Until recently, most astronomers believed that the universe had entered a very boring middle age. According to this paradigm, the early history of the universe--that is, until about six billion years after the big bang--was an era of cosmic fireworks: galaxies collided and merged, powerful black holes sucked in huge whirlpools of gas, and stars were born in unrivaled profusion. In the following eight billion years, in contrast, galactic mergers became much less common, the gargantuan black holes went dormant, and star formation slowed to a flicker. Many astronomers were convinced that they were witnessing the end of cosmic history and that the future held nothing but the relentless expansion of a becalmed and senescent universe.
In the past few years, however, new observations have made it clear that the reports of the universe's demise have been greatly exaggerated. With the advent of new space observatories and new instruments on ground-based telescopes, astronomers have detected violent activity occurring in nearby galaxies during the recent past. (The light from more distant galaxies takes longer to reach us, so we observe these structures in an earlier stage of development.) By examining the x-rays emitted by the cores of these relatively close galaxies, researchers have discovered many tremendously massive black holes still devouring the surrounding gas and dust. Furthermore, a more thorough study of the light emitted by galaxies of different ages has shown that the star formation rate has not declined as steeply as once believed.
This article was originally published with the title The Midlife Crisis of the Cosmos.