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 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 →
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)