Reprinted with permission from Tikkun Magazine.
Modern cosmology–the scientific study of the universe as a whole–no longer sees the universe as an infinite changeless arena in which events take place, the way Isaac Newton did. The universe is an evolving, expanding being, and its origin is the oldest mystery.
For the first time in possibly a million years of human wondering, we are not simply imagining the beginning: We are observing it, in radiation that has been traveling to us since the Big Bang, possibly bearing information generated even earlier. Theorists are piecing the data together into humanity’s first verifiable creation story.
Most educated people today have an essentially Newtonian picture of the universe as a place, devoid of all human meaning, in which we happen to find ourselves. If people come to understand the emerging scientific cosmology, however, they may see from what we know of the early universe that we actually are part of an extraordinary adventure. With its mind-expanding imagery, this emerging cosmology gives us a new cosmic perspective, a powerful source of awe, and a potential source of meaning in our everyday lives.
Expansion of the Universe
In 1929, Edwin Hubble discovered the expansion of the universe by showing that the more distant a galaxy is from us, the faster it is moving away. Astrophysicists ran the movie backward and realized that the universe had to have started out extremely hot and dense.
The earliest point was named–derisively by astronomer and novelist Fred Hoyle, whose steady state theory it eventually replaced–the “Big Bang.” Standard Big Bang theory explains the creation of the light elements of matter in the first three minutes and seems to be right as far as it goes, but it does not explain what preceded that or what has followed.
Gravity alone could not have created the complex large-scale structures and flows of galaxies that are observed to exist. Gravity magnifies differences–that is, if one region is ever so slightly denser than average, it will expand a bit more slowly and grow relatively denser than its surroundings, while regions with less than average density will become increasingly less dense. But if matter after the Big Bang was absolutely evenly distributed, gravity would have done nothing but slow down the overall expansion.