How often do you realize the edge of the universe is far beyond our grasp?


Today is December 24 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you realize the edge of the universe is far beyond our grasp?” People that navigate the chaos understand the world is complex and some problems have either not been solved or not even been identified. They realize that they do not know everything and, more importantly, they understand that no one could possibly know everything. With that in mind, they realize just how complex the world is and continues to be. One such person was Vera Rubin.


Rubin developed her interest in astronomy as a young girl; her father helped her build a telescope and took her to meetings of amateur astronomers. She was the only astronomy major to graduate from Vassar College in 1948, only to learn - when she applied to graduate school at Princeton - that women were not allowed in that university’s graduate astronomy program.


She would eventually earn her doctorate from Georgetown, on whose faculty she later worked before joining the Carnegie Institution, a nonprofit scientific research center in Washington. During her career, Rubin examined more than 200 galaxies, and observed that galaxies do not rotate the way they were predicted. That lent support to the theory that some other force - “dark matter” - was at work. It was but one of her breakthrough discoveries.


As Dennis Overbye wrote in The New York Times obituary "Vera Rubin, 88, Dies; Opened Doors in Astrology, and for Women" Rubin’s pioneering work allowed scientists to understand “we are not the center of the universe, nor are we even made of the same stuff as most of creation. Cosmologists have now concluded that there is five or 10 times as much dark matter in the universe as there is ordinary atomic matter — the stuff of stars, planets and people.”


In her 1997 book, “Bright Galaxies, Dark Matters,” Rubin wrote, “No one promised that we would live in the era that would unravel the mysteries of the cosmos. The edge of the universe is far beyond our grasp. Like Columbus, perhaps like the Vikings, we have peered into a new world and have seen that it is more mysterious and more complex than we had imagined. Still, more mysteries of the universe remain hidden. Their discovery awaits the adventurous scientists of the future. I like it this way.”


Due to the many obstacles she needed to jump over as a pioneering woman in a field dominated by men, Dr. Rubin told Rebecca Oppenheimer, an astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History “Don’t let anyone keep you down for silly reasons such as who you are. And don’t worry about prizes and fame. The real prize is finding something new out there.”


In his January 15, 2011, Op-Ed piece for The New York Times, author Brian Greene, a professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia and author of The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos, commented on the complexity of understanding and wrote “In 1929, the American astronomer Edwin Hubble discovered that distant galaxies are all rushing away from us. And the best explanation for this cosmic exodus came directly from general relativity: much as poppy seeds in a muffin that’s baking move apart as the dough swells, galaxies move apart as the space in which they’re embedded expands. Hubble’s observations thus established that there was no need for a cosmological constant; the universe is not static.” As discussed in other Navigate the Chaos posts, here is more evidence that the world is in a constant state of chaos!


Greene ended his Op-Ed with the observation “We’ve grown accustomed to the idea that with sufficient hard work and dedication, there’s no barrier to how fully we can both grasp reality and confirm our understanding. But by gazing far into space we’ve captured a handful of starkly informative photons, a cosmic telegram billions of years in transit. And the message, echoing across the ages, is clear. Sometimes nature guards her secrets with the unbreakable grip of physical law. Sometimes the true nature of reality beckons from just beyond the horizon.”

  • How often do you remind yourself that the world is complex, and many questions are left unanswered?

  • Have you grown accustomed to the idea that with sufficient hard work and dedication you can understanding something?

  • How do you respond when you do not understand something?

  • How often can you move forward without knowing everything?