This article by Rebecca Styn was originally published in the Erie Reader on Oct. 31, 2012.
On Thursday, Nov. 15, at approximately 7:30 in the evening, the universe, as you know it, will be turned upside-down. Ancient secrets will be revealed. A dark, mysterious force lurking on the periphery of human knowledge and working to pull asunder the very fabric of existence will make itself known.
A science fiction movie? A carnival sideshow? Hardly. Instead, it’s the topic of Harvard professor and astronomer Dr. Robert Kirshner’s talk — “The Runaway Universe: Einstein’s Blunder Undone” — at this year’s Global Futures Summit hosted by the Jefferson Educational Society.
So, what does Kirshner have to do with cataclysmic change? He was the faculty adviser to 2011 Nobel Laureates Brian Schmidt and Adam Riess, and contributed to their research that determined that the universe was not, in fact, contracting or slowing its expansion as previously believed. Instead, the universe is expanding, and that expansion is accelerating.
On the phone from his car heading out of Boston to Maine, Kirshner explains. “Your commonsense observations are from Earth,” he says of our mistake of applying our common understanding of physics to the universe. “[Accelerating expansion] would be like a baseball that was hit and kept going up, faster and faster.” It’s ridiculous, of course. Common sense tells us the force of gravity from the combined matter of all the universe would slow and eventually check the expansion of the universe, even contract it, akin to the way the water thrown up by your brother-in-law’s cannonball dive in the pool eventually falls back to the surface.
But the expansion of the universe is instead accelerating, which tells us one of two things: there’s a force “pulling” the universe, or everything we think we know about gravity is wrong. The discovery blew a universe-sized hole into the study of astrophysics, the nature of matter, existence, being.
“It’s so much fun for us!” gushes Kirshner on the phone. “These ideas are very interesting! That the expansion of the universe is actually speeding up — we wanted to measure how much it was slowing down, instead we discovered that it’s actually speeding up!” He laughs. The joke was on him, on all of us, ha ha!
Kirshner is warm and personable, and obviously thrilled to be explaining astrophysics to me. He’s like a kid who turned over a rock and wants to show you the cool bugs he discovered. And why not? It is amazing! I am thrilled!
On one side is gravity, as all universal matter pulls itself together. “On the other side,” says Kirshner, “is this dark energy, this force that makes the universe swell. As far as we know, the only way we have of detecting dark energy is through astronomical observation.”
And observation is how the Nobel teams discovered the acceleration. By observing the light of supernovae billions of light years away, astronomers were able to measure the brightness of the exploding stars to determine their distance.
“One of the things Adam Riess” — now a professor at Johns Hopkins University — “did when he was a graduate student with me,” says Kirshner, “he worked on a way you can detect dust.” Clouds of intergalactic dust sometimes obstruct the supernovae, affecting the brightness of the distant stellar explosions. But the dust wasn’t readily detectable. Kirshner explains how Riess solved the problem: “The dust absorbs blue light more than red light, and measuring that light, you can figure out how much dust is in the line of sight.”
Using Riess’ method of detecting dust, the teams of astronomers were able to measure more accurately the brightness of supernovae. “I would say it’s still a problem,” says Kirshner, who wants more accuracy in the observations. “I have a program now” — Kirshner is the principle investigator of a Hubble Space Telescope program — “to measure some supernovae in longer wavelengths, like infrared.”
The goal? To pinpoint the “cosmological constant,” the force that serves as an anti-gravity effect and first was conceived by Albert Einstein to account for what was then thought: a stationary universe. When observation showed the universe is actually expanding, Einstein thought the effect a mistake. But now with evidence of an accelerating universe, the cosmological constant has been revived.
This stuff makes rocket science look like child’s play, yet here’s a Harvard professor explaining it all to me while threading through highway traffic. “People are interested in questions of where we came from,” he explains, “where we are in space and time, and where we’re going.” And Kirshner likes answering these questions for laypeople — people like me. His book, The Extravagant Universe, tells the story of the discovery of the universe’s acceleration in “layman’s terms with little math,” writes one reviewer, and in a “lively, accessible style,” according to The New York Times.
“Scientists talk to each other, and the language is remote,” he says. “There is a kind of need for translation or communication from the world of science to the broader world.
“My plan is to use language people do understand.” He laughs. “I do have a few graphs to show I’m a serious guy, though.”
The Global Summit — a week-long series of lectures hosted by the Jefferson Educational Society featuring well-known and expert speakers on topics positing what the future will bring — has become for Erie a must-see showcase of ideas that could possibly affect the course of our regional development. Started just three years ago as an ambitious yet modest series featuring Washington Post columnist EJ Dionne, the Summit is growing exponentially, and promises to become the intellectual event of the Erie area. That first Global Summit was attended by less than 500 people; this fourth Summit is expected to draw over 3,000. Besides Harvard astronomer Robert Kirshner, the Summit this year features New York Times columnist David Brooks and former White House Deputy Chief of Staff and architect of the modern Republican Party, Karl Rove. Other speakers include the Rev. Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, and Ira Byock, director of palliative medicine at Dartmouth-Hitchock Medical center.
But the Summit is just one week in the program of the Jefferson Educational Society — maybe the one with the biggest names, yes — but the rest of the year also features classes, seminars, and lectures by historians, experts, and personalities. The Jefferson Educational Society is a think tank. That is, it’s a not-for-profit organization that funds research and promotes awareness about different kinds of public issues and policy. On its website, JES’s mission statement says the JES was founded “to promote civic enlightenment, and community progress for the Erie region.” If you want to hear analysis of the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, or discuss the origins of civil war in Syria and Jefferson Davis’ role in the Civil War, or listen to Pat Cappabianca give an insider’s view of Erie politics, or, yes, have the inner workings of the universe revealed to you, the Jefferson Educational Society is the place to be.
Read more about the JES Global Summit by checking out the rest of the article here.