Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Cosmological Quartet

A course on astrophysics and cosmology in four books
THE other day I was talking to a friend about the Chandra x-ray telescope currently in orbit and the images constructed from that data from photons that had traveled 12 billion light years across the universe from a colossal energy emitting source. My friend challenged "they don't know that's where those came from, they could've come from 1000 miles away or from the sun. They just have no way of knowing that they started 12 billion light years away!"  this was a very intelligent friend, and I was shocked that my friend would not simply accept these observations as fact.

I have often been concerned, though without thinking very deeply, that some people reject so easily what I consider scientific fact, including a 13 billion-year-old universe, a 6 billion-year-old Earth, the appearance of life on Earth about 3 billion years ago, the appearance of primates about 60 million years ago (after the dinosaurs had disappeared,) and the evolution of humans during this multi-billion year process. If you have no formal education or self-education in this area of science, perhaps one sees no reason to accept these things as something other than "opinion" of some scientists in a remote observatory.

I was at somewhat of a loss as I tried to formulate my response to this challenge to something I really had no question of in my own mind.  My education spans almost a half-century of chemistry, physics, and biologic sciences education. In recent years I have read a number of books that, while directed at the lay population, are reasonably sophisticated in the subject matter that they address; my favorite four are pictured above. I founded a near impossible task to try to abbreviate that background into a short, understandable response to my friends challenge.

These four books are an excellent resource for understanding this incredible universe in which we exist, and I think they are best read in order, from left to right as presented above. Indeed, the three on the left have all been discussed in previous postings on this blog.  I most recently finished the fourth book, Gravity's Engines, and I find it an excellent complement to the first three.  Caleb Scharf, the Arthur, is director of the Columbia Astrobiology Center and has written a number of books directed both at scientist and at the lay public.  Gravities Engines is nominally about black holes, but encompasses a general discussion of a much broader astrophysics world in order to lay the groundwork establishing the importance of these mysterious entities in the creation and maintenance of our universe.

Everyone of course has heard of black holes. In the Star Trek universe from television or the movies, these are mysterious entities with such gravitational pull that nothing can escape but perhaps provide access to "wormholes" through which a different universe can be reached. In actuality, not only are these very complex structures, with various interesting theories regarding their origin and formation, but they also provide a source of almost unimaginable energy projected into the universe and are probably of critical importance in the formation of galaxies such as our Milky Way and it's 100 billion or so stars.  they can be visualized as dots of whirling vortices intensely deforming space time with a mass equivalent to billions of our sun, but compressed to a diameter much smaller than the Earth. The gravity from this mass, which is spinning at close to the limits of theoretical possibility, is such that within a certain distance, not even light can escape its pull.  However,this is a vast oversimplification, and the processes occurring during the accumulation of mass by the black hole and the complex events happening at the event threshold throwing huge beams of matter outwards, generating massive amounts of secondary radiation, and affecting rather dramatically the local cosmic structures while giving scientists (with appropriate information gathering instruments) new insights into the origin and nature of these "black stars."

(As an aside, there is a wonderful, well illustrated resource regarding the general topic of "stars" in a wiki site here.)

Sir Arthur Clarke, British scientist, writer, and futurist is famous for many things, including "Clark's laws". The third law states that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."  I would suggest that the term "sufficiently advanced" is relative to the observer of that technology, and it is indeed difficult to discuss the practical or even philosophical implications of something when one party finds it indistinguishable from magic.

I did read another book recently, Before the Big Bang:  the Prehistory of our Universe, but I found it a bit repetitive, poorly focused, with some strange opinions that are at the fringe, if not completely at odds with generally accepted origin concepts.  I do not recommend it.

It's time to conclude my astrophysics and cosmology reading for a while. I want to go back and find some interesting books on world history or some new twist on theology or philosophy. Of course, there is a great deal of excellent fiction writing out there, and I need to pay a bit more attention to worthwhile reading in that genre than I have in recent months.