Monday, December 27, 2010

Dog astronomy

Most nights, I take my dogs outside for their "business" about twice before the hour of ten o'clock.  I'm also up before dawn to walk them.  This affords me plenty of time to stargaze and feel insignificant in the face of the cosmos.  It has also gotten me back into the amateur study of astronomy.

For several years now, the notion of an expanding universe has been a hot theory in astronomy.   Such a theory had long been suspected, ever since astronomers like Hubble noted that most galaxies seemed to be moving away from our relative position at high speeds.  In 2000, this was confirmed by measurements in red shift (expansion into space causes the wavelength of light to stretch.  The more the light is towards the red area of the spectrum, the farther away the luminous object is.)  What's more, all of this seems to jive with Einstein's general theory of relativity, even though he once favored the "stasis theory," wherein there was a stationary balance to the universe.  He would later call this his "greatest blunder."  It's ok, Al.  If anything, it's refreshing to know even one such as you could err.

Originally, the source of universal expansion was thought to be velocity from the Big Bang.  But the laws of physics state that velocity eventually withers to a stop.  So when and where does it stop?  Weirder still is that at present, the consensus among scientists is that the universe is not only expanding but it is doing so at an accelerating rate.  This is thought to be due to the presence of "dark matter," an unseen energy or presence that we really know nothing about.  Dark matter could be a blog post all it's own, so I'll spare you the tangent.  Suffice it to say that theories on its nature range from anti-matter seeping in from a parallel dimension to it isn't there at all.  Nonetheless, this all leaves me with more questions as I look up into the sky with my dogs.

Just what are we expanding into?  "Expansion" implies movement into a space that still has greater volume.  What is that?  What are we in?  What is the nature of this implied "container?"  Is there an "edge" to the universe?  Where is the end of all that is?  Is the universe infinite?  Is the "membrane theory" correct and there are really multiple universes jutted up against one another?  These riddles will probably go without answers for a quite a while, at least until technology advances to help us.  Until then I'll just keep walking the dogs...and wondering.

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