Astronomy and the Big Questions - Part 1
25 Jun 2006
Where we have been, where we are, where we are going. These are three of the big mysteries that nearly everyone who calls himself a human being wants to know. There is nary another species out there beside our own which tries to uncover meaning to life by investigating its past, present, and future, trying to make sense of it all.
And there are few disciplines in the sciences that can reveal to us as much as astronomy can - not that I'm biased at all. But a meaningful science should tell us more than just facts, more than just pure trivia; it should help us fill in a gap or two in that trillion piece jigsaw puzzle we call The Big Picture. And astronomy helps enormously.
This week we will look at where we have been. In my next two columns we will take a look at where we are and then where all this is headed. And, hopefully, along the way, we can discover something about ourselves, and our place in The Whole Shebang.
A century ago the scientific community was convinced that the universe was infinitely big and ageless. There was no beginning; it just always was. And the three dimensions of space and the one of time was it, the entire package.
Now, after a lot of hard work by a lot of clever men and women, we are firmly convinced that the universe - all matter and energy and space and even time - came into existence from nothing about 13.74 billion years ago in a burst of creation called the big bang.
To be sure things have changed over time - much energy became matter, matter formed stars, stars gave shape to galaxies, star remnants became planets, and space has stretched to unimaginable lengths - but the fact remains: there was a beginning.
Not everyone was all too excited at this conclusion. For many - including the renowned astronomer Fred Hoyle who derisively coined the phrase "big bang" - a beginning to everything, an actual event originating from beyond, was thoroughly repulsive.
But it gets more complex than that.
That our universe is expanding into unseen dimensions implies heavily that there is more to existence than the three dimensions of space we enjoy. There is something that transcends our life.
Let me illustrate by using the standard example we use in astronomy classes today, the blowing up of a balloon. Unimaginably tiny beings living on the surface of a balloon are only aware of that stretching two-dimensional surface. But they are unaware of what is outside and above the expanding balloon, or what's inside of it. It is not part of their "space." They can point neither to where it's all headed, nor to where it all started.
It's similar with us. We are on a stretching fabric of space, only ours is three-dimensional. But we cannot see any "place" we are headed for, not can we point to where we have been. Those are, in the fullest sense of the term, beyond us.
To take this even more "out there," string theory - the theory which tries to explain essentially everything - postulates that there are nearly a dozen dimensions of space, many more beyond the three we know and love.
Stephen Hawking made it still more nerve-racking for some when he told us that even time itself had its beginning at the beginning. Some transcendent cause and effect system got us here.
That we had a beginning, that all was created at the beginning, that there is more beyond space and time than we can possibly imagine has profound philosophical and theological implications. Who and/or what is beyond? What caused this universe to be? Was it an inexplicable accident or was it purposed?
Get together this week with some friends, open up your mind, don your philosopher's hat, and have at it.
Next time we'll look at some things astronomy has to offer concerning our present, and what that may say about our existence.