International Astronomy Day 28th April 2019
Perhaps I should begin by explaining that almost everything I do understand about the Universe is courtesy of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: my problem is not that I don’t understand how the Universe works, it is that I do not fully understand why I would ever want to understand how the Universe works. The answer can only be disappointing. Tell me that the Universe is an upside-down colander and the stars are the flashes of light that come through the holes where the rain normally gets in and I will gladly believe you. Give me some claptrap about a Universe that wasn’t there and then was, a Universe that is both infinite and expanding, and then doubt sets in…
Perhaps I should begin, as it would appear all things did, with the Big Bang. My understanding is that two atoms spontaneously appeared in a vastness of nothingness, occupying the same place at the same time and Kerboom! With a ‘bang!’ not dissimilar to a teenager leaving a room, the universe was created. A broiling, violent, expanding everything – and everything that everything contains. Really? So who put the atoms there? If nothing existed, where did they come from? If they didn’t exist, and then they did, where did the ‘ingredients’ come from? If these two atoms contained all the ‘stuff’ from which the universe is now made, just how big were they? They must have been massive, which, given my exceedingly limited understanding of atoms, seems fairly unlikely. Anyway, putting all that to one side for now – generally because it is further from my comprehension than the edge of the Universe and more baffling than the first six chapters of Ulysses – we must move naturally onto what happened after the Big Bang.
Apparently this huge Kerboom! took only a fraction of a second to create everything that ever was, is, or will be, which was then blasted out into the vastness of space – so where did all that space come from? First there was nothing and then there was infinity. From zero zilch to an infinite abundance of it. Anyway… Massive explosion, all sorts of everything created in the blinking of an eye, and it all flies off into nothingness at a speed greater than the speed of light. (Except that’s not possible, is it? If it went faster than light, it would go back in time and, if it did that, it would surely not have existed in the first place. Oh dear…) Anyway… I do know that the Universe is infinite. And expanding. Really? Into what exactly? If the universe is everything, then what is it spreading into? Perhaps a Black Hole… Yup, now here’s something even more complicated than the Big Bang. There are so many paradoxes, inconsistencies and downright impossibilities associated with Black Holes that even your average Italian Hairdresser will not be able to explain them to you (take, for instance, why the much vaunted photograph of a real-time super-massive black hole was so disappointing – and so much less impressive than the artists impressions of the same). I envisage them as a kind of House of Commons for rational thought – it works for me.
Anyway… I believe that one of the giant telescopes that we now have circling the Earth has spotted stars that are billions of light years away at the very edge of the Universe. So far away, in fact, that the light they are sending our way actually emanated at the dawn of time. (Did I mention that time didn’t exist before the Big Bang? Kind of messes up my same time/same place theory.) Right, so, surely what is today at the fringes of the Universe would, at the dawn of time, have been right in the middle of it. If so, why is the light of the Big Bang! coming from the fringes? How can these suns be seen at a time and a place that they weren’t until now, if the light we are seeing was emitted at a time when they weren’t there but were here? In short, how can light emitted at the time of the Big Bang! have taken billions of light years to reach us when, at the time of the big blast, we were all in the same place?
Our solar system is one of millions in the galaxy; our galaxy is one of millions in the Universe and our Universe is… no, I’ve lost it again. You see I’ve never really understood how planets and stars stay where they are in the first place. If they have mass whilst space does not, how come they don’t all just end up at the bottom? How do they remain where they are? You try spinning around at 67,000mph (the speed that Earth orbits the Sun) and see if you end up where you started… Anyway… The Hitchhiker’s Guide told us not to panic. It doesn’t matter that we don’t know what’s going on, astrophysicists understand all that there is to know about the entire history of the universe; in much the same way that 17th century apothecaries knew all there was to know about phlogiston presumably. They know that all their sums would add up – if only they could find some dark matter. (Presumably they’ve never thought to look between a four-year-old’s toes.) What they really need to verify their theory is a Higgs Boson particle. So, they build a Large Hadron Collider and, glory be, they create one. They also create a mini-black hole, but don’t worry; this is tiny, nothing like the super-massive black hole that, at the end of time, will swallow up the whole universe. Mind you, seeing as the whole caboodle began with just two atoms, I can’t help but wonder just how big it would need to be…
N.B. I realise that all the basic hypotheses on which I have built this post are, in all probability, total nonsense. I have no idea how scientifically verifiable my ‘facts’ are, but they’re all I’ve got. Where knowledge fails, I fall back on fantasy: what I don’t know, I make up. It is not even a conscious thing, it is just that whenever my brain finds a gap in my knowledge it fills it up with whatever it has to hand. I am no Brian Cox or Brian May – more like Brian from The Magic Roundabout. I carry absolutely no expectation that anything I have said above is not demonstrably incorrect. I have a basic inability to comprehend what existed before anything existed – and more precisely how there can possibly have been nothing. Surely nothing can only exist if there is something for it to exist within? Much like infinity: I am perfectly willing to believe in infinity, if only somebody could explain to me what’s at the end of it… Whatever the true cause of the Big Bang – and I realise it almost certainly is not what I said (whatever that was) – surely something had to be there to cause it. Unless the Big Bang as we know it (know?) and the start of our universe was actually caused by the very last atom of a previous Universe being sucked into a black hole… Anyway, if there is anybody out there who feels that they can explain all this to me in a clear and concise manner – please don’t bother, as any attempt to do so will only make us both feel terribly inadequate.