The miracles of cosmology

By Daniel Holz | January 28, 2007 2:50 pm

Being a cosmologist is a dream job. We spend our days (and nights) wondering about this vast and surprising and beautiful Universe we find ourselves in. Every now and then we make our own contributions, uncovering a clue, seeing just a little bit further. But we don’t often reflect on the miracles that are required for the field of cosmology to exist at all.

Human beings are natural-born cosmologists. Essentially all human societies have wondered about the origins of the cosmos. It is easy to imagine a world in which nobody cared about the age of the Universe; such questions have nothing to do with everyday experience, and are completely irrelevant for evolutionary success (in the strict ‘eating-sleeping-procreating’ sense). Nonetheless, part of being human seems to entail asking these “big” questions.

celestial sphere Perhaps even more surprising, contemporary society backs up its cosmological interest with cold, hard cash. Through gifts and taxes individuals make financial sacrifices, allowing science to exist and prosper. And this is not a trifling contribution. The total US investment in the basic physical sciences in 2006 was roughly $20 billion. US taxpayers spend about $70 per person per year, or $150 per household. Europe and Japan contribute similar amounts, and almost all nations contribute at some level. This is what pays for the beautiful images from Hubble. This is what allows us to figure out that there was a Big Bang, that the Universe is expanding, and that this expansion is accelerating. This is what allows us to continue to do what we do. Although funding is a struggle (especially this year, which is turning into a disastrous one for the sciences), the fact that it exists at all is wondrous.

But the greatest miracle is that cosmology works. The Universe appears to be comprehensible. It is possible to ask a question such as “How old is the Universe?”, and actually find an answer. Why are there so many clues? Why is it that, given enough careful observation and quiet thinking, we can actually figure this stuff out? We now have a description of the Universe which works remarkably well from a fraction of a second after the Big Bang to today, 14 billion years later. It’s truly astonishing.

Maybe the string of successes is about to end? It is conceivable that dark matter and dark energy, those mysterious elements which make up 95% of the energy density of the Universe, will remain “dark” to us forever. That we’ll never understand how the first stars formed, nor why galaxies look the way they do. Although this is possible, most of us are optimistic that there’s a long way yet to go. And we have history on our side. Thus far, nature, although coy, does seem to yield her secrets eventually. Science marches forward. Questions which once resided in the realm of metaphysics now have definitive physical answers. Why is the Universe comprehensible? As far as we know, it didn’t have to be this way.

However, without the generous contributions of society much of the Universe would remain incomprehensible. It thus seems appropriate to express thanks to our fellow citizens. It is through your munificence that this whole glorious enterprise is funded. This science belongs to you. From the preface to Gravitation, by Charlie Misner, Kip Thorne, & John Wheeler (affectionately known as MTW, or the telephone book):

We dedicate this book
To our fellow citizens
Who, for love of truth,
Take from their own wants
By taxes and gifts,
And now and then send forth
One of themselves
As dedicated servant,
To forward the search
Into the mysteries and marvelous simplicities
Of this strange and beautiful Universe,
Our home.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Society
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