Friday, October 08, 2004

The accelerating expansion of the universe

Why should it bother Martin Fairweather? In his long, literate lifetime he had read of many revisions of cosmic theory. Edwin Hubble's discovery of universal expansion had occurred a few years before he was born; by the time of his young manhood the theory of the Big Bang, with its overtones of Christian Creation by fiat--"Let there be light"--had prevailed over the rather more Buddhist steady-state theory claiming that space itself produced, out of nothingness, one hydrogen atom at a time. In recent decades, in astronomy as in finance, billions had replaced millions as the useful unit: a billion galaxies, a billion stars in each. Ever stronger telescopes, including one suspended in space and named after Hubble, revealed a swarm of fuzzy ovals, each a Milky Way. Such revelations, stupefying for those who tried truly to conceive of the distances and time spans, the amounts of brute matter and of vacancy seething with virtual particles, had held for Fairweather the far-fetched hope of a last turn: a culminating piece in the greaty skyey puzzle would vindicate Mankind's sensation of central importance and disclose a titanic mercy lurking behind the cosmic arrangements.

But the fact, discovered by two independent teams of researchers, seemed to be that not only did deep space show no relenting in the speed of the farthest galaxies but instead a detectable acceleration, so that an eventual dispersion of everything into absolute cold and darkness could be confidently predicted. We are riding a pointless explosion to nowhere. Only an invisible, malevolent anti-gravity, a so-called Dark Force [Updike means "dark energy", but his version is more poetic], explained it. Why should Fairweather take it personally? The universe would by a generous margin outlive him--that had always been true. But he had somehow relied on eternity, on there being an eternity even if he wasn't invited to participate in it. The accelerating expansion of the universe imposed an ignominious, cruelly diluted finitude on the enclosing vastness. The eternal hypothetical structures--God, Paradise, the moral law within--now had utterly no base to stand on. All would melt away. He, no mystic, had always taken a sneaky comfort in the idea of a universal pulse, an alternating Big Bang and Big Crunch, each time recasting matter into an unimaginably small furnace, a sub-atomic point of fresh beginning. Now this comfort was taken from him, and he drifted into a steady state--an estranging fever, scarcely detectable by those around him--of depression.

--John Updike, published in the October Harper's.
He's one of the few writers around who delights in writing about science--see also his poem Cosmic Gall about neutrinos. (There again he takes liberties: neutrinos do in fact interact, and they do have mass, although that wasn't known when he wrote the poem.)

2 comments:

Julie said...

This is amazing... Is Fairweather a real person, or fictional? Either way, I read the poem as well, and Fairweather seems to be a stand-in for Updike, real or no, in terms of feelings about the universe. This is the best line: "We are riding a pointless explosion to nowhere." I had never thought of the universe that way (humans/planets/all as surfers of time and space).

A lot of physicists are the most spiritual of all scientists, and this meditates on the way that physicists are forced to deal with the spiritual questions of what they do. What happens when you can't find love in the magic of the universe, and instead only find depression and darkness and anti-hope? One of my friends says that real love is about growth. If that's true, then god=love=expanding universe works.

Bon Vivant said...

The thought of an final end of the universe is something I find disturbing eventhough I will not be around for it (maybe a seat at the restaurant at the end of the Universe...)
It is more a question of indignation, that everything, really Everything, should finally come to an end. Eternity at 0 degree Kelvin is not something I like to contemplate, it is too much like the Asa version of Hell, Hel.