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Strange Universe: Theory Chaotic
by Bob Berman

Bob Berman is Astronomy magazine's "Strange Universe" columnist. He's also been Discover Magazine's astronomy columnist since 1989, and is responsible for the astronomy section of the Old Farmers Almanac.

An astronomy professor and author of two major books ("Secrets of the Night Sky," Morrow 1996, and "Cosmic Adventure," HarperCollins 1999), Berman has a weekly segment on National Public Radio, and has appeared on numerous TV shows such as Today, CBS This Morning, and Late Night with David Letterman. This article appeared in his July 2004 Column in Astronomy Magazine.

Being a backyard astronomer is not confusing. The universe's beauty is obvious, as is the existence of its stars and planets. We gaze through our scopes at Jupiter and watch its ice-and-water moons whirling around like a staged snowball fight. Ours is a playground of glorious imagery, astonishing size, and mathematical motion.

Bob Berman's Strange Universe
..Bob Berman. Maybe he can get away with it?!

Then there's cosmology. Dealing with the universe's birth, inventory, and evolution, it should theoretically round off our hobby and passion by putting our beloved targets - Saturn, Andromeda, and the rest - in perspective. It's where brilliant men and women stretch our minds by bringing us the latest cosmic concepts and discoveries. Isn't that fun?

Well, ten years ago it was fun. Now I'm not so sure. Back in the early 1990s, we seemed to have a handle on the whole thing. We had a Big Bang that was admittedly a weird event nobody could begin to explain. But like a bizarre sci-fi flick such as Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, once you accept the strange original premise, the rest more or less makes sense.

You know the story: The cosmos starts out smaller than a pencil's eraser, having popped here from, in astrophysics jargon, "somewhere else, " Then, by an unexplainable process dubbed inflation, it expanded faster than the speed of light. In less than a second, the whole inflation business was over and the universe started to coast.

Scientists then said, "Okay, we'll handle it from here.' They created good explanations for how three of the four forces were once unified (gravity never fit in) and how galaxies, and rottweilers formed after that.

Through it all, one thing seemed certain: Gravity slowed expansion. The Holy Grail (circa 1993) was to pin down the strength of this "deceleration parameter" to see if the cosmos would ever re-collapse. It was a single-issue crusade, but headed in the wrong direction.

With a collective gasp, we learned, just as reality TV shows were becoming popular, something wacky happened before Earth was born: The cosmos started to expand faster. Its gears turned fast, slow and fast again.

Cosmology gurus figured 70 percent of the universe must be composed of an anti-gravity force called dark energy. This was fine except nobody had the slightest idea what that was.

"It's the cosmological constant!" answered some, but they didn't know what that meant either.

Others wondered," Maybe it's a mysterious thing called quintessence, and the universe will expand at an accelerating tempo forever?"

Or maybe not. Some cosmologists believe dark energy may lose its oomph over time and could totally reverse its power, making the universe collapse. Not so fast, say others. A new, trendy notion is that the cosmos could eventually produce a “Big Rip” causing everything—even atoms—to explode.

Pursuing yet another tack called string theory - which doesn't even work unless we give reality at least seven additional dimensions, none of which can be seen or tested - some maintain membranes existing in other dimensions occasionally touch one another, and that's what explosively creates things like our universe.

Suddenly, we're imbedded in a frothy quantum foam of unlimited possibilities. It's a free-for-all where each solemnly presented theory is soon changed or rebutted.

In one sense, it's very cool. Imagination rules! It's a unique period in cosmology's history. Throw the math this way, that way, tweak the equations, set fire to the physics building, nothing matters. It's Alice in Wonderland meets Stephen Hawking.

Unfortunately, cosmologists are starting to resemble naked emperors parading before the mass media. Hey, we love you, but you have no clue about the universe's true origin or fate, and little knowledge of its composition. Yet each pronouncement is delivered with pomp and flair. Maybe you need a serious "time out."

So how do we relate to all this? We should divide this magazine into two sections. The first deals with optics, gadgets, software, planets and nebulae, observations, beauty, and real science - like always.

The other section has a disclaimer: "Warning: The following contains contemporary cosmology. Reading it can produce disorientation and confusion. Nobody knows what's going on and nothing you read here is likely to be true."

Then, we happily turn our scopes to the Moon and other favorites, knowing they'll be there tomorrow – no strings attached.