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Einstein and Beyond
12.01.05
 
Who Are NASA's Space Science Explorers?

Who are NASA's Space Science Explorers? The scientist studying black holes in space. The teacher talking about the secrets of the cosmos. And the student asking if there is life away from Earth. All of these people are Space Science Explorers. They are all curious about our solar system and space. This is a story about a NASA Space Science Explorer.


A picture of Albert Einstein with a background of stars
Image above: Albert Einstein is one of the greatest explorers of space and science the world has known. Credit: NASA
He's one of the greatest explorers of space and science. Yet his discoveries came a long time ago. They came before the first satellite was launched. They came before humans first walked on the moon. And they came before liftoff of the first space shuttle.

1905 was quite a year for Albert Einstein. It was the year he changed science forever. He did so with new ideas. His ideas were about the speed of light. And they were about the way objects move. These ideas are still a key part of modern science.

Now it's 100 years later. NASA and the world are honoring Einstein this year. The celebration lasts until the end of the year. But the importance of his ideas will last a lot longer.

Much of today's space science builds on what Einstein did. In fact, NASA has a program to do just that. Its name is "Beyond Einstein." Scientists with the program want to answer three questions: How did the universe begin? Why is the universe growing so fast? What happens very near a black hole?

How Did the Universe Begin?

The universe is about 14 billion years old. No one knows for sure how it began. Some think it began as a tiny, hot ball. They think that one day the ball exploded. And they think that it has been growing ever since. The explosion is called the big bang. Einstein did not come up with this idea. But it was his work that led to it.

Charles Bennett is a scientist who works with NASA. He's part of a project that has made a "baby picture" of the universe. This was done with the help of telescopes. The picture shows how things looked not long after the universe began. Now Charles wants to know what could have caused the big bang. To figure it out, he says he has to think like Einstein did. He has to think creatively.

Einstein liked to try new things, and he liked to watch how things work, Charles said. "He always kept a keen eye on things that didn't quite add up. He asked himself how he could [solve] these problems with creative new ideas."

Why Is the Universe Growing So Fast?

Einstein used math to explain how the universe works. There was just one problem. His math said the universe couldn’t stay the same. It had to be growing or shrinking. At the time, though, most people thought it was doing neither. So Einstein changed his math.

This map of the sky uses color to show the oldest light in the universe with red showing the warmer spots and blue showing the cooler spots
Image above: This is a baby picture of the universe. Credit: NASA
It turns out Einstein was right in the first place. It was later found that the universe is growing. And it grows faster every day. A force known as dark energy could be the reason. It’s called "dark" because no one can see it.

Sean Carroll is helping NASA. He's trying to explain this unseen force. He wants to know what it is and where it comes from. Those are hard questions to answer. He says Einstein had the right approach to problems like this.

"He learned as much as he could about what was already understood," Sean said. "At the same time, he kept an open mind about new ways of doing things."

What Happens Very Near a Black Hole?

Black holes are areas in space where gravity is very strong. It's so strong that it pulls in everything around it. Not even light can escape. Einstein did not believe in black holes. But his ideas did suggest they exist. He should have trusted his ideas. It now looks like black holes are for real.

Mitch Begelman studies how black holes form. He also studies how they affect galaxies. He says he can't wait for the next decade. NASA will launch two new missions then. Each one will study black holes. One will help scientists learn how two black holes merge into one. The other will watch materials in space just before a black hole sucks them in.

Black holes are strange. Space has a lot of strange wonders. You have to have an open mind when studying them. Mitch follows Einstein's lead.

Mitch said that Einstein liked to think an idea all the way through, even if the end result seemed strange. He said he tries to think like Einstein. There are some weird things in space. Sometimes you have to think about them in weird ways, he said.

Scientists copy Einstein in other ways, too. They treat his ideas the way he treated others'. They use the ideas to explain as much as they can. But the scientists don't rule out making changes to them. They may even invent new ones.

Who knows? You could be the one to come up with new ideas. They could be ideas that not even Einstein thought of. They could change the way we see the universe -- but maybe not all in one year.

See previous Space Science Explorers articles:
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StarChild: Black Holes
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Dan Stillman, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies