Friday, August 6, 2010

Stargazing today

Professor Mark Whittle, a Brit cosmologist currently at the University of Virginia, is one of those teachers you want - someone really jacked up about their subject. And he's hardly alone. There are few cosmologist not jacked up in the past few years. Suddenly, within the past decade, bits and pieces of tantalizing data and theoretical work over the past 80 years is coming together. New data, made possible by new technology, is connecting nearly all the dots.

At a time when humans are screwing up down on the surface of the Earth - was there ever not such a time? - cosmology, says Whittle, "is in a golden era - the story has more clarity and coherence than ever before."

The basic deal is that all the measurements - entirely different data sets - are coming together. These parameters include accurate distance measurement to galaxies both near and far, the microwave background, the huge web pattern that all the galaxies have formed, and the abundance of light elements. This information not only has allowed a sure-thing estimate of the age of the universe (13.7 billion years), proof that the universe has a flat (Euclidian) geometry, and the necessary and stunning existence of dark matter and dark energy that make up 96 percent of all there is. (Matter we could see makes up a mere 4 percent.)

All this mathematical and observational information together makes the current Big Bang model of the origin of the universe almost certainly correct.

But, as Whittle points out, not all is solved. Not least, he suggests, the question of "why there is something and not nothing."

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