I first starting hearing about Gamma Ray Bursts in the early years of this Century, bits and pieces of reports of strange goings-on coming from the beginning of time.  As more details emerged, I began wondering, Could this be confirmation of those collapsing columns of hydrogen and helium ions I'd contemplated so many years ago?  Then, in 2004, the Science Channel aired a show that put it all together, tracing the history of the bursts from their discovery to solution and I did a mental "Gotcha!" as my question was answer with a resounding "Yes!"  The gamma rays bursts were, indeed, the birth announcements of supermassive black holes forming in ancient star nurseries, and, the cosmologists had figured out, a significant igniter of stars within those nurseries.  Now all that was left was for those same cosmologists to figure out that they also signaled the birth of spiral galaxies; that the very first primordial clouds of hydrogen and helium were rift with electrical storms as streams of electrons flooded into them; and that the first great cosmological event was the collapse of a column of those ions into the first supermassive black hole, which gave light to the Universe(s) by igniting the first stars.  (At the first writing of this page in 2008, they hadn't.  At the present revision of this page, August 2011, they still haven't.  What are these people doing?)

(Whatever).  One curious irony that intrigued me as the show aired was the fact that the bursts were first noticed in 1967 (just a few years after I'D been going to bed with visions of collapsing columns of ions dancing in my head) by spy satellites designed to detect either uranium or hydrogen bombs detonated in Space, giving the military a couple of weeks of bad nights until they figured that the Russian were not testing bombs in Space.  I wondered whether anything would have been different if I'd known about those satellites' discovery but then thought, Say in 1974 or 5 an obscure PhD candidate submitted a thesis arguing that condensing columns of hydrogen and helium ions, deep within massive clouds of the same, surrounded by massive electrical storms, bursts of lightning being the only light the Universes(s) had yet seen, suddenly collapsed into supermassive, bottomless gravity wells and not only ignited the first stars but formed the first spiral galaxies as well, all based on nothing more than a little logic, equations based on Classical Physics (long since banished by Quantum Mechanics Theorists) and some questionable data from spy satellites.  Buy that and I'll start trying to sell you the UVS.

I'd have been booted out before the first bar of the theme-song from Branded played out.

With that little irony out of the way, I found myself getting irritated as the history unraveled,  mainly because every time some one came up with a logical insight, everybody else either ignored it or tried to shoot it down while, at the same time, defending totally unfounded assumptions.  These were scientists, not mathematicians, but they sure as hell weren't acting like it.   For example, once the military data was declassified and published in 1973 those few astrophysicists who took notice just assumed that they reflected some kind of events taking place within the Milky Way.  Then, in X, X did a survey and found that the bursts were all over the sky, and that, in fact, none were coming from the plane of the Milky Way itself.  This should have shot down the notion that the bursts came from the Milky Way; instead it resulted in X being exiled with his reputation in ruins until, a few years latter, his observations, which could have been replicated by any of his fellows, were irrefutably confirmed by more and more sophisticated satellite data.  This is not how science is done - it's how academics and clerics behave when orthodoxy is questioned and I almost turned the program off in disgust.

but I didn't and was quickly rewarded with X's rehabilitation and the-now-called-cosmological community's contrition, seasoned with a new-found willingness to acknowledge that they didn't know their head from their ass, however short-lived that contrition might be.  Still engaged, I watched
until the end and many of my own notions were confirmed.  It was a very good presentation, treating the subject like a detective story and keeping the viewer jumping with twists and turns and everything working out in the end.  But one thing kept troubling me - real scientists ignoring the scientific method and trying to fry any of their colleagues  who didn't.  X was doing what any real scientist would do, gathering data and testing a hypothesis, and for this he was virtually crucified, his career nearly ruined.  Still sticks in my craw and makes me very happy that I never attempted a connection with these people or their disciplines.

And the show left me with something else, an unintended consequence.  Throughout, the show kept emphasizing that the bursts were coming from the early years of the Universe(s), falling within a range of 9 to 12 billion light-years, 9-to-12 billion light-years over and over, banging that drum constantly until it became like a mantra and ,like any good mantra, produced insight.

How, I found myself thinking, have we gotten to be 9-12 billion light years away from anything in only 13.5 billion years (the currently accepted age of the Universe(s))?  Has the UVB been traveling at the speed of light for 13.5 billion years?  We couldn't, not even close or we'd all be ripped apart by tidal forces, along with our planets, suns and galaxies.  This was a startling question, especially seeming to come out of nowhere, and its implication much, much more so.

The Universe(s) have to be far older than we believe.

My first reaction was to assume that I'd missed something, misinterpreted  something, and I immediately started revisiting the various standards we've used to estimate the Universe(s)' age, beginning with Hubble's Constant, and quickly realized that there were big problems.  Hubble had assumed that the expansion would proceed in a predictable pattern based on the red shift he was measuring and here's the rub: ONLY energy moves in that pattern, NOT matter, not suns or planets or galaxies.  The result is that the size of the Observable Universe can be measured by red shift but not its age. The same is true of all of our standards of measure, all the way up to WMAP: size, not age.  To measure its age, we'll need to figure out the average rate of expansion, which might be a bit daunting.  For example, try to establish how many data points you'd need to determine how long it would take a car to travel 10 miles without knowing the speed of the car and without cheating.  One every 100 feet? 50 feet? 10 feet? all measuring the speed of the car as it passes.  How fast can a car speed up and slow down, how many data points does that add or eliminate?

With the car we can cheat: a beginning point, an endpoint and a stopwatch and who cares how fast it was moving in between.  With the UVB, we can't cheat, each data point would have to be meticulously identified by finding two galaxies roughly the same distance from us and measuring over a significant period of time how fast they're distancing themselves from one another; then take another reading at the same distance of two more galaxies and so on and so on until you've got a statistically meaningful sample - for that distance.  Then go 1,000,000 light years nearer or farther and do the same thing all over again: that's roughly 12,500 levels of observation times whatever number of observations it takes to establish a meaningful sample.  Long before we got close to gathering that amount of data, a simple question would pop up: Who cares?

And I'd agree, it's really an insignificant piece of information, more important in its absence than its knowing.

The phrase, "How old are the Universe(s)" could turn out to be a very effective reminder that, as much as we might think we know stuff, we don't; not even something as fundamental as the age of the Universe(s).

Personally, I'm amazed that I didn't figure all of this out sooner and that the Cosmological community has yet to figure it out at all.




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