Back to the start of the universe

2013-07-15 00:00

A GENERAL interest in physics has become a life’s passion for Pietermaritzburg resident Frikkie de Bruyn, who has invested a great deal of energy into studying cosmology and the mysteries of the universe.

He believes a study into the cosmology of the universe will equip young scientists with greater skills. While he has no fomal tertiary education in maths and physics, except what he learned at high school, it is his passion and determination that have led him to form and head up a local cosmology section of the ASSA (Astronomical Society of Southern Africa).

He believes that students and people with an interest in physics and astronomy should join to work out the answers to questions that have puzzled scientists for centuries. De Bruyn says that the recently announced SKA project (Square Kilometre Array) will open up new avenues for BSc students with an interest in astronomy and cosmology.

While De Bruyn encourages young scientists to join his society, he admits that his own knowledge was self-taught. He passed his matric in 1962 and went straight to work for the South African Tourist Corporation, where his job was to encourage tourists from overseas to visit South Africa.

He returned to South Africa and started working for Home Affairs, and in 1984 he transferred to the KZN Provincial Administration. He was working at Natalia when his interest in physics was awoken.

He said: “I read books written by Prof. Stephen Hawking, A Short History of Time, among others. I was fascinated and then I used to go to the library in my lunch hour and read up on physics and astronomy. I was invited to join the then Midlands Centre of the Astronomical Society of Southern Africa.

“After my retirement I did my first presentation to the ASSA Symposium held at the Pretoria Centre of ASSA in 2002. After a presentation to the ASSA Symposium in Durban, I approached the ASSA Council asking for permission to establish a cosmology section.”

Cosmology is the study of the origins and eventual fate of the universe. Physical cosmology is the scientific study of the origin, evolution, structure, dynamics, and ultimate fate of the universe, as well as the natural laws that keep it in order.

“While astronomy is the study of stars and planets such as our solar system and galaxies, in cosmology we study the universe as a whole and go much further back into the history [evolution] of the universe. Cosmologists study the first galaxies and stars, the role of quasars [black holes in the formation of galaxies] and the very early universe. We can go back to when the universe was a trillionth of a billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a second old.”

De Bruyn believes the SKA offers budding cosmologists many opportunities. “They’ll get a chance to study the early galaxies, analyse the light emitted, study and solve problems such as how did the first stars and galaxies form and what were conditions in the early universe. We still don’t know if the universe evolved from a quantum object. There are still so many questions to be answered,” he said.

“The South African Cosmology section started off with 28 members and currently we have 51 members, of which one is in Moscow, one in Canada, one in Australia and the rest in South Africa. Our section is very active and we communicate via the Internet. Members circulate news of interest to cosmology, such as press releases and scientific papers. We discuss this and its implications for cosmology.”

Recently the group worked on a complex problem and discovered that the calculations done by an eminent university in America were incorrect. It was a great boost for the group.

De Bruyn said: “Maths is the ‘language’ we use to describe what we see in the skies. We can use ordinary language, but maths is a very specific and accurate way of describing the object of study. Words are not. Maths is the language of nature and we use it to unlock the secrets of nature.

“By using maths, physics and astronomy, we can begin to understand a problem, make a sketch if you like and then develop the maths equation to explain and solve the problem. There are many problems that still have to be solved such as Dark Matter, Dark Energy, the question of is the universe infinite, the shape of the universe, and we may discover more questions than answers as we uncover information.”

De Bruyn says that cosmologists are trying to go back to the beginning of the universe to try and figure out what is likely to happen in the future. “ I am convinced we will solve the riddle of the beginning of time when we unite General Relativity and Quantum Physics.”

De Bruyn says that as “end of time” theories have become popular science, cosmology does not support the end of the world.

He said: “The greatest threat to the Earth is a meteor which goes undetected and can wipe out all life on Earth, depending on its size. A comet can do the same but our chances of detecting it in time are better than that of a meteor.”

He does not find that his quest to understand the universe conflicts with his religious beliefs at all.

“Religion is based on belief where science is based on fact. Even if I should come to understand how the universe was formed, I would still have a personal belief in God.”

As De Bruyn works in his garden, he is constantly puzzling over the questions of physics and maths, and sometimes when he thinks he has made a breakthrough, he runs inside to scribble down his new ideas. These will be shared with his peers and they will try and find pieces of the puzzle that fit together.

How did the universe get as big as it is today?

We can see 13,75 billion light years back in the history of the universe (light travels at 300 000 km/s in a vacuum). It took light 13,75 billion years to reach us.

It was Alan Guth who established that the very early universe expanded exponentially and, of course, cooled down in the process. This exponential expansion of the universe from an object smaller than an atom is known as the Big Bang Theory.

What is Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation (CMBR)?

This was discovered in 1956. The Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation is a remnant of the Big Bang. About 7 500 years after the Big Bang, the universe cooled enough for electrons to form atomic nuclei and, very important, for light to travel freely. It is this light which we now observe in the microwave wavelength of light as the Microwave Background Radiation.

It is much cooler than the microwaves we use in our microwaves. Its temperature is about -270° Celsius, or about 3,75° Kelvin. Zero degrees Kelvin is the absolute temperature. We can only see a very small portion of light rays.

What are solar flares?

A star, such as the sun, is a ball of very hot gas held together by its own gravity. At its core, it fuses hydrogen into helium (like a hydrogen bomb) and releases enormous amounts of energy in the process. It is some of this energy we feel as heat in the sunlight.

The sun is highly magnetised and the magnetism comes to the ‘surface’ of the sun in the form of giant arches. When these arches meet and are strong enough, it snaps and sends extremely energetic protons out, sometimes towards the Earth.

It is these particles that interact with the magnetic sphere that protect the Earth and cause theNorthern Lights and Southern Lights.


Some stars are massive and end their lives in tremendous explosions called supernovae. The elements of everything, including our bodies, are forged in such exploding stars. The supernova briefly outshines an entire galaxy.

The sun will end its life in about 5½ billion years as a red giant. Its outer parts will, according to speculation, reach the Earth. It will then leave behind a small ‘star’ called a white dwarf, which is gravitationally very powerful. Many of the white dwarfs are part of a binary system. Its powerful gravity will pull matter from its companion star and explode in a supernova.

What is a galaxy?

A galaxy is a large collection of stars and gas orbiting a common centre of mass.

What is a Quasar?

A quasar is the same as a black hole. In the early universe, scientists noted star-like objects far brighter than entire galaxies. This turned out to be a black hole at the centre of a young galaxy in the process of formation.

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