Het is een lange weg geweest naar de ontdekking dat de aarde niet het centrum is van het zonnestelsel, de melkweg of het universum; grote denkers van Aristoteles tot Bruno hebben er millennia mee geworsteld. Maar als wij ons niet in het centrum van het universum bevinden, waar is dat dan wel? Marjee Chmiel en Trevor Owens bespreken waar we staan in het (zeer) grote schema van dingen.
What is at the center of the universe? It’s an essential question that humans have been wondering about for centuries. But the journey toward an answer has been a strange one.
If you wanted to know the answer to this question in third century B.C.E. Greece, you might look up at the night sky and trust what you see. That’s what Aristotle, THE guy to ask back then, did. He thought that since we’re on Earth, looking up, it must be the center, right?
For him, the sphere of the world was made up of four elements: Earth, water, air, and fire. These elements shifted around a nested set of solid crystalline spheres. Each of the wandering stars, the planets, had their own crystal sphere. The rest of the universe and all of its stars were on the last crystal sphere. If you watch the sky change over time, you could see that this idea worked fine at explaining the motion you saw. For centuries, this was central to how Europe and the Islamic world saw the universe.
But in 1543, a guy named Copernicus proposed a different model. He believed that the sun was at the center of the universe. This radically new idea was hard for a lot of people to accept. After all, Aristotle’s ideas made sense with what they could see, and they were pretty flattering to humans. But a series of subsequent discoveries made the sun-centric model hard to ignore.
First, Johannes Kepler pointed out that orbits aren’t perfect circles or spheres. Then, Galileo’s telescope caught Jupiter’s moons orbiting around Jupiter, totally ignoring Earth. And then, Newton proposed the theory of universal gravitation, demonstrating that all objects are pulling on each other. Eventually, we had to let go of the idea that we were at the center of the universe.
Shortly after Copernicus, in the 1580s, an Italian friar, Giordano Bruno, suggested the stars were suns that likely had their own planets and that the universe was infinite. This idea didn’t go over well. Bruno was burned at the stake for his radical suggestion.
Centuries later, the philosopher Rene Descartes proposed that the universe was a series of whirlpools, which he called vortices, and that each star was at the center of a whirlpool.
In time, we realized there were far more stars than Aristotle ever dreamed. As astronomers like William Herschel got more and more advanced telescopes, it became clear that our sun is actually one of many stars inside the Milky Way. And those smudges we see in the night sky? They’re other galaxies, just as vast as our Milky Way home.
Maybe we’re farther from the center than we ever realized. In the 1920s, astronomers studying the nebuli wanted to figure out how they were moving. Based on the Doppler Effect, they expected to see blue shift for objects moving toward us, and red shift for ones moving away. But all they saw was a red shift. Everything was moving away from us, fast.
This observation is one of the pieces of evidence for what we now call the Big Bang Theory. According to this theory, all matter in the universe was once a singular, infinitely dense particle. In a sense, our piece of the universe was once at the center. But this theory eliminates the whole idea of a center since there can’t be a center to an infinite universe. The Big Bang wasn’t just an explosion in space; it was an explosion of space.
What each new discovery proves is that while our observations are limited, our ability to speculate and dream of what’s out there isn’t. What we think we know today can change tomorrow.
As with many of the thinkers we just met, sometimes our wildest guesses lead to wonderful and humbling answers and propel us toward even more perplexing questions.