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The Big Bang

... we too are stardust...

Hilde settled herself comfortably in the glider beside her


father. It was nearly midnight. They sat looking out
across the bay. A few stars glimmered palely in the light
sky. Gentle waves lapped over the stones under the
dock.
Her father broke the silence.
"It's a strange thought that we live on a tiny little
planet in the universe."
" Ye s . . . "
' 'Earth is only one of many planets orbiting the sun.
Yet Earth is the only living planet."
"Perhaps the only one in the entire universe?"
"It's possible. But it's also possible that the universe
is teeming with life. The universe is inconceivably huge.
The distances are so great that we measure them in
light-minutes and light-years."
"What are they, actually?"
"A light-minute is the distance light travels in one
minute. And that's a long way, because light travels
through space at 300,000 kilometers a second. That
means that a light-minute is 60 times 300,000—or 18
million kilometers. A light-year is nearly ten trillion kil-
ometers."
"How far away is the sun?"
"It's a little over eight light-minutes away. The rays
of sunlight warming our faces on a hot June day have
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traveled for eight minutes through the universe before
they reach us."
"Goon..."
"Pluto, which is the planet farthest out in our solar
system, is about five light-hours away from us. When an
astronomer looks at Pluto through his telescope, he is in
fact looking five hours back in time. We could also say
that the picture of Pluto takes five hours to get here."
"It's a bit hard to visualize, but I think I understand."
"That's good, Hilde. But we here on Earth are only
just beginning to orient ourselves. Our own sun is one
of 400 billion other stars in the galaxy we call the Milky
Way. This galaxy resembles a large discus, with our sun
situated in one of its several spiral arms. When we look
up at the sky on a clear winter's night, we see a broad
band of stars. This is because we are looking toward the
center of the Milky Way."
"I suppose that's why the Milky Way is called 'Win-
ter Street' in Swedish."
"The distance to the star in the Milky Way that is our
nearest neighbor is four light-years. Maybe that's it just
above the island over there. If you could imagine that at
this very moment a stargazer is sitting up there with a
powerful telescope pointing at Bjerkely—he would see
Bjerkely as it looked four years ago. He might see an
eleven-year-old girl swinging her legs in the glider."
"Incredible."
"But that's only the nearest star. The whole galaxy—
or nebula, as we also call it—is 90,000 light-years wide.
That is another way of describing the time it takes for
light to travel from one end of the galaxy to the other.
When we gaze at a star in the Milky Way which is
50,000 light-years away from our sun, we are looking
back 50,000 years in time."
"The idea is much too big for my little head."
"The only way we can look out into space, then, is
to look back in time. We can never know what the uni-
verse is like now. We only know what it was like then.
When we look up at a star that is thousands of light-
years away, we are really traveling thousands of years
back in the history of space."
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"It's completely incomprehensible."
"But everything we see meets the eye in the form of
light waves. And these light waves take time to travel
through space. We could compare it to thunder. We al-
ways hear the thunder after we have seen the lightning.
That's because sound waves travel slower than light
waves. When I hear a peal of thunder, I'm hearing the
sound of something that happened a little while ago. It's
the same thing with the stars. When I look at a star that
is thousands of light-years away, I'm seeing the 'peal of
thunder' from an event that lies thousands of years back
in time."
"Yes, I see."
"But so far, we've only been talking about our own
galaxy. Astronomers say there are about a hundred bil-
lion of such galaxies in the universe, and each of these
galaxies consists of about a hundred billion stars. We
call the nearest galaxy to the Milky Way the Andromeda
nebula. It lies two million light-years from our own gal-
axy. That means the light from that galaxy takes two
million years to reach us. So we're looking two million
years back in time when we see the Andromeda nebula
high up in the sky. If there was a clever stargazer in this
nebula—I can just imagine him pointing his telescope
at Earth right now—he wouldn't be able to see us. If he
was lucky, he'd see a few flat-faced Neanderthals."
"It's amazing."
"The most distant galaxies we know of today are
about ten billion light-years away from us. When we
receive signals from these galaxies, we are going ten
billion years back in the history of the universe. That's
about twice as long as our own solar system has ex-
isted."
"You're making me dizzy."
"Although it is hard enough to comprehend what it
means to look so far back in time, astronomers have
discovered something that has even greater significance
for our world picture.''
"What?"
"Apparently no galaxy in space remains where it is.
All the galaxies in the universe are moving away from
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each other at colossal speeds. The further they are away


from us, the quicker they move. That means that the
distance between the galaxies is increasing all the time."
"I'm trying to picture it."
"If you have a balloon and you paint black spots on
it, the spots will move away from each other as you blow
up the balloon. That's what's happening with the gal-
axies in the universe. We say that the universe is ex-
panding."
"What makes it do that?"
"Most astronomers agree that the expanding universe
can only have one explanation: Once upon a time, about
15 billion years ago, all substance in the universe was
assembled in a relatively small area. The substance was
so dense that gravity made it terrifically hot. Finally it
got so hot and so tightly packed that it exploded. We
call this explosion the Big Bang."
"Just the thought of it makes me shudder."
"The Big Bang caused all the substance in the uni-
verse to be expelled in all directions, and as it gradually
cooled, it formed stars and galaxies and moons and plan-
ets ..."
"But I thought you said the universe was still ex-
panding?"
"Yes I did, and it's expanding precisely because of
this explosion billions of years ago. The universe has no
timeless geography. The universe is a happening. The
universe is an explosion. Galaxies continue to fly
through the universe away from each other at colossal
speeds."
"Will they go on doing that for ever?"
"That's one possibility. But there is another. You may
recall that Alberto told Sophie about the two forces that
cause the planets to remain in constant orbit round the
sun?"
"Weren't they gravity and inertia?"
"Right, and the same thing applies to the galaxies.
Because even though the universe continues to expand,
the force of gravity is working the other way. And one
day, in a couple of billion years, gravity will perhaps
cause the heavenly bodies to be packed together again
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as the force of the huge explosion begins to weaken.


Then we would get a reverse explosion, a so-called im-
plosion. But the distances are so great that it will happen
like a movie that is run in slow motion. You might com-
pare it with what happens when you release the air from
a balloon."
"Will all the galaxies be drawn together in a tight
nucleus again?"
"Yes, you've got it. But what will happen then?"
"There would be another Big Bang and the universe
would start expanding again. Because the same natural
laws are in operation. And so new stars and galaxies
will form."
"Good thinking. Astronomers think there are two
possible scenarios for the future of the universe. Either
the universe will go on expanding forever so that the
galaxies will draw further and further apart—or the uni-
verse will begin to contract again. How heavy and mas-
sive the universe is will determine what happens. And
this is something astronomers have no way of knowing
as yet."
"But if the universe is so heavy that it begins to con-
tract again, perhaps it has expanded and contracted lots
of times before."
"That would be an obvious conclusion. But on this
point theory is divided. It may be that the expansion of
the universe is something that will only happen this one
time. But if it keeps on expanding for all eternity, the
question of where it all began becomes even more press-
ing."
"Yes, where did it come from, all that stuff that sud-
denly exploded?"
"For a Christian, it would be obvious to see the Big
Bang as the actual moment of creation. The Bible tells
us that God said 'Let there be light!' You may possibly
also remember that Alberto indicated Christianity's 'lin-
ear' view of history. From the point of view of a Chris-
tian belief in the creation, it is better to imagine the
universe continuing to expand."
"It is?"
"In the Orient they have a 'cyclic' view of history.
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In other words, history repeats itself eternally. In India,
for example, there is an ancient theory that the world
continually unfolds and folds again, thus alternating be-
tween what Indians have called Brahman's Day and
Brahman's Night. This idea harmonizes best, of course,
with the universe expanding and contracting—in order
to expand again—in an eternal cyclic process. I have a
mental picture of a great cosmic heart that beats and
beats and beats..."
"I think both theories are equally inconceivable and
equally exciting."
"And they can compare with the great paradox of
eternity that Sophie once sat pondering in her garden:
either the universe has always been there—or it sud-
denly came into existence out of nothing ..."
"Ouch!"
Hilde clapped her hand to her forehead.
"What was that?"
"I think I've just been stung by a gadfly."
"It was probably Socrates trying to sting you into
life."

Sophie and Alberto had been sitting in the red convertible


listening to the major tell Hilde about the universe.
"Has it struck you that our roles are completely re-
versed?" asked Alberto after a while.
"In what sense?"
"Before it was they who listened to us, and we couldn't
see them. Now we're listening to them and they can't see
us."
"And that's not all."
"What are you referring to?"
"When we started, we didn't know about the other re-
ality that Hilde and the major inhabited. Now they don't
know about ours."
"Revenge is sweet."
"But the major could intervene in our world."
"Our world was nothing but his interventions."
"I haven't yet relinquished all hope that we may also
intervene in their world."
"But you know that's impossible. Remember what hap-
510
pened in the Cinderella? I saw you trying to get out that
bottle of Coke."
Sophie was silent. She gazed out over the garden while
the major explained about the Big Bang. There was
something about that term which started a train of thought
in her mind.
She began to rummage around in the car.
"What are you doing?" asked Alberto.
"Nothing."
She opened the glove compartment and found a
wrench. She grabbed it and jumped out of the car. She
went over to the glider and stood right in front of Hilde
and her father. First she tried to catch Hilde's eye but that
was quite useless. Finally she raised the wrench above
her head and crashed it down on Hilde's forehead.
"Ouch!" said Hilde.
Then Sophie hit the major on his forehead, but he didn't
react at all.
"What was that?" he asked.
"I think I've just been stung by a gadfly."
"It was probably Socrates trying to sting you into life."
Sophie lay down on the grass and tried to push the
glider. But it remained motionless. Or did she manage to
get it to move a millimeter?
"There's a chilly breeze coming up," said Hilde.
"No, there isn't. It's very mild."
"It's not only that. There is something."
"Only the two of us and the cool summer night."
"No, there's something in the air."
"And what might that be?"
"You remember Alberto and his secret plan?"
"How could I forget!"
"They simply disappeared from the garden party. It
was as if they had vanished into thin air..."
"Yes, but. . ."
". . . into thin air."
"The story had to end somewhere. It was just something
I wrote."
"That was, yes, but not what happened afterward. Sup-
pose they were here ..."
"Do you believe that?"
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"I can feel it, Dad."


Sophie ran back to the car.
"Impressive/' said Alberto grudgingly as she climbed
on board clasping the wrench tightly in her hand. "You
have unusual talents, Sophie. Just wait and see."

The major put his arm around Hilde.


"Do you hear the mysterious play of the waves?"
"Yes. We must get the boat in the water tomorrow."
"But do you hear the strange whispering of the wind?
Look how the aspen leaves are trembling."
"The planet is alive, you know ..."
"You wrote that there was something between the
lines."
"I did?"
"Perhaps there is something between the lines in this
garden too."
"Nature is full of enigmas. But we are talking about
stars in the sky."
"Soon there will be stars on the water."
"That's right. That's what you used to say about
phosphorescence when you were little. And in a sense
you were right. Phosphorescence and all other organisms
are made of elements that were once blended together
in a star,"
"Us too?"
"Yes, we too are Stardust."
' 'That was beautifully put.''
"When radio telescopes can pick up light from distant
galaxies billions of light-years away, they will be chart-
ing the universe as it looked in primeval times after the
Big Bang- Everything we can see in the sky is a cosmic
fossil from thousands and millions of years ago. The
only thing an astrologer can do is predict the past."
"Because the stars in the constellations moved away
from each other long before their light reached us,
right?"
"Even two thousand years ago, the constellations
looked considerably different from the way they look
today."
* 'I never knew that.''
512
"If it's a clear night, we can see millions, even bil-
lions of years back into the history of the universe. So
in a way, we are going home."
"I don't know what you mean."
"You and I also began with the Big Bang, because
all substance in the universe is an organic unity. Once
in a primeval age all matter was gathered in a clump so
enormously massive that a pinhead weighed many bil-
lions of tons. This 'primeval atom' exploded because of
the enormous gravitation. It was as if something disin-
tegrated. When we look up at the sky, we are trying to
find the way back to ourselves."
"What an extraordinary thing to say."
"All the stars and galaxies in the universe are made
of the same substance. Parts of it have lumped them-
selves together, some here, some there. There can be
billions of light-years between one galaxy and the next.
But they all have the same origin. All stars and all plan-
ets belong to the same family."
"Yes, I see."
"But what is this earthly substance? What was it that
exploded that time billions of years ago? Where did it
come from?"
"That is the big question."
"And a question that concerns us all very deeply. For
we ourselves are of that substance. We are a spark from
the great fire that was ignited many billions of years
ago."
"That's a beautiful thought too."
"However, we must not exaggerate the importance of
these figures. It is enough just to hold a stone in your
hand. The universe would have been equally incompre-
hensible if it had only consisted of that one stone the
size of an orange. The question would be just as impen-
etrable: where did this stone come from?"

Sophie suddenly stood up in the red convertible and


pointed out over the bay.
"I want to try the rowboat/' she said.
"It's tied up. And we would never be able to lift the
oars."
513
"Shall we try? After all, it is Midsummer Eve."
"We can go down to the water, at any rate."
They jumped out of the car and ran down the garden.
They tried to loosen the rope that was made fast in a
metal ring. But they could not even lift one end.
"It's as good as nailed down," said Alberto.
"We've got plenty of time."
"A true philosopher must never give up. If we could
just. . .get it loose ..."

"There are more stars now," said Hilde.


"Yes, when the summer night is darkest." [
' 'But they sparkle more in winter. Do you remember
the night before you left for Lebanon? It was New
Year's Day."
"That was when I decided to write a book about phi-
losophy for you. I had been to a large bookstore in Kris-
tiansand and to the library too. But they had nothing
suitable for young people."
"It's as if we are sitting at the very tip of the fine
hairs in the white rabbit's fur."
"I wonder if there is anyone out there in the night of
the light-years?"
"The rowboat has worked itself loose!"
"So it has!"
"I don't understand it. I went down and checked it
just before you got here."
"Did you?"
"It reminds me of when Sophie borrowed Alberto's
boat. Do you remember how it lay drifting out in the
lake?"
"I bet it's her at work again."
"Go ahead and make of me. All evening, I've been
able to feel someone here."
"One of us will have to swim out to it."
"We'll both go, Dad."