Saturday, February 28, 2009

Everything You Know About Outer Space Is Wrong (Maybe)

When I was in college, I made a mistake. OK, so I probably made more than one, but a memorable mistake was signing up for Intro to Modern Cosmology for Non-Majors. I needed two science classes for my journalism major and my childhood astronaut aspirations made me think this course would be a potentially interesting way of filling that need.

Unfortunately, the professor seemed unaware of the "non-major" portion of the course title and by the end of the first class I could tell that I would be forced to rematch with my old foe--physics. Fortunately, the greatest TA in the world swooped in and committed himself to making me understand the material. (David Lin, wherever you are, you have my undying gratitude!) I got an A- and everybody went home happy.

Most importantly, I learned two things in that class that I still carry with me today:

1. A large portion of the universe consists of "dark energy" that cosmologists cannot see and cannot explain. It's more of a mathematical constant to account for the non-stop expansion of the universe. It's sort of the astronomical equivalent of Hitchcock's MacGuffin.

2. On the last day of class, my professor told us that everything we just spent the entire quarter studying is subject to change and might be "completely wrong," pending future discoveries, especially the bit about dark energy.

As I tooled around Chicago's Adler Planetarium this afternoon, the words "completely wrong" kept bouncing around in my head. How do we know that we're right about any of this stuff? While I do not count myself among the morons who are convinced that we never landed on the moon, I have to wonder how reliable our information is about the far reaches of the galaxy. We thought the world was flat for a long time and look how that turned out. I'm not saying that all of our knowledge of the universe is as uncertain as the dark energy theory, but it seems that a lot of it could be conjecture based on the limited technology we currently have at our disposal.

Nevertheless, the exhibits at the Adler are definitely worth your time and the Night Sky Show has the most comfortable reclining seat you'll ever nap in.

Speaking of Night Sky Shows, did you see the moon and Venus getting up close and personal with each other tonight? It looked like this. Who needs the truth about the universe? Let's just enjoy the view.

Somewhat Related Post
The New Space Race (Sponsored by Google)

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