The way we design universes today, with the observational approach of modern science, may differ from the sacred metaphors of our ancestors, but we all do it for the same reason: to comprehend the universe the way that lets us feel at home in it.
-E. C. Krupp
There was disorder and there was order, one day.
Once upon a time, some 13 1/2 billion years ago, the entire universe was so small, it could fit in the palm of your hand. Then, for some strange reason, nobody quite knows why, it expanded. It did not really explode as often depicted by the media, but it just grew from that tiny speck and it grew and grew and grew. It is still growing to this day.
This is not a myth, legend, or another religious story about how the universe began. This is really, truly how the universe began. How do we know? Well we have both a logical explanation and physical (empirical) evidence. Logic and empiricism are the two central components of science, and science is the language we use to understand nature. If we have those two bases covered, we have a complete set of tools needed to uncovered nature's secrets.
The related Special Theory of Relativity that made Einstein famous was developed 11 years earlier (1905) and it is from the special theory that we get the famous E = mc2. This statement itself reveals some interesting facts about the universe. Everything is either energy (E) or mass (m), and even this distinction is an illusory, because what E = mc2 essentials tells us is that every piece of mass contains within it an enormous amount of energy. All of the mass and energy currently in the universe came from that initial blast of energy released from that tiny speck 13.7 million years ago. Some of that energy turned into stuff (matter), and the rest of it is keeping the universe going. Life on Earth is driven by a small fraction of it.
Einstein, however, barely missed his chance at discovering the universe's origins, because he believed what the ancient Greeks believed about the origins of the universe: that there was no beginning to the universe. It was static and eternal in both time and space. Einstein believed the universe had always existed in the same form it exists now and will continue to exist forever. He believed this so strongly that he incorporated a number, known as the cosmological constant, in his formulas that prevented the universe from expanding or contracting.
It was another person, a Catholic priest from Belgium by the name of Georges Lemaitre, who studied cosmology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, recognized this error, removed the constant that keep the universe from expanding, and provided the theoretical framework for the origins of the universe. The paper he wrote about this was first published in 1927 in the relatively obscure Annals of the Scientific Society of Brussels. Lemaitre was able to show, mathematically, that the universe began as a tiny speck that he referred to as the "primeval atom" or the "cosmic egg".
|Lemaitre and Einstein*|
When theoretical scientists, like Einstein and Lemaitre, create logical models, those models, if they are good ones, will often make predictions about the behavior of nature. This is where the empirical evidence comes in. With science, a lot of weight is placed on evidence that one can see, hear or touch. A scientific theory is never truly accepted as fact until there is hard physical evidence. If the universe, for example, is expanding, then one should be able to see the stars and galaxies spreading away from us. In 1929, two years after Lemaitre's paper was first published, an astronomer by the name of Edwin Hubble at Mt. Wilson observatory near Pasadena, California did just that, sort of. He did not actually see stars and galaxies moving away. They are too small and too far away to observe that directly, but what he saw were galaxies behaving as one would expect them to behave if they were moving away.
Hubble, in turn, was in dept to the hard work of at least two other scientists, Vesto Slipher, the director of the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona and a computer named Henrietta Swan Leavitt at the Harvard College Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
|Henrietta Swan Leavitt|
|Image courtesy of USPS|
When Edwin Hubble asked Slipher for his data, Slipher was more than happy to cooperate. To this day, it is Hubble who is remembered most for discovering the expanding universe, the key finding that led to the idea that universe began as a tiny speck some 13 1/2 billion years. Specifically, he discovered that a galaxy's velocity is proportional to its distance (an observation predicted by Lemaitre's mathematical theorizing). Galaxies that are twice as far from us move twice as fast. Another consequence is that the universe is expanding in every direction. This observation means that every galaxy has moved away from a common starting position at the same time in the very distant past.
Hubble is further remembered with a famous telescope currently orbiting the earth. He also has a cool postage stamp (left). The telescope in the background is Mt. Wilson observatory, where Hubble was employed, not the Hubble Space telescope named after him. In addition, he have an asteroid and a crater on the Moon named after him. By the way, both Leavitt and Slipher also have an asteroid and a Moon crater named in their honor, while Slipher has an addition crater on Mars named after him.
|God seconding a sentiment once expressed by an Atheist?|
The astronomer Fred Hoyle, the original opponent of the big bang theory who coined the phrase as an insult, was a committed hard-core Atheist, and spent a great deal of argument and effort trying to disprove it. To Hoyle, and a lot of other Atheists, the big bang was too similar to the idea of Biblical creation.
|Lemaitre and Pope Pius XII|
“As far as I can see, such a theory remains entirely outside any metaphysical or religious question. It leaves the materialist free to deny any transcendental Being… For the believer, it removes any attempt at familiarity with God… It is consonant with Isaiah speaking of the hidden God, hidden even in the beginning of the universe.”
Further Reading (some primary sources).Henrietta Swan Leavitt. 1908. "1777 Variables in the Magellanic Clouds" Annals of Harvard College Observatory. LX(IV):87-110
Edward C. Pickering. 1912. "Periods of 25 Variable Stars in the Small Magellanic Cloud" Harvard College Observatory Circular 173: 1-3.
Vesto Slipher. 1912. "The radial velocity of the Andromeda Nebula". Lowell Observatory Bulletin: 2.56–2.57.
Vesto Slipher. 1915. "Spectrographic Observations of Nebulae". Popular Astronomy: 21–24.
George Lemaitre. 1927 (1931 English translations). "Expansion of the Universe, A Homogeneous Universe of Constant Mass and Increasing radius Accounting fort the Radial Velocity of Extra-Galactic Nebulae". Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. 91: 483-490
Hubble, Edwin. 1929. "A relation between distance and radial velocity among extra-galactic nebulae". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 15(3): 168–173
Further Reading (secondary sources)Chris Impey. 2012. How It Began: A Time-Traveler's Guide to the Universe. W W Norton & Company
George Johnson. 2005. Miss Leavitt's Stars: The Untold Story of the Woman who Discovered How to Measure the Universe. Atlas Books
Harry Nussbaumer; Lydia Bieri; Allen Sandage. 2009. Discovering the Expanding Universe. Cambridge University Press.
Simon Singh. 2005. Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe. Fourth Estate.
*all images are from Wikimedia or Wikipedia unless otherwise noted.