Brian Schmidt, the Australian National University astrophysicist who became a brilliant new star overnight when named a joint Nobel Prize science winner should also get an award for putting pressure on lazy science reporting.
Schmidt, a naturalised Australian, and fellow American researchers Adam Riess, of Johns Hopkins University, and Saul Perlmutter, of the University of California, discovered that the expansion of the universe, or more correctly, the expansion of the gaps between “stuff” in the universe, wasn’t slowing down over time as believed, but accelerating much faster than ever.
As he has been saying in interviews this morning, knowledge is funny thing, and the more we learn about how the universe works with precision, the more we discover things we can use in daily life.
It was fascinating to observe an articulate cosmologist tell reporters that on one hand this expansion dooms the universe to a dark and miserable end, where even the nearest stars will have been dispersed beyond what mathematician Brian Greene calls the cliffs of time, yet hold out the promise that within space, which itself isn’t empty but seething with energy, the curiosity driven touchings of scientific inquiry might one day make the door to the universe swing open.
However, what Schmidt and his colleagues have found puts stress on the popular science model of telescopes looking back into time so far that they can see the original Big Bang, when everything we observe in the universe began, some 13.7 billion years ago.
In fact, what astronomy does, is look back far enough to find light that is almost as old as time, but not light that came from a single point in a finite object the size of a watermelon, or any other lazy construct favoured by popular science media.
We can’t actually see light that was emitted in the first 300 million years or so after the Big Bang, because the universe was too crammed full of primordial material for that light to go anywhere.
And the universe didn’t begin at a single point. It began in a place of infinite size, and everything in this limitless space went “bang” at the same moment (we think) and it was the space between these evolving particles of the physically obvious universe, which began to expand, letting the light shine through, and as Schmidt et al have found, continuing to expand at an accelerating rate under the influence of what is in science short hand, called “dark energy”.
Which means that when we see the light from something that happened more than 13 billion years ago, anything sentient looking towards us from the reverse direction sees the same ancient light emitted throughout an endless universe that was dark (we think) and went bang (we think) at exactly the same moment (we think.)
So much for hot watermelon-sized universes at the moment time went bang rather than tick or tock.
The frustrations of serious cosmologists with popular science shorthand lead to Professor Schmidt’s old alma mater Harvard University posting its superbly elegant Brief Answers to Cosmic Questions page on the web, which among other things deals with “Does the Universe have an Edge?” (No) and “Did it expand from a single point?” (No) .
To grasp the enormity and power of what Schmidt, who is of today one of its most honoured sons, has brought to light, it is worth visiting that page to learn about the fundamentals.
Cosmology is not the stuff of 300-word stories, nor two-minute TV grabs, but it is about reaching out for that doorway to the universe. Although the origins of the words are obscure, it has been noted in cosmology for many, many years, that if or when that door swings open, the true history of our species begins.