How Human Curiosity Unlocked the Scientific Secrets of the Universe
Brian Thomas Swimme on the Scientific Shakespeares Who Made Modern Cosmology
The green sign announced the Siskiyou Summit as the highest point on I-5, which implied that the entire West Coast of North America was mine. Sir Isaac Newton’s theory of universal gravitation proclaimed that if the drag from the air could be eliminated along with all the friction from the tires and ball bearings, I could glide all the way to Tacoma with no gas.
In fact, I would reach Tacoma with such velocity I could glide all the way through southern British Columbia and up the Fraser River canyon to the highway’s end, several miles north of Lillooet. The same would hold true if I turned my car around and headed south through California’s Central Valley, continuing down the Baja California Peninsula to the end point at Cabo San Lucas.
To feel the power of this gravitational force, I shifted into neutral. As Earth pulled the car down the mountain, a human being inside reflected on the cosmic dynamics at work. I conjured the forested hills in Southern Oregon and saw my little car soaring up and over them in response to Earth’s gravity.
This imaginary journey was rooted in the work of Galileo and Newton. Their theories had found their way into modern consciousness so that even with something as ordinary as driving on a freeway, humans could understand their actions as congruent with the processes of the universe.
How eerie that at distinct moments in the twentieth century, the dynamics of cosmogenesis began to surface in the human imagination.It will be the same with our discovery of a time-developmental universe, a universe that develops through time from plasma to galaxies to living planets to human consciousness. We will witness our minds restructuring themselves as we learn to think and live in alignment with universe creativity. Feelings of expansion washed over me as I took this in. How eerie that at distinct moments in the twentieth century, the dynamics of cosmogenesis began to surface in the human imagination. Our universe had been creating itself for billions of years and suddenly, through the work of a handful of human beings, the universe found a way to reflect on itself, on how it had developed over billions of years.
Who were those humans who enabled this awareness? Who were the key scientists who became the eyes that saw cosmic evolution? As I sailed through the night, my mind sifted through its knowledge with the aim of naming them.
Albert Einstein would be the first candidate for primary discoverer of the development of the universe. His field equations, published in 1916, predicted the cosmic expansion and became the foundation for mathematical cosmologists around the planet. Indeed, his sixteen partial differential equations can be considered the theoretical core of the new evolutionary cosmology. But as significant as that achievement might be, there are problems with choosing Einstein as the fountainhead. Einstein flatly opposed the idea that the universe had an origin in time. Do we want to name Einstein as the discoverer of the expanding universe when he himself insisted, for a time, that the universe as a whole did not change?
If Einstein is not the primary discoverer, the next contender would be the Russian mathematician Alexander Friedman. It was Friedman who tried to convince Einstein that his equations contained the secret of a universe expanding. Even by 1922, he could show that Einstein’s field equations allowed three distinctly different worlds, each with a different mathematical curvature. One of these three was the model of a universe expanding throughout time. But Friedman had no way of deciding which of his mathematical worlds matched reality.
To settle the question of the universe’s curvature, scientists needed direct evidence. An experiment had to be devised by someone. And that someone was the observational cosmologist Edwin Hubble, who, working in California, gathered the data of a universe of galaxies expanding apart. Hubble was not the first. Vesto Slipher, working in Arizona, the next state over from California, discovered the so-called galactic redshifts more than a decade before Hubble. But Slipher could identify these redshifts only because he studied the work of Henrietta Leavitt. Leavitt had found a way to use Cepheid stars to determine the distance from Earth to the stars.
The real question, the most fundamental question, was this: Who put it all together?Each of these scientists needs to be included if I was going to honor any one of them. Einstein, Friedman, Leavitt, Hubble, and Slipher. The first two, Einstein and Friedman, provided the theoretical framework of cosmogenesis. The next three, Leavitt and Hubble and Slipher, captured the data. But the real question, the most fundamental question, was this: Who put it all together? That was a question easy to answer.
Georges Lemaître, the Belgian mathematical cosmologist, invented the theory that envisioned the cosmos expanding from a powerful explosion at the beginning of time. His 1931 paper hypothesized that a “primeval atom” had erupted in the distant past and sent matter expanding outward. Indeed, it was Lemaître’s paper, combined with Hubble’s data, that finally convinced Einstein.
If only Einstein had seen that his mathematical equations had predicted all this. A bittersweet moment. If he had possessed more confidence in his own abstractions, he might have been the one to make the announcement concerning the grand beginning of everything. Instead of that triumphant declaration, Einstein had to admit defeat, and did so with wonderful courtesy. On the day he and Lemaître visited Edwin Hubble at Mt. Wilson, Einstein summarized the situation with a simple announcement: “Lemaître smashed my idea of a static universe with a hammer blow.”
I saw the gas gauge was at empty. I could probably make it to Medford, but to be sure I pulled off at Ashland, the West Coast’s premiere venue for the plays of William Shakespeare. Even though the theater season had come to a close, Elizabethan banners hung from poles down Main Street. Many of the businesses tied themselves to Shakespeare. The Bard’s Inn displayed a vacancy sign blinking with red neon lights. A storefront window advertised Juliet’s Finest, a woman’s clothing store. I drove straight through the dark downtown, past the Ashland Hotel, and up the slow grade leading out of the city before I found an open gas station.
When the attendant approached, I brought the window down and smiled upon hearing his British accent. Maybe he was an actor from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival earning extra cash. He got the gas pump going, pulled up the windshield wipers, and squirted from his blue plastic bottle. He used a squeegee long enough to reach across the entire windshield. I wanted to ask him if he had performed in any of the plays, and if so, if he might say a couple lines. Or maybe tell me about his love of Shakespeare that pulled him across an ocean and a continent to the West Coast, just for the opportunity to be in one of the plays. But I said nothing, not wanting to bother him.
Through those six humans, the creative universe made its dramatic appearance. They formed the core that brought this new revelation.For most of the twentieth century, Shakespeare’s plays had been performed throughout late spring, summer, and early fall here in Ashland and in dozens of other cities throughout North America. Not to mention the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, wherever a nation spoke the English language. And in translations in another fifty countries. Stories of Scottish kings, of Italian nobles, of Danish aristocrats. Stories from the history of England.
Stories that had worked their way so deeply into the fabric of a planet that four hundred years later, I could find myself in an Oregon gas station, remembering the words of Shakespeare’s competitor when Shakespeare died, that his works should never be forgotten for he was “not of an age but for all time.” The day will come when something similar will be said of these six scientists, especially of Georges Lemaître. Though Lemaître did not write in the effulgent iambic pentameter of Shakespeare, his mathematical statements will be remembered for millennia. It took humans a million years to see the large-scale dynamics of the universe. Lemaître’s awareness of the fundamental mathematical harmony in the expansion of the galaxies enabled humanity to determine where, in an empirical sense, the birthplace of the universe is.
The work of Lemaître led scientists to it. After thousands of years wondering over the origin of the universe, we found that trillion-degree event that had blazed with such an intensity fourteen billion years later we can still sense it, still touch it, now in the form of the cosmic microwave background radiation, the afterglow of the universe’s birth.
Through those six humans, the creative universe made its dramatic appearance. They formed the core that brought this new revelation. To honor their work, I would reject all attempts to slap an ideology on top of them. The universe itself would have to tell us what it was about. As I continued to wait for the gas tank to fill, I wanted to howl in celebration, but I lacked the freedom to release my joy. Even so, an irrepressible smile made its way through my restraints as the gas attendant handed over my credit card. His most satisfied customer of the week. I roared off, hardly noticing as I bottomed out on the asphalt.
Excerpted from Cosmogenesis: An Unveiling of the Expanding Universe by Brian Thomas Swimme. Copyright © 2022. Available from Counterpoint Press.