Duty of Inquiry

Today, the close relationship between physics and cosmology comes as no great surprise, as many simply accept that the laws of physics, which we perceive to operate here on Earth and within our local solar system, also apply to the rest of the universe; past, present and future. Of course, if we stop to think about it, this view is quite a recent development, certainly the Greek philosophers, who help define some of the first coherent cosmological models, saw a very clear distinction between the world in which we live and the celestial heavens, with the latter even being made of different `substance` called quintessence.

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However, even after the Copernican revolution, in 1543, cosmology was still essentially restricted to a model of the local solar system, saying little about the wider universe. Later, Kepler, Newton et al were to become major catalysts of change that was to eventually lead to a more expansive view of the cosmos; although this was not widely accepted or understood until the beginning of the 20th century. The first few decades of the 20th century would see two profound paradigm shifts in fundamental physics in the form of relativity and quantum theory, which would come to have an equally profound effect on cosmology. Within his publication of the theory of special relativity, in 1905, Einstein had encapsulated the relationship between mass and energy, which would eventually evolve into quantum theory and have further profound implications on our understanding of the microscopic universe. Shortly after, in 1915, Einstein's second theory of general relativity would be published and sow the seed of an idea that the macroscopic universe was not necessarily a static system, infinite in both time and space, but rather an active system that was itself subject to change. This idea would lead to the hypothesis of an expanding universe, which when played backwards in time suggested that the universe may have emerged from a ‘singularity’ some 13.7 billion years ago, which is now popularised as the ‘Big Bang’. Over the course of the 20th century, this model developed to become the accepted view of cosmology, although such ideas would have implications that went well beyond the boundaries of science, as the ultimate goal was the understanding of the very nature of creation. Of course, in human terms, we may consider 13.7 billion years as being close to an eternity, but in the context of cosmology, this enormous amount of time does not even represent a microsecond in the potential life of the universe, as outlined in the next table:

Era Timeframe Duration
Primordial 10-50 to 105 105 years
Stelliferous 106 to 1014 1014 years
Degenerate 1015 to 1039 1039 years
Black Hole 1040 to 10100 10100 years
Dark >10101 -> Eternity

The table above introduces the possible evolution of our entire universe from the first tick of time after the Big Bang through to its eventual decay, driven by the 2nd law of thermodynamics, after some 10100 years. Now this is a span of time, which does seem to truly defy the human imagination. However, on reflection, what is possibly more disturbing about this model is not the enormous period of time involved, but rather the thought that the universe will die and become devoid of any sort of life. In this context, the words of Lord Byron’s poem, Darkness, may have been more prophetic than first realised:

The world was void, the populous and the powerful was a lump,
Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless,
A lump of death, a chaos of hard clay.
The rivers, lakes and ocean all stood still,
And nothing stirred within their silent depths,
Ships sailorless lay rotting on the sea,
And their masts fell down piecemeal: as they dropped
They slept on the abyss without a surge,
The waves were dead; the tides were in their grave,
The moon, their mistress, had expired before,
The winds were withered in the stagnant air,
And the clouds perished,
Darkness had no need of aid from them,
She was the Universe.

However, while the words of Byron may better capture some of the majestic tragedy of the universe, if we truly want answers to our most profound questions, then it would appear that we must turn to science and embark on a duty of inquiry.