Popular Science

In his first PopSci appearance, a young Stephen Hawking explains an incredible discovery

In the December 1980 issue of Popular Science, a 38-year-old theoretical answers the ultimate question about the universe.

Are we close to knowing the fate of the universe?

Are we close to knowing the fate of the universe?

Popular Science, December 1980

How will the universe end? Will it sputter out in a realm of ice, cooling continually as it expands until it reaches the absolute zero of temperature throughout its vast expanse? Will it die in a fiery blast as its component parts rush together faster and faster until they all meet in an enormous fireball? Or will the cosmos live on forever, expanding and contracting in relentless succession?

It is the ultimate question that man can ask, and it carries striking overtones of theology and philosophy. Yet, incredibly, astronomers think they will soon know the answer.

Their confidence stems from their success in answering, through a combination of observations and theoretical advances, a host of related questions over the past two decades. Did the universe begin in a spectacular explosion (the "big bang" theory) or was it simply always there, constantly renewing itself (the steady-state theory)? How did matter collect into the giant assemblages of stars we call galaxies? What is the nature of such bizarre entities as quasars and black holes? And what evidence do they contribute toward solving the ultimate puzzle?

The search for the answers to such questions has produced a picture of the universe fundamentally different from the one that existed before. Where cosmologists—the astronomers who make a specialty of understanding the nature of the universe—once thought that it was unchanging and serene, they now see it as dynamic, violent, and wracked by explosions on a scale too vast for human minds to comprehend.

Strange, almost incredible objects populate the cosmos of today: cosmic vacuum cleaners named black holes, so dense that even beams of light cannot escape from them; tiny beacons of energy called quasars, no larger than the solar system, that emit more energy than millions of stars; and galaxies so vast that it would take an intrepid space traveler literally millions of years to cross them. Just as amazing as these objects is the fact that cosmologists think they can understand what roles the objects play in the life of the universe. "Rarely in the history of science has there been an equivalent period in which the boundaries of our understanding have been enlarged so dramatically," declares Vera Rubin of the Carnegie Institution of Washington.

Cosmologists have argued about the development of the universe since 1930. In that year, a young astronomer named Edwin Hubble of Hale Observatories published a startling paper. Hubble had been studying the spectra of galaxies—the huge clusters of stars that populate the universe, most of them incredibly distant from Earth.

Spectral anaylsis of stars,

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