Three Phases of Ever

“So if the Universe isn’t in a steady state and it’s not heading for a Big Crunch, I guess it’s getting bigger forever, huh?”

“Careful, Jeremy, the Universe expansion could maybe reach a stopping point if it happened to hold exactly the right amount of mass‑energy. The expansion could just stop when forces balance out.”

“What forces, Mr Moire? There’s gravity pulling everything together so what’s pushing them apart?”

“That is an excellent question, one that we don’t yet have an answer for. We’re about where Newton was with gravity. There was a lot of observational evidence, he had a name for it and knew how to calculate its effects, but he didn’t know how it worked. That’s us with Einstein’s Cosmological Constant.”

“Observational evidence — we can actually see things accelerate?”

“Not any one object speeding up. Human lifetimes are too short to measure acceleration in galaxies a hundred thousand lightyears across. No, we use the same strategy that Hubble used — measure many galaxies at different distances from us and graph recession speed against distance. During the century since Hubble we’ve greatly improved our estimates of astronomical speeds and distances. Dividing the known speed of light into a galaxy’s measured distance tells us time since it emitted the photons we see. Our findings confirm Hubble’s general conclusion — on average, older photons come from galaxies that fly away faster. Hubble thought that the relation was linear but our fine‑tuned numbers show otherwise. The data says that after the first few seconds the Universe stretched at a steady rate for only the first ⅔ of its life. The stretch has been accelerating since then.”

“Why wasn’t it accelerating since the beginning? Did someone cut in the afterburner?”

“More like turned one off. The evidence and theory we have so far indicate the Universe has seen a succession of phases dominated by different processes. You’ve probably heard of inflation—”

“Have I? You should see what they want for a burger these days!”

“Not that sort of inflation, but I know how you feel. No, I’m referring to cosmic inflation, very early in the Big Bang sequence, when the Universe expanded by a factor of 1026 within a tiny fraction of a second. It was driven by enormously powerful radiation‑linked effects we don’t understand that finally ran out of steam and let lower‑energy processes take over.”

“How’d that happen?”

“We don’t know. The general principle is that one process so dominates what’s going on in a phase that nothing else matters, until for some reason it stops mattering and we’re in a new phase with a different dominant process. The early Universe was controlled by radiative processes until things cooled off enough for particles to form and persist. That changed the game. Gravity dominated the next 8 billion years. Particles clumped together, atoms then dust then solar systems into larger and larger structures with bigger spaces between them. About 5 billion years ago the game changed again.”

“So early on there weren’t even atoms, huh? Wow. What was the next game‑changer?”

“Thanks to Einstein and Friedmann’s work we’ve got at least a guess.”


“Alexander Friedmann. He was a Russian physicist, used Einstein’s General Relativity results to derive three equations that together model the dynamics of the overall scale of the Universe using just a few estimates for current conditions. His equations give acceleration as the difference of two terms. The positive term is simply proportional to Einstein’s Constant. The negative term depends on both average mass density and pressure. Take a moment to think.”

“Umm… Positive is acceleration, negative is deceleration, density and pressure go down … If the negative term gets smaller than the positive one, acceleration increases, right?”

“It does, and we think the constant term has been increasingly dominant for 5 billion years. Something else to consider — the equation’s result is in terms of scale change divided by current scale. What’s it mean if that ratio’s a positive constant?”

“Change by a constant positive percentage … that’s exponential growth!”

“I thought you’d recognize it. Einstein’s Constant implies the scale of the Universe grows at an exponentially accelerating rate. We’re now in the Cosmological Constant phase.”

In Russian, Aleksandr Aleksandrowitsch Fridman

~~ Rich Olcott

Toccata for A Rubber Ruler

“How the heck do they know that?”

“Know what, Vinnie?”

“That the galaxy they saw with that gravitational lens is 13 billion years old?  I mean, does it come with a birth certificate, Cathleen?”

“Mm, it does, sort of — hydrogen atoms.  Really old hydrogen atoms.”

“Waitaminit.  Hydrogen’s hydrogen — one proton, one electron per atom.  They’re all the same, right?  How do you know one’s older than another one?”

“Because they look different.”

“How could they look different when they’re all the same?”

“Let me guess, Cathleen.  These old hydrogens, are they far far away?”

“On the button, Sy.”

“What where they’re at got to do with it?”

“It’s all about spectroscopy and the Hubble constant, Vinnie.  What do you know about Edwin Hubble?”

“Like in Hubble Space Telescope?  Not much.”

“Those old atoms were Hubble’s second big discovery.”

“Your gonna start with the other one, right?”

“Sorry, classroom habit.  His first big discovery was that there’s more to the Universe than just the Milky Way Galaxy.  That directly contradicted Astronomy’s Big Names.  They all believed that the cloudy bits they saw in the sky were nebulae within our galaxy.  Hubble’s edge was that he had access to Wilson Observatory’s 100-inch telescope that dwarfed the smaller instruments that everyone else was using.  Bigger scope, more light-gathering power, better resolution.”

“Hubble won.”

“Yeah, but how he won was the key to his other big discovery.  The crucial question was, how far away are those ‘nebulae’?  He needed a link between distance and something he could measure directly.  Stellar brightness was the obvious choice.  Not the brightness we see on Earth but the brightness we’d see if we were some standard distance away from it.  Fortunately, a dozen years earlier Henrietta Swan Leavitt found that link.  Some stars periodically swing bright, then dim, then bright again.  She showed that for one subgroup of those stars, there’s a simple relationship between the star’s intrinsic brightness and its peak-to-peak time.”Astroruler

“So Hubble found stars like that in those nebulas or galaxies or whatever?”

“Exactly.  With his best-of-breed telescope he could pick out individual variable stars in close-by galaxies.  Their fluctuation gave him intrinsic brightness.  The brightness he measured from Earth was a lot less.  The brightness ratios gave him distances.  They were a lot bigger than everyone thought.”

“Ah, so now he’s got a handle on distance.  Scientists love to plot everything against everything, just to see, so I’ll bet he plotted something against distance and hit jackpot.”

“Well, he was a bit less random than that, Sy.  There were some theoretical reasons to think that the Universe might be expanding.  The question was, how fast?  For that he tapped another astronomer’s results.  Vesto Slipher at Lowell Observatory was looking at the colors of light emitted by different galaxies.  None had light exactly like our Milky Way’s.  A few were a bit bluer, but most were distinctly red-shifted.”

“Like the Doppler effect in radar?  Things coming toward you blue-shift the radar beam, things going away red-shift it?”

“Similar to that, Vinnie, but it’s emitted light, not a reflected beam. To a good approximation, though, you can say that the red shift is proportional to the emitting object’s speed towards or away from us.  Hubble plotted his distance number for each galaxy he’d worked on, against Slipher’s red-shift speed number for the same galaxy.  It wasn’t the prettiest graph you’ve ever seen, but there was a pretty good correlation.  Hubble drew the best straight line he could through the points.  What’s important is that the line sloped upward.”

“Lemme think … If everything just sits there, there’d be no red-shift and no graph, right?  If everything is moving away from us at a steady speed, then the line would be flat — zero slope.  But he saw an upward slope, so the farther something is the faster it’s going further from us?”

“Bravo, Vinnie.  That’s the expansion of the Universe you’ve heard about.  Locally there are a few things coming toward us — that’s those blue-shifted galaxies, for instance — but the general trend is away.”

“So that’s why you say those far-away hydrogens look different.  By the time we see their light it’s been red-shifted.”

“93% redder.”

~~ Rich Olcott