Gravity 9: The Evolving Universe

by Shane L. Larson

Of all the fundamental forces in Nature, gravity is the weakest. What do we mean by that? Let’s forego our usual thought experiments, and do something real to demonstrate this idea.

pizzaFirst, go eat a piece of pizza (or any other food you enjoy). This is the process by which you accumulate the eenrgy needed to make your body go. Without pizza, you wouldn’t be able to do anything.  Second, go stand in the middle of the room (where you won’t hurt yourself) and jump straight up in the air, as high as you can.

Using the chemical energy from some Dr. Pepper, I can overcome the gravitational pull of the entire planet.

Energy from pizza, gives me the power to defy the gravitational pull of the entire planet.

What happened? Since I’m pretty sure most of you reading this aren’t superheroes and can’t fly, you probably ascended up in the air a bit, and then came back down to the floor. It’s an everyday sort of thing, completely ordinary. But this is science, and there are remarkable and deep truths hiding in the simplest of circumstances. So consider this:

Using some simple chemical energy, which your body gleaned by breaking down some food you ate, you were able to (momentarily) overcome the gravitational pull of the ENTIRE EARTH.

This is what we mean when we say gravity is weak. But despite this fact, it is fundamentally the most important force of Nature if we want to think about the Cosmos as a whole. It has no competitor on the largest scales imaginable, meaning that even with its weak ability, gravity is able to change the Cosmos over the long, inexorable flow of time. It made sense that general relativity could and should be used to consider the past, present and future of the Universe itself.

The night sky over the Pando Forest in central Utah. Pando is an 80,000 year old aspen grove -- it has seen almost 30 million nights like this one, but very little has changed. The constellations change over thousands of years, but the sky is still full of stars, and the Milky Way still arches over the sky, giving the impression that the Universe is unchanging. [Image: Shane L. Larson]

The night sky over the Pando Forest in central Utah. Pando is an 80,000 year old aspen grove — it has seen almost 30 million nights like this one, but very little has changed. The constellations change over thousands of years, but the sky is still full of stars, and the Milky Way still arches over the sky, giving the impression that the Universe is unchanging. [Image: Shane L. Larson]

In 1915, when Einstein first presented general relativity to the Prussian Academy of Sciences, there was precious little we knew about the Universe, though perhaps we didn’t realize it at the time. The only objects outside the solar system that we knew a lot about were stars, and many scientists (including Einstein) supposed the Universe was comprised entirely of stars. Einstein himself made one of the first attempts to use general relativity to describe the Universe. He considered the case where the Universe was uniformly filled by stars, and found a result that disturbed him — no matter what he tried, general relativity predicted the Universe would collapse. To counteract this, Einstein modified general relativity through the introduction of a “Cosmological Constant” that made the Universe slightly repulsive. The result was precisely what Einstein hoped to find, what he and most scientists thought the Universe was: static, unchanging in time. But great changes were afoot, being driven by our ability to see the Universe better than ever before.

Henrietta Swan Leavitt, in her office at the Harvard College Observatory. She made one of the most important discoveries in the history of astronomy: how to measure distances to a common type of star, known as a Cepheid variable.

Henrietta Swan Leavitt, in her office at the Harvard College Observatory. She made one of the most important discoveries in the history of astronomy: how to measure distances to a common type of star, known as a Cepheid variable.

In 1915, the largest telescope of the day was the 60-inch reflector on Mount Wilson, though it would be eclipsed two years later by the 100-inch Hooker Telescope, also on Mount Wilson. Enormous telescopes such as these were enabling us to probe the size of the Cosmos for the first time. The key to making those measurements was discovered by a pioneering astronomer at the Harvard College Observatory, Henrietta Swan Leavitt.

Delta Cephei is a naked eye star, in the lower corner of the constellation of Cepheus ("The King").

Delta Cephei is a naked eye star, in the lower corner of the constellation of Cepheus.

Leavitt was studying a class of stars known as Cepheid variables. Named for the archetype, delta Cephei, these stars are “radial pulsators” — they grow and shrink over time in a regular pattern over the course of many days. The observational consequence, if you are watching, is the brightness and the temperature the star changes. What Leavitt discovered was a regular pattern between the time it took a Cepheid star to change its appearance (its “period”), and its true brightness (its “luminosity”).

The brightness of Cepheid variables goes up and down over the course of many days. The curve here is for Delta Cephei, which changes brightness every 5.4 days. (TOP) The observed change in brightness is a direct result of the stars size pulsating in time.

The brightness of Cepheid variables goes up and down over the course of many days. The curve here is for Delta Cephei, which changes brightness every 5.4 days. (TOP) The observed change in brightness is a direct result of the stars size pulsating in time.

How does that help you measure distances? Let’s imagine a simple example here on Earth. Suppose you have a 100 Watt lightbulb and a 10 Watt lightbulb side by side.  The 100 Watt bulb looks brighter — way brighter. This is the intrinsic brightness of the bulb — it is clearly putting out more energy than its smaller, 10 Watt companion, which you can easily discern because they are right next to each other.  This intrinsic brightness at a known fixed distance is what astronomers call absolute luminosity or absolute magnitude.

Is there any way to make the 100 Watt bulb look dimmer? Yes! You can move it farther away — the farther you move it, the dimmer it appears. In fact, you could move it so far away that the 10 Watt bulb you leave behind looks brighter! By a similar token, you can make it look even brighter by moving it closer! How bright something looks when you look at it is what astronomers call apparent luminosity or apparent magnitude.

Disentangling distance and brightness is one of the most difficult problems in astronomy. Observing how bright an object is depends on two things: its intrinsic brightness, and its distance. (TOP) A bright light and a dim light are side by side at a fixed distance; one is obviously brighter than the other. (BOTTOM) If the brighter light is farther away, it can look dimmer than the closer light!

Disentangling distance and brightness is one of the most difficult problems in astronomy. Observing how bright an object is depends on two things: its intrinsic brightness, and its distance. (TOP) A bright light and a dim light are side by side at a fixed distance; one is obviously brighter than the other. (BOTTOM) If the brighter light is farther away, it can look dimmer than the closer light!

By comparing apparent brightness (how bright something looks in a telescope) to absolute brightness (how bright something would look from a fixed distance away) you can measure distance. The biggest problem in astronomy is we don’t know what the absolute brightness of objects are.

What Leavitt discovered was if you measure how long it takes a Cepheid to change its brightness, then you know its absolute brightness. Comparing that to what you see in the telescope then let’s you calculate the distance to the star! This discovery was a watershed, arguably the most important discovery in modern astronomy: Leavitt showed us how to use telescopes and clocks to lay a ruler down on the Universe. Leavitt died of cancer at the age of 53, in 1921.

Harlow Shapley.

Harlow Shapley.

Despite her untimely death, astronomers rapidly understood the power of her discovery, and began to use it to probe the size of the Cosmos. Already by 1920 Harlow Shapley had used the Mount Wilson 60-inch telescope to measure Cepheids in the globular clusters in the Milky Way. What he discovered was that the globular clusters were not centered on the Earth, as had long been assumed, but rather at some point more than 20,000 lightyears away. Shapley argued quite reasonably that the globular clusters are probably orbiting the center of the galaxy. This was the first indication that the Copernican principle extended far beyond the Solar System.

In 1924, Edwin Hubble, who Shapley had hired at Mount Wilson Observatory, made a stunning announcement — he had measured Cepheid variables in the Andromeda Nebula, and it was far away. At 2.5 million lightyears away, the Andromeda Nebula was the farthest object astronomers had ever measured the distance to. In fact, it wasn’t a nebula at all — it was a galaxy. Here, for the first time, some of the long held, cherished beliefs about Cosmology that were prevalent when Einstein introduced general relativity began to unravel. (Historical Note: Hubble’s original distance to the Andromeda Galaxy was only 1.5 million lightyears. Why? Because there are two different kinds of Cepheids, both of which can be used to measure distances, but calibrated differently! Astronomers didn’t know that at the time, so Hubble was mixing and matching unknowingly. Eventually we learned more about the Cosmos and arrived at the current known distance — science is always on the move.)

The Hubble Ultra Deep Field (UDF), showing what is unseen but can be found if you stare at an empty part of the sky for long enough.

The Hubble Ultra Deep Field (UDF), showing what can be found if you stare at an “empty” part of the sky for long enough. Virtually every object in this image is a distant galaxy.

The Universe was not full of stars…. it was full of galaxies, and those galaxies were further away than we had ever imagined. This was a dramatic discovery that shook astronomers deeply. But it was only the beginning. A scant five years later, Milton Humason and Hubble, using the 100-inch telescope at Mount Wilson, made another astonishing discovery: every galaxy they looked at was receeding away from the Milky Way, in every direction. Furthermore, the farther away the galaxy was, the faster it was receding from us.  This result is now known as “Hubble’s Law.” Humason and Hubble had stumbled on one of the great secrets Nature — the Universe was not static, as a casual comparison of the night sky from one year to the next may suggest.  But what was going on? Why were all the galaxies flying away from us, in every direction we looked? This would seem to contradict the Copernican principle that we weren’t the center of everything!

(L) Alexander Friedmann. (R) Georges Lemaître.

(L) Alexander Friedmann. (R) Georges Lemaître.

As it turns out, the answer was already in hand. It had been discovered several years before Humason and Hubble by two scientists who had sought to use general relativity to describe the Cosmos: Alexander Friedmann, a Russian physicist, and Georges Lemaître, a Belgian priest. Friedmann had used general relativity to describe a Universe that was homogeneous (the same everywhere) and isotropic (looks the same in every direction). The “Friedmann Equations,” as they are now known, describe the evolution of such a Universe as a function of time. Lemaître derived the same result in 1927, two years after Friedmann’s death. In the mid 1930’s, American physicist H. P. Robertson and UK physicist A. G. Walker showed that the only solution in general relativity describing a homogeneous and isotropic Universe as that of Friedmann and Lemaître. This is now called the FLRW (“Friedmann-Lemaître-Robertson-Walker”) Cosmology.

What the FLRW cosmology tells us is that the galaxies aren’t really flying apart from one another — if the Universe is homogeneous and isotropic, then spacetime itself is changing, stretching and deforming. The reason the galaxies are receding from one another is the spacetime between them is expanding — the Universe is getting larger, expanding all the time.

Imagine the galaxies floating in spacetime, unmoving with respect to one anther (they are stapled down to their location in spacetime). General relativity predicts that the galaxies don't move, but that spacetime itself expands, it stretches, so the distance you measure between galaxies increases.

Imagine the galaxies floating in spacetime, unmoving with respect to one anther (they are stapled down to their location in spacetime). General relativity predicts that the galaxies don’t move, but that spacetime itself expands, it stretches, so the distance you measure between galaxies increases.

Lemaître was the first person to think differently about this problem. He had the presence of mind to ask, “We see the Universe is expanding, but what if I run time backward? What did the Universe look like in the past?” In 1931, he argued that the expansion seen in every direction suggested that the Universe had expanded from some initial point, which he called the “primeval atom.” If today we see everything expanding away, and you look backward in time, it must have all been much more compressed and compact, a state which would have made it hot, and dense. Lemaître didn’t know what might have initially caused the expansion of this primeval atom into the Cosmos we see today, but he did not see that as a reason to suppose the idea was invalid.

Lemaître with Einstein in California, 1933.

Lemaître with Einstein in California, 1933.

Change in science is hard, especially when data is new and our ideas are undergoing a dramatic evolution from past modicums of thought. Einstein is widely known to have critically panned both Friedmann’s and Lemaître’s work before the discovery of the expansion, still believing in the notion of a static Universe. Once the scientific community had come to understand and accept the expansion data, it required another great leap of faith to contemplate Lemaître’s notion of a hot dense initial state. Einstein again was skeptical, as was Arthur Stanley Eddington. For more than a decade, the arguments about the idea raged, and in 1949 during a BBC radio broadcast, astronomer Fred Hoyle coined the term by which Lemaître’s “primeval atom” idea would forever be known as: the Big Bang.

All ideas in science stand on equal ground — they are valid for consideration until they are proven wrong by observations. If the Universe did indeed begin in a Big Bang, then the obvious question to ask is what signatures of that dramatic event would be observable today? As it turns out, there are many observational consequences of the Big Bang, and they all have been observed and measured by astronomers, lending confidence to Lemaître’s initial insight.  This will be the topic of our next chat.

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This post is part of an ongoing series written for the General Relativity Centennial, celebrating 100 years of gravity (1915-2015).  You can find the first post in the series, with links to the successive posts in this series here: http://wp.me/p19G0g-ru.

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2 responses to “Gravity 9: The Evolving Universe

  1. Humbling – the insignificance of Homo Sapiens in the scheme of things!

  2. Pingback: Looking Back 108 Years… | Write Science

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