The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

October 2, 2012

Ralph Couey | The center of ... everything

Ralph Couey

— The universe fascinates me, and has since my formative years during that breathless era known as “The Space Race.” My earliest recognizable memory was following Alan Shepherd’s Mercury suborbital flight on the radio (yes, the radio). It was a wonderful time in history. NASA reigned supreme, and everything seemed possible.

We would put men on the moon before 1970, so it seemed logical, even expected, that human footprints would decorate the surface of Mars by the 1980s.

But times and national priorities change. We still explore space with robots, but it is sad that humans haven’t left earth’s orbit in … well, it will be 40 years in December.

Even today I still remain deeply curious about space. I watch a lot of space-oriented programs on the television, and I’ve learned a lot.

But I still find myself looking into the night sky at distant stars and wondering if there might be someone up there looking back at me, asking the same unanswerable question.

In trying to understand the universe, scientists have probed deeply, achieving amazing discoveries.

Planets range from small and rocky to huge orbs of rotating gasses. The smaller ones contain various layers of progressively denser rock as one gets closer to the center.

Some, like ours, contain hot cores of molten metal. As this core rotates, it creates a protective magnetic field that shields the planet’s surface from life-robbing radiation.

Earth has such a field. But her close relatives, Venus and Mars, do not.

In our solar system, and also some other systems now being discovered, are the gas giants. Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune consist of rotating atmospheres of carbon-based gasses. Some speculate that as the elemental carbon sank into the depths over the millennia, the incredible pressures at the core of such giants may have created planet-sized diamonds.

At the heart of every planetary system is a star. Some placidly carry planets in an orbital dance that lasts for billions of years. But there are other stars that are large and violent, spewing radiation in explosive outbursts that make any form of life impossible for several light years in every direction.

At the core of our sun, hydrogen is fusing into helium, generating both heat and light. This will go on for billions of years until the hydrogen is exhausted. Then the sun will turn from yellow to red and expand, engulfing the inner planets. Once the sun’s outer shells have been given up to the universe, what remains will be a relatively small white dwarf.

Stars are organized into galaxies, which can hold as many as 500 billion stars. At the core of most galaxies lies the most destructive and ravenous force known: A super-massive black hole, generating a gravity field so intense that even light cannot escape.

So we know what lies at the middle of planets, stars and galaxies, all constituent parts of the larger place we call the universe. Most people know about the Big Bang (the theory, not the television show) which postulates that our universe started when an incredibly dense singularity exploded, spreading itself into space. For all intents and purposes, this was the moment that time began.

As the debris from the explosion spread, it cooled and coalesced into the structures we understand today – galaxies, stars, planets, asteroids and comets. Oh yes, and dark matter.

Late one night, after a long and contemplative motorcycle ride, I looked up and asked myself two questions: Where are we in relation to the center of the universe? What lies at the center of the universe; at the center of everything?

The universe continues to expand, some say at an increasing rate. So is the center of everything a bubble of nothing? Or would we find in that bubble debris from that titanic explosion that gave birth to everything we know?

These are imponderables; questions we can ask but may never be answered. But humans have always possessed an inextinguishable sense of curiosity and wonder. 

The questions we ask about the universe may not be solved in the here and now.

But the answers are out there, and I have great faith in humanity’s questing, restless intelligence.

Besides. We will never find the answer unless we first ask the question.



Ralph F. Couey of Chantilly, Va., is a freelance writer and occasional contributor to The Tribune-Democrat.

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