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Exploring the birth of the universe

Stars nebula in space.
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Stars nebula, beautiful and colorful explosive in space.

Throughout human history, there have been many theories about the universe's birth — the origins of the cosmos date back almost 14 billion years. And as technology has improved, so have the theories on how it all began.

To learn more about the clues astronomers have used to understand the birth and transformation of the universe, astronomy contributor Jean Creighton shares more.

Initially, people thought the universe was infinite and had always existed, according to Creighton. But people began to question why if the universe had always been there, no matter where you looked, your eyes could not see past the surface of a star?

This would mean that, effectively, one would expect the night sky to be as bright as the sun, and that's not the case. Creighton says this concept came to be known as Olbers' Paradox.

"The person again, who proposed one of the first explanations for this was no other than Edgar Allan Poe, who said, 'Well, maybe the universe had a beginning and stars are sending light to us. But that light hasn't reached us yet.' It's en route, which is why in that spot, we see darkness," she notes.

As technology improved, the theories around the birth of the universe changed. For example, Creighton recounts Edwin Hubble, which is where the Hubble Space Telescope got its namesake, expected that if he were to map the speed of the galaxies, it would be a scatter plot.

"He found out though that there was a trend: the farther the galaxy, the faster it seemed to be moving. This was not expected. He had to be scratching his head. At that point, we didn't have yet the thinking that maybe the universe started with a huge, if you will, explosion," she says.

Creighton adds that 10 years later, people began to think of the universe starting with an explosion. While the 1940s, '50s and '60s are considered a golden era of theoretical cosmology, the '80s and '90s brought a magnificent breakthrough.

Suddenly, scientists had access to telescopes that could fly above the earth's atmosphere, which means that they could see microwave light. "That's the wonderful thing of our technology that we're now able to see literally, we are bathing in the radiation of the Big Bang right now, you and me right, here right now," says Creighton.

Now scientists are trying to understand where the universe is and where it's going, she notes. Questions like how the universe forms and what other information can be gathered helps add nuance.

"Those are the big questions of how we got to be where we are. I mean part of this question also asks would it be easy for other life forms to be in other parts of the galaxy or another galaxies — even if we never meet them, even if they're too far away? It's also nice to know this is the chemistry that we're building, inclusive, if you will, to life," says Creighton.

Manfred Olson Planetarium will host multiple live, interactive shows for Birth of the Universe on February 11 & 18. Masks are currently required inside all University buildings, including the planetarium, regardless of vaccination status. You can find more information about the event here.

Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Kobe Brown was WUWM's fifth Eric Von fellow.
Dr. Jean Creighton has always been inspired by how the cosmos works. She was born in Toronto, Ontario and grew up in Athens, Greece where her mother claims she showed a great interest in how stars form from the age of five.
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