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Chapter 3

THE EXPANDING UNIVERSE

IF ONE LOOKS at the sky on a clear, moonless night, the brightest objects one sees are likely to be the planets Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. There will also be a very large number of stars, which are just like our own sun but much farther from us. Some of these fixed stars do, in fact, appear to change very slightly their positions relative to each other as the earth orbits around the sun: they are not really fixed at all! This is because they are comparatively near to us. As the earth goes round the sun, we see them from different positions against the background of more distant stars. This is fortunate, because it enables us to measure directly the distance of these stars from us: the nearer they are, the more they appear to move. The nearest star, called Proxima Centauri, is found to be about four light-years away (the light from it takes about four years to reach earth), or about twenty-three million million miles. Most of the other stars that are visible to the naked eye lie within a few hundred light-years of us. Our sun, for comparison, is a mere eight light-minutes away! The visible stars appear spread all over the night sky, but are particularly concentrated in one band, which we call the Milky Way. As long ago as 1750, some astronomers were suggesting that the appearance of the Milky Way could be explained if most of the visible stars lie in a single disklike configuration, one example of what we now call a spiral galaxy. Only a few decades later, the astronomer Sir William Herschel confirmed this idea by painstakingly cataloging the positions and distances of vast numbers of stars. Even so, the idea gained complete acceptance only early this century.

Our modern picture of the universe dates back to only 1924, when the American astronomer Edwin Hubble demonstrated that ours was not the only galaxy. There were in fact many others, with vast tracts of empty space between them. In order to prove this, he needed to determine the distances to these other galaxies, which 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: how much light it radiates (its luminosity), and how far it is from us. For nearby stars, we can measure their apparent brightness and their distance, and 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 noted that certain types of stars always have the same luminosity when they are near enough for us to measure; therefore, he argued, if we found such stars in another galaxy, we could assume that they had the same luminosity – and so 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. Fig. 3.1 shows a picture of one spiral galaxy that is similar to what we think ours must look like to someone living in another galaxy. 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 several hundred million years. Our sun is just an ordinary, average-sized, yellow star, near the inner 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 see their size or shape. So how can we tell different types of stars apart? For the vast majority of stars, there is only one characteristic feature that we can observe – the color of their light. Newton discovered that if light from the sun passes through a triangular-shaped piece of glass, called a prism, it breaks up into its component colors (its spectrum) as 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. (In fact, the light emitted by any opaque object that is glowing red hot has a characteristic spectrum that depends only on its temperature – a thermal spectrum. This means that we can tell a star’s temperature from the spectrum of its light.) Moreover, we find that certain very specific colors are missing from stars’ spectra, and these missing colors may vary from star to star. Since we know that each chemical element absorbs a characteristic set of very specific colors, by matching these to 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. To understand the implications of this, we must first understand the Doppler effect. As we have seen, visible light consists of fluctuations, or waves, in the electromagnetic field. The wavelength (or distance from one wave crest to the next) of light is extremely small, ranging from four to seven ten-millionths of a meter. The different wavelengths of light are what the human eye sees as different colors, with the longest wavelengths appearing at the red end of the spectrum and the shortest wavelengths at the blue end. Now imagine a source of light at a constant distance from us, such as a star, emitting waves of light at a constant wavelength. Obviously the wavelength of the waves we receive will be the same as the wavelength at which they are emitted (the gravitational field of the galaxy will not be large enough to have a significant effect). Suppose now that the source starts moving toward us. When the source emits the next wave crest it will be nearer to us, so the distance between wave crests will be smaller than when the star was stationary. This means that the wavelength of the waves we receive is shorter, than when the star was stationary. Correspondingly, if the source is moving away from us, the wavelength of the waves we receive will be longer. In the case of light, therefore, this means that stars moving away from us will have their spectra shifted toward the red end of the spectrum (red-shifted) and those moving toward us will have their spectra blue-shifted. This relationship between wavelength and speed, which is called the Doppler effect, is an everyday experience. Listen to a car passing on the road: as the car is approaching, its engine sounds at a higher pitch (corresponding to a shorter wavelength and higher frequency of sound waves), and when it passes and goes away, it sounds at a lower pitch. The behavior of light or radio waves is similar. Indeed, the police make use of the Doppler effect to measure the speed of cars by measuring the wavelength 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 blue-shifted spectra as red-shifted ones. It was quite a surprise, therefore, to find that most galaxies appeared red-shifted: nearly all were moving away from us! More surprising still was the finding that Hubble published in 1929: even the size of a galaxy’s red shift is not random, but is directly proportional to the galaxy’s distance from us. Or, in other words, the farther a galaxy is, the faster it is moving away! And that meant that the universe could not be static, as everyone previously had thought, but is in fact expanding; the distance between the different galaxies is growing all the time.

The discovery that the universe is expanding was one of the great intellectual revolutions of the twentieth century. With 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 instead that the universe is 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 per second) gravity will not be strong enough to pull it back, so it will keep going away from the earth forever. This behavior of the universe could have been predicted from Newton’s theory of gravity at any time in the nineteenth, the eighteenth, or even the late seventeenth centuries. Yet so strong was the belief in a static universe that it persisted into the early twentieth century. Even Einstein, when he formulated the general theory of relativity in 1915, was so sure that the universe had to be static that he modified his theory to make this possible, introducing a so-called cosmological constant into his equations. Einstein introduced a new ‘antigravity’ force, which, unlike other forces, did not come from any particular source but was built into the very fabric of space-time. He claimed that space-time had an inbuilt tendency to expand, and this could be made to balance exactly the attraction of all the matter in the universe, so that a static universe would result. Only one man, it seems, was willing to take general relativity at face value, and while Einstein and other physicists were looking for ways of avoiding general relativity’s prediction of a non-static universe, the Russian physicist and mathematician Alexander Friedmann instead set about explaining it.

Friedmann made two very simple assumptions about the universe: that the universe looks identical in whichever direction we look, and that this would also be true if we were observing the universe from anywhere else. From these two ideas alone, Friedmann showed that we should not expect the universe to be static. In fact, in 1922, several years before Edwin Hubble’s discovery, Friedmann predicted exactly what Hubble found!

The assumption that the universe looks the same in every direction is clearly not true in reality. For example, as we have seen, the other stars in our galaxy form a distinct band of light across the night sky, called the Milky Way. But if we look at distant galaxies, there seems to be more or less the same number of them. So the universe does seem to be roughly the same in every direction, provided one views it on a large scale compared to the distance between galaxies, and ignores the differences on small scales. For a long time, this was sufficient justification for Friedmann’s assumption – as a rough approximation to the real universe. But more recently a lucky accident uncovered the fact that Friedmann’s assumption is in fact a remarkably accurate description of our universe.

In 1965 two American physicists at the Bell Telephone Laboratories in New Jersey, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, were testing a very sensitive microwave detector. (Microwaves are just like light waves, but with a wavelength of around a centimetre.) Penzias and Wilson were worried when they found that their detector was picking up more noise than it ought to. The noise did not appear to be coming from any particular direction. First they discovered bird droppings in their detector and checked for other possible malfunctions, but soon ruled these out. They knew that any noise from within the atmosphere would be stronger when the detector was not pointing straight up than when it was, because light rays travel through much more atmosphere when received from near the horizon than when received from directly overhead. The extra noise was the same whichever direction the detector was pointed, so it must come from outside the atmosphere. It was also the same day and night and throughout the year, even though the earth was rotating on its axis and orbiting around the sun. This showed that the radiation must come from beyond the Solar System, and even from beyond the galaxy, as otherwise it would vary as the movement of earth pointed the detector in different directions.

In fact, we know that the radiation must have traveled to us across most of the observable universe, and since it appears to be the same in different directions, the universe must also be the same in every direction, if only on a large scale. We now know that whichever direction we look, this noise never varies by more than a tiny fraction: so Penzias and Wilson had unwittingly stumbled across a remarkably accurate confirmation of Friedmann’s first assumption. However, because the universe is not exactly the same in every direction, but only on average on a large scale, the microwaves cannot be exactly the same in every direction either. There have to be slight variations between different directions. These were first detected in 1992 by the Cosmic Background Explorer satellite, or COBE, at a level of about one part in a hundred thousand. Small though these variations are, they are very important, as will be explained in Chapter 8.

At roughly the same time as Penzias and Wilson were investigating noise in their detector, two American physicists at nearby Princeton University, Bob Dicke and Jim Peebles, were also taking an interest in microwaves. They were working on a suggestion, made by George Gamow (once a student of Alexander Friedmann), that the early universe should have been very hot and dense, glowing white hot. Dicke and Peebles argued that we should still be able to see the glow of the early universe, because light from very distant parts of it would only just be reaching us now. However, the expansion of the universe meant that this light should be so greatly red-shifted that it would appear to us now as microwave radiation. Dicke and Peebles were preparing to look for this radiation when Penzias and Wilson heard about their work and realized that they had already found it. For this, Penzias and Wilson were awarded the Nobel prize in 1978 (which seems a bit hard on Dicke and Peebles, not to mention Gamow!).

Now at first sight, all this evidence that the universe looks the same whichever direction we look in might seem to suggest there is something special about our place in the universe. In particular, it might seem that if we observe all other galaxies to be moving away from us, then we must be at the center of the universe. There is, however, an alternate explanation: the universe might look the same in every direction as seen from any other galaxy, too. This, as we have seen, was Friedmann’s second assumption. We have no scientific evidence for, or against, this assumption. We believe it only on grounds of modesty: it would be most remarkable if the universe looked the same in every direction around us, but not around other points in the universe! In Friedmann’s model, all the galaxies are moving directly away from each other. The situation is rather like a balloon with a number of spots painted on it being steadily blown up. As the balloon expands, the distance between any two spots increases, but there is no spot that can be said to be the center of the expansion. Moreover, the farther apart the spots are, the faster they will be moving apart. Similarly, in Friedmann’s model the speed at which any two galaxies are moving apart is proportional to the distance between them. So it predicted that the red shift of a galaxy should be directly proportional to its distance from us, exactly as Hubble found. Despite the success of his model and his prediction of Hubble’s observations, Friedmann’s work remained largely unknown in the West until similar models were discovered in 1935 by the American physicist Howard Robertson and the British mathematician Arthur Walker, in response to Hubble’s discovery of the uniform expansion of the universe.

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