‘The Final Secret of the Universe’?

Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos: The Scientific Quest for the Secret of the Universe

by Dennis Overbye
HarperCollins, 438 pp., $25.00

Origins: The Lives and Worlds of Modern Cosmologists

by Alan Lightman and Roberta Brawer
Harvard University Press, 561 pp., $29.95


In his preface to Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos, Dennis Overbye writes:

It is probably part of the human condition that cosmologists (or the shamans of any age) always think they are knocking on eternity’s door, that the final secret of the universe is in reach. It may also be part of the human condition that they are always wrong. Science, inching along by trialand-error and by doubt, is a graveyard of final answers.

George Bernard Shaw expressed a similar idea when, in October 1930, in a speech at a London dinner in honor of Albert Einstein, he noted that Newton had created a universe that lasted for three hundred years before it was superseded by Einstein’s universe based on the general theory of relativity. Shaw supposed that the audience wanted him to say that Einstein’s universe would never stop, but with the wisdom of his cocked eye, he was moved to say, “I don’t know how long it will last.”1

At the time, Einstein’s general theory of relativity had come to dominate our understanding of space, time, and gravity (as it still does), but there was growing reason to doubt the model of the universe—the cosmology—that Einstein had calculated from it. Einstein’s model assumed that the universe was homogeneous—that its distribution of mass was, on average, the same everywhere—and that it was static, unchanging in its basic structure through time. In 1922, the Russian mathematician Alexander Friedman challenged Einstein’s model on theoretical grounds, contending that the assumption of a static universe was unnecessary and that, without it, the theory of general relativity predicted a universe that was continually expanding.

Neither Einstein’s nor Friedman’s model was based on any astronomical data; both were pencil-and-paper constructions, partly because in the early 1920s very little data bearing on cosmological questions was available. For example, it was uncertain whether giant systems of stars existed beyond the Milky Way galaxy, of which our own sun is a part. Among the types of data that have a bearing on cosmological issues, two were seen as fundamental: the distance and the motion of large groups of stars. Distances to a group could be ascertained by measuring the cycles of brightness and dimness of certain stars called Cepheid variables; and the speeds with which groups moved away from us could be determined by analyzing how far the light emitted by them was shifted toward the red end of the spectrum. During the 1920s efforts to study Cepheids in faint nebulae revealed that the universe contained many separate galaxies—each comprising an enormous number of stars—at vast distances from our own.

The pioneer practitioner of this research was the astronomer Edwin Hubble, who used the new and powerful 100-inch telescope at the Mount Wilson Observatory, high above Los Angeles, not only to map the distances to a number of galaxies but also to measure their red shifts. The accumulated data led Hubble to conclude, in 1929, that other galaxies were moving outward from…

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