For thousands of years, astronomers wrestled with basic questions about the size and age of the universe. Does the universe go on forever, or does it have an edge somewhere? Has it always existed, or did it come to being some time in the past? In 1929, Edwin Hubble, an astronomer at Caltech, made a critical discovery that soon led to scientific answers for these questions: he discovered that the universe is expanding.
The ancient Greeks recognized that it was difficult to imagine what an infinite universe might look like. But they also wondered that if the universe were finite, and you stuck out your hand at the edge, where would your hand go? The Greeksâ€™ two problems with the universe represented a paradox – the universe had to be either finite or infinite, and both alternatives presented problems.
After the rise of modern astronomy, another paradox began to puzzle astronomers. In the early 1800s, German astronomer Heinrich Olbers argued that the universe must be finite. If the Universe were infinite and contained stars throughout, Olbers said, then if you looked in any particular direction, your line-of-sight would eventually fall on the surface of a star. Although the apparent size of a star in the sky becomes smaller as the distance to the star increases, the brightness of this smaller surface remains a constant. Therefore, if the Universe were infinite, the whole surface of the night sky should be as bright as a star. Obviously, there are dark areas in the sky, so the universe must be finite.
But, when Isaac Newton discovered the law of gravity, he realized that gravity is always attractive. Every object in the universe attracts every other object. If the universe truly were finite, the attractive forces of all the objects in the universe should have caused the entire universe to collapse on itself. This clearly had not happened, and so astronomers were presented with a paradox.
When Einstein developed his theory of gravity in the General Theory of Relativity, he thought he ran into the same problem that Newton did: his equations said that the universe should be either expanding or collapsing, yet he assumed that the universe was static. His original solution contained a constant term, called the cosmological constant, which cancelled the effects of gravity on very large scales, and led to a static universe. After Hubble discovered that the universe was expanding, Einstein called the cosmological constant his â€œgreatest blunder.â€
At around the same time, larger telescopes were being built that were able to accurately measure the spectra, or the intensity of light as a function of wavelength, of faint objects. Using these new data, astronomers tried to understand the plethora of faint, nebulous objects they were observing. Between 1912 and 1922, astronomer Vesto Slipher at the Lowell Observatory in Arizona discovered that the spectra of light from many of these objects was systematically shifted to longer wavelengths, or redshifted. A short time later, other astronomers showed that these nebulous objects were distant galaxies.