Astronomy: Toward the Edge of the Universe

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Old & Violent. The quasars, says Schmidt, are surely the oldest observable things in the universe. They probably shone for only a short time—a mere million years or so—and their light had to travel for many billions of years before it reached the earth. They lived their brief and violent lives before the sun was born, perhaps soon after the birth of the expanding universe 15 billion years ago when it was only one-third its present size.

Neither Dr. Schmidt nor his colleagues know yet what quasars are. They gravely reject the theory of Russian Astronomer Nikolai S. Kardashev, that one of the five reported last week, CTA-102, sends out bursts of energy that are coded messages to the universe from a supercivilization. It seems unlikely to the group at Caltech that any civilization, no matter how advanced, would be able to switch on and off the energy output of 10,000 billion suns.

In the absence of a superintelligence, some natural explanation will have to be found for the fantastic energy of the quasars, which is far above the possible yield of any reaction presently known to physics. Perhaps only a new kind of physics will be able to explain the quasars' behavior. Meanwhile they can serve as beacons guiding astronomers farther and farther into the unknown. Dr. Schmidt is sure that his spectroscopic methods, which are constantly improving, will find many more quasars. As information about them accumulates, he hopes that theories about them will begin to make more sense.

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