The Universe: The Big Questions
By definition, the Universe is a pretty big place, so the questions we ask about it tend to produce suitably mind-boggling answers. That’s one of the reasons why astronomy and cosmology can be such fascinating subjects.
Stuart Clark, author of The Sun Kings, has just published a new book in the Quercus Big Questions series called “The Universe”. Last Wednesday, he gave a talk on those same questions to a packed audience at the University of Hertfordshire. It was so popular that nearly a hundred people had to be turned away. I’m disappointed for them, but thrilled that popular science and, especially, astronomy, has really caught the public’s imagination.
The book covers twenty questions you might want to ask about the Universe, beginning with “What is it?” and going all the way through to asking “If it had a creator”. I didn’t expect Stuart to be able to cover everything in between in an hour and a quarter, but he managed the contents list impressively. Especially when he began by showing this image from the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) Planck observatory/telescope and saying that here is everything that is, that ever was and that ever will be.
The first thing to say is that there were more questions than answers. It was refreshing to hear a scientist speak with such an open mind, without claiming that all the major debates are settled. The talk flowed very well, and some of the questions covered were:
What is the Universe?
How old is the Universe?
How did the Universe form?
What were the first celestial objects?
Can we travel through time and space?
What are black holes?
What is dark energy?
How will the Universe end?
Stuart didn’t talk about the aspects of relativity theory that allow time travel into the future, instead showing a representation of the Alcubierre Drive that, theoretically, could allow for faster than light travel, surfing a self-generated wave of antigravity. Personally, I found the discussion on the very first celestial objects the most thought-provoking. Afterwards we went for a beer in a local Hatfield pub and the conversation moved onto the astronomically connected music of Canadian rockers Rush, with songs such as Cygnus X1 (the first black hole candidate to be discovered) and Natural Science.
If anyone has a question about the Universe not covered in the book, feel free to ask it in a comment here and I’ll do my best to respond.