Tag Archives: Georges Lemaitre

A brief history of space (4/4)

Sequel of the preceding post A Brief History of Space (3/4) : From Descartes to Schwarzschild

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.

Albert Einstein (here in 1910) developed the theory of relativity and was awarded the 1921 Nobel prize for physics. Image by © Hulton-Deutsch, Collection/CORBIS

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.

Einstein static universe in a space-time diagram.

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

The Rise of Big Bang Models (1) : from Myth to Science

In this series of posts about the history of relativistic cosmology, I’ll  provide an epistemological analysis of the developments of the field  from 1917 to 2006, based on the seminal articles by Einstein, de Sitter, Friedmann, Lemaitre, Hubble, Gamow and other main historical figures of the field. It appears that most of the ingredients of the present-day standard cosmological model, including the accelation of the expansion due to a repulsive dark energy, the interpretation of the cosmological constant as vacuum energy or the possible non-trivial topology of space, had been anticipated by Lemaitre, although his papers remain mostly  unquoted.

 From Myth to Science

What are the origins of the universe, of the stars, of the earth, of life, of man? These questions have given rise to many different myths and legends, and today they are more than ever the subject of intensive research by astrophysicists, biologists and anthropologists. What were once fanciful stories are now scientific models; but whatever form they take, ideas about the origins of the universe both reflect and enrich the imagination of the people who generate them. Every society has developed its own stories to explain the creation of the world; all of them are ancient myths rooted in religion.

Whereas in monotheistic religions God is believed to have existed before the Creation, in most other kinds of religion the gods themselves are thought to originate from a creative element such as Desire, the Tree of the Universe, the Mundane Egg, Water, Chaos or the Void.

Marduk slays the chaos dragon, Tiamat, in the Babylonian creation epic (British Museum, London)

A belief in some such primordial element, of which there are traces in every culture, underlies man’s thinking about the history of the cosmos like a primitive universal symbol buried in the collective subconscious. This may explain the vague links that can always be discerned between this or that creation myth and modern scientific descriptions of the origin of the universe –for example, big bang theory. There is therefore nothing mysterious or surprising about these correspondences other than that certain ways of thinking about the world should be so ingrained in the human mind.

An interesting approach, by the scientist and philosopher Wolfgang Smith (published in 2012)
An interesting approach, by the scientist and philosopher Wolfgang Smith (published in 2012)

In fact scientific and mythical explanations of the origins are neither complementary not contradictory; they have different purposes and are subject to different constraints. Mythical stories are a way of preserving collective memories, which can be verified neither by the storyteller nor by the listener. Their function is not to explain what happened at the beginning of the world but to establish the basis of social or religious order, to impart a set of moral values. Myths can also be interpreted in many different ways. Science, on the other hand, aims to discover what really happened in historical terms by means of theories supported by observation. Often considered to be anti-myth, science has in fact created new stories about the origin of the universe: big bang model, the theory of evolution, and the ancestry of mankind. It is therefore hardly surprising that the new creation stories developed by scientists tend to be regarded by the general public as modern myths.

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