Nancy Abrams and Joel Primack delve into the mysterious
The Big Bang and dark matter are ideas of cosmic proportions. And when humans embrace our infinite immense past and future, we will transform ourselves and our relationship with Earth. This is the hope of Nancy Abrams and Joel Primack, co-authors of “The New Universe and the Human Future: How a Shared Cosmology Could Transform the World.” The two report that new scientific discoveries prove our central and special place in the universe. Primack is a cosmologist and professor of physics at UC Santa Cruz and has co-taught “Cosmology and Culture” with his wife, Abrams. Their new book sensitively illuminates cosmology and its social relevance. Join these groundbreaking thinkers for a free event at Bookshop Santa Cruz on Tuesday, July 5 at 7:30 p.m. GT recently spoke with Primack and Abrams about the Big Bang, dark matter and the future of human beings.
GOOD TIMES: You write that, “Everything visible is only half of one percent of what the universe actually contains.” This is central to a theory you’ve developed regarding dark matter and dark energy. If we can’t see most of what makes up the universe, how do we know it’s there?
JOEL PRIMACK: In 1934, Fritz Zwicky found that in clusters of galaxies the galaxies were moving at 1000 km per second. That’s really fast. The earth is going around the sun at 30 kps. To hold galaxies together moving that fast requires a huge amount of mass, to keep them attracted. He deduced that the amount of mass that was needed was far more than the amount of mass that was visible. You can measure the amount of mass by seeing how light from the distant universe is bent by the gravity of the galaxies. Religion and science seek to explain the beginning and end of the universe, and our place within it. The Dalai Lama once famously told Western scientists that the Big Bang didn’t conflict with Buddhism, but, “It just wasn’t the first Big Bang!”
JP: Trying to discover the past is notoriously difficult. About half of science is trying to do that. Fortunately for astronomers we’ve had this luxury of new technology that’s allowed us to make major new discoveries. For example, almost every single photon that was ever emitted in the history of the universe is still flying around. All we need are instruments to detect these photons and we can read the entire past back to the Big Bang, about 13.7 billion years ago, plus or minus a hundred million years.
Nancy Abrams: It’s a big mistake to ask, “What happened in the beginning?” because there’s no such thing. It’s a human concept. You have to say the beginning of what; the beginning of Earth or our visible universe. And there may be infinite other universes.
JP: It’s important to emphasize how incomplete our picture is. Why is there so much more dark matter than ordinary matter? We don’t know. In fact the really big questions that are left are what are the dark matter and dark energy? And how did galaxies form?
You write that, “If we try our best to integrate the new universe into our thinking until it infiltrates our imaginations and our art, then our culture will have a new kind of enlightenment. We will become a cosmic society.”
NA: There is a connection between our global problems and the fact that we, as a culture, don’t know how we fit into the universe. Cosmology is giving us an accurate context that can help us understand what we can do to alter dangerous trends.
JP: People who believe religious stories that the whole universe is only a few thousand years old probably have a hard time imagining a future that’s longer than a few thousand years. The universe is immensely old and will have an immensely long future. It’s going to go on whether we’re here or not.
NA: The great gift of cosmology is that it’s telling us how to think in the long term. The human species could go on for hundreds of millions of years. Joel’s colleagues have even figured out how to move Earth further from the sun so that as the sun heats up over billions of years, our descendants can move Earth. When you realize that your species is central to the universe and that we’re living at a pivotal moment, those of us alive today could be the most important people ever. We have a cosmic responsibility. Children today could be the first children in the history of humanity raised in the universe they actually live in.
Check out new-universe.org for the 73 video images used in “The New Universe and the Human Future.” John Malkin is a local writer, musician and host of The Great Leap Forward Wednesdays from 7 to 9 p.m. on Free Radio Santa Cruz, 101.1 FM and freakradio.org.