General Astronomy/Short History of the Universe

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General Astronomy
The Big Picture Short History of the Universe Scientific Notation


For time immemorial, humans have been intrigued by creation. Where did we, and the universe in which we live, come from? In the Rig Veda, it was proposed that before creation there was "neither existence nor non-existence." The Latin phrase ex nihilo nihil fit ("out of nothing comes nothing") sums up current human beliefs about origins.

The Qur'an contains the following verse regarding the origin of the universe: “Do not the Unbelievers see that the heavens and the earth were joined together (as one unit of Creation), before We clove them asunder?” [Al-Qu’ran 21:30]

Many possibilities have been considered by scientists over the millennia. Did the universe "happen" suddenly, was it created quickly by God, has it existed forever, or is it in a constant state of creation, even now?

Just as we can use size scales to make rough comparisons of the sizes of objects in the universe, we can also use time scales to compare the periods of time over which events occur. For example, Comet Halley takes about 75 years to complete its orbit around the Sun, so we can say that the period of Comet Halley's orbit has about the same time scale as the human lifespan.

Montinari Milano.jpg

The Origin of the Universe according to the Big Bang theory[edit]

The universe is big in space, but it's also big in time. The age of the universe appears to be 13.7 billion years old. Like huge space scales, a span of 14 billion years is hard to imagine for a person who will have a much shorter lifespan than that. To better understand very long time scales, we can "compress" long periods of time like the age of the universe into shorter periods such as a human lifetime.

A typical person will live around 80 years. That means that the Earth will go around the Sun eighty times over the course of an average lifetime. The human life time scale and the time scale of human history are far smaller than the time scale of changes in the universe. Astronomers have learned about how the universe as a whole came to be the way it is by studying only an instant of its existence. To get a clearer picture of how the cosmological time scales fit together, let's consider an imaginary astronomer whose life is "stretched out" to fill the entire history of the universe.

If a human lifetime were vastly longer than it is, the orbit of the Earth around the Sun might be too fast to be a useful way to measure age. Instead, it might be more practical measure time from something slower. The Sun takes 230 million years to complete an orbit around the Milky Way Galaxy. That means that a "Milky Way year" will be 230 million times longer than an ordinary year.

Let's suppose our old astronomer has a lifespan of 80 "Milky Way years" instead of 80 normal years. That way, the astronomer will live long enough to see events that happen on cosmological time scales rather than human time scales. The astronomer's life happens in extreme slow motion. His growth and his actions are slowed by a factor of 230 million. At this rate, it takes four normal months for the astronomer just to blink.

A year is defined to be the time it takes for the Earth to make a complete orbit around the Sun. We will define a new measure of time inspired by the year, which we'll call the "Milky Way year." The "Milky Way year" is the time it takes for the Sun to make a complete orbit around the Milky Way, 230 million times longer than an ordinary year. If we imagine stretching a human lifetime 230 million times, a person born at the big bang would live long enough to see the death of the Sun.

Astronomers have theorized that the universe was very small, hot, and dense when it began. Since then, it has expanded and cooled. At first, the universe contained almost entirely hydrogen and helium gas. The universe was very uniform, with no galaxies, stars or planets. We'll place our protagonist's birth at the time of the big bang.

Our astronomer was much too young to remember the early development of the universe after the big bang. By the time the astronomer was only two days old, atoms had formed in the universe and the universe had cooled enough for structure to begin forming in the gas that uniformly filled all of space. Remember, the imaginary long-lived astronomer measures time much more slowly — what the astronomer sees as two days amount to a million years of time on a normal clock. While a million years seems like an extremely long time, that's only a tiny part of the history of the universe.

Our astronomer's earliest memories of childhood will include the first formation of stars and galaxies, which began to occur when the astronomer was around five "Milky Way years" old. Galaxies would continue forming and developing well into the astronomer's teenage years, when the universe was billions of years old. Today, galaxies continue to evolve and change.

There are two schools of thought on how the Universe formed: "top down" and "bottom up". Top down theorists think that large clusters formed after the Big Bang, which later broke down into stars and galaxies. "Bottom up" theorists instead pose the theory that matter was originally dispersed fairly evenly by the Big Bang, later accumulating into stars and galaxies. Recent data from Hubble Deep Field photographs appear to support "bottom up" theories. The photos show young galaxies from up to 11 billion light-years away. These young, small galaxies, from early in the universe's history, support the theory that large structures formed out of smaller ones. The galaxies appear as faint blue blobs with vague spiral structures, 2000 to 3000 light-years across.

An important necessity for the appearance of life is heavy elements. Since only hydrogen and Helium gas were formed during the big bang, everything heavier than that had to be made in stars later. These other elements — all of the elements on the periodic table — were made in stars.

Stars use light elements like Hydrogen and Helium as their fuel. Like nuclear bombs, they use the power of the atom for energy. Stars are unlike nuclear bombs, however, in that most nuclear bombs get their energy from heavy atoms like Plutonium and Uranium. In a nuclear bomb, the energy comes from converting heavy elements into lighter elements. This process is called fission. In a star, the energy comes from converting the light elements into heavier elements. This process is called fusion. All of the material in the universe heavier than Hydrogen and Helium were made by fusion in a star.

An ordinary star can make many of the elements, especially the most important ones for life. It can't make all of the elements, though; it can't make anything heavier than Iron. The heavier elements were made in supernovae. A supernova occurs when a massive star reaches the end of its life. Supernovae are extremely bright and extremely hot. This is where the heaviest elements in the universe are made.

All of the material needed to make rocky planets was made in stars, and some of it was made in supernovae. This means that planets couldn't exist until there had been enough time for a star to completely go through its life cycle and become a supernova. The material would then be ejected back into space, and would form a new star, possibly with planets. It also means that everything in the world, including you, came from a star. As the astronomer Carl Sagan said, "We are star stuff."

This illustration shows how the Solar System might have appeared while it was forming. The disk around the Sun contains gas and dust which will eventually be swept up by the gravity of the planets. Although the newborn Solar System resembles a galaxy, it is much, much smaller.

The Sun and the Earth formed about four and a half billion years ago, when our long-lived astronomer was 37 "Milky Way years" old. A solar system forms relatively quickly, and ours probably took only about 100 million years. The Sun and the planets formed from a cloud of sparse gas in the Milky Way, which condensed down and coalesced. After this happened, the Earth was very hot. It was a completely molten ball of rock, and had melted so thoroughly that its consistency was similar to water. Certainly, no life could have existed on the very young Earth.

Soon, however, the conditions on Earth became suitable for life. For our carbon-based type of life to develop, a planet needs to have

  1. organic matter (the material from which DNA is made),
  2. liquid water,
  3. a source of energy, and
  4. appropriate temperatures.

Earth had all of these fairly early in its history. Scientists aren't sure when life first appeared on Earth, but some evidence dates the earliest life at three and a half billion years ago, when our astronomer was 47 "Milky Way years" old.

Evidence suggests that life appeared almost immediately once the necessary conditions were satisfied on the young Earth, but the first inhabitants of the new planet showed no strong predisposition for evolution to more advanced life forms. More than two billion years passed before primitive, single celled microbial organisms advanced to become multicellular life. Once it did, however, advanced life took rapid hold. This period of rapid development in the complexity of life is called the Cambrian Explosion.

The Cambrian Explosion occurred when our astronomer was 56 "Milky Way years" old. Ten years had passed on our slowed cosmological clock. This period of history was, in some sense, the most profound step in the development of intelligence on Earth.

The extinction of the dinosaurs was very recent by cosmological standards.

Since the Cambrian Explosion, things have become very interesting on Earth. The astronomer was barely a year older by the time the primitive multicellular creatures had developed to become the dinosaurs, which were unimaginably more complex and advanced by comparison. We have now come into recent times, as the appearance of the dinosaurs occurred only twelve months before this instant in our astronomer's life.

We can see now that we must occupy a tiny, tiny part of the cosmic timeline. By what standard could the time of the dinosaurs possibly be considered recent? By a cosmological standard. The dinosaurs had a short stay on Earth. They disappeared 65 million years ago, or four months ago by the astronomer's clock. This gave mammals the chance to rise to dominance.

The first humans appeared on Earth only eight hours ago by our astronomer's clock. Civilization accounts for only a small fraction of this time. The first system of writing, and the first evidence of civilization, dates to only 6000 years ago, or fifteen minutes ago by our astronomer's clock. In the lifetime of the universe, all of culture and all of written history could fit into a coffee break!

Periods more similar to the human life span become even smaller in our comparison with the cosmic timescale. It was only very recently that people first endeavored to learn about the world using science in the way we understand it today. These first scientists, who considered observation and experimentation to give the last word on the nature of the universe, lived only about four hundred years ago, or one minute ago on our cosmic clock.

As we come progressively closer to the present, our lives seem progressively more ephemeral and fleeting. How long will our society, our culture, and our ideas endure in the long run? Only time will tell. At the current rate, it does not appear to be long before something must happen to stop the downgrade of society.

We can say little about what might happen on Earth in the next thousand years, let alone the next million years or the next billion years. Meanwhile, the Milky Way will continue on its normal course, a course which happens to be headed straight for a collision with the nearest neighboring galaxy in about 12 "Milky Way years." This is unlikely to be the disaster for Earth it might appear to be — a collision between any stars during a galactic merger is actually extremely improbable. The Solar System will simply take up residence in the new galaxy created in the aftermath of the collision.

Five billion years from now, the Sun will have used up its fuel and will die. At this point, about 20 billion years after the big bang, the long-lived astronomer will be 80 years old. The Earth will no longer be able to support life after the Sun dies, and the Solar System will become rather desolate. The universe as a whole will continue long after the death of both the Sun and our astronomer, but it too will slowly die, eventually becoming cold and empty as it continues to expand.

Looking back over the scales of the universe and seeing humanity's role, unimaginably small in both space and time, one might wonder whether science has painted a bleak, depressing, and hopeless picture for humanity. Some would say so, while others find comfort in the majesty and grandeur of the universe, and the possibilities that the future might bring. For now, the future of humanity in this universe, as chaotic and vast as it is, remains uncertain.

General Astronomy
The Big Picture Short History of the Universe Scientific Notation
Summary of Events
230 million years = 1 year
Event Real time scale Compressed time scale'
Formation of structure begins 1 million years after big bang 2 days
Earliest stars and galaxies form 2 billion years after big bang 6 years
Sun and Earth form 9 billion years after big bang 37 years
First evidence of life on Earth 10 billion years after big bang 47 years
Advanced life forms on Earth 500 million years ago 57 years
First dinosaurs 230 million years ago 58 years
Dinosaurs become extinct 65 million years ago 4 months ago
Humans appear 200,000 years ago 8 hours ago
Writing is developed 6000 years ago 15 minutes ago
Modern scientific thought 400 years ago one minute ago
Present day 13.7 billion years after big bang 59 years
Human lifetime 80 years ten seconds
Milky Way collides with Andromeda 17 billion years after big bang 71 years
The Sun dies 20 billion years after big bang 80 years