You may have noticed recent reports about how the Hubble Space Telescope has captured an image of the early universe from way back, close to the beginning of time.

But have you noticed how the capacity of the media to explain in lay terms such matters as quantum physics, or cosmology, is contracting faster than the universe is expanding.

The more mind warping the discoveries, the less opportunity there is to fit them into 30 seconds in a news cast, or 300 words in print.

There has been a long-running conspiracy of convenience between science reporters and the science being reported to leave out inconvenient time- and space-consuming explanations, and go for the punch line that best suits the use of the media to lobby for more project funding.

Almost every space story I have written over 50 years has been about projects claiming to “discover the origins of the solar system/life on earth/life on Mars/discover the origins of the universe, or recover parts of things such as comets because they are as old as the sun, except that we have discovered they aren’t ancient at all”.

None of them were ever designed to achieved those goals. They were brilliant projects, brilliantly misrepresented by the scientists and the reporters because an accurate story would have been incomprehensible to 99.9% of readers or viewers.

At times this push to abbreviate and and make banal the more esoteric but truly intriguing mysteries of the universe has lurched close to parody, yet failed to be as thoughtfully funny as Douglas Adams was with the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, (and no, the answer was never No. 42.)

But the jig is almost up. Our most powerful telescopes are approaching what Columbia physicist and mathematician Brian Greene recently called the cliffs of time, beyond which an infinitely large yet progressively emptier universe lies forever invisible to us and vice versa, since to that universe, we also lie beyond the cliffs of time.

This capturing of images from the start of time is being done by finding incredibly faint and old light using computing power and forensic techniques not even devised when Hubble was assembled on earth.

In this instance, Hubble has found the faint image of an object that emitted light a mere 480 million years after the big bang 13.7 billion years ago.

It is, thus, nearly as old as time itself.

Who really believes that the universe was the size of a watermelon when the big bang made it expand and fill up the universe with stars? None of the physicists who tolerated such absurd shorthand in the media believed it, and until recently, with the near universal extinction of science reporters, very few journalists believed it either.  Unfortunately the content providers will believe anything now, provided it can be cut and pasted, or look big in a “word cloud”.

The conspiracy of over simplification has until now kept the really gnarly principles involved in big bang theory out of the jargon because nothing short of a first-class degree in theoretical and practical physics is going to suffice for a reasonable overview. Plus a 100,000-word article with a few thousand diagrams.

Let us deconstruct. The big bang didn’t start with a tiny object surrounded by nothingness, or expand into tomorrow, as some quaintly put it.

It was a space of infinite size packed more tightly with stuff than a Jetstar flight leaving Denpasar at midnight. (Oh and very dark, but leave that for when you have completed your doctorate in stellar physics).

Then the space between the stuff began to expand, making an infinitely large space even more infinitely large and as stuff moved away from other stuff, it began to change into ever more complicated stuff.

The big bang was really the big stuff up, rendering us “stuffed” from the beginning, so to speak.

So now, 13.7 billion years later, we are still in a place that is infinitely large, but roomier,  with no starting point and no ending point, as infinity doesn’t allow us to define finite constraints, and the expanded space is full of stuff such as  galaxies, black holes, stars, planets and supermarkets with defective trolleys.

The further away (or back in time) that we look, the faster the supermarkets and rogue trolleys on other planets are rushing away from us, and each other.  And if out there (or back there) “others” are looking our way with telescopes searching for an image near the start of time, they will only see our part of an infinite universe, as it was up to 13.7 billion years ago,  not as it is at this same moment when we can’t see what they have been up to in the meantime either.

Which means the universe was made to be very private, if not downright anti-social, another topic that the media, struggling with cosmology in 300 words, will try to have to do in a story half as long as this.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey