Some Reflections on Colloquium 2006,
Revolutions in Cosmology
By Donne Puckle
This involved some seven to eight hours on planes from Tucson to Albany, NY (going), and some eight to nine hours on planes (and layovers in airports) from Albany to Tucson (coming back). Ugh. All those narrow middle-of-the-row seats, coke and peanuts and almost dreadful "snacks" in a box. And that is the "bad" news. The only "bad" news.
The great wonder of this Colloquium was that I never got past plane/plain geometry since my sophomore year in high school and I did(!) understand much of what the speakers were saying in their very interesting addresses. One could count the number of mathematical formulas shown on the various screens on ones fingers and toes and have digits to spare!
Over a period of two-and-a-half days we were treated to fascinating glimpses of our universe, from the very large (14 billion light years across) to the very, very small (10 to the minus 43rd second (a decimal point with 43 zeros and a one... I won't print that out)).
George Musser was the opening dinner speaker on the “Revolution for the Rest of Us.” This is both scientific and cultural. Fundamental changes are taking place. We got the "this is cosmology 101 in 75 minutes" from Francis Wilkin. A quick and very clear definition of the cosmology basics. It got us all on track. My field of science is theology, the divine science... and Wilkins brought me up to speed in his field. It made the presentations following much easier to follow.
Vera Rubin is only the second woman to receive the Royal Astronomical Society (London) Gold Medal, the first was given in 1892 to Caroline Herschel. Vera received hers in 1996. Her "The Universe of Galaxies" reminded us of what we do not see, the dark matter of the universe. She was instrumental in developing an understanding of this DM. Jeremiah Ostriker expanded on Vera Rubin's presentation on dark matter. There is lots of it out there, some 23% of the matter of the universe is dark. And how much is there in our solar system? According to Ostriker, the equivalent of one atom of hydrogen. That's not much. But, of course, the universe is a bit larger than our tiny little system. And we're still trying to figure out what it is. We really don't know.
All of these presentations were fairly finely focused. This was followed by Lee Smolin's presentation on "What is space, What is time" and comments on the revolution Einstein started. Smolin contends that all is not quite as firmly set as we might like to imagine. There is the need in the scientific community to continue to explore the multitude of possibilities. It may very well be true that what we take for scientific fact or truth may still be in flux. Those on the "fringes" need to continue their work, have it taken seriously, and be part of the continuing revolution.
Brian Green was the scientist I was most anxious to hear. I had read two of his books. I finished one just hours before the beginning of the Colloquium. His field is "string theory." No, that does not mean he studies bundles of twine. These strings may be the fundamental "things" that make up the particles which make up the atoms which make up us. Alas, these are known solely as mathematical formulas (so to speak, and I probably got that wrong) so far. The strings are so small they cannot yet be detected. What is most exciting about this theory is that it makes possible the unification of Einstein's theories of special and general relativity and quantum physics. And no, I'm not going to try and explain that. You'll have to read Greene's books (and a bunch of others) to get it all.
All these speakers. And all these speculations and theories and exercising of the "little gray cells." It was almost enough to make ones brain hurt. Almost. But at the end, Sunday morning, Marc Millis entertained us with some practicalities (and some impracticalities). He is NASA's leading expert on propulsion physics. So we learned what might be possible to get to far places very fast and what is not possible. Yes, Star Trek was mentioned. What might be the practical application of some of the advances taking place in the scientific revolution? He shared that with us. And yes, hyperspace and the USS Enterprise are not ruled out.
Oh, yes. There was great food, time to sit and talk all this over with some of the 316 who came. We were part of a "sold out" Colloquium. There was a sign on the desk that said "no walk-ins, sold out." I'm glad I was registrant number 81. Now that I am back home I have the time to let things sink in. I have a greater appreciation for what is taking place in the Revolution. It has given me some insights in to my own faith, with my understanding (belief) in God's creation. It may very well be true that God says "let there be light" and there was light. And then God left the explaining of all this to the physicists and astronomers. He made it all, and we get to figure out how it works.
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