended: some few wisps, ashes, and smoke. Standing on a cooled cinder, we see the slow fading of the suns, and we try to recall the vanished brilliance of the origins of worlds."

Most scientists think that all of spacetime burst into existence from an exquisitely tiny primordial soup composed of searing-hot, densely packed particles, commonly referred to as "the fireball." All of the galaxies now are rushing away from each other and away from our own large barred-spiral galaxy, the starlit Milky Way--but our universe has no center; everything is traveling away from everything else, because of the expansion of spacetime.

The expansion of the universe often is likened to a loaf of leavening raisin bread. The dough expands, carrying the raisins along with it. …

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