Alice: “How long is forever?”
White Rabbit: “Sometimes, just one second.”
Lewis Carroll, Alice In Wonderland.
I was born into a universe that had existed forever and would last forever.
I was born into a universe that had been in existence since 4004 BC.
I was born into a universe that was infinitely old and expanding and would go on expanding forever.
I was born into a universe that was somewhere between 11 and 14 billion years old and that would fall in upon itself in about 6 to 20 billion years.
It all depends upon your point of view, your frame of reference, your chosen belief.
In the Christian Bible (other religions are available), it is possible to work out the date of creation from the given genealogies of some of the main characters of the narrative and this calculation gives us (at the time of writing) around 6,000 years. This was refined in the 17th century by James Ussher, an Irish bishop and theologian, to October 23rd 4004 BC.
This calculation/speculation wasn’t just limited to members of the clergy though, men of science also had a go; Johannes Kepler the man who formulated the laws of planetary motion, estimated that creation happened in 3992 BC. Sir Isaac Newton using his own calculations reasoned that it was in 4000 BC. As I sit here writing this, the year according to Jewish chronology is 5783, that’s 5,783 years since the creation of the universe.
The current scientifically accepted value for the age of the universe is 13.7 billion years, plus or minus 200 million years and I like that uncertainty, it’s an estimate, science doesn’t pretend to know unequivocally, it says, ‘This is what we think the deal is, according to present theories.’
Me? I’d always regarded the religious viewpoint with a healthy dose of scepticism and in places with downright disbelief but as that word itself implies, it’s just a belief if only a ‘dis’ belief. I can’t know with any certainty when or how the universe was created but I have faith in the scientific world (if having faith in science is not too ironic) that professes to know to the best of present ability and within a certain margin of error.
So, I was born into a universe that as far as science can tell is by human standards exceedingly old. It’s also bigger than it was.
In 1966 A.D. I was gifted a book, and yes, I’m well aware of the meaning of Anno Domini and any mixed messages it may engender when I’m writing about science versus religion but it’s an accepted notation and I feel no dichotomy in using it although I haven’t yet brought myself to embrace C.E. and B.C.E.
Anyway, the book was called “Our Universe” and written by Walter Shepherd. It was part of the Marvels of Modern Discovery range published by Ward Lock & Co, Ltd. I’ve Googled furiously trying to find any information about Walter Shepherd but apart from the many other books he wrote, I have drawn a blank.
I read and re-read that book many times, I was eager to devour all the information within to better understand the universe in which I lived. I still have the book, little the worse for wear and yes, I was seven ging on eight and of course I wrote in it, a thing that my mother made very plain that you should never, ever do. There are also some other scribblings in the book, scribblings made by a younger hand than mine, ah, the perils of younger siblings…
The book was printed in 1961. One section which these days brings a smile to my face is that concerning “nebulae” and “Island Universes” by which it meant “other galaxies”, it mentions the Great Nebula in Andromeda and speculates that this “nebula” is perhaps an entire galaxy just like the one in which our solar system resides. When the book was written of course these things were still in the speculative stage, now of course we know that the great nebula in Andromeda is in fact an entire galaxy.
‘Our Universe’ gives the probable distance to the nebula as ‘…a million and a half light years’ whereas modern estimates of the distance are 2.537 million light years. The universe has indeed grown since I first read that book, grown in our understanding of it and also grown in a very literal sense.
Also, something happened to the language; a million and a half light years, not 1.5 million. The frontispiece of the book is a photograph of the control desk of the Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank observatory. The caption reads, ‘A view of the radio-telescope at Jodrell Bank from the desk at which the controller sits.’ I can’t help but feel that were it written today it would say, ‘Jodrell Bank telescope from the control desk.’
Memes: love ’em or hate ’em they are here and trying to make our socially shared media a happier place, aren’t they? I think that’s what they are trying to do. One picture that I have seen is this one shown below and accompanied by the text: ‘Meanwhile in UK schools’.
Now, I’m perfectly willing to believe that some people think that Nicolaus Copernicus really was Italian, there’s a lot of misinformation out there, but I was rather pleased to find the following section in ‘Our Universe’:
‘…a young astronomer in Poland, named Copernicus…’
A young Polish astronomer named Mikołaj Kopernik for that was indeed he, but the prevailing Latin languages of the era transformed his name to the more easily pronounceable Nicolaus Copernicus. Still, there he was, in my book from 1961 and he was in Poland.
How much time have we got left?
OK, I’ll carry on for a bit then…
‘Our Universe’ cites a couple of possible scenarios for the creation of the universe, one is that the universe is in a ‘Steady State’ and has existed forever and that new matter is being somehow spontaneously created throughout space and it’s that new matter which drives the observed expansion of the universe.
Another theory postulated in the book is that everything started off from a primordial cosmic atom which may or may not have existed for countless aeons before exploding at some point about seven thousand million years ago.
Current cosmological theory has it that the universe started some 13.7 billion years ago, the ‘steady state’ theory having been discounted many years ago. Started from what though? That’s where it gets sketchy. If the universe is, as its name suggests, all that there is, and at one time it was all condensed into a super dense region before ‘exploding’ outwards as The Big Bang, what’s it exploding outwards into? But no, its not expanding into anything, it’s just expanding…
And how long will the universe last? That’s easy, we just don’t know. One theory is that at some point the force of gravity will halt the expansion of the universe and everything will fall back in on itself until a point scientists called the ‘Big Crunch’, a reversal of the Big Bang, at which point it may bounce or explode all over again, of it may all just disappear up its own event horizon.
Another theory is that the universe will continue to expand at an increasing rate of speed until all matter is ripped apart, the ‘Big Rip’.
The most probable, although by no means certain theory is that the universe may keep on expanding forever as entropy wins out against order and the universe becomes a cold dark place, the ‘Big Freeze’.
So how long have we got? We really don’t know and ‘Our Universe’ didn’t go into speculation about that subject. It might be forever; it may just be for one second more.
But before all the atoms decay into cold, dark, elementary particles, I’d just like to praise that book ‘Our Universe’ because it did a lot to make me the fine chap I am today, it piqued my curiosity about many things and it’s a curiosity about the universe that we live in, about our universe, that is still alive and well today.