TIME commentary

The Big Bang Did NOT Occur 50 Years Ago

The Big Bang: Just to be clear, this did not happen in 1964
The Big Bang: Just to be clear, this did not happen in 1964 LAGUNA DESIGN; Getty Images/Brand X

Human beings are a very small part of a very big universe. Figuring some of that universe out is to our credit—but let's not overstate the things we've accomplished.

If you’re over 50, you probably remember the Big Bang—indeed, it would be hard to forget it. One moment you’re part of an infinitely tiny, infinitely dense point that contains the entirety of the universe, and the next moment you’re accelerating outward faster than the speed of light, expanding along with space-time itself. That’s a remember-when day if ever there was one.

You might argue that the Big Bang occurred a bit earlier than 50 years ago—13.8 billion years earlier, in fact—and most people might agree with you. What actually happened 50 years ago was that Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson of Bell Labs made measurements of the cosmic background radiation that provided the first solid evidence of the Big Bang’s existence. Still, that didn’t stop Bell Labs itself from noting the event with a recent e-mail blast inviting recipients to “Celebrate the 50th Anniv. of the Big Bang.” In light of a just-released AP poll showing that a stunning 51% of Americans say they are “not at all confident” or “not too confident” that the Big Bang even occurred, the last thing we need is more confusion on the point.

OK, it’s not entirely fair to pick on Bell Labs. The mere fact that whoever composed the message felt a need to abbreviate the word “anniversary” reflects how hard it is to get anyone to open an e-mail message today unless the subject line is short and semaphores excitement. Still the e-mail does, even indirectly, speak to a certain anthropocentrism in the way we think about science and the entire enterprise of discovery. It’s not the event or the phenomenon itself that counts, it’s the fact that we—a clever if sublimely narcissistic species—at last stumbled onto it.

Geneticists have been guilty of this for a while now, talking about having “discovered” the genes for this or that trait, even though the genes were there all the time and the only things that changed was that we finally looked for them. Some researchers are self-correcting—preferring to talk about “pinpointing” or “identifying” genes—but others still opt for the Christopher Columbus phrasing, if only because it makes their work sound more dramatic.

Columbus himself came in for similar revisionist thinking since, like the genes, the New World was there all along. And of course, if anyone did any discovering, it was the indigenous people who had lived there for thousands of years before the Europeans even hoisted anchor and ventured out.

Explorers have always gotten the hyperbole treatment. Ever since the mid-20th century we’ve been talking about the “conquest of space,” despite the fact that with the exception of nine trips to our nearby Moon, we’ve never gotten out of low Earth orbit. Calling that the conquest of space is a little like paddling around in Boston Harbor and saying you’ve conquered the oceans.

We do something similar with heroic accounts of “taming the continent,” something of an overstatement given that multiple centuries worth of droughts, tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, dust bowls, forest fires and more have shown that the continent has retained its feral ability to bite back. We even overstate our talent for causing wholesale destruction—something you’d think we wouldn’t want to boast about. Environmentalists themselves have long warned that there’s a misplaced egotism in feel-good slogans about “saving the Earth.” The Earth will be perfectly fine, thank you very much. It’s survived multiple glaciations, asteroid hits and more in its long life and it will surely survive us, even if we temporarily toxify the place so much that the very species that created the mess—us—can’t live here anymore.

In the case of the Big Bang, it’s understandable to play up, even inadvertently, a graspable time frame like 50 years ago as opposed to a far less fathomable 13.8 billion. My colleague Michael Lemonick once playfully considered opening a story in TIME with the line, “Twelve million years ago last week a supernova exploded.” The then-science editor prudently nixed the idea—too great a risk of real misinformation leaking into the popular conversation. But the idea did speak to the way we all wrestle with the tininess of the time scales on which we live our lives compared to the vastness of the cosmic clock.

Human beings are undeniably an ingenious species. The things we’ve built, created and sussed out are genuinely remarkable. But they’re pinholes in the curtain compared to all there is to know. There’s no harm in being proud that we’re allowing some light in—just not too proud.

TIME exploration

The Reason We Can’t Find MH 370 Is That We’re Basically Blind

Search For Missing Flight MH370 Shifts To Underwater Mission
Good luck finding anything with that. Bluefin-21 is craned over the side of Australian Defence Vessel Ocean Shield in the search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH 370 on April 14, 2014. Handout—Getty Images

We can see countless millions of miles into the blackness of space, but a 3-mile depth in the ocean is testing the very limits of our technology because most of it just doesn’t work underwater

Men have played golf on the moon. Images transmitted from the surface of Mars have become utterly commonplace. The Hubble Space Telescope can see 10 billion to 15 billion light-years into the universe.

But a mere three miles under the sea? That’s a true twilight zone.

As the hunt for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 demonstrates, at that depth — minuscule compared with the vastness of space — everything is a virtual unknown. A high-tech unmanned underwater submarine, Bluefin-21, has been dispatched four times to look for wreckage from the jet, but the crushing water pressure and impenetrability of this void mean that only its most recent pair of missions were completed. Scrutinizing dust and rock particles on the Red Planet, tens of millions of miles away, is a breeze. Understanding what’s on the seafloor of our own planet is not.

About 95% of deep ocean floor remains unmapped, but that’s almost certainly where the most sought after aircraft in history is going to be found. “Our knowledge of the detailed ocean floor is very, very sparse,” Erik van Sebille, an oceanographer at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, tells TIME.

The reason for our ignorance is simple. Virtually all modern communications technology — be it light, radio, X-rays, wi-fi — is a form of electromagnetic radiation, which seawater just loves to suck up. “The only thing that does travel [underwater] is sound,” says van Sebille, “and that’s why we have to use sonar.”

Sound is formed by mechanical waves and so can penetrate denser mediums like liquids: but at a 3-mile (5 km) depth, even sonar starts to have problems establishing basic parameters. The waters in which the search for MH 370 is happening, for example, were thought to be between 13,800 and 14,400 ft. (4,200 and 4,400 m) deep, because that’s what it said on the charts that had been drawn up over time by passing ships with sonar capabilities. It turns out those seas are at least 14,800 ft. (4,500 m) deep. We only know that now because that’s the depth at which Bluefin-21 will automatically resurface — as it did on its maiden foray — when onboard sensors tell it that it’s way, way out of its operating depth. The problems with Bluefin-21, van Sebille says, show us that “even our best maps are really not good here.”

The other issue affecting visibility is the sheer volume of junk in the ocean. About 5.25 trillion particles of plastic trash presently billow around the planet, say experts, weighing half a million tons. There are five huge garbage patches in the world’s seas, where the swirling of currents makes the mostly plastic debris accumulate. The largest of these is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a gyre measuring an estimated 270,000 to 5.8 million sq. mi. (700,000 to 15 million sq km). This refuse gets ingested by plankton, fish, birds and larger marine mammals, imperiling our entire ecosystem.

Flotsam debris has already impeded the hunt for MH 370. Hundreds of suspicious items spotted by satellite have sent aircraft and ships on hugely costly detours to investigate what turned out to be trash. (On Friday an air-and-surface search continued, with 12 aircraft and 11 ships scouring an area of some 20,000 sq. mi. [52,000 sq km] about 1,200 miles [2,000 km] northwest of Perth.) Officials are saying that such efforts are becoming futile.

For all we know, Bluefin-21 could also be confused by the sheer volume of garbage down there. According to a study by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute published last June, based on 8,000 hours of underwater video, an unbelievable quantity of waste is strewn across the ocean floor. A third of the debris is thought to be plastic — bags, bottles, pellets, crates — but there is a vast amount of metal trash as well, including many of the 10,000 shipping containers estimated to be lost each year.

“I was surprised that we saw so much trash in deeper water,” said Kyra Schlining, lead author on the study. “We don’t usually think of our daily activities as affecting life two miles deep in the ocean.”

That’s because we can’t see it. It’s tempting to say that MH 370 might as well have vanished into space — only if it had, we’d have found it by now.

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