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Monday, October 17, 2005

olbers' paradox

In the 1800s, an astronomer named Heinrich Wilhelm Olbers (I think he was German) made an observation that became known as Olbers' paradox.

Assuming the universe is infinite -- and that was a common assumption at the time -- every line of sight should lead to a star at some distance (however great) from earth. Therefore, every point in the night sky should be light. Night should be just as bright as day. So why isn't it?

Though several 19th century astronomers tried to explain the dark night sky, none were fully succesful. The resolution of the paradox did not come until Edwin Hubble's telescopic observations showed that the universe was expanding. In the same way that the sound of a train whistle is lowered as the train moves away from the listener, light from a star shifts to the red end of the spectrum and eventually out of the visible spectrum as the star moves away from the observer.

Hubble's observations also led to the Big Bang theory, which states that if the universe is expanding, it must have had a beginning and is therefore not infinite.

To 19th century astronomers, Olbers' paradox seemed to have no satisfactory answer. There was nothing wrong with Olbers' logic; his conclusion was wrong because he began with the wrong assumptions. Nobody could correct his assumptions because they were shared by everyone. Olbers never thought to prove that the universe was infinite because no one could imagine a finite universe.

I'm sure that our generation, too, has its unspoken assumptions that nobody would challenge, but that are nevertheless still untrue. Sometimes I wonder, what are our Olbers' paradoxes? When people of the future look back at the 21st century, what will they see about us that we all missed?

Sometimes, when I'm feeling a little too secure in my knowledge, I ponder Olbers' paradox and wonder just how many false assumptions I'm making.


At 10/18/2005 9:49 AM, Blogger Monk-in-Training said...

That is a POWERFUL thought! The first thing I think of is the Left Behind series of books. I mean why are WE the "last" generation? After all, there are many, many generations. You have given me much to ponder.


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