A Short Guide to the Scientific History of the Universe, by Paul Marvelly

A Short Guide to the Scientific History of the Universe

by Paula Marvelly

Part I of III

All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered;
the point is to discover them
Galileo Galilei

In the beginning was the void. Emptiness. Nothing. And miraculously, about 14 billion years ago, out of this nothing came a something – the Big Bang – setting the whole universe into being.

For whatever reason, our planet Earth was formed and human existence appeared on its surface, albeit only in the last 150,000 or so years. At first, humans, like any other species, existed by their wits. The instinct to survive – to find food, shelter and a mate – was the only thing that mattered. But over time, humankind started to become more sophisticated, living in small communities, sharing skills, and forming meaningful relationships. Thus, their ability to understand and interact with other people and their surroundings evolved, for better or worse.

It’s very easy to get a romanticised view of the past. Indeed, it was a brutal existence in many ways – famine and disease, rape and war. And yet, people were more acutely in tune with the rhythms and seasons of the planet, the changing vistas of the cosmos. Everything was believed to be interconnected by an underlying field of energy – the universal life force if you will – which was experienced and worshipped as one holistic whole, this ‘something’ from which the universe had emerged.

And how did people communicate this understanding, generation to generation? By inventing myths, formulating poetry, composing songs, for all posterity.

As the world’s population grew, however, humans became more and more competitive for the planet’s resources: communities developed into hierarchies; language and cultural differences set people against each other; and religious methodologies started springing up all over the place as a form of societal regulation and control. So instead of believing that everything was linked together, men and women started to see themselves as separate, isolated, solitary beings pitched in battle against everyone else, fighting the so-called noble fight of good and evil, with the only hope of reward in some future life ordained by a distant and judgemental God. You only have to open a daily newspaper or switch on the television to see how that idea plays itself out even today.

The next profound shift in the state of consciousness of humankind would be the millennium before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth and during the empire of the Ancient Greeks. The Greeks were the most advanced civilisation in the known world during this period in history. They galvanised mankind’s obsession with looking at the world objectively and rationally, that is to say by only trusting in hard evidence that could be observable through the senses and endorsed by the power of reason.

Indeed, it was the philosopher, Democritus, who expounded one of the first theoretical models of the universe. What he effectively said is that everything is made of atoms and empty space. And nothing else.

Then came the fall of the Greek and Roman civilisations, and the subsequent rise of Christianity throughout Medieval Europe, as represented by the Roman Catholic Church. Its own view of the world essentially comprised a pastiche of Aristotelian philosophy, the cosmology of Ptolemy – who believed the Earth was at the centre of the universe – and biblical imagery taken from the Book of Genesis.

Of course, many who challenged this view were exterminated. The world has witnessed many holocausts, and that of the Middle Ages ranks along side some of the worse the world has ever seen. Millions of women throughout Europe were burnt at the stake by the Inquisition, punished for their knowledge of pagan folklore and natural medicine – heretical ideas at the time, rendering them a threat to papal authority.

Only in the Renaissance period, starting approximately in the early fifteenth century, do we start to see something of a sea change. Indeed, many mathematicians and astronomers of the time were beginning to make discoveries that would challenge conventional thinking, which weren’t based on superstitious faith but hard evidence – empirical observation, calculus, rational analysis – and triggering what we now call the Scientific Revolution.

And thus amazing breakthroughs were made in our understanding of the world in which we live. People such as the astronomer Copernicus usurped the Church’s geocentric model of the universe by stating that it was flawed. Copernicus demonstrated that our solar system is in fact heliocentric, meaning that the sun is at its centre with the Earth revolving around it, rather than being the other way around. The Church was so affronted by this new proposition that they threatened to silence Copernicus permanently like so many before him who had dared to speak out publicly – luckily for Copernicus, he died of natural causes first.

Similarly, it was the contemporary British philosopher, Francis Bacon, who coined the phrase ‘knowledge is power’; in other words, the more you know about yourself and your environment, the less likely you are to be seduced by spurious arguments about the way things are and to be taken in by the prevailing paradigms of the time.

It was during the seventeenth century, however, when the study of physics would truly begin to take off. Sir Isaac Newton, whilst nursing wounds sustained from a falling apple, would go on to formulate one of the world’s greatest theories based on the nature of gravity.

Moreover, Newton essentially saw the world as a clockwork machine, which obeyed predictable laws that can be measurable to a high degree of mathematical accuracy. Although it was believed at the time that God created the world, Newtonian mechanics says that the world carries on working without any outside help. In other words, God – or whatever you what to call it – is separate from creation. So, everything in the universe is seen to be objective, that is to say, can be looked at and measured by an independent observer.

Newton is known as the founding father of what is generally called classical physics, and which refers to the everyday world we see around us. In fact, classical physics is also called Newtonian physics in his honour since everything manmade – washing machines, TV sets, space shuttles – owes its conception and creation in some way to the laws of classical physics. Needless to say, the realm of feelings, emotions, intuition, even psychic phenomena, have no place in this model. They are subjective, irrational and, therefore, aren’t measurable in the classical sense.

So when Charles Darwin came along in the nineteenth century, he sealed mankind’s pre-programmed, bestial status seemingly forever. His famous Origins of Species makes the case that humans are not descended from Adam and Eve as it says in Genesis but instead from a bunch of apes. The survival of the human race, according to Darwin, is dependent upon competition and selection – the survival of the fittest you might also like to say. And this has led to contemporaneous theories that propose that everything about us, from our eye colour to our sexual preferences, comes from our genetic programming, our DNA.

It would be Albert Einstein, twentieth century physicist and Nobel Laureate, who would radically alter our perception of the universe forever, his most famous theory being the Theory of Special Relativity, or put simply, E = mc². Dealing primarily with the macroscopic level of the universe, Einstein realised that space and time are relative measurements depending on the position of the observer.

Think, for example, of being on a moving train pulling out of a station – if you really look out of the window, it feels as if the train is stationary and it is the platform itself that is moving.

Despite breaking the classical mould by saying that both space and time, energy and matter, are all bound up with one another in some way, Einstein still believed that the universe obeyed certain laws, one law in particular which states that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light.

But this is just where even Einstein himself would be proven wrong …

–Paula Marvelly

Read Parts II and III.

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