Prairie Post (West Edition)

Imag­in­ing the uni­verse – an­other look

- Space · Stars · Science · Planets · Solar System · Milky Way Galaxy · The Big Bang Theory · 38 Studios · Nicolaus Copernicus · Albert Einstein · Stephen Hawking · Astronomy


The ar­ti­cle by Neel Roberts in the 5 Fe­bru­ary 2021 is­sue of Prairie Post pro­vided an over­view on how large the uni­verse is. To com­pre­hend the vast­ness of space and the num­ber of stars and gal­ax­ies can be chal­leng­ing –– the num­bers are lit­er­ally as­tro­nom­i­cal in size.

How­ever, one num­ber pro­vided, the size of the uni­verse at 13.8 bil­lion lightyears (a dis­tance), is not cor­rect, and may have been con­fused with the age of the uni­verse, which is 13.8 bil­lion years old (a time). The dis­tance we can see into the uni­verse is lim­ited by time. Light trav­els at a fixed speed, al­beit a very fast speed. The fur­thest we can see is 13.8 bil­lion light-years, and be­cause this is true in op­po­site di­rec­tions, one may con­clude the uni­verse is 27.6 bil­lion light-years across in size. But in­ter­est­ingly, af­ter that light started to travel to­wards us 13.8 bil­lion years ago the uni­verse has ex­panded in size, and in fact, ob­ser­va­tions have shown the ex­pan­sion is ac­cel­er­at­ing. Tak­ing the ex­pan­sion into ac­count, it is es­ti­mated that the ob­serv­able uni­verse –– and the word ob­serv­able is key here –– is about 92 bil­lion light-years in size. And as­tronomers sug­gest the un­ob­serv­able uni­verse is even larger, and Mr. Roberts cor­rectly in­di­cated that we do not know the size of the uni­verse.

One other cor­rec­tion is our so­lar sys­tem has eight plan­ets, not nine plan­ets. The for­mer ninth planet, Pluto, was re­clas­si­fied as a dwarf planet and is a mem­ber of a very large num­ber of icy bod­ies lo­cated in the outer so­lar sys­tem known as the Kuiper Belt. The clas­si­fi­ca­tion change was made in 2006 af­ter many more Kuiper Belt ob­jects were dis­cov­ered and it be­came clear that Pluto is part of this group. I know some folks have sen­ti­men­tal feel­ings for Pluto as a planet, but what’s im­por­tant is we have gained new knowl­edge about the so­lar sys­tem and Pluto is no longer the odd duck­ling among the plan­ets but rather is a distin­guished mem­ber (cur­rently the sec­ond largest) of this amazing group of far­away ob­jects.

Mr. Roberts de­scribed the first four di­men­sions as be­ing the three di­men­sions of space and one di­men­sion of time. How­ever, the fifth di­men­sion be­ing of the su­per­nat­u­ral has no sci­en­tific ba­sis. In fact, physics has de­ter­mined there may be 10 or 11 di­men­sions in the uni­verse. Th­ese in­cluded the four di­men­sions of space-time, which we are all fa­mil­iar with from our daily ac­tiv­i­ties. The fifth di­men­sion and the other five or six di­men­sions are cal­cu­lated to oc­cur at the very small scale of the sub-atomic level. Th­ese higher num­bered di­men­sions are im­por­tant in un­der­stand­ing string the­ory, quan­tum physics, and rel­a­tiv­ity. All of the di­men­sions can be rep­re­sented through math­e­mat­ics. To gain an un­der­stand­ing of the uni­verse re­quires study from the very large to the very small.

Af­ter this point, the mean­ing of Mr. Roberts’ ar­ti­cle be­comes less clear, par­tic­u­lar with ref­er­ence to the word uni­verse. First, evo­lu­tion­ists deal with bi­ol­ogy and the evo­lu­tion of life on Earth dur­ing the past 3.7 bil­lion years of which there is a mas­sive amount of ev­i­dence. The study of cos­mol­ogy, which is a branch of astronomy, deals with study of the ori­gin, form, and de­vel­op­ment of the uni­verse. The Big Bang The­ory in­di­cates the uni­verse be­gan about 13.8 bil­lion years ago. To sug­gest that “evo­lu­tion­ists”, or cos­mol­o­gists who study the uni­verse, whose “cen­tral phi­los­o­phy is end­less pro­gres­sion … is a faith-based re­li­gion” is mis­guided. The sci­en­tific method is a way of ra­tio­nal and in­no­vated think­ing, hy­poth­e­sis test­ing, ob­ser­va­tion, and re-as­sess­ment. As we study and learn more of the nat­u­ral world and the cos­mos, the bet­ter our un­der­stand­ing be­comes. It’s quite re­fresh­ing and lib­er­at­ing.

Fi­nally, the phrase “In the be­gin­ning …” in Ge­n­e­sis has no merit in terms of time. In the be­gin­ning, when? Ge­n­e­sis is sim­ply a story in a book of se­lected, rein­ter­preted sto­ries and is not a cred­i­ble doc­u­ment in terms of be­ing a source of ev­i­dence. It has been peo­ple such as Coper­ni­cus, Galilei, New­ton, Ein­stein, Hub­ble, Ru­bin, Bell, and Hawk­ing, and many other men and women of sci­ence, who have dur­ing the past 600 years pieced to­gether the true na­ture of the cos­mos sur­round­ing us. This is ar­guably hu­mankind’s great­est achieve­ment. This achieve­ment is not done yet, and the quest to fur­ther our un­der­stand­ing will con­tinue with the next gen­er­a­tion of as­tronomers. I can hardly wait to see what they will dis­cover. Barry Olson Re­tired re­search sci­en­tist and am­a­teur as­tronomer and space his­to­rian Leth­bridge

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