The Light at the Edge of the Universe

The Light at the Edge of the Universe: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Cosmology

Copyright Date: 1993
Pages: 370
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  • Book Info
    The Light at the Edge of the Universe
    Book Description:

    Will the universe expand forever? Or will it collapse in a Big Crunch within the next few billion years? If the Big Bang theory is correct in presenting the origins of the universe as a smooth fireball, how did the universe come to contain structures as large as the recently discovered "Great Wall" of galaxies, which stretches hundreds of millions of light years? Such are the compelling questions that face cosmologists today, and it is the excitement and wonder of their research that Michael Lemonick shares in this lively tour of the current state of astrophysics and cosmology.

    Here we visit observatories and universities where leading scientists describe how they envision the very early stages, the history, and the future of the universe. The discussions help us to make sense of many recent findings, including cosmic ripples, which supply evidence of the first billionth of a second of the universe; anomalous galactic structures such as the Great Wall, the Great Void, and the Great Attractor; and the mysterious presence of dark matter, massive but invisible. Lemonick assembles this information into a comprehensive, up-to-date picture of modern cosmology, and a portrait of its often contentious practitioners.

    Originally published in 1995.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-6405-8
    Subjects: Astronomy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. PREFACE (1995)
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. xiii-2)
    (pp. 3-19)

    Judging from the appearance of the nighttime sky, Mount Hopkins, Arizona, could be on a different planet from my home in Princeton, New Jersey. Back East, the stars are sparse and dim, mostly lost in haze, air pollution, and the reflected glare of city and suburban lights. Only a few constellations are visible even on the darkest nights. You only notice them if you make an effort. The bright planets—Venus, Jupiter, and sometimes Mars—are easily confused at a casual glance with the steady parade of airliners and small planes that cross overhead. If the ancient Greeks and Arabs,...

    (pp. 20-62)

    Of all the claims made by the cold dark matter model, the least controversial by far is its assertion that most of the universe is invisible. At least 90 percent of the cosmos, by weight, and perhaps as much as 99 percent, has escaped detection. No one has ever seen it. It gives off no radiation whatever: no infrared, visible, or ultraviolet light, no radio waves, no X-rays, no nothing—or, at least, so close to nothing that it has never been found, despite careful searches with every sort of telescope known to astronomy. Yet virtually every astronomer is convinced...

    (pp. 63-97)

    When I first met John Huchra in his office in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a few months before the Mount Hopkins observing run, he was wearing his associate director’s costume: a blazer, gray flannel trousers, and a necktie. A little shorter than average, he has a round face and a solid build, but, at the age of forty-two, he has no discernible excess flesh thanks to his taste for cross-country skiing, alpine mountaineering, and technical rock climbing. His hairline has receded several inches, and he wears a beard and thick glasses.

    It wasn’t apparent at the time just how uncomfortable he must...

    (pp. 98-140)

    The Andromeda galaxy, two million light-years away from Earth, is by far the most distant object you can see with your naked eye. For anything farther, you need a telescope or binoculars. Even a modest backyard telescope can, in a dark site like rural Arizona, bring hundreds of galaxies into view. The light-gathering mirror in a four-inch telescope—a telescope small enough to fit into a bulky briefcase, and that costs a few hundred dollars—funnels the photons that fall on more than twelve square inches of mirror into your eye all at once and thus reveals objects that are...

    (pp. 141-183)

    It is no accident that most of the world’s big telescopes are located in the Northern Hemisphere. That is where most of the astronomers and most of the money for building big telescopes come from. Yet a true understanding of the way the universe is put together would be seriously incomplete without intensive monitoring of the southern skies as well. The center of the Milky Way rises high only in the south. So do the nearest stars to our own, the three members of the Alpha Centauri system (the very nearest of which is faint, red Proxima Centauri). So do...

  10. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
    (pp. 184-222)

    If Tony Tyson ever got his wish and managed to convince some improbably generous benefactor to fund the construction of an optical telescope with a mirror twenty-five meters in diameter, it would be an impressive device, with a light-gathering area more than six times as great as that of the Keck telescope, recently completed atop Mauna Kea. But for sheer size, it wouldn’t compare with the telescopes radio astronomers use to study the low-frequency radiation emitted, along with visible and other types of light, by stars, galaxies, and quasars.

    Where light waves are measured in hundred thousandths of an inch,...

    (pp. 223-252)

    Most astronomers feel the same way Ed Turner and Jackie Hewitt do about electronic mail: it’s an effective way to stay in communication with colleagues anywhere in the world, to exchange news of clever theoretical ideas or remarkable observations or bowling-team scores, or to send drafts of papers back and forth so that two or more authors of a research paper can react to each others’ contributions. But it’s also no substitute for direct contact. No one has yet found a way to digitize body language, to capture on a floppy disk the subtle messages one human can send another...

    (pp. 253-272)

    How big is the universe? How old is it? What does it look like? What is it made of? How did it begin, and how has it evolved from the beginning until now? Observations like John Huchra’s and Margaret Geller’s redshift surveys; Tony Tyson’s dark matter maps; Sandra Faber’s search for large-scale motions; Ed Turner’s, Jackie Hewitt’s, John Tonry’s, and Bob Kirshner’s attempts to calibrate the Hubble constant; and the heroically difficult attempts by Lyman Page, Suzanne Staggs, David Wilkinson, and others to detect deviations from perfection in the spectrum and structure of the cosmic microwave background have brought astrophysicists...

    (pp. 273-314)

    I regard cosmology as pretheoretic,” Joel Primack told me on my visit to Santa Cruz, “the same way geology was before plate tectonics, or physics was before Newton—just a collection of facts. That isn’t to say Newton provided the final theory of physics—just the first. When we finally understand the initial conditions, we’ll be able to construct our theories based on data rather than on sand.” Throughout the year and a half I spent traveling with and talking to cosmologists, it became clear that virtually all of them would agree with Primack. A half century after Hubble proved...

  15. EPILOGUE (1995)
    (pp. 315-328)

    It is usually impossible to tell when a scientific revolution is complete until well after the fact. A model that purports to explain some aspect of the natural world—the Ptolemaic solar system, Newton’s laws of gravity, uniformitarianism and catastrophism in geology, particle physics before the 1950s—has more and more trouble explaining new observations. The model becomes more complicated and cumbersome, as Ptolemy’s did, or it simply ascribes the anomaliesto experimental error, theway physicists did when Newton’s conception of gravity could not quite explain the precession of Mercury’s orbit around the Sun. Only years later, when the...

  16. INDEX
    (pp. 329-339)