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See Inside November 2006

The Dark Ages of the Universe

Astronomers are trying to fill in the blank pages in our photo album of the infant universe

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When I look up into the sky at night, I often wonder whether we humans are too preoccupied with ourselves. There is much more to the universe than meets the eye on earth. As an astrophysicist I have the privilege of being paid to think about it, and it puts things in perspective for me. There are things that I would otherwise be bothered by--my own death, for example. Everyone will die sometime, but when I see the universe as a whole, it gives me a sense of longevity. I do not care so much about myself as I would otherwise, because of the big picture.

Cosmologists are addressing some of the fundamental questions that people attempted to resolve over the centuries through philosophical thinking, but we are doing so based on systematic observation and a quantitative methodology. Perhaps the greatest triumph of the past century has been a model of the universe that is supported by a large body of data. The value of such a model to our society is sometimes underappreciated. When I open the daily newspaper as part of my morning routine, I often see lengthy descriptions of conflicts between people about borders, possessions or liberties. Today's news is often forgotten a few days later. But when one opens ancient texts that have appealed to a broad audience over a longer period of time, such as the Bible, what does one often find in the opening chapter? A discussion of how the constituents of the universe--light, stars, life--were created. Although -humans are often caught up with mundane problems, they are curious about the big -picture. As citizens of the universe we -cannot help but wonder how the first sources of light formed, how life came into existence and whether we are alone as in-telligent beings in this vast space. Astronomers in the 21st century are uniquely positioned to answer these big questions.

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