THE STATE OF OUR GALAXY
AUGUST 22, 1997
Author Timothy Ferris, a science writer, discusses his book "The Whole Shebang: A State of the Universe's Report."
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Finally tonight a Gergen dialogue. David Gergen, editor at large of "U.S. News & World Report," engages Timothy Ferris, science writer and author of "The Whole Shebang: A State of the Universeís Report.
DAVID GERGEN: Tim, your new book makes it clear that in the 20th century thereís been an absolute explosion in our knowledge about the universe. Tell us about it.
TIMOTHY FERRIS, Author: At the beginning of this century we knew essentially nothing about the universe as a whole. We knew that the Earth was a planet and it circled the Sun; that the Sun was a star, and that there were other stars in the sky. And that was about it. We didnít know what made those stars shine. We didnít know that they were part of this great pinwheel of several hundred billion stars that we now call the Milky Way Galaxy. We didnít know that there were lots of other galaxies out there.
We did know that they were moving apart from one another as cosmic space expands from a fiery beginning, the Big Bang. And we didnít have the tools, either the hardware or theoretical tools, like Einsteinís Relativity Theory to begin to come to grips with the universe as a whole. We come back now at the end of the century. Cosmology is a science. We have these tools. There are lots of scientists working in the field. Theyíve got the telescopes and everything that they need.
And we know the rudiments. We have, so to speak, the table stakes. If an alien had come here at the beginning of the century and had to go back, his report would have been well, you know, they seem like nice people, but they donít know beans about the universe as a whole. Iím not sure what they would say today, but at least their report would indicate that we were slightly more enlightened than back at the beginning.
DAVID GERGEN: Now, at the beginning of the century and, in fact, today, when you go outside on a dark night, the Northern Hemisphere in the United States and look up, and you see all the stars up there, youíre basically looking only at our galaxy, is that right?
TIMOTHY FERRIS: Yes. All the stars are in our galaxy. And youíre seeing at any given time about two thousand or so, two or three thousand of them make up the stars in the nice dark desert night.
DAVID GERGEN: But thatís one galaxy, the Milky Way Galaxy.
TIMOTHY FERRIS: Yes. And those are 2,000 of the approximately 400 billion stars in this one galaxy.
DAVID GERGEN: So weíre just seeing part of one galaxy. And how many galaxies altogether?
TIMOTHY FERRIS: Well, at least 100 billion, maybe a whole lot more than that. So cosmology has a kind of job security to it. Itís--these scientists are not going to run out of subject matter.
DAVID GERGEN: And what they can observe now you say is still even just a small piece of whatís out there?
TIMOTHY FERRIS: Yes. The observable part of the universe is a fascinating thing in itself because the whole history of time is laid out for observation. And weíre just starting to get telescopes good enough to begin to look at it. If you look at a galaxy ten or twelve billion light years away, youíre seeing light that is almost as old as the universe, itself. So you see those galaxies the way they were back when the universe was young.
And with the Hubble Telescope and the Keckt Telescope and some of these new tools weíre really starting to get pictures of these things that do yield real information, real insights to how the universe has evolved over time. So that observable part is terrific, but that part is limited by those things from which there has been time for light to reach us. So the observable part of the universe is a little area within a larger, unobserved part, the dimensions of which are still not really known.
DAVID GERGEN: So it goes and goes essentially.
TIMOTHY FERRIS: No one knows quite how much. In the--when the Big Bang was discovered, the expansion of the universe and the curvature of cosmic space were laid out, and this science started to get going. It was thought that the part we could see was about 2/3 of the total. So if you modeled the space of the universe as the surface of the Earth, it was as if you could ultimately theoretically see everything, except maybe the South Pacific Ocean. But now weíre starting to get models that are called the inflationary models that suggest the universe is much, much larger than that, in which case the observable part is a much smaller proportion. On these models the observable part would be about the size of a dinner plate compared to the surface of the Earth.
DAVID GERGEN: What do we know about what happened when the Big Bang occurred, and what was this, sort of a primal plasma that exploded? What was it?
TIMOTHY FERRIS: Well, the very beginning remains a mystery. Maybe it always will be. The inflationary theories suggest that the beginning occurred as kind of bubble or aneurysm in a preexisting space, sort of like if you had an old bicycle tire, you know, and it starts to balloon out at a weak spot. Thereís some reason to believe that space does this all the time; that our universe may have come from other universes.
But, be that as it may, once the expansion begins, itís essentially a high energy physics experiment. And actually, we have a fair amount of experience in this society with high energy physics, owing to the work with nuclear bombs and all. And there are some reasonable conjectures as to what happened in the universe, going back to the first fraction of a second. And theyíd make predictions.
And some of those predictions have started to be fulfilled too. So I donít know if I really believe the physicists when they say that the Big Bang is a simple problem. A lot of them say itís simpler say than understanding how a star works. But they do have an impressive record for 30 years now of reconstructing events as it happened in the Big Bang. It was during a time when all the atoms that are around now were being put together.
DAVID GERGEN: One thing Iíve never really understood. In my mind I conceptualize the universe as a sphere, but itís a three-dimensional sphere, and I never understood the idea of a fourth dimension that comes in with Einstein.
TIMOTHY FERRIS: Not surprisingly. You know, thereís nothing in our evolution to have prepared us for this. Whatís amazing to me isnít that itís hard to picture or impossible to picture but that it is possible for humans for some reason to do the mathematics. The amazing thing is that there is an Einstein; you know, that such a thing ever occurred. Einstein--for all his fame in his lifetime--was probably underrated as a thinker. General relativity is an amazing piece of work, and itís not at all clear that it would have been invented by now had Einstein, you know, never been around to come up with it. It seems to be a perfect system for mapping cosmic space on the large scales. And it interprets gravitation as simply a result of curvature. You and I--what we feel as gravitation is the result of a curvature in this space-time continuum, and it affects our local world--
DAVID GERGEN: With time being a fourth dimension.
TIMOTHY FERRIS: Time is a fourth dimension in this state. When Einstein wrote this theory, out of its equations unbidden, unknown to him came the mandate that the universe must be expanding or contracting; it wonít stand still. And this amazed him, and he tried to fix the equations because no astronomer had ever heard of an expanding universe. The fix didnít work. The equations kept saying if the universe is built this way, it must be a dynamic universe. The expansion was discovered a little over a decade after that.
DAVID GERGEN: We think it began with a Big Bang. Where is it likely to end, fire, ice, how?
TIMOTHY FERRIS: Fire and ice, you know, comes from that Frost poem, as Iím sure you know. Robert Frost wrote that poem "Fire and Ice" after talking to Harlowe Shapley, the astronomer, about just this question. Shapley was the guy whoíd figured out that we lived in a galaxy. He was the one who did that mapping. And it refers to the question of whether the universe will keep expanding forever, in which case it is presumed that some sort of heat death would eventually--eventually meaning a thousand billion years from now occur and everything would run down.
Or will the expansion halt and there will be a collapse into a new Big Bang? The evidence somewhat currently indicates an open universe that would expand forever. People have matters of taste about this. They have a preference. Iím not sure why. To me, it seems better if itís open because they you have an unlimited future for innovation. You know you can imagine things going on forever; whereas, if itís going back to a Big Bang, then everyoneís got the same times zero in their futures. But the fact is no one really knows.
DAVID GERGEN: Timothy Ferris, Iím afraid that has to be our whole shebang for the night. Thank you.
TIMOTHY FERRIS: Thank you.