August 14, 2002


In the Beginning ... (DENNIS OVERBYE, July 23, 2002, NY Times)
It has always been easy to make fun of cosmologists, confined to a dust mote lost in space, pronouncing judgment on the fate of the universe or the behavior of galaxies billions of light-years away, with only a few scraps of light as evidence.

"Cosmologists are often wrong," the Russian physicist Lev Landau put it, "but never in doubt."

For most of the 20th century, cosmology seemed less a science than a religious war over, say, whether the universe had a beginning, in a fiery Big Bang billions of years ago, or whether it exists eternally in the so-called Steady State.

In the last few years, however, a funny thing has happened. Cosmologists are beginning to agree with one another. Blessed with new instruments like the Hubble Space Telescope and other space-based observatories, a new generation of their giant cousins on the ground and ever-faster computer networks, cosmology is entering "a golden age" in which data are finally outrunning speculation.

"The rate at which we are learning and discovering new things is just extraordinary," said Dr. Charles Bennett, an astronomer at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

As a result, cosmologists are beginning to converge on what they call a "standard model" of the universe that is towering in its ambition. It purports to trace, at least in broad strokes, cosmic history from the millisecond after time began, when the universe was a boiling stew of energy and subatomic particles, through the formation of atoms, stars, galaxies and planets to the vast, dilute, dark future in which all of these will have died.

The universe, the cosmologists say, was born 14 billion years ago in the Big Bang. Most of its material remains resides in huge clouds of invisible so-called dark matter, perhaps elementary particles left over from the primordial explosion and not yet identified.

Within these invisible clouds, the glittery lights in the sky that have defined creation for generations of humans are swamped, like flecks of foam on a
rolling sea. A good case can be made, scientists now agree, that the universe will go on expanding forever.

This is a long but very interesting article, with cool pictures. Let me preface this by admitting that I don't understand the science at all, but what strikes me about all this is just how little we know. If I could analogize, we seem like characters in the middle of a novel who have become conscious of the fact that we are fictional creations. We've managed to trace our way back to the opening words of the book, but have no idea what lies beyond there or how they got there. We can make informed speculations about where the plot of the book is taking us, maybe even anticipate the most likely ending, but can't be certain and don't really have a clue what happens after it ends. And the most important thing about it all is that everything we know or think we know is contained by the covers of the book. We don't know the author or even if there is one. We don't know if there are other books--one more book; tens of books; trillions of books... We don't know whether the book is a fantasy, a history, a morality play, or whether it was typed by those monkeys in the old probability example who eventually type Hamlet by accident. We know, in a very real sense, practically nothing.
Posted by Orrin Judd at August 14, 2002 1:39 PM
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