Space: the final frontier

To boldly go where no man has gone before

Taha Najeeb July 13, 2016
The writer is a freelance contributor based in New Jersey

To boldly go where no man has gone before. Reading this, we are reminded of the starship enterprise traversing through galactic space, breaking new frontiers across the cosmic horizon into strange new worlds. The human mind has always remained fascinated with the universe. Suspended upon a whirling ball in the vast colossus that is dark, empty space, we have long wondered about the cosmos — its beginnings; its many hidden mysteries. Long before Isaac Asimov employed the power of fiction to satiate man’s cosmic wander lust, it was the early Sumerians, Babylonians, and the Greeks who were gazing out at the night sky, awed and humbled by the celestial artwork which predates our own genesis by vast stretches of time. Ours, then, is a great privilege, that we are here, on this pale blue dot as the great Carl Sagan described it, partakers in this fascinating voyage — a mere blimp, perhaps, in cosmic time, yet extraordinary all the same.

That we exist at a time to observe all this is our great fortune. That we exist at all, considering the extraordinary improbability of our existence — the requisite fine tuning of the fundamental forces of nature — is not short of a miracle. It’s a matter of time till our galaxies will have moved so far apart that there will remain no trace of any other galaxies, or of the universe ever having had a beginning. But how can we be sure galaxies are moving farther apart? Thanks to the wonders of science, no galaxy sized rulers are required. In the early 20th century, Edwin Hubble, observing the universe from his giant telescope discovered redshift in distant galaxies; a sign the galaxies were moving away from us. As the galaxies recede, the light-waves they emit spread out in space, yielding frequencies in the lower visible spectrum (Doppler Effect) — red light. Comparing light from known supernovae (standard candles) to distant supernovae, scientists were also able to measure the speed and distance of faraway galaxies, and from this, the age of the universe itself — which comes out to be approximately 13.8 billion years.

Yes, today we can say with confidence that about 13.8 billion years ago the entire universe as we know it burst into existence, from a tiny super dense dot smaller than the size of a pin-head — the singularity. This was the founding event — the big bang — when all of matter, space and time were formed. In its initial stages, the infant universe was a seething, bubbling plasma of photons and electrons. It took about 400,000 years for it to cool down enough for the first neutral Hydrogen atoms to form. At this point, it turned into a smoky gaseous mass expanding outwards. This released the IR radiation trapped in the plasma, turning it into microwaves owing to rapid expansion of space-time. Billions of years later, in 1964, two radio astronomers — Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson — scanning for radio waves from Echo balloon satellites, would detect those same microwaves on their radio receiver. Measuring abnormally high interference on their scanning device, the unsuspecting astronomers were initially not aware they had just detected the early microwave radiation from the big bang itself, also known as cosmic microwave background radiation (CMBR). The CMBR is, in fact, all around us, like a ghostly echo of a distant past. Thermal maps (WMAPs) of the CMBR match exactly the predicted results from the energy density fluctuation calculations from the big bang, providing further evidence of that spectacular event from which everything originated. The two astronomers would go on to receive the Nobel Prize, their discovery confirming, albeit serendipitously, that our universe, indeed, has a beginning. Later, we would discover other signs of the big bang: the abundance of lighter elements Hydrogen, Helium, and Lithium (caused by big bang) compared to heavier elements (caused by nuclear fusion in supernovae) in proportions that tally up with scientific predictions. Or traces of Baryonic Acoustic Oscillations (sound waves) in the CMBR that match earlier predictions to a point.

Where the universe becomes spooky, leaving many scientists helplessly scratching their heads, is quantum physics. At the quantum level, it appears, even Einstein’s general relativity no longer fully complies. At the subatomic level, particles begin to exhibit unpredictable, bizarre characteristics. Take the particle-wave duality of an electron, i.e., an electron behaves both as wave and particle at the same time. When an electron is under observation (being measured), its wave function collapses; it mysteriously starts acting like a particle. At quantum scales, then, there are no certainties, only probabilities. In other words, for each event in space and time, there could be any given number of possibilities for it to occur, yielding unpredictable outcomes upon the final act of observation. To clarify how bizarre this phenomenon is, Austrian scientist Erwin Schrodinger setup a thought experiment: a cat locked in a steel chamber with a radioactive substance. If the substance decays, the cat dies, otherwise it lives. In the quantum world, both probabilities — cat survives, or dies — will have occurred, till someone opens the door to find out what happened, at which point the probability function collapses to a single definitive outcome i.e. cat is either found dead or alive (animal rights figured little in Austrian hypotheticals). Schrodinger’s cat paradox gave rise to multiple hypotheses, one such being the ‘Many-Worlds interpretation,’ i.e. all possible events which can occur will occur in parallel worlds. In other words, Schrodinger’s cat is both alive and dead, depending on which of the two worlds you find yourself in. This, of course, raises many questions on free-will and determinism — a whole dialectic in itself.

Furthermore, at the quantum level, particles, it appears, are constantly winking in and out of existence from apparently nothing. However, nothing is nothing, at least in the sense we understand the concept of nothing in common parlance — rather, it’s quantum vacuum. As cosmologist, Lawrence Krauss, in his book “A Universe from Nothing” explains, even in a vacuum there is potential. Counter-intuitively, all observable matter in the cosmos, including quasars and galaxies, only form one per cent of the total mass of the universe. The rest comes from invisible matter: dark matter and dark energy. In fact, dark energy, per contemporary understanding, is the causal force behind our universe’s accelerated expansion. Were it not for surreptitious action of this mysterious, invisible energy, our universe, owing to gravitational attraction from visible matter, would have, by now, collapsed in on itself.

Reading this, a cynic could raise his eyebrow and ask: why does any of this matter? Why care about the cosmos when we have corruption, the budget, and Amir Liaquat’s pictures in commando fatigues to comment on. Well, make no mistake: it matters. And it matters immensely. Because nothing quite distills the reality of our own finitude in a vast expanding universe, and our incredible privilege in having lived at all to experience it, than knowing our place in the cosmos.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 14th, 2016.

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Bilal Tanvir | 5 years ago | Reply Very nice. Easily one of the best articles ever published in any English paper in Pakistan. The universe begs many questions and science is the instrument of inquiry.Hope the powers that be could read this sort of stuff and invest in the sciences esp science of cosmology and astrophysics
bitter truth | 5 years ago | Reply @Motiwala The message in the article is that study of universe and scientific research could open minds of narrow minded individuals and TV celebrities who misguide and brain wash the common folks.Primitive thoughts should give way to the realities of astronomy and modern research.
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