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At first, the idea of understanding the universe seems preposterous, presumptuous, or in any case, out of reach, precisely because the universe is not built on a human scale of time or size. But we now have a physical picture of the history and evolution of the universe. 1 low have we overcome the limitations of our small brains, our short lives, and our absurdly small stature to understand an ancient and immense universe?

We're so brief. The stars seem permanent, but that's only because we're just passing through. If you live for 100 years that's only one part in 100 million of the age of the universe. How can you expect to see the (low of cosmic change? Comparing your lifetime to the age of the universe is like comparing the longest time you can hold your breath to your lifetime. That's it. One breath is to one lifetime as one lifetime is to the age of universe. Inhale deeply!

Cosmic time numbs our sense of history. All of recorded human history reaches back only 10,000 years: 100 generations for 100 years each. Deep cosmic time stretches back a million times farther than the first glimmer of civilization when dogs decided to join humans in their caves. With a few spectacular exceptions, as when stars destroy themselves in supernova explosions, we have no chance to see the universe change during one lifetime, even though we know processes of change must be at work. But by learning what supernovae are, how they work, and how to use them, we can trace the history of cosmic expansion deep into the distant past.

And we're short. So short that we can't see the curve of the spherical Earth, which is 10 million times bigger than a person. Our common sense view of a flat Earth is wrong because the Earth, to say nothing of larger astronomical objects, is not built to our scale.1 We usually learn our planet's shape by meekly accepting dogma from third-grade teachers teaching the Columbus Day curriculum. A better way is to launch people off Earth's surface to take a lcxik. Astronauts travel for us and bring back pictures that illuminate the true spherical geometry of the Earth. Even though we knew what these pictures would show, images of a round planet conquer our common sense and move a spherical Earth into our intuition.

Stepping back to get perspective doesn't work so well for learning the shape of larger astronomical objects. Just as a slice of pep-peroni sizzling amid the mozzarella has a hard time seeing the whole pizza, we have a hard time seeing the flattened disk of the galaxy in which the sun is located. We have no perspective on the shape of our Milky Way galaxy and there's no stepping back. Our difficulty in imagining the shape of the universe in which the Milky Way and 100 billion equivalent systems reside is even more acute; there is no way to get outside for some perspective.

1 low do we overcome these limitations to gain a picture of the universe? Although we have small brains, brief lives, and a common sense that seems certain to lead us astray, the case is not altogether desperate. The problem isn't the size of our brains, it's having the right ideas. Over the past 500 years we have begun to puzzle out where we are and how things work.

Human imagination can begin to explore the possibilities. The old German 10-mark note, now displaced by the Euro, depicted Karl Friedrich Gauss, prince of mathematicians. His civil service job was to direct the astronomical observatory at Gottingen. Astronomers invoke his name daily, using his bell-shaped curve to evaluate the effects of chance on every type of astronomical evidence from motions in the solar system all the way out to tracing the bubbling variations in the glow from the hot Big Bang.2

Figure I.I. The 4-meter Victor and Betty Blanco telescope at Cerro Tololo in Chile, silhouetted against the Milky Way Galaxy. In 1917. when Einsteir first considered the effects of gravity on the universe as a whole, astronomers thought that the Milky Way was the entire universe. Today w» think of it as one galaxy among 100 billion similar systems. The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds are to the left. Courtesy of Roger Smith/NOAO/ AURA/NSF

Ideas of curved space were worked out by Gauss in the 1820s and advanced in the 1850s by his brilliant student and colleague at Gottingen, Bernhard Riemann. Being a mathematician, Riemann was not constricted to thinking about two-dimensional spaces like the surface of a beach ball, but thought through general properties of curvature for mathematical spaces with three or four or many more dimensions.

In 1915, Albert Einstein needed those ideas of curved space to construct a new theory of gravity. In Einstein's general relativity, the presence of matter and energy warps a four-dimensional space-time and affects the way light travels through the universe. Mathematics developed by mathematicians for their own reasons turned t

figure 1.2. Karl FHedrich Gauss on the 10-mark note. Gams had early success in predicting orbits and became director of the observatory atGottingen. The bell-shaped curve of probability looming over Gauss's shoulder describes the likelihood of obtaining, bjr chance, an experimental result that differs from the true value. When astronomers quote the age of the universe with a band of uncertainty, or the odds that the data imply a cosmological constant, they use the ideas of Gauss.

figure 1.2. Karl FHedrich Gauss on the 10-mark note. Gams had early success in predicting orbits and became director of the observatory atGottingen. The bell-shaped curve of probability looming over Gauss's shoulder describes the likelihood of obtaining, bjr chance, an experimental result that differs from the true value. When astronomers quote the age of the universe with a band of uncertainty, or the odds that the data imply a cosmological constant, they use the ideas of Gauss.

out to be just the tool that Einstein needed to descrite the physical world. Gravity is weak here and the solar system is very small, so curved space makes only subtle differences in the solar system, just as the curvature of the Earth makes only subtle differences in laying out a baseball diamond. But over cosmic distances the curvature of space matters. Einstein's general theory of relativity describes the way matter and energy curve the universe and how the contents of the universe make it expand or contract on the biggest imaginable scale. Using exploding stars, the heat left over from the Big Bang, and a strong web of physical understanding developed over centuries, we now have our first real glimpse of cosmic history and cosmic geometry.

No person has to construct our picture of the universe single-handedly: science lets us accumulate the understanding of very fine brains of the past such as those of Gauss and Einstein, cooperate and compete with other people today, and harness rapidly improving technology to sift vast haystacks of data. Other aspects of culture may or may not have improved from the time of Shakespeare or Mozart or Rembrandt, but science today is most definitely better than the science of past centuries, or even the past decade. We get to use every good idea and measurement from the past because scientists publish their findings in carefully screened journals. We get to use sharp new tools like the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), giant electronic cameras, and powerful computers for present-day exploration. In this way, more-or-less ordinary people today can make far better measurements than Galileo or Newton or Hubble ever could. Since we get to peek at Einstein's homework and have new and powerful tools of observation, we would be dull astronomers indeed if we couldn't make some progress in learning the history of the universe.

We can decode the universe because the laws of physics discovered on Earth also work in distant places. Gravity accelerating a roller coaster (and its thrilled riders) on the Boardwalk at Santa Cruz is just the local form of universal gravitation that keeps planets and asteroids in their orbits, steers stars around in clusters and galaxies, and determines whether the universe will expand forever. Atoms of calcium, whether in your femur, the sun's atmosphere, or in the atmospheres of stars in a distant galaxy, are interchangeable units governed by electrical forces that interact through precisely the same quantum mechanical laws here and there. The way an atom emits or absorbs light in a fluorescent tube in the humming control room of a telescope is identical to the way a similar atom behaves in an exploding star. You can tell which chemical elements are in a star and how that star is moving by gathering its light with a telescope, then delicately dissecting it into a spectrum. Less familiar laws of physics, discovered in particle accelerators on F.arth, govern the weak and strong forces that tell how subatomic particles are assembled and how they push and pull on each other. These laws of physics, combined with human imagination and guided by astronomical observations, tell us how the stars shine and what makes some of them explode as supernovae, and let us interpret the clues to the past that a hot, expanding universe leaves behind as evidence.

Despite these successes, human imagination is a weak thing. The universe is wilder than we imagine: we keep underestimating how weird it really is. So astronomy is not exactly an experimental science in which the thoughtful predictions of physical theory get tested. Astronomy is a science driven by discovery, since th<_- objects we observe are stranger and more exotic than even the most unbridled speculators predict. Where the physical effccts are simple, astronomy resembles physics. For example, glowing embers of a vanished hot Big Bang can be detected in every direction as a faint radio hiss we call the cosmic microwave background. Predictions and measurements of this background radiation provide sharp tests for the simple physics of a hot Big Bang. But, where the phenomena have many too many moving parrs for a simple analysis, astronomical observations lead the way. Once the universe got complex, as matter formed into stars, it grew less predictable and far more interesting. The exact mechanisms by which stars explode in thermonuclear blasts are still not fully understood and were not predicted by even the most uninhibited minds. Yet we see exploding stars that shine with the light of a billion suns. Just because we can't yet compute exactly how a thermonuclear flame destroys a star doesn't mean we can't measure the behavior of supernovae well enough to make them into yardsticks for measuring the size of the universe. Astronomers are used to building a case from fragmentary evidence, circumstantial evidence, and hearsay. Often there's no way to perform a controlled experiment on Farth to test astronomical theories, but we can assemble enough lines of evidence from observations to see if we're on the right path.

Most astronomy applies known laws of physics to astronomical settings, but some astronomical measurements reveal fundamental properties of the world: the underlying rules of behavior for matter and energy. Astronomical objects create settings we cannot reproduce in terrestrial laboratories.

One fundamental physical property of the world that was discovered by astronomical observation is the finite speed of light. In 1676, the Dane Ole Romer was working in Paris, observing the moons of Jupiter. The eclipses of those moons as they ducked behind Jupiter could be predicted, but the measurements had pesky seasonal errors. R0mer had a good clock on the steady floor of the Observatoire de Paris. He noticed that in the months when the Farth's orbit around the sun brought us closer to Jupiter, the eclipses were a little early, and at other times of the year when the Farth was farther from Jupiter, the eclipses were late. R0mer inferred that light takes time to cross the diameter of the Earth's orbit. He measured this time delay to be about 16 minutes. In R0mer's time this fundamental measurement of a profoundly important physical effect—the finite speed of light—could only be done by astronomical observations. Light travels a foot in a nanosecond, a billionth of a second.3 In the age of pendulum clocks, there was no laboratory apparatus capable of measuring such short time intervals over indoor distances. The speed of light wasn't measured on Earth until 1850, when Fizeau set up an ingenious optical device with a rapidly spinning mirror in the very same observatory. More recently, the energy and pressure associated with empty space itself is not (at least in the year 2002) detected by any laboratory experiment and is not the natural outcome of any well-established physical theory. This fundamental property shows itself only in astronomical measurements of distant supernovae that reveal an accelerating universe, which is part of the reason why this work has been so exciting.

"llie sluggishness of light gives astronomy, like geology, the historical reach to examine the past. We never see things as they are. We always see things the way they were when light left them. For objects in a room, that was a few nanoseconds ago. Rased on terrestrial experiences, we can be excused for thinking we see things as they are. But on the astronomical scale, the effects of time ticking by while light travels are very important. They allow us to overcome our own brief lives to see how the universe has changed over long stretches of cosmic time. Light travel time transforms a telescope into a no-hokum time machine.'1 Instead of seeing a frozen moment, "now," throughout space, we see a slice through time and space: we see the present nearby, and the past when we look far away. We can trace the history of the universe by direct observation of the past, limited only by the power of our instruments.

So far, we have no way to see the future, but we can use direct measurements of the past and our physical understanding of how things work to predict the future. The stars do not predict our future, but we can predict the future of the stars, based on a firm grip of

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