profc.jpg (13600 bytes)We now look at the origin of the Universe itself.

Key points: Cosmological Principle; Olber's Paradox; Universal expansion; Cosmic background radiation

Cosmology is the study of the origin and evolution of the Universe.

Newton was one of the first to approach cosmology on a scientific basis. He said

"the hypothesis of matter, being at first evenly spread through the heavens, is in my opinion inconsistent with the hypothesis of innate gravity without a supernatural force to reconcile them" -- that is, he felt that matter would unavoidably be attracted into concentrations, unless God kept the matter spread through space.

A more light-hearted perspective on the same question: "Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former."-- Albert Einstein (attributed, source unknown)

He did think that an infinite distribution of static matter could be stable.

Now, we summarize a thought similar to Newton's statement as the Cosmological Principle: On a sufficiently large scale, the Universe is homogeneous and isotropic (meaning that it is uniform and is the same in all directions) buttonex.jpg (1228 bytes)

Another way to put it is that there is no preferred viewpoint - on a large scale, it looks the same from anywhere.

For example, we are not at the center of the Universe (because it has no center), and any theory that implies we are is flawed.

Note that this is an assumption that is subject to test and experimental verification. As far as we can tell by our most powerful observations, the universe is homogenous and isotropic provided we look at a large enough scale (e.g., we have to look over distances of ~100-1000 million light years for things to be uniform)

Two simple but key cosmological observations:

1) We exist.

Proves that the Universe does not consist of equal amounts of matter and anti-matter that are well-mixed. If there are equal amounts, they must be kept very well separated.

2) The sky is dark at night.

(Also know as Olber's Paradox after Wilhelm Olber who first posed this apparent problem)

Olbers' Paradox, illustration Olber reasoned that if the Universe contains an infinite distribution of stars, then every line-of-sight would intersect a star, and the sky would be as bright as the surface of a star buttonbook.jpg (10323 bytes). (from Univ. of Oregon,

So why is the sky dark?

---Maybe dust absorbs the light?

        no, because the dust would be

        heated up by the bath of starlight.

--- Maybe the Universe is finite?

        if so, where's the edge?

Hubble's Law

Hubble made a fundamental discovery about the Universe by studying distant galaxies.

The Andromeda Galaxy is the nearest bright example. A galaxy is a system of stars, containing hundreds of billions or even trillions of them.

Galaxies are good probes of the distant Universe because they are relatively easy to recognize and bright enough that we can see them to great distances. We will discuss them in depth later, but now just consider them as probes of the Universe.

By measuring the distance to a galaxy (here we will just use the size to indicate distance, but later we will discuss a variety of other indicators) and comparing with the Doppler shift of the galaxy (measured from a pair of absorption lines in this example), Hubble found:

1) Virtually all galaxies are moving away from us, e.g. they are redshifted.

modern version of Hubble's Law data


2) The more distant the galaxy, the larger its redshift, that is the faster it is moving away.

This graph summarizes these statements: the greater the distance the larger the velocity away from us. This modern version is far better than Hubble's original. His distance scale was hopelessly wrong and he derived an expansion that is six to seven times greater than the correct value. Nonetheless, his basic result started off the inquiry into theories of cosmology that could explain this fundamental property of our Universe. (from Ned Wright's cosmology tutorial

A Mpc, the distance unit in this graph, is 3.26 million light years.

This expansion is summarized in Hubble's Law:

VR = H0 x d

VR = radial velocity, d=distance

H0 = Hubble's constant, about 70 Km/sec/Mpc

Hubble's Law, once it is calibrated, provides an easy way to measure the distance to a galaxy. Just take a spectrum and measure the redshift, use it to calculate the velocity, and plug the result into Hubble's Law rearranged to solve for distance: d = VR/H0.

Implications of Hubble's Law

1) Hubble's Law with its proportionality between a galaxy's distance and its velocity is most easily explained as the result of the Universe expandingbuttonex.jpg (1228 bytes)

==> Space itself is getting bigger, galaxies are moving further apart, but there is no "center" to the expansion.

balloons.gif (77177 bytes) Here is an analogy using an expanding balloon (from Ned Wright,  This animation shows an expanding universe model with yellow blobs for galaxies and moving, redshifting photons. The animation starts at a redshift of 3 when the Universe was 4 times smaller than it is now, and finishes at the present. Notice that the galaxies do not expand, they just get farther apart. 


2) H0 is closely related to the age of the Universe:

Distance = Velocity x time

Hubble's Law: VR = d x H0 ==> d = VR/H0

so 1/H0 is the age of the Universe (or more precisely, the length of time that the Universe has been expanding).

1/H0 ~ 13 billion years.

3) the expansion also explains Olbers' Paradox - why the sky is dark. The light from distant objects is shifted to longer and longer wavelengths by the Doppler shift from their recessional velocity. When the recessional velocity approaches the speed of light, the light is shifted so far we can no longer see the object, thus solving Olber's Paradox.

The concept of an expanding Universe opened the question: What caused the expansion? The Belgian scientist and priest Georges Lemaitre envisioned allowing time to run backwards and watching what must have happened. He postulated the existence of a "primeval atom" that contained all of the matter in the Universe. An explosion split this primeval atom apart thus starting the expansion of the Universe. This explosion could have been responsible for the formation of the elements.

We now know that Lemaitre was right, and we call the explosion he predicted the "Big Bang." However, the concept of the expansion of the Universe and an explosion as its cause fell into disrepute almost immediately:

1) The value of Ho , the expansion rate of the Universe, as measured by Hubble, implied that the Universe is only 2 billion years old whereas much older fossils and rocks had been found on Earth. [We now know that Hubble's distance scale was inaccurate. The small value for the age of the Universe was due to his value for the expansion rate of 500 km/sec/Mpc, while the modern value is 70 km/sec/Mpc]

2) Many scientists simply rejected the notion of the Universe beginning in an explosion for philosophical reasons -- they didn't like questions such as what came before the explosion!

Read about Einstein's biggest mistake, or biggest insight - your choicebuttonbook.jpg (10323 bytes)

An alternative to the explosion theory was expounded by Fred Hoyle and others. This theory was called the Steady State Theorylink to an extra topic

Resolution of the Big Bang versus Steady State "Dispute"

Wilson and Penzias with their antenna

Penzias and Wilson received the Nobel Prize for their work. (from Bell Labs,

Spectrum of the 3K blackbody radiation The COBE (Cosmic Background Explorer) satellite made very careful measurements of the shape of the spectrum of this emission. It is a perfect blackbody at a   temperature of 2.728K; it is often termed the "3K background". (From R. McCray,
Map of sky in 3K radiation The 3K radiation is remarkably uniform in all directions. The temperature in one direction is the same as in 180 degrees the  opposite direction to an accuracy of 1 part in 100,000!

Here is a map of the whole sky from COBE, scaled so blue would be 0K and red 4K -- the fact that it is all the same color shows how uniform the 3K radiation is.

The presence of this highly uniform cosmic remnant radiation field has confirmed the Big Bang theory and it is the foundation of our understanding of cosmology.

A summary of modern cosmology can be found at:

ancientast.jpg (6400 bytes)J. Hevelius at the telescope

sirtflaunch.jpg (4413 bytes)

shivanataraja2.jpg (12299 bytes)




In Hindu mythology, the dance of Shiva Nataraja expresses the birth and death, and rebirth of the Universe. from

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hypertext copyright.jpg (1684 bytes) G. H. Rieke

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