“The true alchemists do not change lead into gold; they change the world into words,” said William H. Gass in A Temple of Texts. I think it is good to summarise into words the discoveries of the cosmos in order for us to reassess our own place within universal reality ~ so far as we understand it, at least. Not only have we primates discovered that Earth is not the centre of the universe, neither is the Sun, nor the Solar System, nor even the Milky Way. The universe itself may not be a singular event.
Life on Earth, humans, even President-Elect Trump, are removed again and again from the centre of everything. In this sense, we are infinitesimal in meaning, and our anthropogenic impacts simply a glitch in the matrix. On the other hand, so far in all cosmic discoveries, along with all life forms on Planet Earth, we are rare as hens’ teeth. Life is Earth’s own alchemists’ gold.
Since the Medieval revival of alchemy-promise, science has moved on of course. A plethora of hypotheses and theories feed cosmologists’ pschye with plenty to dream about. In 1609, Kepler cited the dark night sky to propose a finite universe. He worked out that the solar system’s planets moved in ellipses, not in perfect circles, around the Sun (heliocentrism) – and this he called the ‘Laws of planetary motion’. Galileo Galilei observed that moons similarly moved around Jupiter’s orbit. In 1687, Newton and Hooke emerged with important theories of dynamics and gravity, still used today as an estimation for determining gravitational forces here on Earth. And in 1791, Erasmus Darwin outlined the first hypothesis of a cyclical, expanding and contracting universe, which of course would go on to inspire some incredible cosmological dreamers, not least Albert Einstein.
In 1869, Dmitri Mendeleev published the first periodic table to illustrate physical atomic properties of the then-known elements. More since has been discovered on the nature of light, (electromagnetic radiation of any wavelength), whether visible or not. Gamma rays, X-rays, microwaves and radio waves are also light. Since 1983, we now have a fixed speed of light (in a vacuum, recorded as exactly 299792458 m/s), which now defines what a precise ‘metre’ actually is and, so far, nothing is recorded as travelling any faster.
As Einstein worked on his Theory of Relativity before the First World War, he came to the conclusion that our perceptions of ‘gravity’ arise from the curvature of space-time continuum. Massive objects, he found, cause a distortion within this continuum, like a heavy object on a trampoline. If a marble were to be rolled about the edge of the trampoline, it would gradually spiral inwards toward the object, a bit like Earth attracting rocks from space (meteors). The universe may, therefore, be full of stretch marks, puckers and warps, vortices (worm holes), valleys and mountains ~ matter and energy combine in deformed space-time to deflect anything that tries to move through it in a straight line.
In 1922, the Russian mathematician, Friedmann, realised that Einstein’s equations could describe an expanding universe. Seven years later, the American astronomer Hubble discovered that some nebulae were distant galaxies comparable in size to our Milky Way. He then measured the waves of light emitted from these galaxies, and found a shift in the spectra towards longer wavelengths (the red end of the spectrum), indicating the universe is expanding (redshift). What could all this matter be expanding from? The British astronomer Fred Hoyle, and deeply skeptical about an expanding universe, was interviewed on BBC Radio’s Third Programme about Hubble’s discoveries in 1949. In a throw away remark, he coined the expression “The Big Bang.’’ Little did he realise at the time, but it was popularly adopted, representing the idea that the Universe had been born at one single instant, about ten thousand million years ago, and that galaxies are still expanding away to this day.
Cosmic microwave background (CMB), it appears, is the thermal radiation also emanating from the Big Bang. Although predicted by another cosmologist called Robert Dicke, scientists Penzias and Wilson proved it by accident in 1964 whilst searching for radio waves after checking the results were not residual from nesting pigeons. They subsequently won a Nobel Prize for their discovery. It is the anomalies or fluctuations in the measured flow of CMB that have given further weight to what is known as the ‘Dark Matter’ hypothesis. Albert Einstein was the first person to seriously contemplate that space is not nothing. Space has amazing properties, our understanding of which is still in the early stages. So much has not yet been proved. By fitting a theoretical model of the composition of the universe to the combined set of cosmological observations, however, scientists have come up with the composition as follows: 68% dark energy, 27% dark matter, and 5% normal matter. Not only are the sum of all humans, and all life’s mass on Planet Earth, a tiny speck of matter in the scale of all things, but everything we can actually see in the universe is also very small. We don’t know for sure what dark matter or dark energy is, but we know it is there. The fascinating thing is that some leading cosmologists speculate it is a quintessence or aether, with echoes of those ancient ideas of a classical fifth element I mentioned in Part One. Its structure may be an exotic kind of energy field that pulls particles away from one another, stronger than gravity and the other fundamental forces known to the science of physics.
Back in 1803, British scientist, John Dalton, hypothesised “atomic theory” as spherical solid atoms based upon measurable properties of mass. Although atoms were later proved (and more), in the 20th Century by Thomson, Rutherford, Bohr and Einstein, Dalton believed these were the smallest particles of matter. But he was wrong. Subatomic particles also exist ~ neutrons, protons and electrons. An example of a proton is a hadron, but now we know that there are even smaller phenomenon that make up hadrons. Hadrons are composite particles made of quarks and anti-quarks, which bind together when they come close, with phenomena called gluons (a force like glue). It seems we humans have been exploring deep space both up in the physical chain of things, and down.
What follows is where cosmologists’ dreams really begin to resonate. In 1986, the American mathematical physicist, Dr Milo Wolff, proposed that ‘particle waves’ mix and contribute to each other, defining all matter as intimately interconnected within the universe. Natural laws, he asserted, are as a direct consequence of this Wave Structure of Matter. Geoff Haselhurst, in 1997, independently came to the same conclusion, and has since written about a deeper philosophical comprehension of what this could mean to us all. Everything and everyone may well be truly interconnected across space-time. Therein lies a responsibility, for our individual actions here on Earth have material consequences for the organic and inorganic within our one biosphere, and perhaps beyond.
The quirky study of quantum physics focuses on the behaviours of these tiny particles, and some are quite bizarre. Many 20th and 21st Century scientists have contributed to the cause, theories including wave particle duality, entanglement, teleportation and Schrodinger’s Cat (superposition) ~ I will leave them all for you to look up because I would need a Part Three to even attempt to describe their meaning. Einstein again, however, was key in early studies, proposing the existence of photons which collide with electrons in waves resulting in the transport of light as energy. This was later proved by Compton with his scattering effect, but who went on to work in nuclear metallurgy (uranium/plutonium production) for the Manhattan Project, perhaps the anthropocentric story of all time.
In 1916, Einstein also predicted waves transporting energy in the form of gravitational radiation, vibrating through the very fabric of space-time from various cosmic events. He maintained that nothing travels faster than the speed of light, including the positions of mass in space. Mass is communicated through the gravitational field, and any changes or oscillations, therefore, send shock waves through the universe at the speed of light. These gravitational waves have now been proven, 100 years later, by the LIGO Scientific Collaboration. Their work is simply fascinating. Electromagnetic waves allow us to ‘see’ as far back as 400,000 years after the Big Bang Singularity because from that point only there was light. Before that, it was in complete and utter darkness. But gravitational waves are transparent in a sense, so dark matter can be ‘read.’ We’ll have to see what the next few years bring in terms of the developing science of gravitational waves, but the main interest seems to be on exploring time itself to the Big Bang Singularity, and even beyond. Gravitational waves just may be our way of ‘seeing’ all time.
Cosmologists’ dreams, it seems, are now entirely centred on quantum elementary particles and the interconnectedness of all things. The huge universal questions are now beginning to be answered by the smallest of phenomena and deep time explorations might give clues to the deep future.
Quantum woo, be warned, is a new-age pseudoscience of mind over matter, and easily dismissed. But what we seem to be discovering, in hard science, is that mind may well be matter and vice versa, and that all flows in waves. Nothing in the universe is completely still and nothing in the universe is disconnected. Look back through time, now via gravitational waves, one hopes, and all comes to one. Perhaps the Eastern philosophers were right all along. The all-seeing eye, the Singularity, stands as a universal spiritual deity, healing and creative. Love. All is interconnected with nothing existing separately. Further, there is no nothing ~ a vivid and compelling Cosmologist’s dream, if ever there was.