Exploring Our Intricate Universe With Brian Cox’s “Horizons”

On June 17th at the Ricardo Montalbán Theatre, Professor Brian Cox’s show “Horizons: A 21st Century Space Odyssey,” humbled the theater attendees while discussing the enormity of the universe with the possibility of a multiverse and how we tie into all of this.

The world renowned physicist made complex scientific theories such as quantum physics & mechanics and cosmology comprehendible for all. The night started out with captivating clips of the beginning of time at 13.8 billion years ago when the big bang unleashed its explosive energy to mold into the universe we know today replete with far away galaxies, alien worlds, and our incredibly valuable home, Earth.

With “Horizons”, Brian Cox explored the complexities of the space-time continuum and posed existential questions of why are we here and why haven’t we found any other intelligent life-forms? He showed images of what the universe looks like thanks to the images pulled from the NASA Hubble Telescope. It was composed of a web of light formations of galaxies among a dark backdrop.

It is believed that our galaxy is one of the 2 trillion galaxies in the universe. The farthest galaxy the Hubble Telescope has discovered emits light that took 13.4 billion years to reach us and is named GN-z11. The galaxy we are seeing is from 400 million years after the big bang occurred and could now look exponentially different from what we’re able to see.

The speed of light is the fastest known speed we currently know of and is how scientists measure distance of celestial bodies. The lower frequency of light a star is emitting the further away it is. Essentially, its spectrum is radiating less blue light and more red light — known as “redshift”. The more redshift we see then the further away it is and with the universe expanding, it’s becoming trickier to locate faraway objects.

“We’re all a bunch of nerds doing equations on a Friday night.”

After interjecting the idea of an entity that’s gravitational pull is so strong that light can’t even escape it, Cox explained the concept of black holes. Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity paved the way for black holes’ discovery, but even he had his doubts of their existence. It wasn’t until Karl Schwarzschild, a German physicist and astronomer, provided the exact solution formula in a letter to Einstein from the Eastern Front fighting in WWI.

It helped mathematically explain the valley-like-space-time curvature caused by a spherical mass like a star. Einstein was both amazed to find a letter with solutions to equations he didn’t think were possible to be solved let alone from someone fighting a war. At this point, Cox whipped out his digital notepad to write this equation on the big screen joking that “we’re all a bunch of nerds doing equations on a Friday Night.”

The first black hole that made all of these theories and equations even more groundbreaking resides in the M87 galaxy, which is about 55 million light years from Earth. It was the first black hole to be directly imaged thanks to the Event Horizon Telescope and is 6.5 billion times more massive than the Sun. The measurement of black holes is defined by their event horizon, which is the spherical area around the black hole where nothing (including light) could escape its gravitational pull. Our own black hole in the Milky Way galaxy, called Sagittarius A* is much smaller at about 4 million times the mass of the Sun.

Shortly after introducing these illustrious concepts to a crowd ranging from novices to established scientists, Cox shared the stage with the animated comedian and co-host of Infinite Monkey Cage, Robin Ince, to bring in some comic relief. Ince stirred up laughter after explaining that he’d witnessed previous audience members ranging from perplexed with what they’ve just learned of the universe to nine years olds explaining to their family members these challenging concepts.

After Ince engaged the audience in playful humor, Cox resumed his lecture of explaining how black holes are central to the studying of the concept known as “emergent space-time”, meaning the idea of space and time are not fixed and that there are more nuances to the universe yet to be understood. Time has no meaning or context without human perspective. It is relative and was an invention of mankind that we apply in theory to space in order for us to understand. Time is relative to each person and object, however, there are objects that have a strong gravitational pull that are able to distort space.

This is what pulls objects in their vicinity towards them where the object’s path through space is being bent and causes it to wind up somewhere else. So for instance, black holes have strong gravitational pulls and time tends to run a lot slower than it does on Earth. The faster an object moves through space, the slower time is for it. Gravity distorts time as we know it in space and with black holes, we aren’t sure if they destroy information that falls within the singularity that lies at its heart.

The very notion of an entity capable of destroying information contradicts our current understanding of quantum physics and is known as the “black hole information paradox”. Thanks to Stephen Hawking, we know that back holes evaporate by emitting Hawking radiation, but the problem lies in where all that information from the black hole goes once it vanishes.

One possible solution to this conundrum is the information is embedded into the event horizon itself and emitted through the Hawking radiation and another theory, according to Einstein’s general theory of relativity, is the existence of wormholes. These wormholes would essentially create shortcuts for long journeys across the universe or even more profound, across multiple universes. Nothing is for sure as scientists have not found any evidence that they exist, but with technological advancements it could be possible in the future.

After leaving the audience in awe and admiration of the vast universe, Cox tied in the night by reiterating how we’ve yet to find other intelligent life-forms like ourselves. They could be unequipped with advanced technology to communicate or they could be avoiding us entirely or, most unsettling of all, we are alone in a universe filled with slime. Our home is precious and our ability to think about the big questions of reality is what gives meaning to the universe. We are what gives meaning to all of this chaos and Cox is hopeful that if we proceed with curiosity and humility, then our future is bright.

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Vanessa Dailey

Vanessa Dailey

Writer. Volunteer. Traveler. Climate Solution Enthusiast.