Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Expansion of the Universe

So, this last poll had some of the best results, with 24 votes. I was kind of hoping to do asteroids, but the expansion of the Universe won with 9, which is totally cool. There were also a couple of good suggestions that will be up in the new poll, which should be up, so go vote!

The expansion of the Universe is an intricate topic, not exactly easy to dump a massive load of information and have it be understandable. In order to help present this on as basic a level as possible, I am busting out some of my old astronomy books for reference. The most helpful will probably be my old Astronomy 111/113 textbook: Universe, 7th edition. I managed to dig it out of a box in my closet. I'll also provide some Wikipedia links if you want to read more. So, lets begin!

I guess a little bit of history is a good way to start. The expanding Universe is a relatively young concept in human understanding, developed in the late 1920s. The establishment that some 'nebula' where in fact galaxies only became conclusive by 1925.

These are concepts that have been around for less then a hundred years, but in that time, we have built such an understanding of the Universe. One of the primary contributors to this discovery, and famous telescope namesake, was Edwin Hubble.

First he helped to determine that these great groupings of stars were not part of our own galaxy, the Milky Way, but distant galaxies in their own right. Galaxies a term meaning 'island universe.' This was done by using special sorts of stars called Cepheid variables. A Cepheid variable has a well determined relationship between luminosity and pulsation period, making them great standard candles in determining the massive distances between galaxies.

A Cepheid Variable as seen by Hubble Space Telescope.
At this point, Hubble and other astronomers have confirmed that galaxies are indeed at immense distances from our Milky Way. But in the course of this, another astronomer, Vesto Slipher, studying spectroscopy, had discovered galactic redshifts. A redshift is part of the Doppler effect, where the wavelength of light is shifted towards the red end of the spectrum.

The red end of the electromagnetic spectrum has wide wavelengths. What happens in a redshift is that when an object is moving away from us, the wavelength gets stretched out, making objects appear redder. The opposite side of Doppler effect is blue shift, were waves are compressed as they move towards us. The best example is that of an ambulance, when it is heading towards you it will have a higher frequency then when it is heading away from you.
Objects further from us move away quicker and have higher redshifts.
What Hubble did was combine Slipher's work on Doppler shifts with distance measurements. He concluded that almost all galaxies were racing away from the Milky Way. Not only that, but their velocity was relative to distance; the further away the galaxy was, the faster it was receding. This relationship became known as Hubble's law.

Hubble's law describes the expansion of space. So, not only are other galaxies moving away from the Milky Way, they are moving away from each other. The only way to allow for that is some sort of expansion in the spaces between the galaxies. My favorite analogy (and the most delicious analogy) is that of a chocolate chip cookie. Before the cookie bakes, it is small and the chocolate chips (representing galaxies) are closer together. As it bakes and the cookie dough expands, the chips spread apart but stay the same size.
A Universe of Delicious. Google Image Search.
The numbers in Hubble's law are one of those highly debated things in astronomy. There is real no good way to know what they are. It is generally agreed that it occurring, there is no reason to deny that. Just at what rate and its interpretation are varied. The Hubble constant, the factor that determines the outcome of Hubble's law, changes over time, and it does weird things like accelerating while decreasing.

It's an issue that will continue to have its fine points debated. The Hubble space telescope, besides taking pretty pictures, is one of the main tools in studying the fine points of galaxies to get precise observations. Several other things, including the cosmic microwave background and other telescopes are focus points of this research too. Ultimately, it is hoped to get an idea of where the Universe is heading, unending expansion or a 'Big Crunch.'
Hubble Deep Field. NASA
The expansion of the Universe has also answered a paradox that has been around since the 1500s, Olber's Paradox. In short it says that if the Universe is static and uniformly filled with stars and galaxies, one can show that the night sky should be as bright as the surface of a star. To answer it involves to parts. First, since the Universe is about 14 billion years old, and stars further away then 14 billion light years are invisible to us (there is a cheating work around for this with gravity however). Second, as light is redshift more the further away the source is, the light will eventually be shifted out of the visible spectrum.
Inflating Universe. University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Another neat thing is that the expansion of the Universe makes the idea of a center or an edge of the Universe irrelevant. The idea is kind of that the Universe is 4th dimensionally curved and expanding. A two dimensional analog could be the surface of a balloon. As the balloon fills, points on the balloon move away from each other, but there is no edge and no real center on the surface of the balloon.

In addition to the Wikipedia links, I found this page to be informative: http://csep10.phys.utk.edu/astr162/lect/cosmology/expansion.html


26 comments:

Chuck said...

I'm going to sleep now so can't get stuck into this right away, but will read it through at work tomorrow. Thx for another greatly detailed post!

Zakk said...

Thought I'd stop by and show my support, that's really interesting though.

KB said...

If I'm correct, then the most recent evidence suggests that we're in fact in an expand/collapse cycle.

This might just be me, but this really puts things in perspective. We, let alone the known life of the Universe, is just a small blip in the grand scale of things. We could have had infinite universes before us, and will have even more after us.

Christophe said...

Personally, I can't help but think we're just going to keep expanding until we can't expand anymore and everything is torn apart and it's all just basic matter and energy again.

Astronomy Pirate said...

Well KB, I believe that is becoming a more common idea. One collapse leads to another Universe, that would be an outcome of a collapsed universe model. Another model suggest constant and infinite expansion until the Universe returns to thermal equilibrium and uniform distribution. At that point, it would look no different then a singularity and could possibly become another Big Bang. It could be any number of other things too, its a huge scale to speculate on.

Inhia said...

one word: Heartbeat

universe has one. its just really slow.

Following and Supporting
Inhiarashi.blogspot.com

Jay.CA said...

amazing post, as usual! i was just watching a video on the Hubble telescope and the Deep Field image. truly amazing!

my brain now hurts, so i suggest you break down these topics further into two or more posts for us lesser beings. :)

Rob said...

amazing stuff! Great post!

Astronomy Pirate said...

Sorry Jay. I might make a follow up post on Thursday. Anything specific you, or anyone else, would like me to clarify or breakdown?

JaksonHunt said...

I like the part with the cookie ;D

The Emancipator said...

very informative. I can see you put great effort in your work.

Kim Anders said...

again a good post! thx!

The Game Store Guy said...

Huh. I had no idea about the redshifts. Thanks for the info.

EmoGoth said...

This is really interesting. Thanks for so much information!

Anita Johnson said...

It's incredible to think what's happening on a galactic scale... Come check me out, alphabetalife.blogspot.com

Pago said...

That whole cookie theory with the chips really explained it for me. It's incredible how massive this universe is.

Glovey said...

Love your blog style! Keep up the great work!

mac-and-me said...

mind = blown

Mike said...

The only reason I don't get anxious about this is because of the briefness of our existence - Luckily, I will never have to comprehend phenomena of this magnitude. Earthquakes are enough already to put the fear of god in me

Thanks for the post!

Alphabeta said...

My brain is all 'hmmmm... nah, I don't get it'.

How can there be more than one universe? What's 'outside' the universe? No explanations ever satisfy me. (Not that I understand much about astronomy myself).

ScottD said...

cookie looks tasty

Banacek said...

So God is making a universe cookie? Is that what you're saying? :)

George Valentine said...

the cookie makes me hungry! but the rest of the post makes my brain hungry. well-explained post, i love this blog

Aaron M. Gipson said...

Seems to fit in line with the Multi-Verse theory, I wonder how much of our universe is "leaking" into other dimensions as a result of the expansion.

Moob said...

interesting

HiFi said...

I wonder if it will all end up like a rubber band where the galaxies expand so far apart, that the rubber band breaks.

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