Every once in a while, I get too big for my britches and start to think that I’m actually somebody. I mean, I got a column in the newspaper and a Mickey Mantle autographed baseball and my leaf blower pretty much blows away all of the other ones in the neighborhood.
But just when my Cubs baseball cap starts to get a bit tight on my swelled head, something happens to make me feel pretty small. This occurred when my wife and I recently visited Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wis., to enjoy an evening of cosmological activities of astronomical proportions.
The first part of the program was a presentation by a lady astronomer. When she started talking about how to measure distances in the universe, I knew I was in trouble. I stumbled at Cepheid Variables, recovered somewhat at Standard Candles, but went into a Black Hole with Red Shifts. What I do remember was that the universe was very, very big, and I was not.
Next we learned that the universe was expanding. I thought that was neat, but I wondered, “Where is it expanding to?” I mean, if I expanded my yard, I’d be moving into someone else’s yard. So what is at the end of the universe? Whose yard is space moving into, anyway?
The answer, like most space answers, is not so simple. There seems to be two possibilities. On the one hand, if the universe is infinite, then it has no boundary. Since there are no edges to expand, there is no “other yard” to expand into. You can’t add more stuff to infinity because it’s, well, infinity.
On the other hand, if there really is a boundary to the universe, we haven’t seen it yet so we don’t know what lies beyond it. And since the universe is expanding and this expansion is actually accelerating, then this edge is quickly getting away from us and we’ll probably never see it anyway. So the answer to the expanding universe question is: 1) Astronomers are not sure, and, 2) If they did know, I couldn’t explain it to you anyway.
Next on tour we went to see the world’s largest refracting telescope inside the huge dome. We got to walk onto the viewing platform and learned that Albert Einstein had visited there many years ago. The guide showed us a photo of him, and after the tour I had my wife take my picture exactly where Albert had stood. Besides uncontrollable hair, Albert and I now have two things in common.
Finally we went outside and got to look through a variety of telescopes. First we saw the Andromeda Galaxy. This is the closest galaxy to us. Although it is still 2.5 million light-years away, it is rapidly moving toward us and is scheduled to collide with the Milky Way in about 5 billion years. But that’s OK, because our Sun is due to burn out about then, so maybe we can get a loaner from Andromeda.
Next we viewed the Ring Nebula, which is what’s left of a star that exploooooo….
I’m sorry, but I can’t go on. It’s impossible for me to concentrate because of that expanding universe thing. I mean, how can something of infinite size expand? There’s nothing to expand into! And if it’s finite, then there’s got to be something out there beyond the universe. But what is that? Is there some edge of the universe that you fall off? And if that’s the case, what do you fall into?
But what if the universe is infinitely finite? That is, to begin with, there is no end, but later there is an end. Space would go on forever, but then would eventually end somewhere, kind of like an all-you-can-eat buffet with unlimited food, but it runs out of plates, so even though the food is infinite, the plates are finite, which means that ... ummm ... you can eat a lot, but ... uh ... eventually ... well ... grumph ... grrrrrrrrrrr ...
• Michael Penkava appears to be too agitated to complete his column. Our best guess is that he’s a bit freaked out by the universe expansion concept. If you can help him understand it, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
P.S. In your explanation, please don’t mention that scientists think there is no center to the universe. That may put him over the edge ... if there is one.