Big Bangin’

An important thing to remember:

IMG_1240

That thought came from John Mather during a talk at Yale entitled, “How Did the Universe Make People? A Brief History of the Universe, from the Beginning to the End.” Mather won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on COBE, the Cosmic Background Explorer launched in 1989. The satellite measured the energy released from the Big Bang, or something, and basically proved the BB theory was true. Science geeks can go here to learn more.

I am not a science geek. Without the help of several friends much smarter than I, I would have had pretty lousy grades in high school science, and I managed not to take any in college (UConn was lax on us liberal arts types back then). But during my years at Weekly Reader and as a freelancer, I’ve had occasion to write about science and have actually learned something. I’ve also discovered I enjoy science, to a degree, as long as it’s diluted for the layman and has no math.

A cool image he didn't use

A cool image he didn't use

Check out the celestial tie! (And ignore the unsteady hand at the photographic wheel)

Check out the celestial tie! (And ignore the unsteady hand at the photographic wheel)

Mather left out the complexities and the math, I assume, because the talk was meant for the public. But it seemed like mostly Yale students and profs jammed into the lecture hall for his talk. Mather started off with an allusion to Bill Cosby, and he had a few more light moments (I never doubted that physicists have a sense humor). His focus was, as the title said, a brief history of the universe. Here’s the condensed version: The Big Bang came about 13.7 billion years ago. Galaxies formed. Gravity played a key role in this, but we don’t know what gravity really is. Stuff called dark matter and dark energy exists, but we don’t really know what they are either. Chemicals spewed from nuclear reactions in stars (alluded to in the slide above) created life on Earth. There might be life elsewhere, but whether it’s like us — who knows? In about 6.7 billion years, the sun will burn out.

Wait a minute — the sun will burn out? No more Earth? OK, this wasn’t exactly a revelation, of course, but when Mather put it out as part of a very orderly (inevitable?) progression of events, said it so matter of factly, like dictating a grocery list – well, it’s hard enough dealing with thoughts of my own mortality, but everything here, gone, zip, nada? My plays too? Now, humans might kill themselves or be wiped out by an asteroid or some other natural disaster sooner than 6.7 billion years. I’d put money on it. But the thought of our solar system plunged into nothingness just… saddens me. And now I have something else to worry me at night.

The gold-covered satellite of tomorrow

The gold-covered satellite of tomorrow

Mather is now part of a project to launch a new space telescope, the Webb, meant to fill in the gaps of what Hubble and others have found. The Webb will detect infrared light, which will give better images of distant stars. Cool. But when everything was over, I thought the talk didn’t quite live up to its title. He didn’t say much about how the universe created people, just that it did. I suppose the details go beyond his bailiwick of astrophysics. But I enjoyed the talk anyway, mostly for Mather’s candor. He was quick to say what he and other scientists don’t know. That theories are incomplete, that some substances physicists talk about might be “figments of the imagination.” At one point, he said an explanation for some cosmic event  “might be a true story.” The best scientists are not touched by hubris when it comes to describing what we truly know.

Which is, of course, is in stark opposition to many religious folk. I bring this up only because I’ve read so much for work lately about science vs. religion. Some fundamentalists try to say secularites see science or humanism as a form of religion, with its own dogma. Mather’s approach puts the lie to this; scientists are on a permanent quest to discover the truth. They know theories can be wrong, new facts emerge. Unlike the religious types, who try to shove their “divine truths” down our throat. Taking anything as gospel can be dangerous. The best believers and scientists alike keep an open mind on many things. (Sometimes they are even the same people.) So I’m holding hope that the 6.7-billion-year thing is just totally wrong.

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~ by mburgan on September 30, 2009.

2 Responses to “Big Bangin’”

  1. I don’t know If I said it already but …Cool site, love the info. I do a lot of research online on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say I’m glad I found your blog. Thanks, 🙂

    A definite great read..Jim Bean

  2. Assuming you aren’t pulling my leg (I have trouble sometimes with compliments)–cool. Thanks.

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