In the movie Annie Hall, the main character Alvy Singer, played by Woody Allen, flashes back to a time in his childhood that showed that even as a child he was afflicted with a fair amount of existential angst:1
Doctor: Why are you depressed, Alvy?
Alvy’s Mom: Tell Dr. Flicker. (Young Alvy sits, his head down – his mother answers for him)
Alvy’s Mom: It’s something he read.
Doctor: Something he read, huh?
Alvy: (his head still down) The universe is expanding.
Doctor: The universe is expanding?
Alvy: Well, the universe is everything, and if it’s expanding, someday it will break apart and that would be the end of everything!
Alvy’s Mom: What is that your business? (turning back to the doctor) He stopped doing his homework!
Alvy: What’s the point?
Alvy’s Mom: What has the universe got to do with it? You’re here in Brooklyn! Brooklyn is not expanding!
It’s a scene meant to be an “even then they knew” kind of scene for the character, highlighting the neurosis that has plagued Alvy his whole life, but the subject of Alvy’s anxiety is not arbitrary. The expanding universe is disquieting. It’s a far cry from the steady state universe, the fixed, eternal “world without end” universe that was assumed to exist before Edwin Hubble started looking through his telescope.
In fact, even though certain aspects of Newton’s theory of gravity had made it unlikely that the universe was static (over time all the stars should fall together), the idea of an expanding or contracting universe was never even suggested prior to the twentieth century. People believed either that the universe had always existed forever in an unchanging state or that it had been created at some point in the past more or less as it looks today. Perhaps this was due to people’s desire to believe in a world that is eternal and unchanging. A universe that is certain.2 It was troubling to learn otherwise.
1 IMDB. “Annie Hall: Quotes.” http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0075686/quotes?item=qt0373302.
2 Hawking, Stephen. The Illustrated a Brief History of Time. Updated and expanded ed. New York: Bantam Books, 1996, 9-10