Since the beginning of human history we have been looking up at the night sky, wondering about the countless points of lights and what might lie beyond. Ancient astronomers observed that the visible heavens are relatively ordered and predictable, yet also peculiar and vast. Such universally experienced mystery has engendered tremendous philosophical, religious, and scientific inquiry. The last several hundred years in particular have witnessed revolutions in the way we understand the Universe. Copernicus re-envisioned the cosmos as sun-centered, not earth-centered. Galileo observed Jupiter’s orbiting moons and the Sun’s “imperfect” spots that led him to challenge the traditional Greek conceptions of the heavens. Indeed, both religious and scientific communities have had to regularly revise their understanding of the cosmos as more discoveries come to light.
Modern astronomy and physics continue to reveal many unanticipated features of the universe’s structure and evolution. Astrophysicists theorize that all space, matter and energy expanded explosively from an extremely dense soup of subatomic particles in an event called the Big Bang. After a process of cooling and coalescing, cloudlike nebulae of gas and dust collapsed to form stars, and these stars clustered to comprise galaxies. Eventually, terrestrial planets and moons were forged from the heavier material expelled from dying stars. Over an unimaginably long span of time—approximately 13.7 billion years—the components of the Universe gradually formed, and today the universe continues to evolve as space itself dramatically expands.
In addition to piecing together the intricate history of the Universe and explaining the various objects we see around us, astronomers also seek to predict what the future may hold for the cosmos. However, such projections are constrained by the limits of our current understanding and by uncertainties inherent in many physical processes. As a result, recent cosmological models are not only plentiful but also often directly contradictory. Will the expansion of the Universe continue to accelerate until space is torn apart in a “Big Rip?” Will the currently expanding Universe eventually begin contracting, leading to a “Big Crunch” and potentially another Big Bang? Could it be that this universe is only one of an infinite number of other universes? Discussion of the Universe’s turbulent past and uncertain future raises many socially relevant questions including: How does the vastness of space inform our conception of humanity’s role in the Universe?
More locally, a notable feature of our planet is that it contains conditions suitable for an incredible diversity of life. Perhaps even more remarkable, however, is the fact that astronomers are discovering a multitude of planets orbiting other stars, some of which may share these conditions and some of which may also host life. Such discoveries would impact our perceptions about human uniqueness, significance and purpose, and we must be prepared to address and explore the implications.
The realm of physics and astronomy is wide (physically and metaphorically!), and it spurs questions foundational to religion, philosophy, and human significance. Advances in particle physics, cosmology, astrobiology and energy are sure to yield abundant fodder for socially relevant discussions over the coming years.
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