Cosmology: Structure, Origin and Fate of the Universe

Steven Dutch, Professor Emeritus, Natural and Applied Sciences, Universityof Wisconsin - Green Bay

Clusters of Galaxies

Galaxies occur in clusters. Our own Milky Way is a member of a sparse group called the LocalCluster, which includes two other large spiral galaxies about 2.5 million light yearsaway and about 20 dwarf galaxies, with up to a few billion stars. Dwarf galaxiesare so small and faint that they could not be seen at all if they were not nearby. Many ofthe dwarf galaxies appear to be satellite galaxies of the large spirals. Our own Galaxyhas two bright satellite galaxies, the Magellanic Clouds. These small galaxies,about 150,000 light years away, are prominent in the skies of the Southern Hemisphere,where they look like detached pieces of Milky Way. The Milky way also has several smallerand much fainter satellite galaxies.

Other galactic groupings have hundreds or thousands of galaxies within a domain perhaps50 million light years across. The nearest such grouping, the Virgo Supercluster,is about 40 million light years away. Our local cluster appears to be an outlying fringeof this supercluster. (Almost as if to humble us for our primitive Earth-centered views ofthe Universe, our Earth seems not to be near the center of anything!)

On a very large scale, galaxies appear to be clustered into great interconnectedfilaments separated by voids hundreds of millions of light years across. There are so manygalaxies that we have nothing like a complete inventory of them, and research on thelarge-scale structure of the Universe is still very new.

Cosmology: The Biggest Questions Of All

The study of the origin, overall structure, and future of the Universe is called cosmology.At this time, cosmology is in perhaps its most revolutionary period. We can only touch ona few of the exciting developments in this field.

The Expanding Universe And Big Bang

In the 1920's and 1930's, astronomer Edwin Hubble analyzed the Dopple shifts of galaxies and showed that galaxies everywhere are rushing awayfrom us, and the farther away they are, the faster they are receding. One obvious implication of this recession is that the Universe began in a very small space and suddenly began expanding outward.

One opponent of this view was British astronomer Fred Hoyle, who disdainfully coined the term "Big Bang" to describe it. Hoyle proposed that the Universe has always looked very much the same, and that as galaxies pulled apart, new matter was spontaneously created to fill the voids. This matter would eventually collect to form stars and galaxies Hoyle called his theory the Steady State Universe. The amount of matter needed would be extremely tiny and difficult to observe directly. However, one major problem with the Steady State theory was the lack of embryonic galaxies. In Hoyle's universe, there should be many galaxies in the process of forming, and we do not see them.

In 1965, radioastronomers detected faint microwave radiation filling all of space, theecho of the initial explosion. Over the age of the Universe, the initially hot radiation that filled all of space has cooled to 3 K. This Cosmic microwave background (CMB) pretty much sealed the case for the Big Bang.

Note that the expansion of the Universe does not mean we are at the center. Allgalaxies are receding from one another, and any observer on any galaxy would see the samepattern we do. Astronomers use the "raisin bread" analogy to illustrate theexpansion. In raisin bread dough, the raisins are close together. As the bread rises, theraisins spread apart, and every raisin sees all the others receding.

Age Of The Universe

The Universe must be older than the Solar System, 4.6 billion years. It must be oldenough for light to have travelled from the most distant objects we can see to us, atleast 8 to 10 billion years. The best estimate of the age of the Universe is the time itwould require for galaxies, starting from a common point and receding as they are, toreach their present positions: about 13 billion years.

Seeing the Past

Because it takes light a long time to travel from distant galaxies to us, we seegalaxies as they were when light left them. When we look into space, we also look backinto time. Galaxies have not changed much in the last few billion years, and galaxiesfarther away than a few billion light years are too faint and tiny to see in detail evenwith the largest telescopes. Very powerful radio sources called quasars arebelieved to be very young galaxies, but they are so far away it is hard to be certain.

If we are seeing galaxies as they were billions of years ago, then they were once muchcloser to us. How can they look billions of light years away? To answer this riddle, lookat things from the perspective of the other galaxy. Assume our galaxy is initiallya billion light years from another galaxy and the two are rushing apart at 90 per cent ofthe speed of light.

T = 0New Galaxy       Newly-formed Milky Way         @       @------>90% of speed of light         |-------| 1 billion light yearsT = 5 billion years   Galaxy              Milky Way         @       |-------->@ has travelled 4.5 billion light years                             Galaxies are 5.5 billion light years apart         @-------------> Light has travelled 5 billion light years and                         is still 500 million light years from Milky Way         T = 10 billion years   Galaxy              Milky Way         @       |------------------------->@                              Our galaxy has travelled 9 billion light years                             Galaxies are 10 billion light years apart         @---------------------------------->                              Light has travelled 10 billion light years                              and is just arriving.

Thus, a galaxy that looks ten billion light years away really is ten billionlight years away. Its light has travelled ten billion light years. However, the informationcarried by the light is also ten billion years old, so we see the galaxy in the conditionit was in when the light left.

The "Missing" Mass

Clusters of galaxies are obviously bound by gravity, and so are the galaxiesthemselves, yet the visible stars are not massive enough to account for the gravity ofgalaxies and galaxy clusters. About 90 per cent of the mass in the Universe is"missing". Astronomers are less disturbed by this than one might expect becausethe possible explanations are so numerous. In roughly increasing order of exoticness, theyinclude:

Faint intergalactic stars
Cool thin gas
Hot gas is detectable by its radio emissions but cool gas emits little or no radiation
Brown dwarfs
Interstellar planets
Planets might form from interstellar dust clouds but not as part of any planetary system. They would be extremely hard to detect.
Black Holes
Most known black hole candidates are detected by the radiation given off by matter falling into them. Isolated black holes not part of a multiple star system might be pretty quiet.
Quantum Black Holes
Just after the Big Bang matter in the universe was dense enough that it could have collapsed into microscopic black holes, as massive as mountains or planets but the size of a proton. Stephen Hawking discovered that all black holes eventually decay in a burst of radiation. Quantum black holes as massive as mountains should be decaying just about now. Physicists are looking.
Massive neutrinos
Neutrinos are generally considered massless, but some theories predict they might have a very tiny mass. These particles are so numerous that even a tiny mass would account for all the "missing" mass.
Photons with mass
There's no compelling reason in physics why photons must have exactly zero mass. If they have a very tiny mass, again it could account for all the "missing" mass.
Magnetic monopoles
Some theories in physics predict the existence of isolated north or south magnetic poles. If they exist, they are predicted to be very massive.
Exotic massive subatomic particles
Some theories in physics predict the existence of even more exotic very massive particles.
Cosmic strings
These would be linear equivalents of black holes and extremely massive.

The list includes MACHOS and WIMPS. MACHO stands for Massive Compact Halo Object.MACHO's include stars and planets that might form thin but massive halos around galaxiesbut be too faint to detect easily. WIMP stands for Weakly-Interacting Massive Particle andrefers to some of the exotic particles predicted by some theories; these particlesinteract only very weakly with other matter and are thus very hard to detect if theyexist. The list of possible solutions to the problem is so long that most astronomersprefer to call the undiscovered matter "nonluminous" rather than"missing". They're sure it will be found; it's just hard to see.

The Moment Of Creation

All the energy in the Universe was compressed into a tiny volume at the instant of theBig Bang. By using the principles of physics, cosmologists can estimate what conditions inthe earliest Universe were like. The younger the Universe, the smaller it was, the moredensely it was filled with energy, and the hotter it was.

Right now the universe is bathed in 3 K microwaves. A speck of dust in an intergalactic void, utterly devoid of light, isn't at absolute zero, it's at 3 K. Now if the universe were 1/4 its present size, the total amount of energy from the microwave background would be the same, but it would be coming from a sphere 1/4 the radius of the present universe, with 1/16 the area. Per square degree of sky, we'd be getting 16 times as much radiation.

Now there's a very important law of physics, the Stefan-Boltzmann Law, that relates energy flux and temperature. Energy is proportional to temperature raised to the fourth power, or temperature is proportional to the fourth root of energy. So if the Universe is 1/4 its present size, the energy flux is 16 times what it is now, and temperature would be the fourth root of 16, or 2, times what it is now. So the CMB would be 6 K. It works out from these formulas that temperature is inversely proportional to the square root of the size of the universe, and thus its age.

The Universe now is about 13 billion years old. When the Earth and Solar System formed, it was about 8.5 billion years old, and when the Milky Way galaxy formed, it was about 2-3 billion years old. At that time the Universe was less than a quarter its present age, and the CMB was a bit more than twice as warm.

At one time the Universe was filled with dense swarms of charged particles, which absorbed radiation and made the Universe opaque, for the same reason the photosphere of the Sun is opaque. Around 300,000 years after the Big Bang, the temperature and density of the Universe had dropped to the point where atoms could form. The temperature of the Universe at this point was about 600 K. (Yes, atoms are stable far above 600 K, but not if there is so much energetic radiation around that electrons are stripped off as fast as atoms can form). Once atoms could form, the Universe became transparent to light. The first stars and galaxies formed

At about .001 second after theBig Bang, the Universe had expanded and cooled enough for neutrons and protons to form outof still more elementary particles. At about 3 minutes, protons and neutrons could combineto form stable nuclei. By about 500,000 years, the Universe was cool enough for atoms toform.

No GUT's, No Glory

To calculate the earliest microseconds of the Universe, we must know more about physicsthan we now know. Many physicists believe that all the forces of nature can be"unified" or described in terms of a single theory. For example, electricity andmagnetism are quite different, but they can be described in terms of a single theory ofelectromagnetism. We can use this theory in a practical sense to produce magnetism usingelectricity (electromagnets) or electricity using magnetism (generators). More recently,physicists have unified electromagnetism and the weak nuclear force, and there are signsthat these forces can be unified with the strong nuclear force.

The search for a Grand Unified Theory, or GUT, that would unify allforces has been one of the great dreams of physics. The next great cluster of Nobel Prizeswill almost certainly come from this research (hence the title of this section). The GUTtheories that look most promising make some astonishing predictions:

Research on these subjects is still very young, and the mathematical details are farbeyond the scope of this book. But high-energy physics and cosmology are combining tooffer us views of a Universe that is much stranger than even the science-fiction writersever dreamed.


Curved Space?

Many books on astronomy refer to "curvature of space" or space having morethan three physical directions. It's my experience that this imagery confusesnon-scientists more than it helps.

What is really involved is something called a metric; the rules for measuringdistance. The rule for measuring distance for most circumstances is given by thePythagorean theorem. If we measure position in terms of east-west and north-south, therule is:
distance2 = (east-west)2 + (north-south)2. For ourpurposes, we'll confine ourselves to a small area so as not to get involved with theEarth's curvature. This conventional, or Euclidean metric isn't the only possibleone, however.

The Urban Metric

In midtown Manhattan, it doesn't make the slightest difference that a point 3kilometers east of you and 4 kilometers north is 5 kilometers away in a straight line. Ifyou have to walk or drive the streets, the distance is 7 kilometers, period. Also itdoesn't matter what route you take as long as you travel only east and north. In thismetric, the urban metric, the distance rule is: distance = (east-west) +(north-south). Urban planners use the urban metric all the time because it dictates thingslike response times of emergency services.

                  +                          +                 /|                          |                  / |                          |        Distance /  |                          |                /   |N-S                       |N-S             /    |                          |              /     |                          |             +------+                   +------+               E-W                        E-W         Euclidean Metric            Urban Metric               2       2      2       Distance = (E-W) +(N-S)    Distance = (E-W)+(N-S)

The San Francisco Metric

San Francisco looks eminently rational on a map - a neat grid of streets - but when youdrive there you find that the grid has been laid over the landscape with completedisregard for topography. Neither the urban metric nor the Euclidean metric may reallydescribe the driving scene in San Francisco if your concern is driving time or using amanual shift.

The Reno Metric

After a pleasant vacation in Reno, you have to leave town quickly because some nicegentlemen who loaned you funds to test your gambling strategy would like it back. Also,since your strategy ran into some unanticipated problems (it didn't work), you don't havefunds to buy gas and only enough gas to get 50 miles. Where will that take you?

If you head east, the landscape is pretty flat and the roads more or less converge onReno, so you can get nearly out to the fifty-mile circle headed east. The metric here ispretty close to Euclidean. But to the west are the Sierra Nevada, where the roads areoften nonexistent or pretty crooked. Fifty miles road distance from Reno in the Sierra maynot be very far in straight-line terms. The actual fifty-mile limit by road is verycomplicated.

Local Curvature of Space-Time

The San Francisco and Reno metrics are pretty good analogs to the idea of curved spacearound stars and planets, except that here there's a real third dimension to the problem.If you could imagine being a flat creature with no concept of up and down, you mightdecide that space in San Francisco or around Reno was distorted in weird ways. Butastronomers speak of three-dimensional space being curved into a fourth spatialdimension that we can only detect by its geometric distortions. How can we picture that?

Imagine that you live in San Francisco, which is a very three-dimensional city. Inaddition to the normal hills, there's construction at one major intersection that slowstraffic down for some distance around. Near the construction your travel time is sloweddown beyond the normal effects of topography. Its as if you had to travel over aninvisible steep hill superimposed on the real steep hills that are already there.Approaching the construction you slow down as congestion increases, just like going up ahill, and going away you speed up as congestion decreases, just like going down a hill.Mathematically, there are two ways you can deal with this situation. One is to go on usinga normal three-dimensional conception of San Francisco but say that speed slows down nearthe construction. The other is to imagine that the topography and street grid are deformedinto a fourth-dimensional hill near the construction; your speed stays constant but theextra distance you travel over the hill increases your travel time. You can't observe thehill in three dimensions but you can describe it mathematically.

Suppose we could somehow bury a small chunk of neutron star matter under a parking lotso that right over the neutron star matter you feel one g of gravitational pull. As youwalk across that spot, you'd feel the neutron star matter pulling you toward it, thenpulling you back as you walked beyond it. It would feel as if you were walking down into asmall depression, then walking out again. Also, the gravitational pull of the neutron starmatter would bend light rays. The spot over the neutron star matter would appear to belower than the rest of the lot. It would look as if you are walking across a smalldepression as well. The gravity of the neutron star matter would attract air and createhigher air pressure; an altimeter would read lower altitude. All the physical measurementsyou could make would be consistent with there being a depression over the neutron starmatter. But if you take the neutron star matter away, the parking lot returns to beingflat. The neutron star matter deforms space in its vicinity.

The Curved Earth

Imagine a planet like Earth but perpetually cloud-covered. They have all the technologywe do except space travel. What shape is their world? Three of their major cities lie atthe corners of an equilateral triangle 12000 kilometers on a side. That's possible on aplane. But there is a fourth city 12000 kilometers distant from each of the otherthree. This sort of geometry is impossible on a plane, but is possible on asphere. Thus a high-tech civilization (or even a low-tech one) could easily deduce thatits world was a sphere even if they lacked space travel and could not see the stars. Asmall piece of the planet's surface is nearly a plane. We can make a scale model or map ofsmall areas, but there is no way to make a scale model of the entire planet on a smallpart of its surface.

Cosmic Space Curvature

Can we make a scale model of the Universe? If we could somehow determine the distancesfrom every galaxy to every other, we might find that there are five galaxies allequidistant from each other. We cannot make a scale model of something like that in normalspace. Or we might find that on a very large scale, there can never be more than threegalaxies all equidistant from one another. The rules that givern distance relationships onthe very largest scales might be quite different from what we know on smaller scales.

Having said all that, the Universe is Euclidean on scales at least extending to manymillions of light-years, and every test we have devised to look for cosmic curvature ofspace has been consistent with a completely Euclidean Universe within the precision ofmeasurement.

The Fate Of The Universe

What will happen to the Universe depends largely on how much matter it holds. If theUniverse has enough matter, its gravitational attraction will eventually halt theexpansion of the Universe, and matter will begin collapsing inward. Perhaps our Universewill end in a "Big Crunch", followed by another Big Bang and a new Universe. Or,if there is not enough matter in the Universe, the Universe will continue to expand, itsstars will die out, its protons and neutrons will eventually decay, and only a thin mistof electromagnetic energy and the most elementary particles will remain. In allprobability, new theories of physics will require us to alter both of these predictedfates in ways we cannot foresee. We simply do not know what the final answer will be.

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Created 26 March 1998, Last Update 10 April 1998