The Universe: An Infinity of Questions

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Questions about creation and the nature of the universe have always fascinated people — they amaze and inspire us, as we continue to discover more about our origins.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been watching the 8-part mini-series titled How the Universe Works, which originally aired on the Discovery Channel back in 2010, and is now available on Blu-ray Disc or as a digital download. I must say that I am probably the world’s least cosmology-savvy person, having nearly failed all three of my astronomy-related courses in undergraduate school. Still, the mysteries of creation interest me like no other topic. They always have. So, I’m always looking for new ways to gain a better understanding of the celestial world. And for any of you who are, like me, somewhat astronomically-challenged, I highly recommend this series. The producers took care not to sidestep the most important yet complex issues, while presenting them in a manner in which even a stellar nincompoop like me can understand.

There is fairly broad consensus now that the universe as we know it had a definite, dramatic, and explosive beginning (hence the term “big bang”), when all the visible (and even much of the invisible) “stuff” in it emerged very quickly out of a primordial entity that was not only unfathomably hot but also infinitesimally dense — a point so incredibly small that it would be fair to call it “nothing” (but pure potential energy). And while it’s interesting enough that all this “something” actually did come from “nothing,” and that there was indeed a moment of “creation,” the fact that the universe has been continuously evolving and expanding over billions of years, is truly mind-boggling.

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The Discovery series devotes one whole episode to the big bang, but also explores almost every important aspect of the universe’s inner workings. Other episodes give special attention to black holes (burned out stars so massive yet so dense that gravity won’t even allow light to escape from them), galaxies, stars, supernovas, planets, solar systems and moons, each presented in a manner in which even I can pretty much understand the basic concepts. The episodes also contain stunning visuals, some of which were produced by computer animation, and some of which were obtained by the latest generation of deep-space optical, infrared, and radio telescopes. I find myself as intrigued and mesmerized by the breathtaking images as I am by the thought-provoking subject matter. To me, the universe is not just infinitely interesting, it is, well…, endlessly and utterly beautiful! And the series depicts phases in the universe’s construction in a way that makes you feel you’ve borne personal witness to these spectacular events.

I’ll be watching the last episode in the series sometime this weekend, but already, I’m hungry for more. I wish there were a similarly produced “advanced course” on the same topic available. I’ve done some extensive searching on the internet but I’m afraid the material I have found so far is way above my head. Still, I remain thirsty for more information. And one of the things that most impressed me in the interviews with renowned experts featured in the Discovery series is that, despite the absolute explosion of knowledge that began in the early 20th century, and which has grown exponentially over the past six decades, there’s still an infinite number of questions still unanswered about the nature and eventual fate of the universe.

We can’t really fully understand ourselves until we have a better understanding of the material world in which we live. As one of the experts in the universe series asserts, every atom in our bodies came from someplace in space, most likely from an exploding supernova or neutron star (the only known entities capable of producing the “elements” on earth that form the compounds that make up our bodies). When you think about it, we are all literally stardust. Not that this fact really explains anything. There are still too many questions. But is it any wonder that humankind has always looked toward the heavens for the answers?

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