What winds up the universe? (1927)

Galaxy Messier 101-from nasa

What winds up the universe?

What is to happen a billion years or more in the future gives most people little concern, remarks the New York Herald Tribune on its editorial page, but astronomers are curious folk, and this is one of the things that they worry about. It goes on to say:

“In his recent Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh, among the most suggestive and inspiring of this year’s scientific pronouncements, Prof AS Eddington repeated the belief of many scientific men that the universe seems to be running down, like a clock which some one has wound up and then deserted. Light and heat are being poured out in enormous floods from all of the bright stars, of which our sun is one in perhaps ten billions. So far as we know, the energy of this vast flood of radiation is lost forever. Professor Eddington is chief advocate of the theory that the energy of the stars comes from the destruction of their own mass. Like human spendthrifts, the stars consume their substance to keep on making a show in the world.

“Such a process can not last forever. There must come a time when all the decomposable matter of a star is gone. That unfortunate star must cool off, grow dim, resign itself to an eternity of obscurity. If all of the matter of a star happens to be decomposable, all will be radiated away. The star will disappear altogether, like the Kilkenny cats which ate each other up. That is what is meant by the universe ‘running down.’ It was wound up, somehow, by the creation of matter. So long as the matter lasts it pulses with the breath of life. When the matter is exhausted, both light and life will cease.

“Optimists have risen, however, to state a hope which Professor Eddington recognizes as possible, although unproved. This is the hope of the conversion of energy into new matter somewhere out in space. Prof Arthur Haas of the University of Vienna, recently a visiting lecturer in the United States, believes that certain kinds of light rays may combine to form new building stones for atoms of matter. If this be true, the light rays which go off so gaily into space may not be lost utterly. They may combine into new atoms; return to us after millions of years; go to form those vast gaseous nebulae which some astronomers already regard as first steps toward the birth of stars. Hid behind the clock of the universe some such recuperative process may be possible, although unproved. This is the hope of the world to keep them from ever running down.”

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