21st century astronomy by John Jeffrey Hester; et al

By John Jeffrey Hester; et al

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Glimpsing Our Place in the Universe Most of us have a permanent address—street number, street, city, state, country. It is where the mail carrier delivers our mail. But let’s expand our view for a moment. We also live somewhere within an enormously vast universe. What then is our “cosmic address”? It might look something like this: planet, star, galaxy, galaxy group, galaxy cluster. We all reside on a planet called Earth, which is orbiting under the influence of gravity about a star called the Sun.

In the early 20th century, astronomers were arguing bitterly among themselves over the size of the universe. 11). For many, it came as a rude awakening that our Milky Way does not, in fact, constitute the entire universe—that it is only an infi nitesimal part of a greatly larger universe! You might feel that science is sometimes arbitrary. For example, the decision as to whether Pluto should be considered a planet or a dwarf planet may seem subjective. But it is important to keep in mind that this controversial decision, unsupported by many astronomers, was really more a matter of semantics than of science.

Yet during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, physics was rocked by a series of scientific revolutions that shook the very foundations of our understanding of the nature of reality. 10). Einstein’s special and general theories of relativity replaced the 300-year-old edifice of Newtonian mechanics, not by proving Newton wrong, but by showing that Newton’s mechanics was a special case of a far more general and powerful set of physical laws. Einstein’s new ideas unified our concepts of mass and energy and destroyed our conventional notion of space and time as separate things.

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