Starkovich takes on 'timeless questions of the cosmos'
By Laurel Willoughby, Editor
Visit www.nsci.plu.edu/astro for updates on the construction of the W.M. Keck Observatory, its technical specifications, student research and the Astronomy Picture of the Day.
A Spring Millennium Lecture Series will complement the Millennium Arts Series. It will include the Schnakenberg Lecture on Feb. 28; noted author Rebecca Walker in early March; Quintard Taylor, a distinguished University of Washington professor of African American studies in April; and a fourth lecture on multi-racial identity in early February.
Will a giant asteroid ever slam into Earth? What came before the big bang? Is the solar system expanding along with the rest of the universe? Is there an edge to the universe?
Ponder these questions alone for too long and you're likely to implode above the neck or risk flashing back to a hazy pre-calculus class, where the instructor tried in vain to explain to you how and why x should want to approach a value of 2.
Or you could let Steven Starkovich, assistant professor of physics at PLU, demonstrate some basic concepts of astrophysics - the movement of the planets, location of the stars, paths of the comets - with free software developed by Elwood Downey of the Clear Sky Institute.
At least as mind-bending as your original questions are the abilities of the program: one click of the mouse and you see the planets of our solar system in real time, slowly progressing in their orbits around the sun.
Another click and you add 1,500 asteroids to the screen.
Still another click reveals the solar system as a 3-D model of orbits, fully viewable in 360º from the "top," "bottom" or "sides" (all relative terms, since we're talking about outer space here).
Beyond its amazing illustrative capabilities, though, the software has another key function: Starkovich can log on to it from any computer in the world running a UNIX or Linux operating system and can control the 16" Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope that is soon to be installed in the nearly finished W.M. Keck Observatory on lower campus.
That said, let's flex this considerable astronomical muscle and tackle a few timeless questions.
Will a giant asteroid ever visit -- that is, smash into -- Earth?
During his lecture on Oct. 4 in Rieke Science Center, Starkovich demonstrated what's likely to happen as the Earth calendar approaches August 2027. The packed crowd in Leraas Lecture Hall drew a collective gasp as it appeared that a big rock, perhaps 10 miles across, would indeed take out the planet, Hollywood-style.
"The good news is that it actually misses us by about 250,000 miles, about the distance from the Earth to the moon," Starkovich said. It's important to keep things in scale, he reminded the audience.
"Earth is about 500 light-seconds from the sun, meaning light from the sun takes a little over eight minutes to reach us, and a distance of 5½ light hours separates the sun and Pluto."
What came before the big bang?
"That's almost like asking, 'How many innings came before the start of the game?'" Starkovich said. "But there was a start to the game -- did an umpire say, 'Play ball?'" -- a beginning point believed by most cosmologists to be a "singularity."
"It's not possible to get one unique answer to what comes out of a singularity, Starkovich explained. "Perhaps our universe is part of a larger mega-universe, or maybe there never was a singularity and the universe just expands and contracts endlessly."
Is our solar system expanding along with the universe?
Quite simply, no.
"Local effects dominate the Hubble flow," Starkovich said, referring to the large-scale expansion of the universe first studied by astronomer Edwin Hubble. "That is, some things in the neighborhood of our galaxy are actually coming toward us, relatively. It's not until you get way out that you see the Hubble effect."
Is there an edge to the universe?
"How would you describe the edge of a sphere, or the edge of infinite space?" Starkovich countered.
Modern answers involve the cornerstones of the theory of relativity, he explained.
"Until the 1910s and Einstein, the only game in town was Newtonian cosmology from the 1700s," Starkovich said. "Newton believed that the universe was just a big ball of stars, but this type of system is unstable. It would tend to collapse on itself. Yet the sense of the universe was that it was static, not changing or expanding. The observed universe doesn't fit the Newtonian model. It is Einstein's general theory of relativity -- the modern theory of gravity -- that describes the universe we observe."
One begins to realize that these "timeless questions of the cosmos" are so named for a very good reason: they deal with questions of origins, evolution and fate. They're likely to remain without definitive answers in our lifetime, perhaps throughout human existence, but modern physical theory is leading the way to a better understanding of the universe around us.