The Morning File: The universe is big and old. (Let's just leave it at that.)


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What The Morning File doesn't understand about physics could fill up billions and billions of cosmoses. That's why our head is spinning from the latest data generated by the European Space Agency's Planck space probe.

The new findings indicate that the universe is 80 million years older than previously thought, or a total of 13.81 billion years old. That's a lot of candles to put on a cake for the universe's next birthday. To put the universe's age into local perspective, it is now realized to be older than the combined longevity of Sophie Masloff, Henry Hillman, Thomas Starzl and 13.8 billion Jackie Evanchos.

The ability of people who study space to understand and tell us what has occurred light years away and billions of years ago is about the most amazing thing imaginable, almost as much as how checks to the city for Pittsburgh police off-duty service can be diverted to personal use for years without any auditor sensing something amiss.

We can't even pretend to grasp how these latest findings reinforce the Big Bang's "inflation" theory, which says the universe burst in less than a second from subatomic size (that's really small -- smaller than the Pirates' chances of winning the World Series this year) to its current expanse. We're glad we weren't around the day that happened, as there's probably no amount of sunscreen that would have prevented a bad burn-and-peel.

The folks at the European Space Agency seem pretty satisfied with their work. "We've uncovered a fundamental truth of the universe," said one of those involved, George Efstathiou. The last time we felt able to make such a bold statement was when hearing the "Born to Run" album for the first time in a high school friend's bedroom.

But maybe Mr. Efstathiou, of the University of Cambridge, realized he was sounding a little too unhumble about the work, because he added at a news conference: "There's less stuff that we don't understand by a tiny amount."

We had to read that last sentence about 20 times, examining its meaning from every direction, before we recognized he may have just been saying: "Look, we're really pretty stupid about how this universe got the way it is, with stars and planets and oceans and so many different cable channels that we've never watched. But yesterday we were even stupider, so yeah, I guess there's that."

Truth be told, we had a chance to take physics in high school but declined. There were going to be way too many kids with large 1970s-style eyeglasses in there. So we took an extra study hall instead.

The kids with the eyeglasses are running the world now, and life has become like just one long study hall for us -- nothing much happens, and we put our head down on the desk most of the time trying to avoid the little that does occur, such as the next asteroid or meteorite headed our way.

Our reading about the latest findings provides a sense of historical deja vu, in that there's evidently been some confusion over the years about whether the universe is flat or curved. Could have sworn we just went through this debate half a millennium ago with our own Earth.

It seems odd to think of our big universe as being any shape -- it's just all, you know, THERE, all wide and vast and dark with a man-on-the-moon visage that makes absolutely no sense to us for how some shadows 238,000 miles away end up resembling a person instead of a Jackson Pollock painting.

But as disclosed above, we were in study hall with our head down when all that must have been discussed.

The scary thing is that while there seems so little that's understandable about the known universe (like why the car's "check engine" light is always on when there's nothing wrong), the scientists are now talking about there being additional universes, which we'll comprehend even less. And not just a few more universes -- infinite universes.

And all that means is there are more chances than we ever thought for forms of life to exist similar to ours elsewhere, where we're also never going to win a dime in the Powerball or remember which week is for recycling the trash. So who needs another universe, really? It just raises more potential for superintelligent aliens to attack us, against whom our puny mortal minds have no defense.

Rather than try any longer to fathom it, we're just going to put our head down now.

intelligencer - science

Gary Rotstein: grotstein@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1255.


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