A Blog for the Curious and the Scientifically Perplexed

This is the story of a great journey that started with a great thought. One day in 1895 a boy looked into a mirror and wondered what the universe would look like if he could travel on a beam of light. That sixteen year old boy was Albert Einstein and that one thought started him on the road to discover his Theory of Relativity. The great man has been reinvented as Albert 2.0 to come back and blog about a journey through space on a beam of light and explain the science behind everything from atoms, blackholes to global warming. If you've just joined and want to start at the beginning use the index on the left. If you're bored try these links below just for fun.


Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Albert, the Priest and the Pope

“What did the priest say that was so important?”

Georges-Henri Lemaître did the most important things of all, he asked the right question. Just accept for the moment that the universe is expanding, what happens if you think backwards in time?

“I’m not sure I get what you mean?”

Imagine the universe in reverse, shrinking over time. Where would that end up?

“As some really tiny universe?”

Go back a bit further and you don’t even have a universe, just everything squeezed into a dot. This was Georges-Henri Lemaître’s big idea. Working backwards in time he showed that the universe must have started at a place and time when everything in the universe was in a single point. He called this the Cosmic Egg, the moment of the creation. Then on the first day of the universe, 'a day without yesterday', it exploded in the biggest explosion that’s ever been. Georges-Henri Lemaître said it has been expanding ever since.

“Cosmic egg?”

Well I’m glad to say that later on he called it the primaeval atom which sounds a bit more scientific.

“Did you believe him?”

Not even then. I told him 'your calculations are correct, but your grasp of physics is abominable.'


The problem with being famous is that people always write down what you say, the smart things and sadly the stupid things too. The next stupid thing I did, what I call my biggest mistake, was to change my own equations with an extra little bit I called the “cosmological constant” to keep the Universe just as it was.

“Did it work?”

Of course not, the Universe didn’t care what I wrote down. Most importantly of all I was wrong.

“So what made you change your mind about the Big Bang?”

Over time as everyone starting talking about the idea and I thought about it more I began to realise he was probably right. I was listening to Lemaître give a talk in California a few years later, 1933 I think it was. At the end I stood up, clapped and told him and the whole audience, this is the most beautiful and satisfactory explanation of creation to which I have ever listened.

“So a priest discovered how the Universe began?”

Well that Russian mathematician, Friedmann, I told you about started the ball rolling but Lemaître made the world sit up and listen. Still I don’t think Georges Lemaître got the credit he deserved. People seemed to be uncomfortable about mixing up science and religion, even if Georges himself was clear that he was just thinking about the science. The Catholic church seemed to like his ideas as Pope Pius XI promoted him to the Pontifical Academy of Science. The next Pope, Pius XII, went further and embraced the big bang theory as agreeing with the Book of Genesis. The Big Bang became the moment that God said 'Let there be light.'

Even when I was convinced not everyone was. Even when they discovered that the universe was expanding, with all the galaxies flying away from each other, a lot of scientists still thought the idea of a big bang was crazy. The name 'Big Bang' even started as a joke by another astronomer Fred Hoyle, to poke fun at the idea. Fred Hoyle also asked ‘What kind of scientific theory is conceived by a priest and endorsed by a pope?’ If Fred Hoyle had known that a poet had come up with the same idea almost a hundred years earlier he might have lost his reason completely.

“You are trying to tell me that a poet discovered how the universe began?”

Edgar Allen Poe, a poet and writer, put his ideas about the start of the universe in a piece he called Eureka which he wrote in 1848. It’s all in there, the universe starting from one point, the primordial particle. Then all the atoms and everything spreading out in all directions. ‘The Priest, the Pope and the Poet’ now that would a great name for a book on the start of the universe. But the difference between poets and scientists is that poets can write down whatever they imagine and their job is done. A scientist can imagine new ideas but that is only the start of it. The hard part is trying to find out if it is true or at least possible.

Monday, May 7, 2007

The Biggest Day in History: The Big Bang

“Albert, How long have we been travelling?”

Oh a thousand years or so.

“That’s impossible?”


“Well, it seems like no time at all.”

Time, like most things in life, is relative. Talk to a pretty girl for an hour and it seems like a minute. Sit on a hot stove for a minutes, it seems like an eternity.

“So what year is it now on Earth?”

Let me check my watch…it’s the year 4BC.

“Four years to go until Jesus Christ is born.”

You’d think so wouldn’t you, but it seems that with all the messing around with calendars over the years and history being a bit woolly, things got a bit out of sync. It seems that Jesus was probably born four years earlier than he should. Around now in fact.

“How can you mess with time, and lose four years?”

Oh, it’s not so hard. History is what happens while people are just getting on with their lives. By the time history has become important time has moved on, and people’s memories aren’t as good as they think. As for messing with time, how about leap years? Every four years an extra day appears out of nowhere?

“Well it seems easier to get an extra day than loose one.”

In England in 1752 they lost eleven days. Wednesday September 2nd was followed by Thursday September14th when they changed the calendar to get back in step with the rest of Europe. Before that the English and the French couldn't even agree on what date it was. So time and dates can’t really be relied on, but sometime around this date back on Earth, three old men are on a journey too, trekking across Asia following a star.

“The star of Bethlehem! Was that a real star or just a story?”

Well that’s a big question that we sadly don’t know. There are lot’s of theories. It could have been a real star that suddenly exploded, or another bright object like some of the planets lining up or a comet. When we get near to Earth we’ll have a closer look at comets and planets, but for now no-one really knows.

“But Jesus’s birthday, that’s a big day in history even if they did get the date wrong.”

Not as big as the biggest day.

“What day was bigger than that?”

Well, the day the universe was born.

“You mean all this hasn’t always been here?”

It’s been here a very long time but not forever. We now think the Universe had its own birthday; the Big Bang.

"The Big Bang? We've been travelling through space for a thousand years and I haven’t heard a thing, apart from you talking in my head of course.”

Well, as we are imaging ourselves to be photons we don't have ears anymore. Also the Big Bang was around fourteen billion years ago and sound waves don't travel in space.

"Why not?"

Because sound waves are just vibrations in air or water or whatever they are travelling through. Without water there can’t be waves in the ocean and without air can’t be sound waves in space. There is no such thing as a sound particle.

“All those crashes and explosions in the Star Wars films wouldn’t really happen?”

Not at all. War in space would be totally silent, though I do hope by the time humans are flying around the galaxy for real they have come to realise that war is pointless.

"What about us, how can we… well how can light travel through space?"

We exist in our own right, we're photons, light particles. That's why we can travel through a vacuum like space. Don’t worry I’ll explain all about what light is and how it travels later.

"So what exactly was this silent Big Bang all about?"

The Big Bang was the start of everything when all the matter in the universe and space itself suddenly came into existence in one place which was very, very hot; about a trillion degrees or so. From this first huge explosion of creation, everything started expanding in all directions and the universe has been expanding ever since. The Big Bang is the cosmological version of the creation story in the Bible. In the bible God had six days to create heaven and earth and one to rest. In the science version the pattern of the next few billion years was sorted out in the first thousandth of a second, everything after that is supposed to be following physical rather than divine laws. Talking of God, I have to confess something about the Big Bang.


When I first heard ideas like this I thought it was bunkum, complete nonsense.

“How did you think the universe started?”

Well, I thought like you that it had always been there and always would be. I had never asked myself the question of where it came from. Then a young Russian mathematician, Alexander Alexandrovich Friedman, tried to show that my own equations allowed the universe to be expanding. That was back in 1922.

“What did you do?”

To my shame I assumed he must be wrong and wrote a letter saying as much. Then a year later I re-checked and found out his calculations were right and it was possible that the universe could expand, but I still didn’t believe that it really was expanding. No-one else seemed to believe it either until a young Jesuit priest, Georges-Henri Lemaître, from Belgium who was studying physics went one step further.