Continuation of previous posts Café Terrace at night, in Arles and Starry Night over the Rhône
We left Vincent Van Gogh in September 1888, after he painted his Starry Night over the Rhône in Arles. On October 23rd, Paul Gauguin joined him in the “Yellow House” which he rented and where he stayed for two months. The cohabitation between these two geniuses of painting is not easy. Apart from quarrels of a domestic nature, things went badly wrong on 23 December 1888, after a discussion on painting during which Gauguin argued that one should work with imagination, and Van Gogh with nature. According to the classical thesis, Vincent threatens Paul with a knife; the latter, frightened, leaves the scene. Finding himself alone in a fit of madness, Vincent cuts off a piece of his left ear with a razor, wraps it in newspaper and offers it to an employee of the neighbouring brothel. Then he goes to bed. The police doesn’t find him until the next day, his head bloody and confused. Gauguin explains the facts to them and leaves Arles. He will never see his friend again.
The day after his crisis, Van Gogh was admitted to hospital. A petition signed by thirty people demanded his internment in asylum or expulsion from the city. In March 1889, he was automatically interned in Arles hospital by order of the mayor while continuing to paint, and on 8 May he left Arles, having decided to undergo psychiatric treatment in the insane asylum at Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, a little south of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. He stayed there for a year (until May 1890), subject to three bouts of dementia, but between which his pictorial production was extraordinarily rich: he produced 143 oil paintings and more than 100 drawings in the space of 53 weeks.
One of the key works of this period is the Starry Night, now in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
I have always been fascinated by this nocturnal painting, with its tormented sky in the background, composed of volutes, whirlpools, huge stars and a crescent moon surrounded by a halo of light. In the background, a village with a church steeple overstretched towards the sky, which at first glance is thought to be the village of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. Due to the position of the moon, the orientation of its crescent horns and the streak of whitish mist over the hills, one does not need to be a great expert to see at first glance that the Starry Night represents a sky just before dawn. Can we go further?
In 1995, while snooping around in a bookshop in Paris, I stumbled upon a booklet entitled La Nuit étoilée: l’histoire de la matière et la matière de l’histoire. It was the French translation of an article booklet published in 1984 in the United States by Albert Boime (1933-2008), professor of art history at the University of California at Los Angeles (“Van Gogh’s Starry Night: A History of Matter and a Matter of History, Arts Magazine, December 1984).
The book is fascinating. The author raises many questions which he tries to answer, notably concerning the date of the painting’s execution and the nature of the astronomical objects represented.
I said in previous posts that Van Gogh painted from nature, and therefore intended to reproduce the night skies as he saw them at the precise moment he began his paintings. I have shown how his Café le soir (Café Terrace at night ) and his Nuit étoilée au-dessus du Rhône (Starry Night over the Rhône), painted in Arles, showed the striking realism he displayed in his pictorial transposition of the firmament. This realism is less obvious in the Starry Night of Saint-Rémy, with its immense sky full of luminous objects, this moon and these far too big stars scattered among vast swirling volutes. Could his representations of the sky have slipped from realism to the wildest imagination, or even to delirium in front of the easel, to the rhythm of his own psychic deterioration?
To answer this question, we must investigate the precise genesis of the work. If, thanks to an astronomical reconstruction, we find a sky identical or close to the one represented in the painting – as was the case with his Arlesian nocturnal works – then we will have proved the realism of the painting, in addition to having dated the sketch to the day and hour.
As we have seen in the previous post The Starry Nights of Vincent Van Gogh’s (1): Café Terrace at night, in Arles, Vincent has therefore been living in the old city of Arles since February 1888. In mid-September, after writing to his sister Wilhelmina (or Willemien according to the scripts) that he wanted “now absolutely to paint a starry sky“, he takes action in his Café Terrace, where he shows a small piece of sky dotted with a few stars of the constellation Aquarius.
A much wider sky is represented in The starry night over the Rhône, painted shortly after, at the end of September. This 72.5 cm x 92 cm canvas, now on display at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, shows in the foreground, on the bank, a couple seen from the front and moored boats. The silhouettes of roofs and bell towers stand out against the blue of the sky, the city lights reflecting on the river. Among the many stars we recognize in the center the seven stars of the Big Dipper in the constellation Ursa Major, which illuminate a sky in shades of blue. As we will see, the canvas raises more questions than the Café Terrace, due to the incompatibility between the terrestrial view and the celestial view. A detailed survey was conducted in 2012 by photographer Raymond Martinez, whose main elements I am adding here with some personal additions.
The date of execution is confirmed by a letter addressed to his brother Théo on September 29th, when he has just finished the painting of which he attaches a sketch: ”Included herewith little croquis of a square no. 30 canvas — the starry sky at last, actually painted at night, under a gas-lamp. The sky is green-blue, the water is royal blue, the areas of land are mauve. The town is blue and violet. The gaslight is yellow, and its reflections are red gold and go right down to green bronze. Against the green-blue field of the sky the Great Bear has a green and pink sparkle whose discreet paleness contrasts with the harsh gold of the gaslight. Two small coloured figures of lovers in the foreground.”
On October 2nd, 1888 he sent a slightly different sketch to his painter friend Eugène Boch, with this description: ” And lastly, a study of the Rhône, of the town under gaslight and reflected in the blue river. With the starry sky above — with the Great Bear — with a pink and green sparkle on the cobalt blue field of the night sky, while the light of the town and its harsh reflections are of a red gold and a green tinged with bronze. Painted at night. »
Now let’s look for the place where the painting was done. A sentence from the September 14th letter [Letter 678] to his sister indicates that he certainly painted it on the spot: “Now there’s a painting of night without black. With nothing but beautiful blue, violet and green, and in these surroundings the lighted square is coloured pale sulphur, lemon green. I enormously enjoy painting on the spot at night. In the past they used to draw, and paint the picture from the drawing in the daytime. But I find that it suits me to paint the thing straightaway. It’s quite true that I may take a blue for a green in the dark, a blue lilac for a pink lilac, since you can’t make out the nature of the tone clearly. But it’s the only way of getting away from the conventional black night with a poor, pallid and whitish light, while in fact a mere candle by itself gives us the richest yellows and oranges.“
By comparing the current landscape (day and night) with that of the painting, we can spot the exact positioning of the bell towers of the churches of Saint-Julien and Saint-Martin-du-Méjan, the curve of the Rhône on the surface of which, at night, are still reflected the lights of street lamps (now electric, no more gas!), and in the center, the Pont de Trinquetaille:
From this we deduce the very precise location of Van Gogh’s easel and the angle within which the terrestrial landscape is inscribed: the orientation is South-West. Continue reading →
“In which space do our dreams live? What is the dynamism of our nightlife? Is the space of our sleep really a rest area? Is it not rather an incessant and confused movement? On all these problems we have little light because we do not find, when the day comes, only fragments of night life. “
In these texts written from 1942 to 1962 (gathered in Le Droit de rêver, PUF, collection “Quadrige”, 2010), Gaston Bachelard celebrates the difficult synthesis of imagination and reflection that seems to him to guarantee, for writers as for artists such as Baudelaire and Van Gogh’s, fidelity to dreamlike values. “A Van Gogh’s yellow is like an alchemical gold, a gold butine like a solar honey. It is never simply the gold of the wheat, the flame, or the straw chair; it is a gold forever individualized by the endless dreams of genius. It no longer belongs to the world, but it is the good of a man, the heart of a man, the elementary truth found in the contemplation of a lifetime. “
In the series of notes that I begin here, I will analyze in detail the extraordinary reports that Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1889) maintained with the vision of the Provençal sky.
On February 20, 1888, aged 35, Vincent, the man from dark-heavened Northern Europe, moved to the old city of Arles, in the South of France. Although he arrived in the city by a snowy day, he discovered the Provençal light, brighting day and night. Stunned by the transparency of the firmament, he writes to his brother Theo: “The deep blue sky was spotted with clouds deeper blue than the fundamental blue of an intense cobalt, and others of a blue clearer, like the blue whiteness of the milky ways. In the background, the stars sparkled, clear, green, yellow, white, lighter pink, diamond-like diamonds. ” From then sprout in him the crazy project of painting the sky.
On April 12, he wrote to his friend the painter Émile Bernard: “A starry sky, for example, well — it’s a thing that I’d like to try to do, just as in the daytime I’ll try to paint a green meadow studded with dandelions“. He hesitates however and procrastinates, intimidated by the subject. On June 19, he expressed his hesitation to Émile Bernard: “But when will I do the starry sky, then, that painting that’s always on my mind? Alas, alas, […] the most beautiful paintings are those one dreams of while smoking a pipe in one’s bed, but which one doesn’t make. But it’s a matter of attacking them nevertheless, however incompetent one may feel vis-à-vis the ineffable perfections of nature’s glorious splendours. “
On 9th (or 10th) of July 1888 he confesses to Theo: “But the sight of the stars always makes me dream in as simple a way as the black spots on the map, representing towns and villages, make me dream“.
From word to deed takes place between 9 and 14 September. In fact, he begins on the 9th a long letter addressed to his sister Willemien: “I definitely want to paint a starry sky now. It often seems to me that the night is even more richly coloured than the day, coloured in the most intense violets, blues and greens. If you look carefully you’ll see that some stars are lemony, others have a pink, green, forget-me-not blue glow. And without labouring the point, it’s clear that to paint a starry sky it’s not nearly enough to put white spots on blue-black.“
He did not post it and resumed his letter on the 14th. In the meantime he painted his first starry night, the painting is called Cafe Terrace at night (currently at the Kröller-Muller Museum in Otterlo, the Netherlands):
“I started this letter several days ago, up to here, and I’m picking it up again now. I was interrupted precisely by the work that a new painting of the outside of a café in the evening has been giving me these past few days. On the terrace, there are little figures of people drinking. A huge yellow lantern lights the terrace, the façade, the pavement, and even projects light over the cobblestones of the street, which takes on a violet-pink tinge. The gables of the houses on a street that leads away under the blue sky studded with stars are dark blue or violet, with a green tree. Now there’s a painting of night without black. With nothing but beautiful blue, violet and green, and in these surroundings the lighted square is coloured pale sulphur, lemon green. I enormously enjoy painting on the spot at night“.
And on September 16th, he describes his painting to Theo more briefly: “The second [painting of this week] shows the outside of a café, lit on the terrace outside by a large gas-lamp in the blue night, with a patch of starry blue sky.represents the outside of a cafe illuminated on the terrace by a large gas lantern in the blue night. with a corner of starry blue sky. […] The question of painting night scenes or effects, on the spot and actually at night, interests me enormously.“
We know exactly where the painting was executed: Place des hommes, now renamed Place du Forum. The map of Arles in Van Gogh’s time, shown below, shows its location, as well as other intramural sites where Vincent settled to paint La Maison jaune (The Yellow House) in September 1888), the Pont métallique de Trinquetaille (the Metallic Bridge of Trinquetaille) in October 1888) and Nuit étoilée sur le Rhône(Starry Night on the Rhone), on which I will return at length in the following post.
The café, which at that time was called the Terrace, has since been renamed Café Van Gogh. Fortunately, the historic site has not been ransacked by modern constructions as is so often the case elsewhere, and even today the walker immediately recognizes the layout of the streets and buildings painted by Vincent, day and night.
Now a question that arises is: are the stars he has represented on the canvas randomly arranged, or do they correspond to a real configuration of the night sky?
In the preparatory study for the painting shown below, the sky is just sketched with wiggling lines, without any star. It is quite possible that Vincent made this study during the day .
However, in view of van Gogh’s epistolary statements, everything suggests that he wanted to show a certain realism in the pictorial transposition of the firmament seen at night. Since, according to the letter that Vincent sent to his sister Willemien, we know the date of execution (between 9 and 14 September) within a few days, it is possible to check using a reconstitution software astronomical what portion of sky was represented by Vincent, seen from the Forum Square in a direction very close to the South (this is the orientation of the street).
Let’s use the excellent Stellarium software. Position us at the GPS coordinates of the Forum Square, namely 43 ° 40 ‘39.7 “N 4 ° 37’ 37.6” E, set the date from September 9, 1888 at about 10 pm, let us look south and let the map scroll to find a stellar configuration possibly close to that of the table, between 20 and 30° of declination (such is the height of the stars represented in the table).
I once read an article (which I lost references) claiming that it is the legs of the constellation Scorpio, with the stars α (the brilliant Antares), σ, β, δ and Scorpion π. The problem is that between 9 and 14 September, the constellation Scorpio is only above the horizon until 17h UT, after it passes below and can not be seen, even at the beginning of the night which in September falls well later. Also at that time the Moon was at its first crescent in the legs of Scorpio. This is not the correct identification.
Let’s now examine the map of the sky seen between 9 and 14 September 1888 around 22h in the southern extension of the Forum Square: we see the stars of the constellation Aquarius up to magnitude 5, with its characteristic configuration shaped from Y.
I added the profile of the buildings hiding part of the field of view, traced the characteristic lines connecting the most brilliant stars, and compared with Vincent’s painting:
The identification seems pretty convincing … It also reinforces the epistolary statements in which Vincent expressed his concern to represent a real sky and not imaginary.
This will be even more spectacular in the two famous starry nights painted in Arles in 1888 and Saint-Rémy in 1889. I will analyze them in the same way in the following posts, with the key to very unexpected surprises …
Unfortunately Marck’s simulations of black hole accretion disks remained mostly ignored from the professional community, due to the fact that they were not published in peer-reviewed journals and, after their author prematurely died in May 2000, nobody could find the trace of his computer program…
Then, unaware of Marck’s results, several researchers of the 1990’s were involved in the program of calculating black hole gravitational lensing effects in various situations. Stuckey (1993) studied photon trajectories which circle a static black hole one or two times and terminate at their emission points (« boomerang photons »), producing a sequence of ring-shaped mirror images. Nemiroff (1993) described the visual distortion effects to an observer traveling around and descending to the surface of a neutron star and a black hole, discussing multiple imaging, red- and blue-shifting, the photon sphere and multiple Einstein rings. He displayed computer-generated illustrations highlighting the distortion effects on a background stellar field but no accretion disk, and made a short movie now available on the internet (Nemiroff 2018), two snapshots of which are shown in figure 1.
The first simulations of the shape of accretion disks around Kerr black holes were performed by Viergutz (1993). He treated slightly thick disks and produced colored contours, including the disk’s secondary image which wraps under the black hole (figure 2). The result is a colored generalization of the picture by Cunningham and Bardeen (1973) shown in 40 Years of Black Hole Imaging (1).
More elaborate views of a geometrically thin and optically thick accretion disk around a Kerr black hole were obtained by Fanton et al. (1997). They developed a new program of ray tracing in Kerr metric, and added false colors to encode the degree of spectral shift and temperature maps (figure 3). Zhang et al. (2002) used the same code to produce black-and-white images of standard thin accretion disks around black holes with different spins, viewing angles and energy bands (figure 4).
Ben Bromley et al. (1997) calculated integrated line profiles from a geometrically thin disk about a Schwarzschild and an extreme Kerr black hole, in order to get an observational signature of the frame-dragging effect (Figure 5).
In 1998 Andrew Hamilton started to develop for a student project at the University of Colorado a “Black Hole Flight Simulator”, with film clips that have been shown at planetariums, also available on the Internet. The first depictions were very schematic, but the website was constantly implemented. It now offers journeys into a Schwarzschild or a Reissner-Nordström (i.e. electrically charged) black hole with effects of gravitational lensing on a stellar background field, as well as animated visualizations of magneto-hydrodynamic simulations of a disk and jet around a non-rotating black hole (Hamilton 2018).
Journey into and through an electrically charged (non realistic) Reissner-Nordström black hole, from Andrew Hamilton, 2010
From Idea to Reality
A turning point in the history of black hole imaging came when the possibility of viewing in practice the shadow of SgrA* with VLBI radio astronomy techniques was first discussed (Falcke et al. 2000, Doeleman et al. 2001). Heino Falcke, Fulvio Melia and Eric Agol (who curiously did not quote my 1979 article) developed a general relativistic ray-tracing code that allowed them to simulate observed images of Sgr A* for various combinations of black hole spin, inclination angle, and morphology of the emission region directly surrounding the black hole (figure 6).
In 2001, Ben Bromley, Fulvio Melia and Siming Liu provided maps of the polarized emission of a Keplerian disk to illustrate how the images of polarized intensity from the vicinity of SgrA* would appear in future VLBI observations (Figure 7).
Indeed, in parallel with but rather independently from the theoretical simulations reviewed here, the work to image SgrA* by VLBI experiments had begun also back in the 1970’s, after the discovery of the compact radio source Sgr A* at the center of the Milky Way and its identification as the likely emission of gas falling onto a supermassive black hole (Balick and Brown 1974). And as soon as it was realized that the shadow of SgrA* could really be photographed in the forthcoming years, the program of imaging black holes with or without accretion disks and/or stellar background field developed at a much accelerated rate. Several dozens of papers with more or less elaborate visualizations bloomed out, so many that I’ll stop my illustrated history of black hole imaging at this turning point.
On the observational side, successive radio imaging observations progressively reduced the size of emission region if SgrA*. A breakthrough was to extend VLBI to 1mm wavelength, where the scattering effects are greatly reduced and angular resolution is matched to the shadow of the galactic black hole. Then the collective effort was named the “Event Horizon Telescope” as the natural convergence of many historical and parallel works done by several independent teams in the world (Doeleman et al. 2009). The later measurement of the size of the 6 billion solar mass black hole in M87 gave a second source suitable for shadow imaging (Doeleman et al. 2012).
Now the Event Horizon Telescope Consortium involves 20 universities, observatories, research institutions, government agencies and more than a hundred scientists who hope to make black hole imaging a reality as soon as 2019. The first telescopic image of M87* was delivered on April 10th, 2019.
The path from idea to reality can take very a long time. Imaging black holes, first with computers, now with telescopes, is a fantastic adventure. Forty years ago I couldn’t hope that a real image would be reachable in my lifetime and that, thanks to contributions by so many dedicated colleagues, my dream would become true.
In May 2019 I was invited to give the keynote talk at the 3rd Black Hole Initiative Conference at Harvard University and I could warmly congratulate the EHT team. The young commputer scientist Katie Bouman led the development of one of the various algorithms for imaging black holes. We were glad to meet each other, the young and the old !
Here is the video of my talk :
Technical References for the 3 posts
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In 1989-1990, while I spent one year as a research visitor at the University of California, Berkeley, my former collaborator at Paris-Meudon Observatory, Jean-Alain Marck, both an expert in general relativity and computer programming, started to extend my simulation of 1979. The fast improvement of computers and visualization software (he used a DEC-VAX 8600 machine) allowed him to add colors and motions. To reduce the computing time, Marck developed a new method for calculating the geodesics in Schwarzschild space-time, published only several years later (Marck 1996). In a first step Marck started from my model of 1979 and calculated static images of an accretion disk around a Schwarzschild black hole according to various angles of view, see Figure 1 below.
In 1991, when I went back to Paris Observatory, I started the project for the French-German TV channel Arte of a full-length, pedagogical movie about general relativity (Delesalle et al. 1994). As the final sequence dealt with black holes, I asked Marck to introduce motion of the observer with the camera moving around close to the disk, as well as to include higher-order lensed images and background stellar skies in order to make the pictures as realistic as possible. The calculation was done along an elliptic trajectory around a Schwarzschild black hole crossing several times the plane of a thin accretion disk and suffering a strong relativistic precession effect (i.e. rotation of its great axis), see figure 2 below.
Compared to my static, black-and-white simulation of 1979, the snapshot reproduced in Figure 3 below shows spectacular improvements:
The full movie is available on my youtube channel :
Black holes are to many the most mysterious objects in space. According to the laws of General Relativity, they are by themselves invisible. Contrarily to non-collapsed celestial bodies, their surface is neither solid nor gaseous ; it is an immaterial border called the event horizon, beyond which gravity is so strong that nothing can escape, not even light.
Seen in projection on a sky background, the event horizon would have the aspect of a perfectly circular black disk if the black hole is static (the so-called Schwarzschild solution) or of a slightly distorted one if it is in rotation (the Kerr solution). Due to strong gravitational lensing, such a « bare » black hole could leave an observable imprint on a starry background. However, in typical astrophysical conditions, whatever its size and mass (ranging from stellar to galactic scales) a black hole is rarely bare but is dressed in gaseous material. Swirling in a spiral motion, the gas forms a hot accretion disk within which it emits a characteristic spectrum of electromagnetic radiation. Giant black holes, such as those currently lurking at the centers of galaxies, can be also surrounded by a stellar cluster, whose orbital dynamics is strongly influenced. As a matter of fact, , if a black hole remains by itself invisible, it “switches on” in its characteristic way the materials it attracts, and distorts the background starry field by gravitational lensing.
Thus, as soon as the basics of black holes astrophysics developed in the 1970’s, the scientists logically wondered what could look like a black hole. Many of you certainly saw didactic or artistic representations of a black hole in popular science magazines, in the form of a black sphere floating in the middle of a circular whirlwind of brilliant gas. So striking they are, these images fail to report the astrophysical reality. This one can be correctly described by means of numerical simulations, taking into account the complex distortions that the strong gravitational field prints in spacetime and light rays trajectories.
Since the first numerical simulations performed 40 years ago, tantalizing progress has been done to detect black holes through electromagnetic radiation from infalling matter or gravitational waves. The first telescopic image by the Event Horizon Telescope of the nearest giant black hole SgrA*, lurking at he center of our Milky Way galaxy, is expected for 2018.
The aim of this series of posts is to retrace the rich history of black hole imaging.
Black hole imaging started in 1972 at a Summer school in Les Houches (France). James Bardeen, building on earlier analytical work of Brandon Carter, initiated research on gravitational lensing by spinning black holes. Bardeen gave a thorough analysis of null geodesics (light-ray propagation) around a Kerr black hole. The Kerr solution had been discovered in 1962 by the New Zealand physicist Roy Kerr and since then focused the attention of many searchers in General Relativity, because it represents the most general state of equilibitum of an astrophysical black hole.
The Kerr spacetime’s metric depends on two parameters : the black hole mass M and its normalized angular momentum a. An important difference with usual stars, which are in differential rotation, is that Kerr black holes are rotating with perfect rigidity : all the points on their event horizon move with the same angular velocity. There is however a critical angular momentum, given by a = M (in units where G=c=1) above which the event horizon would « break up » : this limit corresponds to the horizon having a spin velocity equal to the speed of light. For such a black hole, called « extreme », the gravitational field at the event horizon would cancel, because the inward pull of gravity would be compensated by huge repulsive centrifugal forces.
James Bardeen computed how the black hole’s rotation would affect the shape of the shadow that the event horizon casts on light from a background star field. For a black hole spinning close to the maximum angular momentum, the result is a D-shaped shadow.
The reference is Bardeen, J. M. 1973, Timelike and null geodesics in the Kerr metric, in Black Holes (Les Astres Occlus), ed. C. Dewitt & B. S. Dewitt, (New York: Gordon and Breach) p.215–239
At the time, C.T. Cunningham was preparing a PhD thesis at the University of Washington in Seattle, under the supervision of Bardeen. He began to calculate the optical appearance of a star in circular orbit in the equatorial plane of an extreme Kerr black hole, taking account of the Doppler effect due to relativistic motion of the star, and pointed out the corresponding amplification of the star’s luminosity. He gave formulas but did not produced any image.
The reference is Cunningham, C.T. and Bardeen J.M., The optical appearance of a star orbiting an extreme Kerr black hole, ApJ 173 L137-142 (1972).
One year later Cunningham and Bardeen published a more complete article with the same title. For the first time a picture was shown of the primary and secundary images of a point source moving in a circular orbit in the equatorial plane of an extreme Kerr black hole. They calculated as functions of time the apparent position and the energy flux of the point source as seen by distant observers.
In the upper diagram showing the distorted image of a circle of radius 20M, we clearly see that, whatever the observer’s inclination angle, the black hole cannot mask any part of the circle behind. We also see that the black hole’s spin hardly affects the symmetry of the primary image (although the asymmetry is stronger for the secundary image).
The exact reference is Cunningham, C.T. and Bardeen J.M., The optical appearance of a star orbiting an extreme Kerr black hole, 1973, ApJ, 183, 237. The article can be uploaded here.
In 1975, Cunningham calculated the effects of redshifts and focusing on the spectrum of an accretion disk around a Kerr black hole. He gave formulas and drawed graphics but no image.
The reference is Cunningham, C. T., The effects of redshifts and focusing on the spectrum of an accretion disk around a Kerr black hole, ApJ, 202, 788 (1975)
In 1978 Leigh Palmer, Maurice Pryce and William Unruh carried out, for pedagogical purpose, a simulation of starlight lensed by a camera orbiting a Schwarzschild black hole, using an Edwards and Sutherland Vector graphics display at Simon Fraser University. They showed a film clip in a number of lectures in that period, but unfortunately they did not publish their simulation, so that I can’t reproduce here any image.
First calculations for a black hole accretion disk
The same year and quite independently, as a young researcher at Paris-Meudon Observatory specialized in the mathematics of General Relativity, I wondered what could be the aspect of a Schwarzschild black hole surrounded by a luminous accretion disk. Continue reading →
Since He [Zeus] himself hath fixed in heaven these signs, The Stars dividing; and throughout the year Stars he provides to indicate to men The seasons’ course, that all things may duly grow.
Aratus, Phaenomena, I, 18.
Although Kepler was the first to determine the motion of the planets by mathematical laws, his search for a rational explanation to the universe was anticipated by numerous earlier thinkers. Even before the time of Socrates a number of philosophers had broken away from accepted mythology and postulated the idea of universal harmony. From the sixth century BC increasingly rational and mathematical ideologies based on the laws of physics began to compete with the traditional belief that the world was controlled by gods with supernatural powers. Most of these thinkers attempted to describe natural phenomena in mechanical terms, with reference to the elements of water, earth and fire. The Ionian philosophers in particular developed new ideas about the heavens, whose signs were used by many of their compatriots to navigate between the islands. Their fundamental notion was that the universe was governed by mechanical laws, by natural principles which could be studied, understood and predicted.
It was Thales of Miletus who propounded one of the first rational explanations of the world, according to which the earth was separate from the sky. Anaximander and Anaximenes, both also natives of Miletus on the coast of Asia Minor, put forward different ideas, which nevertheless derived from the same rationale: they proposed the existence of cosmological systems, explained natural phenomena in terms of a small number of “elements”, and invented new concepts – Anaximander’s “equilibrium” and Anaximenes’ “compression” – which can be regarded as the first recognition of the force of gravity.
According to Heraclitus of Ephesus, the day was caused by exhalations from the sun, while the night was the result of dark emissions from the earth. The stars and the planets were bowls of fire which, when turned over, gave rise to eclipses and the phases of the moon. The moon itself, pale and cold, moved in the rarefied air above the earth, whereas the sun, our nearest star, was bright and hot.
Meanwhile, the Greeks were amassing measurements which would enable them to plot the stars more accurately. This required specialised instruments – gnomons to measure the sun’s shadow, compasses to fix the positions of the stars in the sky, etc. – as well as a system of notation which anyone could understand (previously the study of astronomy had been restricted to priests): how many fingers’ width above the horizon was such and such a star; where was due north, and so on. As well as mining the extensive archive of observations made by the Egyptians and Babylonians, the Greeks developed their own system of records. The pre-Socratic thinkers refined and analysed the basic ideas of their predecessors from Miletus with the result that the mechanistic view of the world gradually lost currency and a belief in underlying harmony became de rigueur. As early as 450 BC Anaxagoras of Clazomenae was accused of impiety for referring to the sun as a mass of hot metal, to the moon as a second earth and to the stars as burning stones – views no longer considered seemly. Continue reading →
There, where worlds seem, with slow steps, Like an immense and well-behaved herd, To calmly graze on the ether’s flower. Giovanni Pascoli, Il Ciocco
A question often asked by the general public interested in cosmology about the expansion of the Universe is the distance scales on which it effectively acts. Before commenting on this, let me recall first some historical facts.
In 1927, Georges Lemaître published a revolutionary article in the Annales de la Société scientifique de Bruxelles entitled “Un univers homogène de masse constante et de rayon croissant, rendant compte de la vitesse radiale des nébuleuses extragalactiques” (“A homogeneous universe of constant mass and increasing radius, accounting for the radial velocity of extragalactic nebulae.” As the title suggests, Lemaître showed that a relativistic cosmological model of finite volume, in which the Universe is in perpetual expansion, naturally explains the redshifts of galaxies, which at that point were not understood. In particular, the article contained a paragraph establishing that forty-two nearby galaxies, whose spectral shifts had been measured, were moving away at speeds proportional to their distances.
Lemaître gave the numerical value of this proportionality factor: 625 km/s per megaparsec, which means that two galaxies separated by 1 megaparsec (or 3,26 million light-years) moved away from each other at an apparent speed of 625 km/s, and that two galaxies separated by 10 megaparsecs moved apart at a speed ten times greater.
This unit of measurement, the kilometer per second per megaparsec, shows clearly that the speed of recession depends on the scale. In 1377, in his Book of the Heavens and the World, the scholar Nicole Oresme had noted that, at dawn, one would not notice anything if the world and all living creatures had grown by the same proportion during the night. In Lemaître’s theory, on the contrary, the recession velocity between two points in space grows faster with greater separation, which renders it perceptible.
Lemaître’s article, published in French, passed unnoticed until 1931, when it was finally read by Arthur Eddington, who published an English translation. Unfortunately, this version omits the paragraph in which Lemaître established his law of proportionality, see this article for all the details. Meanwhile, in 1929 the great American astronomer Edwin Hubble had published the experimental results he obtained with his collaborators and described a general law, according to which the speed of recession of a galaxy is proportional to its distance. This law, identical to Lemaître’s, with the same proportionality factor, would from now on carry the name of “Hubble’s law.” It forms the experimental basis for the theory of the expansion of the Universe, of which the big bang models are the fruit. Continue reading →
The spawning galaxy in flight is a rainbow trout which goes
back against the flow of time towards the lowest waters, towards the dark retreats of duration. Charles Dobzynski (1963)
Since the time of Newton, we have known that white light, passing through a prism, is decomposed into a spectrum of all colors. Violet and blue correspond to the shortest wavelengths or, equivalently, to the largest frequencies; red corresponds to the largest wavelengths and to low frequencies. In 1814, the German optician Joseph von Fraunhofer discovered that the light spectrum from stars is streaked with thin dark lines, while that from candlelight has bright stripes. These phenomena remained puzzling until 1859. It was then that the chemist Robert Bunsen and the physicist Gustav Kirchhoff analyzed the light created from the combustion of different chemical compounds (burned with the now-famous Bunsen burner) and saw that each of them emitted light with its own characteristic spectrum.
At nearly the same time, Christian Doppler discovered in 1842 that moving the source of a sound produced shifts in the frequency of sound waves, a phenomenon experienced by anyone listening to the siren of an ambulance passing by. The French physicist Armand Fizeau noticed the same phenomenon with light waves: depending on whether a source of light was moving closer or farther away, the received frequencies are either raised or lowered with respect to the emitted frequencies. The shift becomes larger as the speed of displacement is increased. If the source is getting closer, the frequency grows, and the light becomes more “blue”; if it moves away, the frequency lowers and the wavelengths stretch out, becoming more “red,” with respect to the spectrum of visible light. Since this shift affects the whole spectrum by the same amount, it is easily quantified by looking at the dark or bright stripes, which are shifted together, either towards the blue or towards the red, and it furnishes an incomparable means of measuring the speed of approach or retreat for light sources.
Shortly after this discovery, astronomers began an ambitious program of spectroscopy, with the aim of measuring the speed of the planets and stars by using their spectral shifts. Continue reading →
In view of the total solar eclipse of 2017 Aug 21 through the United States, this is a reminder of the role of solar eclipses in the developments of astronomy and astrophysics.
It is taken from a chapter of my book Glorious Eclipses, presented elsewhere in this blog.
Eclipses of the Sun and Moon have never ceased to provide us with a host of lessons about the nature of the universe around us. The first of these lessons concerned the celestial bodies directly involved in eclipses: namely the Earth, Moon, and Sun. Indeed, back in antiquity, the proof that the Earth was round, and the first measurements of the respective sizes and distances of the Moon and Sun were deduced from the observation of eclipses. In the 19th century, it was the normally invisible atmosphere of the Sun that was revealed thanks to eclipses. Far from being the perfectly round, and sharply defined ball of hot gas that it appears to the eye – appropriately protected by suitable filters, of course – the Sun is found to be a sprawling giant, overflowing with energy, plasma, and particles, that extends its influence throughout the whole Solar System. Eclipses also provoked the discovery of helium, the second most abundant element in the Sun, and in the universe as a whole. In a more surprising manner, in the 20th century, Einstein’s General Relativity, a fundamental theory about space, was tested experimentally for the first time, thanks to an eclipse. It is on this new vision of the universe, which explains gravitation in terms of the ‘curvature of space-time’, that all our current knowledge of the origin, the structure, and the evolution of the universe, depends, by way of the fascinating concepts of an expanding universe, the Big Bang, and black holes.
The Earth is round
The first demonstration of an astrophysical nature resulting from eclipses is the one given by Aristotle concerning the fact that the Earth is round. The astronomical views of this Greek philosopher are well-known to us, thanks to his two works, known to us as Meteorology and On the Heavens, dating from the 4th century BC. Like other thinkers of his day, Aristotle believed that all heavenly bodies were spherical, because to him heavenly bodies were a reflection of divine perfection, and the sphere is the most outstandingly perfect geometrical figure. But this argument was not a physical demonstration, because, naturally, Aristotle did not have any experimental means of confirming the spherical nature of the planets and stars.
As far as the Moon was concerned, the philosopher adopted an explanation attributed to the Pythagoreans, namely that the observed appearance of the Moon throughout its various phases corresponded to a spherical body, half of which is illuminated by the Sun. As for the spherical nature of the Earth, the proof given by Aristotle is quite original: he notes that an eclipse of the Moon is caused by the shadow of the Earth, and that the circular shape to the edge of the shadow seen on the Moon’s surface implies that our world is spherical
Sizes and distances of the Moon and Sun
The golden age of Greek astronomy flourished at Alexandria. Since its foundation under the reign of Ptolemy Soter (3rd century BC), the Alexandrian school brought together brilliant mathematicians and geometers, such as Euclid, Archimedes, and Apollonius. Similarly, the greatest ancient astronomers Aristachus of Samos, Eratosthenes, and Hipparchus, as well as Ptolemy (2nd century BC), all worked there.
Aristarchus (310-230 BC) is nowadays known for having been the first to voice the heliocentric theory, i.e., that it is the Sun that reigns at the centre of the world system, not the Earth as was believed at the time. His statement does not appear in any known work, but it was reported by Archimedes and by Plutarch. The only work of Aristarchus that has come down to us relates to the sizes and distances of the Sun and the Moon.
The Alexandrian astronomer completely reopened this question, which had been discussed since the 4th century BC. The Pythagoreans had positioned the heights of the celestial bodies according to musical intervals. Eudoxus, the brilliant disciple of Plato, had estimated the diameter of the Sun as nine times that of the Moon. As for Aristarchus, he devised an ingenious geometrical method of calculating the distance ratios of the Sun and Moon.
He found that the Sun lay at a distance between 18 and 20 times that of the Moon. (In fact, it is 400 times as far.) By an argument based on the observation of eclipses, he determined the diameter of the Moon as one third of that of the Earth, which is very close to the actual value. He also announced that the diameter of the Sun is seven times that of the Earth. Even though Aristarchus considerably underestimated the size of the Sun, because it is actually 109 times as large as the Earth, he had grasped the essential fact that the daytime star was much larger than the Earth. It was precisely this result that led him to the heliocentric hypothesis. He did, in fact, argue that under these circumstances, it was logical to believe that the Earth and the other celestial bodies revolved around the Sun, rather than the reverse. Aristachus was before his time. The world had to wait until 1543 and the work by Copernicus, before the heliocentric theory was again put forward, this time with success.
A century after Aristachus, and again at Alexandria, Hipparchus developed a complete theory of the Moon. He defined the lengths of the synodic month (or lunation, the period in which the Moon returns to the same position relative to the Sun); the draconitic month (the period for the Moon to return to the same position relative to the nodes of its orbit); and the anomalistic month (the period for the Moon to return to perigee or apogee). The immense improvements that Hipparchus brought to theories of the apparent motion of the Moon and Sun enabled him to have far more success than his predecessors in dealing with the problem of predicting eclipses, which had always been of immense interest.
Hipparchus considerably extended Aristarchus’ method: by observing the angular diameter of the shadow of the Earth at the Moon’s distance during a lunar eclipse, and comparing it with the known apparent diameters of the Sun and Moon (about half a degree), he obtained the ratio of the Earth-Moon and Earth-Sun distances, giving one when the other is known. Pappus, another famous astronomer of the Alexandrian school, recounts that Hipparchus made the following observation of: “An eclipse of the Sun, which in the area of the Hellespont was precisely an exact eclipse of the whole Sun; such that none of it was visible, but at Alexandria, in Egypt, about 4/5 of its diameter were hidden. By means of the foregoing arguments, [Hipparchus] showed that, measured in units where the radius of the Earth has the value of 1, the smallest distance to the Moon is 71, and the larger 83. Whence the average of 77.“
The total solar eclipse mentioned is that of 20 November 129 BC. The actual value of the Earth-Moon distance is 60,4 terrestrial radii.
Cosmology developed rapidly after the completion of general relativity by Albert Einstein, in 1915. In this theory, the Universe does not reduce to a space and a time which are absolute and separate; it is made up of the union of space and time into a four dimensional geometry, which is curved by the presence of matter.
It is in fact the curvature of space-time as a whole which allows one to correctly model gravity, and not only the curvature of space, such as Clifford had hoped. The non-Euclidean character of the Universe appeared from then on not as a strangeness, but on the contrary as a physical necessity for taking account of gravitational effects. The curvature is connected to the density of matter. In 1917, Einstein presented the first relativistic model for the universe. Like Riemann, he wanted a closed universe (one whose volume and circumference were perfectly finite and measurable) without a boundary; he also chose the hypersphere to model the spatial part of the Universe.
At any rate, Einstein’s model made the hypothesis of a static Universe, with the radius of the hypersphere remaining invariable over the course of time. In truth, the cosmological solutions of relativity allow complete freedom for one to imagine a space which expands or contracts over the course of time: this was demonstrated by the Russian theorist Alexander Friedmann, between 1922 and 1924.
At the same time, the installment of the large telescope at Mount Wilson, in the United States, allowed for a radical change in the cosmic landscape. In 1924, the observations of Edwin Hubble proved that the nebula NGC 6822 was situated far beyond our galaxy. Very rapidly, Hubble and his collaborators showed that this was the case for all of the spiral nebulae, including our famous neighbor, the Andromeda nebula: these are galaxies in their own right, and the Universe is made up of the ensemble of these galaxies. The “island-universes” already envisaged by Thomas Wright, Kant and Johann Heinrich Lambert were legitimized by experiment, and the physical Universe seemed suddenly to be immensely enlarged, passing from a few thousand to several dozen million light-years at the minimum. Beyond this spatial enlargement, the second major discovery concerned the time evolution of the Universe. In 1925, indications accumulated which tended to lead one to believe that other galaxies were systematically moving away from ours, with speeds which were proportional to their distance. Continue reading →
At the beginning of XVIIth century, the way was open for new cosmologies, constructed on the basis of infinite space. Until then, the notion of space was conceived in the cosmological and physical order of nature, and not as the “background” of the figures and geometric constructions of Euclid. In other terms, physical space was not mathematicized. It became so thanks to René Descartes (1596 – 1650), who had the idea of specifying each point by three real numbers: its coordinates. The introduction of a universal system of coordinates which entirely criss-crossed space and allowed for the measurement of distances was a reflection of the fact that, for Descartes, the unification and uniformization of the universe in its physical content and its geometric laws was a given. Space is a substance in the same class as material bodies, an infinite ether agitated by vortices without number, at the centers of which were held the stars and their planetary systems.
This new conception of the cosmos upset philosophical thought and led it far from the initial enthusiasm of the atomists and Giordano Bruno: “The absolute space which inspired the hexameters of Lucretius, the absolute space which that had been a liberation for Bruno, was a labyrinth and an abyss for Pascal.” As for the scholars, they did not allow themselves to be discouraged by these moods and irresistibly moved towards the infinite universe.
The tendency toward the radical geometrization of an infinite space, initiated by Descartes, was consummated by the Englishman Isaac Newton (1642-1727). Newton postulated an absolute space, encompassing not only the background space of mathematics and the physical space of astronomy, but also that of metaphysics, since space was the “sensorium of God.” Physical space, finally identified with geometrical space, was necessarily Euclidean (the only one known at the epoch), without curvature, amorphous and infinite in every direction. At the heart of this immobile framework, Newton explained celestial mechanics in terms of the law of universal attraction, from now on considered responsible for gravitation and the large scale structure of the Universe. With Newton, cosmology took root for more than two centuries in the framework of an infinite Euclidean space and an eternal time.
All the problems are not resolved in Newtonian cosmology, far from it. On the question of the distribution of stars in space, for example, Newton believed that they must occupy a finite volume since, he argued, if they occupied an infinite space, they would be infinite in number, the force of gravitation would be infinite, and the universe would be unstable. Newton moreover supposed that the stars were uniformly spread within a finite mass|like a galaxy, for example. But a problem of instability remained: since each celestial body is attracted by every other one, at the least movement, at the least mechanical perturbation, all the bodies in the universe would fall towards a unique center, and the universe would collapse. Newton’s universe is therefore only viable if it does not admit motion on the large scale: its space is rigid and its time immobile. Continue reading →
The cosmology of Aristotle, as perfected by Ptolemy and reintroduced thanks to arabic translations and commentaries, was adapted to satisfy the demands of the theologians. Notably, that which is situated beyond the last material sphere of the world acquired the status of, if not physical, at least ethereal or spiritual space. Baptized “Empyrean”, it was considered to be the residence of God, the angels and the saints. The medieval cosmos was not only finite, but quite small: the distance from the Earth to the sphere of the fixed stars was estimated to be 20,000 terrestrial radii, because of which Paradise, at its edge, was reasonably accessible to the souls of the deceased. The Christian naturally found his place at the center of this construction.
This model of the universe imposed itself until the seventeenth century, without nevertheless impeding the resurgence of atomist ideas. After the rediscovery of the manuscript of Lucretius De rerum natura, the German cardinal Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464) argued in favor of an infinite Universe, of a plurality of inhabited worlds, and of an Earth in motion. However, his arguments remained primarily metaphysical: the universe is infinite because it is the work of God, who could not possibly be limited in His works.
When the Polish canon Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) proposed his heliocentric system, in which the Sun is at the geometric center of the world while the Earth turns around it and around itself, he kept the idea of a closed cosmos, surrounded by the sphere of fixed stars. Even if this is two thousand times further away than in the Ptolemeian model, the universe nevertheless remained bounded.
We must wait several decades more for the first cracks to appear in the Aristotelian edifice. In 1572, a new star was observed by the Dane Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), who showed that it was situated in the sphere of fixed stars, that is to say in the celestial region until then presumed to be immovable. In 1576, the Englishman Thomas Digges (1545-1595), a staunch Copernican, maintained that the stars were not distributed on a thin layer, at the surface of the eighth and last sphere of the world, but extended endlessly upwards. Digges nevertheless was not proposing a physical conception of infinite space: for him, the sky and the stars remained Empyrean, God’s realm, and in this regard did not truly belong to our world.
An epistemological rupture was triggered by two Italian philosophers. In 1587, Francesco Patrizi (1529-1597) produced Of Physical and Mathematical Space, where he put forth the revolutionary idea that the true object of geometry was space in itself, and not figures, as had been believed since Euclid. Patrizi inaugurated a new understanding of infinite physical space, in which it obeyed mathematical laws and was therefore accessible to understanding. But it is above all his contemporary Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) who is attributed with the true paternity of infinite cosmology. The first book of his De immenso is entirely dedicated to a logical definition of infinite space. Bruno argued from physical, and no longer exclusively theological, basics. His cosmological thought was inspired by the atomism of Lucretius, the reasoning of Nicholas of Cusa, and the Copernican hypothesis. From the latter, Bruno retained heliocentrism and the ordering of the solar system, but rejected the cosmological finitism. A precursor to Kepler and Newton, he also refuted the cult of sphericity and of uniform circular motion for describing celestial motion. His bold and original writings were not understood by his contemporaries, most notably Galileo. Above all they were firmly opposed by the Church. In fact, the true philosophical subversion of the end of the sixteenth century did not reside so much in the heliocentric affirmation of Copernicus as in that of the infinite multiplicity of worlds. Camped at the front ranks of the anti-Aristotelian battle, Bruno, carried away by his passion for infinity, refused to abjure and was burned at the stake in Rome.
Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), another great artisan of the astronomical revolution, tried at first to construct a universal model founded on the use of particular geometric figures: the regular polyhedra. He failed at this attempt; the ordering of planetary orbits as calculated did not correspond to the new experimental data collected by Tycho Brahe. After discovering the elliptical nature of the planetary trajectories, Kepler overturned the Aristotelian dogma of circular and uniform motion as the ultimate explanation of celestial movement. He nevertheless refused to follow Bruno in his arguments for the infinitude of the universe. He considered this notion to be purely metaphysical and, since it was not founded on experiment, denuded of scientific meaning: “In truth, an infinite body cannot be understood by thought. In fact the concepts of the mind on the subject of the infinite refer themselves either to the meaning of the word `infinite,’ or indeed to something which exceeds any conceivable numeric, visual or tactile measurement; that is to say to something which is not infinite in action, seeing that an infinite measurement is not conceivable.” Kepler supported his argument by expressing for the first time an astronomical paradox that seemed to be an obstacle to the concept of infinite space, and which would be extensively discussed: the “paradox of the dark night.” Just like the edge paradox, this problem would not be satisfactorily resolved until the middle of the nineteenth century, although by completely different arguments.
Starting in 1609, the telescope observations of Galileo (1564-1642) furnished the first direct indications of the universality of the laws of nature. On the question of spatial infinity, however, Galileo, like Kepler, adopted the prudent attitude of the physicist: “Don’t you know that it is as yet undecided (and I believe that it will ever be so for human knowledge) whether the Universe is finite or, on the contrary, infinite?” 
 See Alexander Koyre, From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe, New York: Harper Torchbook, 1958.
De spacio physico et mathematico ; See R. Brickman, “On Physical Space, Francesco Patrizi”, Journal of the History of Ideas, vol.4, 224 (1943).
De stella nova, 1606. Unfortunately there is no English translation for this masterpiece.
Letter to Ingoli, quoted in A. Koyré, From the Close World to the Infinite Universe, The John Hopkins Press 1957, p. 97.
This post is based on a chapter of my book “The Wraparound Universe” but is much more illustrated. The chapter is divided into 4 parts, here is the first one.
That which keeps quiet beyond everything, is this in fact simply what I name Space? . . . Space! An idea! A word! A breath! Jean Tardieu
There is no space or time given a priori; to each moment in human history, to each degree of perfection of our physical theories of the Universe, there corresponds a conception of those fundamental categories of thought known as space, time, and matter. To each new conception, our mental image of the Universe must adapt itself, and we must accept that “common sense” was found lacking. For example, if space is limited by a boundary, what is there beyond it? Nothing? It is difficult to imagine that, by voyaging sufficiently far in a given direction, one could reach a point beyond which nothing more exists, not even space. It is just as troubling to think of an infinitely large Universe. What would be the meaning of any measurable, that is to say finite, thing with respect to the infinite?
These types of questions were formulated in the sixth century BCE, in ancient Greece, where they rapidly became the object of controversy. The first schools of scholars and philosophers, called “presocratic” (although they were spread over two centuries and were quite different from each other), each attempted in their way to rationally explain the “world,” meaning the ensemble formed by the Earth and the stars, conceived as an organized system. For Anaximander, from the school of Miletus, the world where observable phenomena take place was necessarily finite. Nevertheless, it was plunged within a surrounding medium, the apeiron, corresponding to what we today consider as space. This term signifies both infinite (unlimited, eternal) and indefinite (undetermined). For his contemporary, Thales, the universal medium was made of water, and the world was a hemispheric bubble floating in the middle of this infinite liquid mass.
We meet up again with this intuitive conception of a finite material world bathing in an infinite receptacle space with other thinkers: Heraclitus, Empedocles, and especially the Stoics, who added the idea of a world in pulsation, passing through periodic phases of explosions and deflagrations.
Atomism, founded in the fifth century by Leucippus and Democritus, advocated a completely different version of cosmic infinity. It maintained that the Universe was constructed from two primordial elements: atoms and the void. Indivisible and elementary, (atomos means “that which cannot be divided”), atoms exist for all eternity, only differing in their size and shape. They are infinite in number. All bodies result from the coalescence of atoms in motion; the number of combinations being infinite, it follows that the celestial bodies are themselves infinite in number: this is the thesis of the plurality of worlds. The formation of these worlds is produced within a receptacle without bounds: the void (kenon). This “space” has no other property than being infinite and accordingly matter has no influence on it: it is absolute, given a priori.
The atomist philosophy was strongly criticized by Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Moreover, by affirming that the universe is not governed by gods, but by elementary matter and the void, it inevitably entered into conflict with the religious authorities. In the fourth century BCE, Anaxagoras of Clazomenae was the first scholar in history to be accused of impiety; however, defended by powerful friends, he was acquitted and was able to flee far from the hostility of Athens. Thanks to its two most illustrious spokesmen, Epicurus (341-270 BCE), who founded the first school that allowed female students and Lucretius (first century BCE), author of a magnificent cosmological poem, On the Nature of Things, atomism continued to flourish until the advent of Christianity. It was however marginalized over the course of the first centuries of the christian era, and would not again be part of mainstream science until the seventeenth century. Continue reading →
According to modern physics the universe has undergone a gradual process of expansion and cooling ever since the big bang; at the same time increasingly complex physical structures have evolved. The history of the universe can conveniently be divided into two main periods: the first million years (infancy) and the remaining 15 billion years (maturity).
The Infant Universe
During the Planck era, time and the dimensions of space as we know them were so intimately linked as to be practically indistinguishable. Various speculative theories of “quantum cosmogenesis”, as yet in their infancy, attempt to explain how our universe emerged at the end of the Planck era. Some physicists refer to its “spontaneous emergence”, others to an infinite number of separate “cosmic bubbles” arising from the quantum vacuum like foam from the surface of the sea.
Between 10-43 and 10-32 seconds after the big bang the infant universe consisted of elementary particles bound by a primeval superforce. A few billiseconds later gravity separated itself from the surviving electrostrong force, which in turn, as the temperature fell to 1027 degrees, divided into the strong force and the electroweak force. Recent experiments in high energy physics suggest that these “symmetry breakdowns” had spectacular consequences: the appearance of strange objects; “topological defects” such as “cosmic strings”; even the onset of “inflation” – a very short period during which the universe grew immeasurably. The fundamental constituents of matter – quarks, electrons and neutrinos – also appeared at this time.
10-11 seconds after the big bang the temperature of the universe had dropped to 1015 degrees and the electroweak force split into an electromagnetic and a weak force, thus establishing the four fundamental forces and fixing the physical conditions for the formation of complex structures.
10-6 seconds after the big bang all quarks were “linked” in threes by the strong force to form the first nucleons, i.e. protons and neutrons. By this time the temperature had fallen to a billion degrees as the universe continued to expand. As particles became more widely spaced, they collided less frequently but one hundred seconds or so later the crucial process of nucleosynthesis began. Neutrons and protons combined to form the simplest atomic nuclei: hydrogen, helium and lithium (in various isotopes). Most of the universe, however, remained as isolated protons, i.e. as hydrogen nuclei.
Nucleosynthesis took place only for a very short time: the universe was cooling so rapidly that there was only time for the lightest elements to form. These therefore constitute 99 per cent of the visible matter in the universe today (75% hydrogen and 24% helium). The remaining one per cent, consisting of heavier elements like carbon, nitrogen and oxygen, would not be created until billions of years later, when the stars were formed.
Until it was 300,000 years old the universe remained opaque; in other words it emitted no radiation: the density of electrons prevented photons from moving freely. But the universe, consisting of a “soup” of particles and radiation, continued to cool and expand until, at 3,000 degrees, it became transparent and emitted its first electromagnetic signal in the form of what we now detect as cosmic background radiation.
A million years after the big bang the first atoms were formed, when electrons were captured by hydrogen and helium nuclei, and these atoms combined into molecules to create vast clouds of hydrogen, out of which stars would later emerge. Continue reading →
In the first quarter of the 20th century cosmology became a distinct scientific discipline, thanks in part to the theoretical advance made in 1915 by Einstein with his theory of general relativity and in part to the revolution in observational techniques which revealed the true extent of the universe. Having at last been able to measure the distance of certain spiral nebulae, Edwin Hubble could confirm in 1925 that there existed other galaxies like our own.
His colleague Vesto Slipher had previously discovered that the radiation from these galaxies was constantly shifting towards the red end of the optical spectrum, which suggested that they were moving away from us at great speed. This movement was not understood until scientists came to accept an idea based on the theory of general relativity and first proposed by Alexandre Friedmann in 1922 and independently Georges Lemaître in 1927: that space was constantly expanding and consequently increasing the distance between galaxies. This idea proved to be one of the most significant discoveries of the century[i].
In an article which appeared in 1922, entitled “On the Curvature of Space“, Friedmann took the step which Einstein had balked at: he abandoned the theory of a static universe, proposing a “dynamic” alternative in which space varied with time. For the first time the problem of the beginning and the end of the universe was couched in purely scientific terms. Friedmann suggested that the universe was several tens of billions of years old, much older than the earth (then estimated to be about one billion years old) or the oldest known celestial objects. It was a remarkable prediction, the most recent estimate for the age of the universe being between 10 and 20 billion years.
In 1927, in a seminal article entitled “A Homogeneous Universe of Constant Mass and Increasing Radius Accounting for the Radial Velocity of Extra-Galactic Nebulae“, Lemaître explained the observations of Hubble and Slipher by interpreting them, within the context of general relativity, as manifestations of the expansion of the universe. This expansion was taking place uniformly across the entire universe (which might be finite or infinite), not outwards from a particular point (in this sense the often quoted analogy of a balloon being inflated is misleading). It was not a case of matter moving within a fixed geometric framework, but of the framework itself dilating, of the very “fabric” of space-time stretching. Continue reading →
The ancient Babylonians had a different idea of how the world began. They believed that it had evolved rather than being created instantaneously. Assyrian inscriptions have been found which suggest that the cosmos evolved after the Great Flood and that the animal kingdom originated from earth and water. This idea was at least partially incorporated into a monotheist doctrine and found its way into the sacred texts of the Jews, neighbors and disciples of the Babylonians. It was also taken up by the early Ionian philosophers, including Anaximander and Anaximenes, and by the Stoics and atomists.
Democritus developed a theory that the world had originated from the void, a vast region in which atoms were swirling in a whirlpool or vortex. The heaviest matter was sucked into the center of the vortex and condensed to form the earth. The lightest matter was thrown to the outside where it revolved so rapidly that it eventually ignited to form the stars and planets. These celestial bodies, as well as the earth itself, were kept in position by centrifugal force. This concept admitted the possibility that the universe contained an infinite number of objects. It also anticipated the 19th century theory of the origin of the solar system, known as the nebular hypothesis, according to which a “primitive nebula” condensed to form the sun and planets.
The idea of universal evolution had a strong influence on classical thought and developed in various directions during Greek and Roman times. In the first century BC Lucretius extended the theories of atomism and evolution to cover every natural phenomenon[i] and argued that all living things originated from earth. Two centuries later, in his medical treatise On the Use of the Parts of the Body[ii], the Greek physician Galen (Claudius Galenus) expressed the essentially Stoic view that matter is eternal and that even God is subject to the laws of nature: contrary to the literal interpretation of the Genesis story, he could not have “formed man from the dust of the ground”; he could only have shaped the dust according to the laws governing the behaviour of matter. The Church Fathers, who insisted that the Creation was instantaneous, rejected any sort of evolutionary theory; to them the ideas of the Stoics and atomists were heretical.
In the second half of the 16th century the idea of universal evolution began to be incorporated into the new system of scientific thought resulting from the work of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Descartes and Newton. According to Descartes, for example, space consisted of “whirlpools” of matter whose motion was governed by the laws of physics. Newton, with his theory of universal attraction, was accused of having substituted gravitation for providence, for having replaced God’s spiritual influence on the cosmos by a material mechanism[iii]. A new view of the world had nevertheless been established, whereby the workings of the universe were subject not to the whim of the Almighty but to the laws of physics – it was an irreversible step. Continue reading →
None of the traditional myths gives a precise date for the Creation. The very idea of putting dates to the history of the world seems to have been foreign to the mentality of the ancients. For them the origin of the universe was simply a notion which helped them to understand the separation of reality into two regions: formless chaos and cosmic order. It was the Jewish/Christian preoccupation with time as a linear process which prompted the question: when was the Creation? From then on the greatest theologians (from Eusebius of Caesarea in the fourth century to James Ussher, Irish prelate and archbishop of Armagh, in the 17th century) and scientists (from Kepler to Newton) would attempt to provide the answer.
For centuries the only clues were to be found in the Bible, which was thought to be able at least to provide an upper limit to the age of the world. From studying the Bible, the vast majority of scholars put the date of the Creation at around 4000 BC, the most common method of calculation being to count the number of generations between Adam and Jesus. St Luke[i] and other commentators list 75 generations, which at approximately 50 years per generation make 4000 BC a plausible date. This reasoning was accepted until the 18th century, even though Ronsard ended his Hymn to the Sky of 1555 with the words: “Your beauty is such that I simply cannot believe / It is but four or five thousand years since your beginning.“
More precise estimates gradually appeared. According to the theologian and historian the Venerable Bede in the eighth century and Vincent de Beauvais in the 13th, the Creation took place in the spring.
In his historical treatise Annales Veteris Testamenti, a Prima Mundi Origine Deducti (Annals of the Old Testament, Traced Back to the Origin of the World) of 1650, James Ussher attempted to determine precisely the dates of the great biblical events by checking them against historical facts and astronomical phenomena. According to his calculations the first day of the Creation was 23rd October 4004 BC (beginning at midday) and Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden on Monday 19th November, Noah’s Ark went aground on the summit of Mount Ararat on 5th May 1491 BC, and so on.
Similarly, in 1642, the Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University, John Lightfoot, an eminent Hebrew scholar, stated that “heaven and earth, centre and circumference, were created all together, in the same instant” and that “man was created by the Trinity on October 23, 4004 BC at nine o’clock in the morning.”[ii]Continue reading →
“Order and Truth are born when Passion is aroused. From them is born Night and from Night the Ocean and its waves. From the Ocean’s waves is born the Year, which apportions Night and Day and governs all that the eye sees. The Creator gave shape first to the Sun and Moon, then to the Sky and the Earth, then to the Air and finally to Light.” Rig-veda, X, 190.
According to Vedic tradition the Creation took place in a completely different order from that specified by the familiar Jewish/Christian story: on the first day God created matter and light out of chaos; on the second day He, created the air by separating the sky from the waters; on the third day He divided the earth and the waters; on the fourth day He created the celestial bodies, on the fifth the fish and the birds and on the sixth the animals and man; finally, on the seventh day, God rested and contemplated his work.
According to Genesis the separation of light and darkness took place on the first day, the sun and moon not appearing until the fourth. The light which existed on the first day therefore did not come from the sun. Here the bible is perpetuating an ancient belief that light and darkness are independent of the sun, moon and stars, which exist not to provide light but merely to increase it, to distinguish between day and night, to mark the changing of the seasons, and so on. “We must remember that daylight is one thing and sunlight, moonlight and starlight another – the sun’s purpose is to give daylight additional brilliance,” wrote St Ambrose in his Hexameron.
This idea is clearly illustrated by the mosaics in St Mark’s cathedral in Venice and by the frescos in the baptistery in Florence and the basilica of St Francis at Assisi, all of which show the Creator placing in the sky two discs of equal size distinguished only by their colour or by an inscription.
Whereas mythical and religious stories describe the creation of the world (by one or more gods), scientific “accounts” are concerned with the formation and evolution of the universe and its content. There are, however, many parallels between these two approaches.
I felt dizzy and wept, for my eyes had seen that secret and conjectured object whose name is common to all men but which no man has looked upon — the unimaginable universe. Jorge luis Borges, The Aleph (1949)