Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey (2014) s01e05 Episode Script

Hiding In The Light

The age and size of the cosmos are written in light.
The nature of beauty and the substance of the stars, the laws of space and time they were there all along, but we never saw them until we devised a more powerful way of seeing.
The story of this awakening has many beginnings and no ending.
Its heroes come from many times and places-- an Ancient Chinese philosopher, a wizard who amazed the caliphs of 11th-century Iraq, a poor German orphan enslaved to a harsh master.
Each one brought us a little closer to unlocking the secrets hidden in light.
Most of their names are forever lost to us, but somewhere, long ago, someone glanced up to see light perform one of its magic tricks.
Who knows? Maybe that quirk of light inspired the very first artist.
Where did all this come from? How did we evolve from small wandering bands of hunters and gatherers living beneath the stars to become the builders of a global civilization? How did we get from there to here? There's no one answer.
Climate change, the domestication of fire, the invention of tools, language, agriculture all played a role.
Maybe there was something else, too.
In China, more than 2,000 years ago, a philosopher named Mo Tze is said to have observed that light could be made to paint a picture inside a locked treasure room.
This was the description of the first camera the camera obscura, the prototype of all image-forming cameras, including the one that's bringing you this picture.
Taking advantage of this funny thing that light does resulted in what could be called the first movie.
Mo Tze, master of light, worked against all forms of darkness.
A military genius who only used his talents to prevent violence, he was legendary for traveling among the kingdoms of the warring states, employing ingenious strategies to talk kings out of going to war.
He was one of the first to dream of universal love and an end to poverty and other forms of inequality; of government for the people and to argue against blind obedience to ritual and authority.
In his writings, you can find early stirrings of the scientific approach.
By Mo Tze's time, the Chinese had already been recording their thoughts in books for at least a thousand years.
Still, our knowledge of him is only fragmentary.
It consists largely of the collection of essays attributed to him and his disciples.
In one of them, entitled "Against Fate," a three-pronged test for every doctrine is proposed.
Question its basis-- ask if it can be verified by the sights and senses of common people-- ask how it is to be applied and if it will benefit the greatest number.
Mo Tze was extremely popular, but a few hundred years after his death, Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor, and unifier of China, took power.
He took a continent and turned it into a nation that now bears his name China.
Most of us know Emperor Qin for the army of 7,000 terra cotta warriors that guard his tomb.
In Emperor Qin's drive to consolidate his far-flung empire, he took drastic measures to standardize everything within it.
This included mandating a single coinage, making uniform all weights and measures, the widths of carts and roads, as well as the precise way the Chinese language was to be written, including what you were allowed to write and think.
Emperor Qin's philosophy-- the only one permitted-- was called "legalism," which is just what it sounded like, do as the law says or else.
It's a philosophy that's not highly conducive to questioning authority.
that all the books of the hundred schools of thought shall be be burned, that anyone who uses history to criticize the present shall have his family executed.
The works of MoTze and Confucius and other philosophers were destroyed in the world's first book burning.
Hundreds of scholars bravely resisted by trying to preserve the forbidden books.
They were buried alive in the capitol.
Science needs the light of free expression to flourish.
It depends on the fearless questioning of authority, the open exchange of ideas.
Sparks of curiosity in the writings of Mo Tze and his disciples were effectively stomped out.
It would be another thousand years before the next movie.
Luckily, our Ship of the Imagination can take us anywhere in space and time.
The ancient Chinese and Greeks observed that light could be made to do wonderful things-- but no one asked that question favored by small children and geniuses alike.
Why? Until a thousand years ago In the city of Basra, Iraq, there lived another master of light.
Ibn al-Hazen had a passionate desire to understand nature.
He questioned everything, especially those things that everyone else took for granted.
"How do we see?" he asked.
Some of the great authorities who came before him had taught that rays come out of our eyes and travel to the objects we see before returning to our eyes.
But al-Hazen reasoned that the stars were too far distant for something in our eyes to travel all the way to them and back in the blink of an eye.
Excellent reasoning, but al-Hazen didn't stop there.
He searched for ways to compel nature to divulge her secrets.
His culture was open to new ideas and questioning.
It was the golden age of science in the Islamic world.
One that stretched from Cordoba in Spain all the way to Samarkand in Central Asia.
Christian and Jewish scholars were honored guests at the research institutes of Baghdad, Cairo, and other Islamic capitols.
Instead of burning books, the caliphs sent emissaries around the world in search of books.
The caliphs lavishly funded projects to translate, study, and preserve them for future generations.
Much of the light of Ancient Greek science would have been permanently extinguished without their efforts.
The reawakening to science that took place in Europe, hundreds of years later, was kindled by a flame that had been long tended by Islamic scholars and scientists.
The Arabs also imported ideas from India to the West, including the so-called Arabic numerals that we all use today, and the concept of zero which comes in handy when you want to write "billions and billions.
" Arabic astronomy was so influential, that we still call most of the bright stars by their Arabic names.
And the "al's" in algebra, algorithm, alchemy, and alcohol are just some of the traces left from the time when Arabic was the language of science.
In the 11th century, Ibn al-Hazen set about trying to test his ideas about light and how we see.
So we devised an experiment to determine how light moves.
We erected a tent in full daylight and sealed it tightly so that only a single ray of light could pierce its inner darkness.
With little more than his brains and a straight piece of wood-- a ruler-- al-Hazen had accomplished a great leap forward in the history of science.
He discovered that light moves in straight lines.
But he was just getting started.
Al-Hazen figured out that the key to forming any image-- whether you're talking about an eye or camera obscura-- is a small opening to restrict the light that can enter an otherwise darkened chamber.
That aperture excludes the chaos of extraneous light rays that surround us.
The smaller the aperture, the fewer directions that light can come from.
And that makes the image sharper.
So instead of being blinded by the light, we can see everything it has to show us.
Al-Hazen made his own camera obscura and dazzled the caliphs.
A camera obscura works best in bright light.
The stars of the night sky are way too dim for this.
We somehow need a bigger opening to collect light, but we also need to maintain focus.
A telescope collects light from any spot in its field of view across the entire lens or mirror, an opening much larger than the camera obscura hole.
This is one of the first telescopes the one that Galileo looked through in 1609.
With it, he pulled aside the heavy curtain of night and began to discover the cosmos.
The lens made it possible for a telescope to have a much larger light-collecting area than our eyes have.
Big buckets catch more rain than small ones.
Modern telescopes have larger collecting areas, highly sensitive detectors, and they track the same object for hours at a time to accumulate as much of its light as possible.
Space-based telescopes such as the Hubble, have captured light from the most distant and ancient galaxies, giving us vastly clearer pictures of the cosmos.
Al-Hazen discovered how images are formed by light, but that was far from his greatest achievement.
Ibn al-Hazen was the first person ever to set down the rules of science.
He created an error-correcting mechanism, a systematic and relentless way to sift out misconceptions in our thinking.
Finding truth is difficult and the road to it is rough.
As seekers after truth, you will be wise to withhold judgment and not simply put your trust in the writings of the ancients.
You must question and critically examine those writings from every side.
You must submit only to argument and experiment and not to the sayings of any person.
For every human being is vulnerable to all kinds of imperfection.
As seekers after truth, we must also suspect and question our own ideas as we perform our investigations, to avoid falling into prejudice or careless thinking.
Take this course, and truth will be revealed to you.
This is the method of science.
So powerful that it's carried our robotic emissaries to the edge of the solar system and beyond.
It has doubled our lifespan, made the lost worlds of the past come alive.
Science has enabled us to predict events in the distant future and to communicate with each other at the speed of light, as I am with you, right at this moment.
This way of thinking has given us powers that al-Hazen himself would have regarded as wizardry.
But it was he who put us on this rough, endless road.
And now it has taken us to a place where even light itself is enshrouded in darkness.
Light has properties unlike anything else in the realm of human existence.
Take the speed of light.
The basic particle of light, the photon, is born traveling at the speed of light as it emerges from an atom or a molecule.
A photon never knows any other speed, and we've not found another phenomenon that accelerates from zero to top speed instantaneously.
Nothing else could move as fast.
When we try to accelerate other particles closer and closer to the speed of light, they resist more and more, as though they're getting heavier and heavier.
No experiment yet devised has ever made a particle move as fast as light.
What was that? You hear something? Where was I? Oh, yeah.
I don't know anything else in life that behaves like light.
I cannot reconcile its strange properties with everything else my senses tell me.
Our urge to trust our senses overpowers what our measuring devices tell us about the actual nature of reality.
Our senses work fine for life-size objects moving at mammal speeds, but are ill-adapted for the wonderland laws of lightspeed.
We don't even know why there's a cosmic speed limit.
Time stands still when you're traveling at the speed of light.
What is light, anyway? Isaac Newton's enduring fascination with light began when he was a child in this very house.
By the time he was in his 20s, Newton became the first person to decipher the mystery of the rainbow.
Newton discovered that some light, or white light, is a mixture of all the colors of the rainbow.
Major discovery.
He named the displays of colors a "spectrum" from the Latin for "phantom" or "apparition.
" Begging your pardon, Master Newton, the cook frets that your dinner will spoil, sir.
No, Isaac, don't put the magnifying glass down! Something even more amazing is hidden in the light-- a code, a key to the cosmos.
Isaac Newton didn't miss much, but that one was a beaut.
He just walked right past the door to a hidden universe; a door that would not swing open again for another 150 years.
It would fall on another scientist, working in the year 1800, to stumble on a piece of evidence for the unseen worlds that surround us.
By night, William Herschel scanned the heavens with the largest telescope of his time.
By day, Herschel performed experiments.
From Newton's earlier work, it was known that sunlight is a blend of different colors.
And everyone knew, just from being outside, that sunlight carries heat.
William Herschel asked whether some colors of light carry more heat than others.
The nature of scientific genius is to question what the rest of us take for granted and then do the experiment.
The thermometer that Herschel placed outside the spectrum was his control.
The control in any experiment always lacks the factor being tested.
That way, you know if what you're testing is really the thing responsible for the observation.
In Herschel's experiment, the relationship between color and temperature was being tested, and so his control was a thermometer over the part of the white sheet that was not illuminated by sunlight at all.
There's that sound again.
What is that? Okay, red light is warmer than blue light.
Interesting discovery, but not exactly revolutionary.
No, there's nothing wrong with your thermometer.
You've just discovered a new kind of light.
Herschel was the first to detect this unseen presence lurking just below the red end of the spectrum.
That's why it came to be called "infrared.
" "Infra" is Latin for the word "below.
" It's invisible.
Our eyes are not sensitive to this kind of light, but our skin is-- we feel it as heat.
Now, that's a really big discovery.
But far greater secrets were still hiding deep inside the light.
At about the same time that William Herschel was discovering infrared light in his parlor in England, a young boy named Joseph Fraunhofer was trapped in hopeless drudgery.
He stood over a cauldron of toxic chemicals and endlessly stirred.
Joseph had been orphaned at the age of 11 and given to a harsh master named Weichselberger, the royal mirror-maker.
He prevented Joseph from going to school.
Instead, Joseph labored in the glass-making workshop by day, and tended to the master's household chores by night.
Hurry up, stupid! And remember, no reading.
Until Joseph got his big break.
Weichselberger's house collapsed.
Maximilian, the future king of Bavaria, hurried to the scene of the calamity to see if he could help.
Maximilian was known for taking an interest in his subjects, which was highly unusual for its time.
In attracting the concern of the future king of Bavaria, young Joseph Fraunhofer found an aperture into a different universe.
And not just for himself.
Prince Maximilian gave Joseph money and asked his privy councilor to provide further help to the boy, should it be needed.
Weichselberger continued to exploit him and prevent him from attending school.
But the prince's councilor intervened, offering Joseph a position at the Optical Institute.
This small gesture of kindness really paid off.
By the time he was 27, Joseph Fraunhofer was the world's leading designer of high-quality lenses, telescopes and other optical instruments.
His firm was housed here, in the old Benediktbeuren Abbey.
In the early 19th century, this was top-secret, ultra-high technology.
The Benedictine monks of earlier times had taken a vow of secrecy.
This local tradition, and the ability to restrict access to Fraunhofer's laboratory, allowed him to maintain control of trade and state secrets.
Fraunhofer was experimenting with prisms to find the best types of glass for precision lenses.
How, he wondered, could he get a better look at the spectrum that a prism produced? Friedrich, bring me the theodolite, please.
Okay, while Fraunhofer sets up his theodolite-- it's a kind of telescope-- I want to show you something in another part of the abbey.
Sound waves are so beautiful to hear.
Imagine how beautiful they'd be to see.
You ever wondered why organ pipes have different lengths? I press a key it sends compressed air into a particular pipe, producing sound waves.
If we could slow the sound waves down a few hundred times, they would look like this.
The length of the pipe determines the length of the sound wave that can fit inside it.
A short pipe gives you a short sound wave.
Short sounds waves have high pitch, or frequency.
Let's stop the waves for a better look.
The distance between adjacent waves is called the wavelength.
A long pipe gives you a long sound wave with a low pitch, or low frequency.
The medieval manuscript of this music, "Carmina Burana," was discovered in this very abbey.
Sound waves can't travel through a vacuum.
They need matter to ride on, like molecules of air, or water, or rock.
But light waves fly solo.
They can move through empty space.
And fast-- a million times faster than sound waves in air.
And the wavelengths of the light we see are so much shorter than sound waves.
About 50,000 light waves would fit right in here.
Oh, yeah.
Fraunhofer.
Just in time.
We didn't miss it.
Just as the wavelength of sound determines the pitch that we hear, the wavelength of light determines the color that we see.
But how does a prism spread out the colors concealed in a beam of sunlight? When light travels through air or space, all its colors move at the same speed.
But when it hits glass at an angle, the light slows down and changes direction.
Inside the prism, each color moves at a different speed.
In glass, violet light, which is carried by the shortest waves we see, slows down more than red light, which has the longest waves.
These changes in speed pry the colors apart, sending their waves off in slightly different directions.
That's how a prism works.
If I seem unduly emotional about this, it's because Joseph Fraunhofer is about to do what Isaac Newton could've done, but didn't.
And it'll have a powerful effect on the course of my own life.
You are witnessing the marriage of physics and astronomy, the birth of my own field of science, astrophysics.
Written in the light, in those vertical black lines is secret code.
Fraunhofer looked at them, and wondered Why? A code that comes to us from an alien universe.
What is the message written in these dark, vertical lines? It took a hundred years of thinking, questioning, searching to decipher it.
Lovely, isn't it? Why? There are many layers to the fine structure of beauty the chemistry of the Earth and its atmosphere the evolution of life Many distinct threads.
Let's just examine one, at the surface the colors of nature that dazzle us.
What's really happening? How does the red, the blue the astonishing palette of nature's colors how do they happen? Light waves of different lengths from the Sun strike the Earth.
The petals of these particular flowers absorb all the low-energy, long red wavelengths of light.
But the petals reflect the shorter, high-energy blue wavelengths.
That interaction between starlight and petal-- or water, or Van Gogh-- is what makes blue.
The longest waves, the ones we see as red, have the lowest energy.
Color is the way our eyes perceive how energetic light waves are.
A sunset a flag the eyes of your beloved that shiny new car.
The feelings they inspire happen when something inside you is triggered by a particular variation in the frequency and energy of light waves.
And the secret message? Those black vertical lines in Fraunhofer's spectrum? What makes them? They occur when the light waves of those particular colors are being absorbed.
It happens on another level of reality, far smaller than the world we're used to operating in.
To get there, we'll need to become ten billion times smaller than we are.
We could pick any one of these atoms.
But let's go for the hydrogen atom.
The hydrogen atom is the most plentiful kind of atom in the cosmos.
And the simplest.
It has only one electron.
And only one proton.
We've entered the quantum realm.
It doesn't correspond to ordinary human experience.
Common sense is no help here at all.
Take the hydrogen atom's electron, for example.
In an atom, an electron doesn't exist between orbitals.
It disappears from one orbital and reappears in another.
It's as if you took an elevator from the second floor to the fourth floor, but ceased to exist in between.
And another thing.
Quantum elevators only stop at certain floors.
The sizes of the electron orbits are strictly limited, and different for the atoms of every element.
That's why the elements are different.
The chemistry of anything is determined by its electron orbits.
The force that holds an electron in orbit has nothing to do with gravity.
It's a force of electrical attraction.
The electron dances a wavy ring around the central nucleus of a hydrogen atom.
And makes quantum leaps from orbit to orbit.
Up or down.
The larger the orbit, the greater the energy of an electron.
An electron has to get energy to leap to a larger orbit.
And it has to lose energy to jump back down.
Every upward leap is caused by an atom absorbing a light wave.
But we have no idea what causes the downward leaps.
What we do know that such leaps always produce a light wave whose color matches the energy difference between the orbitals.
The Sun's surface radiates light waves of all colors.
If you look at sunlight through a prism, you'll see its spectrum.
When you magnify the spectrum with a telescope, as Joseph Fraunhofer did, you raise the curtain on the electron dance within the atom.
When the energy of the electron flags, and it drops to a lower orbital, the light wave it emits scatters.
Most of it doesn't reach us.
That leaves a dark gap or black vertical line in the spectrum.
These dark lines are the shadows cast by hydrogen atoms in the atmosphere of the Sun.
Sodium atoms cast different shadows.
Their electrons dance to a different tune.
A grain of table salt is composed of sodium and chlorine atoms.
Ten million billion of them doing their crazy dances in a single grain of salt.
And a single iron atom with 26 electrons is like a great big production number in a Broadway musical.
When you look at a star with a spectroscope, you see the dark lines from all the elements in its atmosphere.
Show me the spectrum of anything, whether here on Earth or from a distant star, and I'll tell you what it's made of.
Fraunhofer's lines are the atomic signatures of the elements writ large across the cosmos.
As with every other major revelation in the history of science, it opened the way to newer and deeper mysteries.
And to the revelation that there were many more secrets hiding in the light.
When Joseph Fraunhofer combined a prism with a telescope and turned it toward the skies, he brought the stars much closer to us.
When he was only 39, he contracted a fatal illness.
Perhaps as a result of his early and long-term exposure to the toxic chemicals of glassmaking.
You never know where the next genius will come from.
How many of them do we leave in the rubble? The prince and his kingdom were immeasurably enriched by that act of kindness to a poor orphan.
Fraunhofer's discoveries transformed Bavaria from a rural backwater to a technological powerhouse.
As he lay dying, the government was desperate to preserve every shred of his precious knowledge about the high technology of optical glass.
But it could only be divulged to a person with top security clearance-- the director of the mint.
The government kept Fraunhofer's technology for making perfect optical glass a State secret for another hundred years.
This would prove to be a major obstacle for someone we'll meet later in our journey.
But Fraunhofer would allow no such secrecy where his pure scientific research was concerned.
He knew that science requires openness to flourish; that our understanding of nature belongs to the world.
As soon as Fraunhofer discovered the spectral lines, he published everything he knew about them.
And the reverberations of his momentous discovery echo still.
His spectral lines revealed that the visible cosmos is all made of the same elements.
The planets The stars The galaxies We, ourselves, and all of life The same star stuff.
He made it possible for us to know what's in the atmosphere of other worlds.
And in galaxies millions of light-years away.
Spectral lines revealed not only the composition of far-off objects, but also their motion towards or away from us.
Using them, we discovered that our universe is expanding.
But perhaps the greatest revelation of spectroscopy is the discovery of the thing it cannot see.
A hidden universe of dark matter six times more massive than the familiar cosmos.
It's made of some mysterious substance that does not emit, reflect or absorb any kind of light.
We only know it's there because of its gravity, which pulls on all the galaxies and speeds up the visible stars within them.
There are many more kinds of light than our eyes can see.
Confining our perception of nature to visible light is like listening to music in only one octave.
There are so many more.
They differ only in wavelength, but over a huge range.
For instance, infrared light the kind that William Herschel discovered Or X-ray light.
Or radio light.
Or in gamma-ray light.
These are not just different ways of seeing the same thing.
These other kinds of light reveal different objects and phenomena in the cosmos.
In gamma-ray light, for example, we can see mysterious explosions in distant galaxies that we would otherwise miss.
And in microwave light, we can see all the way back to the birth of the universe.
We have only just opened our eyes.