how will the Universe end?

It’s complicated and cosmologists are not certain.  One of the issues is only being able to see about 4% of the mass in the universe – the stars, planets, gas and dust.  About 25% of the mass of the universe is Dark Matter.  It’s “dark” because it doesn’t emit light that enables us to see it.  Vera Rubin and Fritz Zwicky were the two astronomers who produced observations that led to the dark matter theory.

Vera Rubin measured star velocities in the Andromeda galaxy and plotted these against the star’s distance from the centre of the galaxy.  Knowledge of rotational speeds within our Solar System would predict a graph similar to curve A.  What she obtained was a relatively flat graph (B).

image from Quantum Diaries

The rotational speed of the stars in curve B are far too fast for the Andromeda galaxy to stay together.  The only explanation for the galaxy staying together was the presence of an awful lot of additional mass that couldn’t be detected.  This new mass was named dark matter.

Rubin talks about her discovery in this video.

Vera Ruben dark matter dark energy from mr mackenzie on Vimeo.

Zwicky had been looking at clusters of galaxies, rather than individual stars within galaxies.  He found something similar; the galaxies were swirling round at too great a speed and should fly apart.  There had to be an awful lot of invisible mass in that part of space to produce a gravitational force strong enough to hold the cluster together.

Zwicky – dark matter from mr mackenzie on Vimeo.

There’s a further complication.  The expansion of space appears to be caused by an unknown force called Dark Energy, that fights against the pull of gravity which should be reducing the rate of expansion.

dark energy – end of the universe from mr mackenzie on Vimeo.

Saul Perlmutter was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2011 for his work on Dark Energy.  This video explains where we are in our understanding of where the universe will end up.  It contains some similar footage from the end of the Vera Rubin video, so any déjà vu is real.

Saul Perlmutter dark energy from mr mackenzie on Vimeo.


evidence in support of the big bang: #3 olbers’ paradox

You might remember that we looked at some paradoxes when we studied special relativity earlier this term.  Here is another situation where a paradox can arise.  The German astronomer Heinrich Olbers (1758–1840) asked why the night sky was dark.  At the time, astronomers believed that the Universe was both infinite and steady state (unchanging), so it seemed like a good question.

  • Wouldn’t there be a star in any direction you chose to look?
  • Shouldn’t the light from that star prevent the night sky from looking dark?

Well, the problem is that the Universe is not infinite because it is still expanding.  The Universe also isn’t steady state because it is… expanding.  It turns out that a question posed by a follower of the infinite, steady state model of the Universe is actually a decent piece of evidence in support of the Big Bang model of the Universe.


Watch these two videos and see how they chip away at the paradox and show how the answers to the question turn out to support the expanding Universe model.


evidence in support of the big bang: #2 nucleosynthesis

As we worked through the diagram explaining the stages of the Big Bang model, we looked at a section of the diagram where the Universe was hot enough for nuclear fusion.  At this point, hydrogen nuclei were fusing together with other hydrogen nuclei to create helium nuclei.  As the Universe expanded, it cooled and further fusion was not possible.  As a result, we have a Universe with the same proportion of hydrogen to helium wherever we look: we find 75% hydrogen and 25 % helium.  This can only be the case if all of the helium was produced at the same place and the same time, i.e. in a very small, very hot Universe.


Hydrogen, helium and cosmic microwave background radiation from mr mackenzie on Vimeo.


evidence in support of the big bang: #1 CMBR

introduction to the Big Bang from mr mackenzie on Vimeo.

Georges Lemaître’s theory of an expanding Universe, which has become known as the Big Bang, was supported by Hubble’s observations.  The expanding Universe idea was challenged by influential scientists who believed the Universe was both infinite (and therefore not expanding) and steady state (unchanging).  Supporters of the Big Bang idea needed to find other evidence that could confirm their model was correct.

The cosmic microwave background radiation (CMBR) is radiation left over from the big bang.  When the universe was very young, only 380,000 years old, just as space became transparent to light, electromagnetic energy would have propagated through space for the very first time.  At this stage in its development, the temperature of the Universe would have been about 3000K. Nowadays, the temperature of space has fallen to approximately 2.7 K (that’s 2.7 K above absolute zero!) and, using Wien’s Law, we can confirm that the peak wavelength of the electromagnetic radiation is so long that the background radiation lies in the microwave portion of the em spectrum.

The CMBR was first detected in 1964 by Richard Woodrow Wilson and Arno Allan Penzias, who worked at Bell Laboratories in the USA.

Read moreevidence in support of the big bang: #1 CMBR

the Milky Way is not alone


In the 1920s, Edwin Hubble had access to the Hooker telescope on Mount Wilson, Los Angeles.  This was the largest telescope in the world at that time.  His first breakthrough was the discovery of a cepheid variable star in the Andromeda nebula.  This enabled him to calculate the distance to Andromeda and he quickly realised this was not a nebula but a galaxy outside the Milky Way.
This video follows his work.

Hubble – nebulae or galaxies? from mr mackenzie on Vimeo.

Hubble then turned his attention to other galaxies, looking for cepheid variable stars that would allow him to determine their distances from the Milky Way.  He used redshift to calculate their recession velocity and plotted a graph against their distance from us.


He found that the recession velocity (v) was directly proportional to distance (d).  We can express this relationship as

v = H_o d

which is known as Hubble’s law, where H_o is the Hubble constant.  Astronomers agree that the current value of the Hubble constant is

H_o = 72 kms^{-1}Mpc^{-1}.

Since this is a SQA course, we need to convert the constant into SI units – giving

H_o = 2.3 \times 10^{-18}s^{-1}

In this second video, Professor Jim Al-Khalili looks at Hubble’s work on measuring redshift for different galaxies and his discovery of an expanding universe.

Hubble’s discovery of the expanding universe from mr mackenzie on Vimeo.

Although he was American, Edwin Hubble transformed himself into a tea drinking, pipe smoking, tweed wearing Englishman during his time as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford.  He probably wouldn’t approve of this last video.

It is said that when Hubble died, he left his collection of tweed jackets to Mr Jamieson-Caley.

Unfortunately, astronomers were not eligible for the Nobel Prize for Physics while Hubble was alive.  The rules have now been changed.

evidence that special relativity is real

For the past two weeks, we’ve been looking at equations that describe time and distance changing according to speed. It’s been quite heavy on theory and maths with no supporting evidence to suggest Einstein’s ideas were correct.  I want to address that lack of evidence by pointing you to some practical work that had been carried out before Einstein’s theory was developed and by introducing measurements that scientists are still making today.


The speed of light is the same for all observers

Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity was published in 1905 but I want to go back to an experiment carried out 1887, the Michelson-Morley experiment.  Throughout the 19th century, scientists believed that waves needed some form of matter through which to travel.  From your National 5 knowledge, you know that electromagnetic radiation, such as light or radio waves, can travel through the vacuum of space where there is an absence of matter but this was not known way back then.  Instead, scientists believed that the Earth was moving through a mysterious substance called the ether (also known as the aether).

At the time, it was believed that Earth moved through the ether, so a stationary observer on Earth should be able to measure the relative speed of the ether as we moved through it.  Michelson and Morley devised an experiment where light beams were directed in different directions and brought back together to produce something called interference (we shall study interference in the Particles & Waves unit).  The idea was that there would be a change in the speed of light when it had to move against the direction of the ether and, through relative motion, they could determine the speed of the ether.

It was a total flop!  They found that the speed of light was the same in all directions.  It was only later, when Einstein was looking for ways to prove that the speed of light was the same for all observers, that the importance of the Michelson-Morley experiment became apparent.

This video summarises the evidence nicely.

You can’t prove that time and distance change according to speed

Actually we can.  The upper atmosphere is constantly bombarded with very high energy particles from space, mostly protons.  These particles are called cosmic rays.  When cosmic rays collide with atoms at the edge of our atmosphere, many different subatomic particles are produced.  We will meet these particles at the start of the Particles & Waves unit.  The particle we’re interested in just now is one called the muon (μ).  Muons are similar to electrons, but about 200 times heavier.

image by Los Alamos National Lab

The trouble is that muons can’t exist for very long, they have a very short half-life (think back to National 5 radioactivity).  In fact, the half-life of a muon is so short that we should never be able to detect the muons produced in the upper atmosphere with a particle detector at ground level, yet we can detect them.  Lots of them!

video from the exploratorium

There are two ways in which Special Relativity explains why we can detect muons.  The explanation depends whether you are in Earth’s frame of reference, in which case the time dilation explanation is appropriate, or the muon frame of reference, where the length contraction explanation is appropriate.  This video from minute physics explains the situation quite well.

For the more curious among you, there is a comparison of the two different frames of reference on the hyperphysics site, with a simulator where you can vary muon parameters and distances to see how the outcome changes.


applications of satellites

By now you should have watched the video about satellites.  This screenshot showing a satellite passing over the Highlands was taken from about 17 minutes into the programme – did you notice at the time?








It was quite eye-opening to see just how much modern society relies on satellite technology.  I’ve got some more examples of the uses for satellites below.

A satellite moves horizontally at constant speed but also accelerates vertically towards the planet’s surface due to gravity.  Thankfully, the curvature of the Earth means the satellite doesn’t crash but keeps on orbiting the planet.

Satellites can be used for environmental purposes, such as

monitoring volcanoes

weather forecasting
Screen Shot 2015-10-07 at 23.22.35









climate change

Read moreapplications of satellites

re-entering the atmosphere

In space there is no air resistance to oppose motion, so the Space Shuttle orbiter could travel at very high speeds, up to 17,000 mph!  At these speeds, the orbiter experienced enormous air resistance as it descended into the Earth’s atmosphere at the end of its mission.

Air resistance is just like any other form of friction – it converts kinetic energy into heat energy.  The effect of this heat energy is demonstrated in this video clip taken by a Canadian police car camera.  It shows a meteor burning up in the atmosphere above Edmonton.

Thankfully most meteors do burn up in the atmosphere, although the dinosaurs were not so lucky.

The high temperatures created during re-entry ionised the gas around the orbiter and this is often seen as a bright light in NASA cockpit videos, such as the one shown below.

To protect the vehicle and its crew from these high temperatures, the underside of the orbiter was covered by a layer of heat resistant tiles called the thermal protection system.  This NASA clip explains how the tiles are constructed and arranged on the underside of the orbiter.

When Columbia was launched in 2003, something fell against the insulation on the left wing and knocked off some of the tiles.  This hole in the thermal protection system caused Columbia to explode over the US as it re-entered the atmosphere.  There is a wikipedia article about the Columbia disaster.

Video footage of NASA’s Houston control room from the morning of the disaster was included in the BBC Horizon documentary Final Descent – Last Flight of Space Shuttle Columbia.

WARNING: This last film is an excerpt from the Horizon programme and includes genuine cockpit video that was found in the wreckage, with some clips of the crew’s final minutes before they were killed.

There is a good description of the Space Shuttle at How Stuff Works.

Before the space shuttle, each spacecraft was designed to be used only once and it was only the capsule containing the crew that returned to Earth. This was a small conical vehicle that had a thick heat shield on its base to withstand the heat of re-entry.

drawing of Apollo capsule re-entering the atmosphereartist’s impression of Apollo capsule re-entering the atmosphere

An ablative heat shield was used for these capsules. The material covering the base was designed to heat up until it sublimed (changed from solid to gas). The latent heat of sublimation is much greater than that required for fusion or vaporisation, so much more heat energy could be absorbed by the shield material as it changed state. Obviously there is a catch…the longer the shield protects the astronauts, the thinner it becomes! Here is an image of a Gemini IV capsule on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum showing what was left of the heat shield after successful return to Earth.

Gemini IV crew capsule photo: Richard Kruse



X-rays are a form of electromagnetic radiation.  They have a much higher frequency than visible light or ultraviolet.  The diagram below, taken from Wikipedia, shows where x-rays sit in the electromagnetic spectrum.

image by Materialscientist

Wilhelm Röntgen discovered x-rays and the image below is the first x-ray image ever taken.  It shows Mrs. Röntgen’s hand and wedding ring.  The x-ray source used by Röntgen was quite weak, so his wife had to hold her hand still for about 15 minutes to expose the film.  Can you imagine waiting that long nowadays?

This was the first time anyone had seen inside a human body without cutting it open.  Poor Mrs. Röntgen was so alarmed by the sight of the image made by her husband that she cried out “I have seen my death!” Or, since she was in Germany, it might have been

Ich habe meinen Tod gesehen!

that she actually said.

Röntgen continued to work on x-rays until he was able to produce better images. The x-ray below was taken about a year after the first x-ray and you can see the improvements in quality.

Notice that these early x-rays are the opposite of what we would expect to see today. They show dark bones on a lighter background while we are used to seeing white bones on a dark background, such as the x-ray shown below.  The difference is due to the processing the film has received after being exposed to x-rays.

In hospitals, x-rays expose a film which is then developed and viewed with bright light.  X-rays are able to travel through soft body tissue and the film behind receives a large exposure.  

The x-rays darken the film.

More dense structures such as bone, metal fillings in teeth, artificial hip/knee joints, etc. block the path of x-rays and prevent them from reaching the film.  Unexposed regions of the film remain light in colour.

Röntgen’s x-ray films would have involved additional processing steps.  The exposed films were developed and used to create a positive.  In creating a positive, light areas become dark and dark areas become light.  So the light and dark areas in Röntgen’s x-rays are the opposite of what we see today.  Our modern method makes it easier to detect issues in the bones as they are the lighter areas.

Röntgen was awarded the first ever Nobel Prize for Physics in 1901 for his pioneering work in this field of physics.

X-rays are a very high energy form of electromagnetic radiation. This means they have the potential to harm living cells. Medical staff only take x-rays of a patient when it is necessary to give a correct diagnosis but that wasn’t always the case.

I have attached a recording of a short BBC radio programme about the first x-ray and what people in the Victorian era thought of these new images.  Click on the player at the end of this post.

dosimetry: absorbed dose and equivalent dose

This week, we’ve looked at calculating radiation doses.  The absorbed dose D, measured in Grays (Gy), takes into account the energy E absorbed and the mass m of the absorbing tissue.

D = \displaystyle {E \over m}

The higher the energy, the greater the absorbed dose.  If you are wondering why the absorbing mass is important, consider the different masses of tissue involved in a dental x-ray and a chest x-ray….

We also learned about equivalent dose in Sieverts (Sv). The equivalent dose H gives an indication of the potential for biological harm by considering the absorbed dose D and a weighting factor W_R.


Different types of radiation have different weighting factors, e.g.

type of radiationweighting factor

The more damaging forms of radiation have a larger weighting factor.

Absorbed dose and equivalent dose are usually expressed in smaller units; μGy, mGy, μSv, mSv.

In the UK, the Government has set an effective equivalent dose of 1mSv per year for members of the public.  This limit can be increased to 20mSv for people who work in the nuclear industry, certain medical occupations (such as radiographers) and airline pilots – all of whom will exceed the public limit in the course of their job.

This occupational increase for some individuals can be justified on the grounds that workers are not as vulnerable to the effects of radiation exposure since they are neither children (high rate of cell division so more chance of dna damage being copied) or elderly (reduced ability to repair damage).  In many cases, these workers will also be screened on a regular basis by occupational health staff at their place of work.

Here is a poster from the excellent xkcd site that explores examples of the different levels of equivalent dose.

Click on the picture for a larger version.

source: XKCD

Notice that the scale changes as you move through the poster from blue to green to red.

The dosimetry topic is comprehensively covered at BBC Bitesize.