Podcast Reflections

9 10 2009

So a year ago at this time I put out a little blog piece on a question that really caught my attention in college.  I remember that I found it elegant in its simplicity, yet fascinating in the various debates it drew.

When I heard about the 365daysofastronomy project I knew I wanted to be a part of it, I just wasn’t sure what topic I would tackle.  I turned to my blog and looked at some of the things I had already written.  This one on Olbers caught my eye, and I requested his birthday for an air date.  I didn’t get that date, but I got the day after.  Close enough.

Next came the challenge of designing a style for the podcast.  I read through what I had written, and it even put me to sleep.  I mean, I think it reads pretty solid and I certainly don’t hate it, but it just didn’t translate to speech very well.  Hopefully, what I and a few friends came up with will be well received.  And, actually I’m quite proud of it.

I’m very honored to have my podcast played in between some pretty awesome people.  The podcast before mine references Giordano Bruno as a champion for the search for extra-solar Earths.  The podcast after mine is produced by the education officer for the NRAO and, along with an engineer there, discusses how signals are coaxed from the tons of background noise by Greenbank’s staff.  As I look over the calendar I see some folks I know, like Pat McQuillan and Carolyn Petersen, and I see some names that are somewhat famous in the world of astronomy, like Emily Lakdawalla and Martin Ratcliffe.  It’s a pretty special group and I’m so grateful that I got to be part of something together with everyone involved.

So, in looking back at that article from last year, I’ve decided to re-post it in its entirety here.  Any comments about the podcast should be added to this post.


Today is the 250th anniversary of the birth of the greatest of paradox proposers, Heinrich Wilhelm Olbers.  Olbers did a number of things in his life to advance the study of astronomy, but what he is most famous for is the question that bears his name:

If the universe is infinite and stars are distributed evenly throughout, then why isn’t the sky infinitely bright?

Think of it this way, if you were standing in a large forest you wouldn’t be able to see your way out of it.  Near you there wouldn’t be many trees and you could see past them.  Farther away the trees would appear smaller yet more numerous.  This balances out and explains why you can’t look in any horizontal direction and not see a tree.  Now imagine those trees as stars.

This question may not be as well known today, but 100 years ago this was the BIG question.  Last century people wondered about the nature of light, whether matter was continuous or quantized, and what was the source of gravity.  Today we have big questions like “Did we accelerate global warming?”, “What is dark matter?”, and “Do gravitons create the gravitational force?” (I guess gravity may baffle us for centuries to come).  But in social circles people talked about Olbers’ Paradox to stretch their imaginations and to show off for the ladies!  Just like today — the ladies love a man who can discuss the implications of the discovery of the Higgs particle on multi-dimensional physics.  Ummm Hmmmm!

Olbers’ Paradox was originally proposed by my hero, Johannes Kepler, 200 years before Olbers described the argument in 1823.  This argument arises from the idea that the universe is steady-state, meaning that it has always looked like it does today and always will.  Einstein held this belief so strongly that he refused to accept the Big Bang Theory, even though his own equations pointed to that reality.

Here’s the idea in a nutshell.  There were a few generally accepted beliefs among scientists and the majority of the educated population.

1.  The universe is steady-state

2.  Stars are evenly distributed throughout

3.  The universe is infinitely big

If all three of these is true then there would be no line of sight that would not end in a star.  If everywhere you looked there was light coming toward you, then the sky would be infinitely bright.  The only way you would know where the sun was would be to look for the slightly darker area of the sky.  A seemingly ridiculous hypothesis, yet completely logical.

This means, of course, that one of the accepted beliefs was most likely wrong.  Or two.  Or all.  But what is the truth?  There were many ideas — good ideas — suggested by some very smart people to explain our reality.  But many fell victim to Occam’s Razor; they were just too convoluted to be viable.

Strange as it may sound, the first person to publish a correct solution was Edgar Allen Poe.

“Were the succession of stars endless, then the background of the sky would present us a uniform luminosity, like that displayed by the Galaxy –since there could be absolutely no point, in all that background, at which would not exist a star. The only mode, therefore, in which, under such a state of affairs, we could comprehend the voids which our telescopes find in innumerable directions, would be by supposing the distance of the invisible background so immense that no ray from it has yet been able to reach us at all.”  –Eureka: A Prose Poem

What he proposes here (if you can read through all his commas!  Sheesh!  He writes run-on sentences like I write sentence fragments.  –you do read my blog, right?) is that light has a speed limit and the universe is not infinitely old, thus this infinite amount of star light hasn’t reached the Earth yet.  He did not contradict any of the three suppositions, yet his idea of the universe having a beginning gives us a good starting point for the explanation.  He wrote this in 1848, 80 years before Hubble would show conclusive evidence for a beginning to everything.  Odd thing is, no one paid attention to Poe just like no one paid attention to Hubble at first because folks were so convinced that the universe had always been here.

So that’s only part of the explanation.  The rest of the story is that the universe is expanding.  In a not-so-readily-apparent sense, because the universe was smaller in the past it was also brighter.  As the expanding space-time continuum spreads things out, the overall energy density decreases.  (Wow!  That sentence made me feel smart!)  There is a ‘horizon’ to the universe — a boundary which we cannot see beyond.  The expansion is faster than light, which means anything beyond that boundary will never be visible to us because the light from those objects can’t outrun the space-time expansion.  Thereby preventing us from ever knowing how far the universe actually extends.  And keeping the visible universe of limited size.

Also, because of the expansion the stars aren’t uniformly spaced.  They occur in clumps.  These clumps were hypothesized way back in the 1700s by philosophers, but not confirmed by astronomers until the 1920s!  The clumps were given the name galaxies after the Greek word for milk.  Yeah, makes total sense to me too.  Still a cool word, though.

And there you have it! All three postulates failed and the paradox is now moot.  The scientists who proposed the problem knew that something was wrong with popular opinion, they just weren’t sure where the answer lied.  It took a lot of looking, a lot of thinking, and a lot of technological advances to put the pieces together, but today we have a pretty clear view of our place in the universe.

So, Happy Birthday, Heinrich!  Of all the science you brought us, you showed that sometimes it’s more important to ask the right questions.

[BTW, while double-checking all my facts on the intertubes I found countless articles that were just plain wrong or else written so poorly that I could barely read them.  Honestly, I’m going to have to side with Wil Wheaton on this and say that these days the ability to spell is a superpower.  And do they just let any idiot with a library card have a blog?  <checks library card>  Oh, yeah… guess they do.]




4 responses

10 10 2009
Máire of the Lilies

The podcast was AWESOME! I’m still laughing. You are insane! I’m going to listen to it again.

Everybody involved did a wonderful job. Kudos to all, especially Jeremy for being able to keep up with you. Hearing you guys laughing in the background was hilarious.

And yes, there’s nothing sexier than a man who can discuss the implications of the discovery of the Higgs particle on multi-dimensional physics. Why else would I have a crush on Brian Cox and others? ;-)

Again, fantastic job all around. I’m gonna tell everybody to go listen to it!

10 10 2009

Hate to break it to you, but you don’t even need a library card to have a blog. You’re overqualified!

2 11 2009
Nick Jones

Sweet Zombie Jesus! If you’ve fallen off the xkcd wagon, which I sincerely hope you haven’t, you have got to see this!
If you’d like a poster of it, I might could pull some strings.

2 11 2009

Wowwie Kazowie! I hadn’t seen that. That’s an amazing thing he did there. Must’ve taken days. I really like the way he had Luke bouncing all over the place.

I could totally go for a poster like that. Let me see if I can get the EAST lab next door to make it for me before we fall back to your plan…

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