Red Shift – life in an expanding Universe

Red Shift – life in an expanding Universe

Red Shift – life in an expanding Universe

We live in a Universe that is expanding.

We know this is so because scientists have made observations that tell us it is true… but how do they know and what does this fact mean to us, living our busy lives?

If you ever take the time to look deep into the clear night sky, you will not detect this expansion at all… even though it is occurring at an incredible rate. All that we can see from earth is the twinkling of some of the stars, and if we take a moment to be very still and very open, we may sense the indescribable and ageless stillness of the Universe.

In those moments that we make the time to look, it is almost impossible to imagine those stars and galaxies moving away from us at enormous speeds. It is almost dizzying to think about it and its grand scale. The Universe is not just expanding in a flat plane, like a sprawling city with new developments growing at a pace from its centre. It is growing in all directions, a little like a balloon being inflated, with far distant galaxies moving even faster than those at the centre.

We cannot detect this expansion for the simple reason that the Universe is incomprehensibly huge – the stars are so far away that no matter how fast they move to our eyes they remain fixed. Even the enormity of the Milky Way Galaxy is but a speck in the whole Universe, so how can we humans, with a perspective limited by the fact that we are stuck on our little planet, know this is true?

It is actually very difficult to make observations about such massive events as the expansion of the entire Universe when you are

  1. very, very small, and
  2. right in the thick of those events. When every single thing around you is moving, there is no stable point from which to measure – everything is moving… including you.

It is also a fact that we humans live such short lives in terms of the age of the Universe that one entire human lifetime would not be long enough to detect and measure a change in the position of the stars. In fact a person would have to have lived thousands of years and have kept impeccable star records from the very start of their life to have absolute, irrefutable proof of the expansion.

Very cleverly we have used other forms of observation, most notably of subtle shifts in light, to not only make the claim about expansion, but to measure its extraordinary speeds.

Edwin Hubble was the man credited with not so much the discovery of the expanding Universe (Einstein’s relativity equations had hinted at it), but gathering and analysing the data that confirmed it was so. What he discovered were subtle shifts in the colour measurable in the light data gathered from certain galaxies. For some galaxies (notably the Andromeda galaxy) the light is subtly shifted towards blue. He was able to show, mathematically, that Andromeda galaxy is moving towards us. The colour shift of the light from virtually every other galaxy is very subtly shifted towards red, “red shift” showing that they are moving away.

Light/waves/energy undergo a change in quality when the object that emits them moves, and they do this in a predictable way that can also be measured. The waves or pulses appear to get very slightly stretched when they move away. This has an effect of slightly lengthening the wavelength, making the light from those stars become slightly red – hence red shift.

The waves appear to get compressed when they move towards us. This squeezes the wavelength, making light in this case becomes slightly blue – hence blue shift.

We cannot see this colour shift with our eyes. It is so very subtle that it can only be detected with very delicate, light sensitive, astronomical equipment. If you see a star gleaming red or blue, that is not red or blue “shifting”, rather it is related to the nature of that star, the gases that make it up, its age amongst other factors.

The stars provide the means through which we can measure the expansion of the Universe. They have become our focus so to speak, for they are the reference points that capture our eyes and our attention. What we do not consider is the fact that the seeming emptiness of the space between the stars is expanding too. Simply put, in every passing moment of time, there is more space.

What does this mean for us on our little blue green planet, sitting in its small but very beautiful galaxy?

Well it is possible for us to imagine that it means absolutely nothing – after all there are so many more pressing issues here on earth to deal with. There are bills to pay, children to educate, family dilemmas to solve, work problems, sports teams not living up to expectations… the list of things that clamour for our attention is endless.

The intensity of our day-to-day issues, played out against the tension of a discordant world at large, makes it easy to ignore the fact that we are inescapably a part of a Universe that is inexorably getting larger. From the moment you started reading this article until now every single thing in the Universe has moved, and space has expanded…

Although it seems too easy to do so, we cannot fool ourselves forever that we are in any way separate from the grandness of this phenomenon, that somehow we are uninvolved because we have too much on, too many problems to deal with and can’t fit the consideration of this into our busy schedules. For space is not “out there somewhere”, it is interwoven throughout every single particle/atom/object in this Universe. It is everywhere, it is in and through everything… it is in and through us.

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Space is an intelligence

A glimpse of space.

That we have left concerns about this to the astrophysicists is a great loss to us all as a humanity. It is a reminder of days long gone when we handed our concerns about God over to the bishops, cardinals and popes… for in leaving God to them, we forgot that we are all God’s sons, unequivocally and equally so. To our terrible detriment, we lost connection to the innate relationship with divinity that is our birthright.

How is our choice to disengage from the Universe and its subtle yet inexorable expansive call any different? Do we imagine that it is only some people with certain qualifications who have the right to look deeply into the night sky and feel themselves at one with its extraordinary mystery?

We need not know the intricacies of red shift and its mathematical proofs to be at one with the Universe that is our home, for its science lives and breathes through every particle of our being. Too easily it is overlooked, for just as we forgot we are God’s sons, we also forgot that we are a living science. Our education with its emphasis on high distinctions and IQ scores has allowed us to forget that we are innately and extraordinarily intelligent. We handed away our capacity to know to others who are deemed to have superior intelligence and expertise because they have learned a lot… but have left their bodies and deeper wisdom behind in the process.

That is why it is so important to take a moment to stop… and look deeply into the clear night sky and reclaim us as part of the exquisite whole. You will not see the expansion, but if you are willing, you may feel its delicate and inescapable call all around and within you.

Dare we give ourselves the moment’s pause to feel this truth?

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  • Photography: Susannah Williams