Just how big is the Universe? When, and where, will it end? Could you, theoretically speaking, fly a spaceship off the edge and meet up with yourself in another dimension - you know, like in that episode of Star Trek? My friend Barry knows someone who used to work for NASA, and he says that this actually happened during one of the Moon landings.
These are the kinds of questions that have preoccupied drunks, astrophysicists and drunken astrophysicists for centuries. And whilst there are many theories about the nature of the Universe, there are only three solid facts of which we can be absolutely certain:
These facts only suggest further questions. If the Universe is expanding, when will it stop? Will it just keep getting bigger, or will it meet some kind of barrier? Maybe the fabric of space-time will become too stretched and the Universe will just pop, like a balloon, or a transdimensional frog on a bicycle pump? And if, in space, no one can hear your scream, presumably no one can hear you sing either. This being the case, why hasn't Geri Halliwell been selected for the next shuttle mission?
We couldn't get our heads round it, and since we had a deadline to meet, we asked Dr Heinz Volkswagen of the Munich Institute of Astrophysics to explain it to us in words of one syllable. Since Dr Volkswagen is German, he doesn't know any words with less than fourteen syllables, and so we sought the advice of Professor Lazlo M Monkeybush Von-Straffepixie IV, Third Viscount of Upper Smogmorton-on-Thames, BSc, MSc, JVc and Rector of St Derek's College, Adelaide - or Laz to his friends. He gives us a cup of coffee and some Chocolate Hob Nobs, and talks us through it very slowly.
"In the beginning, it was like bang! You know," he tells us, using a variety of household objects arranged on the coffee table to represent various stages in the ongoing saga of the Universe. "But not just bang, man. Cos this was like THE BIGGEST bang in the history of the whole shooting match, know what I mean. Kaboom! Pow! Splat! This was 'The Big Bang'."
He demonstrates the awesome outpouring of energy in which the Universe was formed by spilling his coffee. We start to get the picture.
"And this is the beginning of everything, you know. This is the beginning of space, the beginning of time. The beginning of stars, planets, comets. This is the beginning of physics itself."
In his enthusiasm he crushes the Hob Nobs. We are understandably disappointed, but we begin to get a real appreciation of the scale of the event.
"This is where everything comes from. EVERYTHING. This is where you and me ultimately come from. Where cars and trees and rivers come from. Where chocolate comes from. And camels. And hats. And camels that wear hats. And spoons. And those things that they used to use to do up buttons with. And Wilma Flintstone. And electric arc welding equipment."
And so on. Professor Laz spends the next 45 minutes listing various things that are ultimately derived from the Big Bang, including a disturbing amount of time on ladies' sanitary products. Only when he is absolutely certain that we understand does he move on.
"So, like, everything in the Universe comes from the Big Bang," he concludes. "Except dry roasted peanuts. Nobody knows where the fuck they come from. But everything else does. Now, that's a lot of stuff and initially the Universe is very small. Like really, really small. Imagine the smallest thing you can think of, yeah?"
We think about something really small. It's hungry work, and by now we are wishing that some of the biscuits had escaped the earlier catastrophe.
"Thought of something? Right, well halve it. Now halve it again. Pretty small, huh? Well, that's nowhere freaking near how small the Universe was. It was so small that it had no dimensions at all. Imagine that! Well, you can't imagine it, 'cos it's nuts, so you'll just have to take my word for it."
We take his word for it.
"So what have we got? We've got this really, really small universe. And we've got all this stuff - you know, the camels and the hats, and everything that I mentioned earlier. Well, you've got to have somewhere to put it, don't you? So the Universe has to expand. And let me tell you my friends ..." Professor Lazlo taps the side of his nose and looks at us conspiratorially - a knowing twinkle in his eye and a residue of drool on his chin. "... the Universe will keep on expanding, just as long as we keep making more hats."
In spite of the fact that Professor Lazlo is clearly some kind of whacko, he nevertheless has a sound grasp on current thinking about the creation of the Universe. The expansion of the Universe has been directly observed by particularly keen-sighted astronomers. It was also predicted by Newton's Fourth Law of Junk, which states that waste matter automatically expands to fill the space available to accommodate it. This is why your attic is filled with rubbish. And an increasing number of astronomers are starting to believe that this junk might turn out to be the so-called 'dark matter' that they have been searching for - the strange and so far unobserved material that accounts for much of the mass of the Universe. It could be that there are whole galaxies out there made entirely of broken TV remotes, dead batteries and paperclips.
Another theory has it that the Universe is mostly made of string, but we won't go into that right now.
What is less certain is what would happen if the expansion of the Universe began to slow down. Or what if the process was thrown into reverse and space-time began to contract? It is conceivable that the amount of junk could actually exceed the dimensions of the Universe. If this happened, the fabric of reality could split and allow our rubbish to spill into an another plane of existence - which, if inhabited, would not bode well for inter-Universe relations. Another possibility is that in certain regions of the Universe - your kitchen drawer, for example - the junk would become compressed, eventually collapsing in on itself to form a super-dense black hole which would suck in all your cutlery and leave you unable to reach the fridge.
According to Professor Lazlo M Monkeybush Von-Straffepixie IV, Third Viscount of Upper Smogmorton-on-Thames, BSc, MSc, JVc and Rector of St Derek's College, Adelaide - yes, him again - it all depends on the amount of Apathy in the Universe.
"All this blah blah blah about the Universe is getting us nowhere," Professor Laz whinges. "Now, I have the greatest respect for my colleagues within the scientific community, but they get on my tits man. Will the Universe keep on expanding? Will it start to contract? Expand? Contract? Expand? Contract? I keep telling them - the Universe will start to contract if it feels like it. If it can't be bothered, it will just keep getting bigger. Here, look at this diagram."
We look at the diagram. It doesn't tell us very much, and we have to admit to Professor Laz that we don't quite see his point.
"Okay," he continues, unfazed. "Take a look at this one."
Again, we don't quite get it.
"See the little bunny. Cute, isn't he? What I'm getting at is this: it's all about motivation. The Universe will do just what the hell it wants, and it really isn't up to us to try and second-guess its intentions."
Prof Laz might be happy to leave the Universe to decide its own destiny, but a group of Swiss clockmakers is keen on finding some answers. The Association of Clockmakers, Rampant Opportunists and Nice Young Men (ACRONYM, for short) is carrying out a project to put a value on inertia. Inertia is that property of matter that resists changes in motion - so that moving objects can't be arsed to stop and keep travelling in a straight line, and stationery objects remain sullen and unwilling to leave the house. ACRONYM believes that inertia is caused by the amount of Cosmic Background Apathy in the Universe. This is residual lethargy left over from the Big Bang. Therefore, by putting a value on inertia, ACRONYM will be able to gauge the amount of apathy in the Universe, do some big sums and determine the ultimate fate of the Universe.
Why are they doing this? Why are they going to so much trouble? We really don't know where they find the energy. Could it be that - being Swiss clockmakers by trade - they are worried that if the Universe starts to contract, time will be thrown into reverse, therefore having monumental consequences on their industry? We don't know, and to be completely honest we're really not bothered. All this nonsense hardly seems worth the effort, so we're just going to stay at home, watch the telly and eat Chocolate Hob Nobs. And for now, we'll leave the final word to Professor Lazlo M Monkeybush Von-Straffepixie IV, Third Viscount of Upper Smogmorton-on-Thames, BSc, MSc, JVc and Rector of St Derek's College, Adelaide.
Language skills for motorists
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Trade in your used doggy
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