About a month ago, my daughter and I went to see “Hubble”, a movie at the IMAX theater at the Minnesota Science Museum. The movie chronicled the building and launching of the Hubble Space Telescope, and showed amazing images that the telescope has taken of the universe and sent back to us on Earth. As we were shown pictures of galaxies millions of light years away from us, I was astounded and at the same time, interested to learn more about our place in the universe. How did scientists figure out so much about stuff so far away, and from so long ago, back before the Hubble?
I got all the answers I ever wanted and more from Simon Singh’s wonderful book, Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe. The ‘Big Bang’ is the ironically sarcastic name given to the theory, first offered by Father Georges Lemaitre in 1927, stating that the universe began 13.7 billion years ago from a small, highly condensed point called a singularity and rapidly expanded outward, creating all of the material in the universe through chemical reactions as it expanded. Time and space were begun at the moment the singularity first expanded. The universe is still expanding to this day, thanks to this initial jump-start billions of years ago.
So how did they figure all of this out, you might ask? Singh takes us back to the humble beginnings of astronomy around 200 BC, when Eratosthenes used a stick, the angle of the sun, and mathematics to prove that the Earth was round. We journey next through the struggles of Copernicus, Brahe, Kepler and Galileo to prove that we live in a Sun-centered solar system (no easy feat when the Bible, the Church and most of the population believed it was earth-centered). A brief review of Einstein’s physics is next, proving gravity and the existence of spacetime, to the first women astronomers who proved that there were galaxies outside of the Milky Way, to Hubble’s redshifts and Penzias and Wilson’s cosmic background radiation discoveries, both proving that the universe was literally begun with a bang.
The picture on the header was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2004, and is called an Ultra Deep Field. This picture involved pointing the Hubble telescope into a portion of space and leaving the aperture open for one million seconds, allowing even the faintest light from extremely distant galaxies to be collected and photographed. When we see the light from these galaxies, we are seeing light that left the galaxies about 300 million years ago, so they are seen as they were just after the initial expansion and cooling of the Big Bang. Talk about time travel!
The journey is exciting, at times hilarious, and definitely thought-provoking. Singh provides interesting background stories about the lives and discoveries of the different scientists, as well as lots of pictures. He takes several difficult concepts like Einstein’s theory of general relativity and uses easy to understand examples, which I appreciated since I am the least mathematical person I know. The most amazing part of the book for me was the perseverance of the different scientists to keep pushing forward with their work, even in the face of ridicule from their colleagues and/or religious/political persecution. Many astronomers went to their graves still believing in their theories even after they had been proven wrong. What was most ironic is that sometimes even the wrong theories ended up contributing something to the correct theories.
Singh’s book describes the triumph of the scientific method. Many astronomers started with an idea, or looked at previous ideas and were inspired to think of something else or build upon that idea, and then went through all the necessary steps to prove or disprove it. It is astounding to me that Father Lemaitre could have conceptualized the idea of an expanding universe decades before it was actually proven, with very limited technology at his disposal. The power of the human mind to dream and achieve is the most powerful thing about this book. I hope you’ll pick it up for yourself….if you love science books, this is a must-read.