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The Singularity Debate: The Expanding Universe

By Aaitijhya Goswami

Looking up to the night sky and the dark blanket strewn with small celestial sparkles often fills our inquisitive minds with awe and joy. Often as kids, we looked through these wonderful views and wished that things remain this way for eternity. Well, they will remain this way for a few generations, but the debate about the expanding universe and the celestial bodies drifting away has been going on for years. There was a time when the stubborn illusion of the universe being in a steady constant state was very prevalent among astronomers and physicists, with modifications being done even to equations to satisfy that, so here’s a walkthrough of how the ideas and theories unfolded.

Our sun and the nearby stars are all part of a vast collection of stars called the Milky Way galaxy. For a long time it was thought that this was the whole universe. It was only in 1924 that the American astronomer Edwin Hubble demonstrated that ours was not the only galaxy. There were, in fact, many others, with vast tracks of empty space between them. In order to prove this, he needed to determine the distances to these other galaxies. We can determine the distance of nearby stars by observing how they change position as the Earth goes around the sun. But other galaxies are so far away that, unlike nearby stars, they really do appear fixed. Hubble was forced, therefore, to use indirect methods to measure the distances.

Now the apparent brightness of a star depends on two factors—luminosity and how far it is from us. For nearby stars, we can measure both their apparent brightness and their distance, so we can work out their luminosity. Conversely, if we knew the luminosity of stars in other galaxies, we could work out their distance by measuring their apparent brightness. Hubble argued that there were certain types of stars that always had the same luminosity when they were near enough for us to measure. If, therefore, we found such stars in another galaxy, we could assume that they had the same luminosity. Thus, we could calculate the distance to that galaxy. If we could do this for a number of stars in the same galaxy, and our calculations always gave the same distance, we could be fairly confident of our estimate. In this way, Edwin Hubble worked out the distances to nine different galaxies.

We now know that our galaxy is only one of some hundred thousand million that can be seen using modern telescopes, each galaxy itself containing some hundred thousand million stars. We live in a galaxy that is about one hundred thousand light-years across and is slowly rotating; the stars in its spiral arms orbit around its center about once every hundred million years. Our sun is just an ordinary, average-sized, yellow star, near the outer edge of one of the spiral arms. We have certainly come a long way since Aristotle and Ptolemy, when we thought that the Earth was the center of the universe.

Stars are so far away that they appear to us to be just pinpoints of light. We cannot determine their size or shape. So how can we tell different types of stars apart? For the vast majority of stars, there is only one correct characteristic feature that we can observe—the color of their light. Newton discovered that if light from the sun passes through a prism, it breaks up into its component colors—its spectrum—like in a rainbow. By focusing a telescope on an individual star or galaxy, one can similarly observe the spectrum of the light from that star or galaxy. Different stars have different spectra, but the relative brightness of the different colors is always exactly what one would expect to find in the light emitted by an object that is glowing red hot. This means that we can tell a star's temperature from the spectrum of its light.

We know that each chemical element absorbs the characteristic set of very specific colors. Thus, by matching each of those that are missing from a star’s spectrum, we can determine exactly which elements are present in the star’s atmosphere. In the 1920s, when astronomers began to look at the spectra of stars in other galaxies, they found something most peculiar: There were the same characteristic sets of missing colors as for stars in our own galaxy, but they were all shifted by the same relative amount toward the red end of the spectrum. The only reasonable explanation of this was that the galaxies were moving away from us, and the frequency of the light waves from them was being reduced, or red-shifted, by the Doppler effect. Listen to a car passing on the road. As the car is approaching, its engine sounds at a higher pitch, corresponding to a higher frequency of sound waves; and when it passes and goes away, it sounds at a lower pitch. The behavior of light or radial waves is similar. Indeed, the police made use of the Doppler effect to measure the speed of cars by measuring the frequency of pulses of radio waves reflected off them. In the years following his proof of the existence of other galaxies, Hubble spent his time cataloging their distances and observing their spectra.

At that time most people expected the galaxies to be moving around quite randomly, and so expected to find as many spectra which were blue-shifted as ones that were red–shifted. It was quite a surprise, therefore, to find that the galaxies all appeared red-shifted. Every single one was moving away from us. More surprising still was the result that Hubble published in 1929: Even the size of the galaxy's redshift was not random but was directly proportional to the galaxy's distance from us. Or, in other words, the farther a galaxy was, the faster it was moving away. And that meant that the universe could not be static, as everyone previously thought, but was in fact expanding. The distance between the different galaxies was growing all the time. The discovery that the universe was expanding was one of the great intellectual revolutions of the twentieth century.

In hindsight, it is easy to wonder why no one had thought of it before. Newton and others should have realized that a static universe would soon start to contract under the influence of gravity. But suppose that, instead of being static, the universe was expanding. If it was expanding fairly slowly, the force of gravity would cause it eventually to stop expanding and then to start contracting. However, if it was expanding at more than a certain critical rate, gravity would never be strong enough to stop it, and the universe would continue to expand forever. This is a bit like what happens when one fires a rocket upward from the surface of the Earth. If it has a fairly low speed, gravity will eventually stop the rocket and it will start falling back. On the other hand, if the rocket has more than a certain critical speed–about seven miles a second–gravity will not be strong enough to pull it back, so it will keep going away from the Earth forever.

Thus, this was how Edwin Hubble came up with one of the most ingenious discoveries of the 20th century and one that really turned around the course of studies in astrophysics and astronomy, and really propelled humanity toward a better understanding of the universe and the cosmological phenomena surrounding it. This, though, was the advent of the debate, and went on through the whole of the 20th century and baffled astronomers from around the world.

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