Doug's Darkworld

War, Science, and Philosophy in a Fractured World.

The “Horrendous Space Kablooie” Theory, Art and Science Meet

with 8 comments

"Baby picture" of the universe, isn't it cute?

"Baby picture" of the universe, isn't it cute?

I needed a break from war and politics, so for fun I have been studying the “Horrendous Space Kablooie” theory. The what? This is a science post, bear with me. I discovered that the name “Horrendous Space Kablooie” (often shortened to HSK) has actually gained some currency in the scientific world, at least informally. What is the HSK theory? Readers of Calvin and Hobbes of course already know, the “Horrendous Space Kablooie” is Calvin’s improved name for the Big Bang, the theory about the early moments of the universe.

Oddly enough the Big Bang theory was given its name by Fred Hoyle, and he meant it as a pejorative. The good Dr Hoyle was a proponent of the Steady State theory, he thought that the Big Bang theory meant the universe had a beginning, an idea the was uncomfortable with for philosophical reasons. And while the name caught on, it really wasn’t very accurate. “Horrendous Space Kablooie” actually captures its essence in a more nuanced fashion, for the Big Bang wasn’t an explosion in any normal sense of the word.

So what’s the Big Theory? Well, it’s easiest to understand if we approach how scientists arrived there. First, we have the universe, billions of galaxies as far as we can see in every direction. Does that mean space is infinite? No, that’s a common misconception, the universe is very large but it’s not infinitely large. There is some maximum distance apart that two objects can be in the same universe, some 93 billion light years is the best current guess. So that means the universe has an edge? No. If one travelled in a straight line long enough one would eventually come back to the vicinity of where one started. The best way to visualize this is to think of the universe as the surface of a sphere, if one heads in a straight line one eventually returns to where one started.

OK, where does the Big Bang come in? Well, astronomers studying the universe discovered a very curious thing. The further away other galaxies are from Earth, the faster they were moving away from Earth. And this acceleration was remarkably constant over distance and was the same in every direction we looked. This was very puzzling, and scientists could only come up with two possible explanations….

The first was that the universe was indeed rushing away from Earth, and that somehow Earth was at the centre of some huge event that had hurtled the galaxies away from us. This was unsatisfactory for two reasons. For one it meant that Earth was somehow uniquely positioned in the centre of  the universe, which didn’t really jibe with everything else we  know about our commonplace little sun. And secondly, such an event should have left telltale signs, signs that couldn’t be found.

So that left the second explanation … the universe is expanding. Expanding as in getting larger, so that the space between the galaxies and stars we see is constantly getting greater. To visualize this take our previously discussed universe on a sphere and stick dots on it to represent galaxies.  Then expand the sphere like blowing up a balloon, and the dots grow further apart. This is what our universe appears to be doing. And since scientists can calculate how fast the universe is expanding, they can extrapolate backward to see how it all started. And it turns out that the universe gets smaller and smaller until nearly 14 billion years ago the entire universe was a dimensionless point.

Not only did the Big Bang theory explain why the galaxies were moving away from us, various calculations about what the nature of the universe was like in its earliest seconds made predictions about what sort of evidence should remain. When the universe was only seconds old and the size of a grapefruit, it was so very very hot that we should still see the afterglow. And lo and behold, in 1964, the afterglow of the HSK was discovered, the cosmic microwave background radiation. This pretty much clinched it for most scientists, and further observations have  shown that no matter how much it doesn’t  “make sense,” the universe does appear to have been expanding for nearly 14 billion years from a universe smaller than the head of a pin. There was nothing outside this tiny point, there was no before this point. It hurts the head to think about, I know.

Science has also worked out in remarkable detail how the pure energy the universe started out as organized itself as it expanded and cooled. A time-line can be viewed here. Yes, it’s all Greek to me too. Basically normal matter didn’t appear until the universe was 3-20 minutes old, and it wasn’t until the universe was hundreds of thousands of years old that the first  atoms of hydrogen and helium form. When the universe was about 100 million years old (or older) the first stars began to shine.

The final point, scientists have a pretty good understanding down to when the universe was about 10−43 seconds old, but before that it’s a mystery. Yes, 10−43 seconds is a very small amount of time, in fact it’s the theoretical smallest unit of time that can be measured. The HSK theory doesn’t tell us what happened before then, nor does it tell us how the universe originated. The Big Bang theory is simply the best explanation of what we currently observe in the heavens. That’s all science is, finding the best testable explanation  for what we observe.

Cosmologists do have some speculation about how our universe came into existence, but that will have to wait for another blog. And indeed it will have to wait until I understand enough about it to even attempt to explain it.

(The above image of the CMB radiation is public domain as it was produced by a US government agency. Credit: NASA/WMAP Science Team. It’s the oldest light in the universe, having travelled for over 13 billion years. Coming soon, scientists carefully weigh tiny pebbles in an attempt  to prove God exists.)

Written by unitedcats

January 26, 2009 at 10:14 am

8 Responses

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  1. Good explanation!
    Doesn’t seem crazy that people around the world kill each others because they do not agree or cannot understand who/what /whatever is behind all that?

    rob

    January 27, 2009 at 9:12 am

  2. Very interesting post, its hard to wrap the mind around the physical science of it, 14 billion years old, the missing 10 to the -43rd power sliver of time. kind of puts our 80 year lifetimes (if we are lucky, or unlucky, whatever the case may be) into perspective.

    In the future if you want to take another break from the depressing landscape of world conflicts and pettiness may I suggest … um … I don’t know … perhaps something on… how to cook with mutant chickens!!

    Josh V.

    January 27, 2009 at 11:39 am

  3. […] have covered some of these topics before, or at least the basics of them by discussing the Big Bang theory, Strange Lodgings, The Axis of Evil, and Dark Flow. And now that everyone understands the Big Bang […]

  4. Doug:
    Love all of your writings. They present a lot of good info, but also some questions.

    One question I have has to do with the ‘edge’ of the universe. I have always been bothered with the analogy of the surface of a balloon as being ‘the’ universe. This anolgy says the universe has no ‘edge’ and as you stated — “If one travelled in a straight line long enough one would eventually come back to the vacinity of where one started”. My problem is that this assumes that the universe consists only of the ‘surface of the balloon’, which I think is a very limiting condition. It does not represent the total universe. My thought is that the universe also includes the inside of the balloon as well. So if this is really the case, then if one were located somewhere internally, one traveling in any straight line one would indeed eventually come to the ‘edge’ of the universe.

    What are your thoughts on this?

    John Tomassoni

    July 22, 2010 at 5:52 am

    • Um, I’ll devote a post to explaining the balloon analogy better, it’s a good question and I want to do it justice. — Doug

      unitedcats

      July 22, 2010 at 6:44 am

  5. here

    October 15, 2011 at 5:26 am

  6. Very nice post, and I definitely like the Horrendoius Space Kablooie term, which I hadn’t heard about before. Also, I think it is a very nice explanation on how science works and doesn’t work. Good, clear end needed.

    As an astrophysicist, though, I feel called on to make a few minor corrections:

    “Does that mean space is infinite? No, that’s a common misconception, the universe is very large but
    it’s not infinitely large. There is some maximum distance apart that two objects can be in the same
    universe, some 93 billion light years is the best current guess.”

    In fact, the Universe may very well be infinite, we don’t know. What we do know, however, is that if it is finite, at least it is many times larger than the 93 billion light-years diameter you mention. That figure stems from the distance that light can maximally have travelled since the HSK (or rather since the Universe got transparent 300.000 years later). That distance defines what we can see at the current point, and the 93 billion light years is simply the size of the “bubble of visibility” that we see here from Earth. Light from further away than this simply hasn’t had enough time to reach us yet. But it is important to point out that there is no sign of there being any kind of border at that distance. If there is one, it is immensely farther away.

    “So that means the universe has an edge? No. If one travelled in a straight line long enough one would
    eventually come back to the vicinity of where one started. The best way to visualize this is to think of
    the universe as the surface of a sphere, if one heads in a straight line one eventually returns to where
    one started.”

    This would be the case if the universe had a so-called “closed” geometry – that is, that the Universe is “shaped” as the four-dimensional equivalent of a sphere. This was the dominant theory up until the mid-90es, but later studies have shown that this is not the case: The Universe has a geometry very close to being “flat” (still, actually a 4-dimensionbal equivalent of “flat), which means that it works pretty much like normal space as we intuitively know it: If we draw infinitely long parallel lines, their distance will be the same everywhere etc. (which is not the case in the “open” or “closed” Universe models).
    Why is this? We do not know. In fact, the flat model is the least probable of them, yet it is clearly true. Actually the “flatness problem” is one of the largest still-standing mysteries of cosmology (the Cosmic Inflation theory aimed to solve this problem, but while it seems like it is a correct theory, it has basically just pushed the problem somewhere else).

    lusepuster

    September 7, 2012 at 4:39 am

  7. Greeting! I’m a Mayor in Physics. A freind of mine showed me this blog and i actually like what you did in this draft. However I found some minor issues here and there, no biggie. Although I’m NOT a cosmologist neither a astrophysicist, I’m willing to help you if you like so. my email is calion.mza@gmail.com

    Luciano Robino

    January 24, 2013 at 10:19 pm


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