Physics & the Cosmos
The field of physics attempts to make sense of the Universe at all scales, from the impossibly small particles from which we are comprised to the inconceivably large structures within which we exist. The miniscule yet fundamentally important realm of quarks, photons and protons (among many others) is articulated by Quantum Mechanics through such concepts as the simultaneously wave and particle nature of light and the inherent uncertainty in the physical universe. At the other extreme, Einstein’s General Relativity provides a framework for understanding our cosmos on the largest possible scale and accounts for the large-scale gravitational effects of all matter on space and time. From quarks to quasars, physics and astronomy address an enormous variety of objects and phenomena, many of which provoke intriguing physical and metaphysical questions.
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.
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?
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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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