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Published June 1, 1993 | Published
Journal Article Open

An ancient revisits cosmology


In this after-dinner speech, a somewhat light-hearted attempt is made to view the observational side of physical cosmology as a subdiscipline of astrophysics, still in an early stage of sophistication and in need of more theoretical understanding. The theoretical side of cosmology, in contrast, has its deep base in general relativity. A major result of observational cosmology is that an expansion of the Universe arose from a singularity some 15 billion years ago. This has had an enormous impact on the public's view of both astronomy and theology. It places on cosmologists an extra responsibility for clear thinking and interpretation. Recently, gravitational physics caused another crisis from an unexpected observational result that nonbaryonic matter appears to dominate. Will obtaining information about this massive nonbaryonic component require that astronomers cease to rely on measurement of photons? But 40 years ago after radio astronomical techniques uncovered the high-energy universe, we happily introduced new subfields, with techniques from physics and engineering still tied to photon detection. Another historical example shows how a subfield of cosmology, big bang nucleosynthesis, grew in complexity from its spectroscopic astrophysics beginning 40 years ago. Determination of primordial abundances of lighter nuclei does illuminate conditions in the Big Bang, but the observational results faced and overcame many hurdles on the way.

Additional Information

© 1993 National Academy of Sciences. This paper was presented at a colloquium entitled "Physical Cosmology," organized by a committee chaired by David N. Schramm, held March 27 and 28, 1992, at the National Academy of Sciences, Irvine, CA. The publication costs of this article were defrayed in part by page charge payment. This article must therefore be hereby marked "advertisement" in accordance with 18 U.S.C. §1734 solely to indicate this fact.

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