It never ceases to amaze me how awesome the universe has become in the last thirty-odd years.
Take astronomy. Back in the late twentieth century, half the stuff we know now was a pipe dream. Even sci-fi authors didn’t imagine what we’ve actually found. Exoplanets? In 1994, stuff of science fiction. There was a slight indication that one might exist around Barnard’s Star, (V2500 Ophiuchus) – now disproven – but nothing else.
Now? We’ve found hundreds – 877 as of the end of April 2013, in fact. With hundreds more lurking in data already collected. And do these planetary systems obey Bode’s Law? No they do not. They include super-Neptunes. Water worlds. ‘Eyeball’ worlds tidally locked so one face forever faces their sun. Hot Jupiters. Planets whose very atmospheres are boiling into space. We’ve even directly imaged some of these extra-solar worlds, around Formalhaut (Alpha Piscis Austrini). How cool is that?
Planets are only the half of it; we’ve also found detail in nebulae that we never thought could exist. And black holes. I won second prize in a regional high school science contest in 1978 with a display on black holes – in which I outlined how the event horizon works as a direct consequence of Einsteinian physics, for which I did the math and plotted graphs. Not that I had learned any of this at my high school. I missed out on first prize – explicitly because I’d presented theoretical physics and the judges were looking for kitchen chemistry experiments. It was a high school science contest. Yes, I know that sounds like a Sheldon answer, but it’s true.
The point is that back in 1978 nobody had seen a black hole. Theoretically, they could have been just that – black. Invisible, maybe, apart from the possibility of picking up a lensing effect from the way they distorted space-time.
Now we know different. They’re amazingly visual. Dynamic, exciting – shrouded in violent clouds of swirling hot gases and debris which belch X-rays as tidal forces crush and heat them.
We’ve even integrated quantum theory into the mix – which was done by Stephen Hawking. Thanks to him, we know that black holes themselves radiate at particle level (it’s a consequence of superposition). Small ones radiate away to nothing, which is why the CERN supercollider won’t create an earth-swallower.
In just thirty years we’ve realised that it’s all out there – this amazing, dynamic, ever-changing universe. It’s totally different from the rather bland void, possibly populated with clones of our own solar system, that we imagined in the mid-twentieth century.
And there is so much more to learn. I think that’s pretty wonderful. I hope you do too.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013