Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Time Traveling with Chris Impey; back to the origins of the Universe

Unsurprisingly, many aspiring time travellers arrived in time to listen to Chris Impey speak on Saturday.  Impey was presenting material from his recent book on cosmology,  How it Began: A Time Traveler’s Guide to the Universe .  I was impressed at the diversity of the audience, all interested in learning more about the origins and nature of the universe.  Impey’s presentation was essentially Cosmology 101, informing us of the current scientific understanding of the universe.


Impey divided his presentation into three major sections: the history of cosmology, the Big Bang, and current research and theories on ideas as diverse as String Theory, the Multiverse, and Brane Theory (M-Theory).  The presentation was well polished, and the visuals were excellent.  Many of his slides used vintage comics to illustrate his talking points, images were shown of the farthest reaches of visible space, and several videos added to his message. 


In his presentation on the History of Cosmology, he explained the evolution of humanity’s attempt to answer the two questions on the nature of the universe: does the universe have a physical boundary, and does it have a temporal beginning and ending


He shared the impact of Isaac Newton, William Herschel, Edwin Hubble, and Albert Einstein on our attempts to answer those two questions.  One of his main points shared was that by looking farther out into the universe, we also have the advantage of actually looking back in time.  Light that has travelled farther is much older, so if we look at light from a star that’s one million light years away, we’re looking at the universe as it was one million years ago.  The most advanced telescopes we have right now are able to look out over 13 billion light-years, so we are able to observe closer and closer to the origins of the universe which is understood to be 13.8 Billion years old.  We’re getting closer and closer to actually observing conditions at the beginning of the universe, as much as visible light will ever be able to show anyway.


Impey’s next topic was the Big Bang.  It was at this point I started to get lost in the presentation.  I understood the surface points he was making--such that the name, “Big Bang” implies an explosion, which is incorrect as there was never an “explosion”.  Impey did expand that this theory is scientifically the best understanding we have of the origins of the universe and it has been proven through multiple sources of experimentation. 


But, as Impey began to explain how cosmic microwave radiation was evidence of the Big Bang, I started to struggle.  By the time Impey was discussing String Theory and the Multiverse, I was completely lost.  Perhaps if I had read How it Began before the talk, I would have been able to follow, but it was clear my Engineering education and my love of Star Trek didn’t help me comprehend the remainder of the presentation.  This isn’t to say the talk was bad – quite the contrary, Impey is a very talented communicator, there was just too much information being communicated in a short time.  Much of the information took me a while to understand, so while I was chewing on one idea, he moved on and left me behind.  I felt like I was back in an undergraduate class frantically taking down notes in the hope they would make sense later when I read the textbook. 


Those that had read Impey’s work clearly got more out of this presentation than others, as I wasn’t the only one who felt intimidated.  I overheard one conversation afterwards, where the person said that they “wished they were smarter so they could have understood.”  


Despite my struggle to follow, I really enjoyed the presentation.  Impey at one point shared that it is the job of science to explore the border between what we know and what we do not understand.  I felt that this talk was a great presentation of that boundary with regards to the nature of the universe.  I think it will be really enjoyable to read Impey’s books, How it Began and How it Ends .  Impey concluded his presentation with the point that despite all the unknowns that remain, despite the puzzle pieces that have yet to be placed in our understanding, cosmology is keeping both the small (quarks) and the large (the cosmos) elements in view.  This is a difficult balancing act to achieve, but it is critical if we are to progress further in our understanding of our universe.