How Old is the Universe?

In just one night, the universe aged about 80 million years; but still, it doesn’t look a day over 12 billion years old, thanks to a steady diet of milky ways, supernovas, black holes, asteroids, and planetary systems. Findings released on March 21, 2013 by George Efstathiou of the Kavli Institute for Cosmology at the University of Cambridge, that has been crunching the data gathered by the Planck satellite, indicate that the universe is actually 13.8 billion years old. The Planck space probe, named after German physicist Max Planck, was launched by the European Space Agency in 2009 at a cost of $900 million. During the past 15 months, the satellite has been busy mapping the sky, searching background radiation and focusing on “light fossils” and sound echoes that emanated from the Big Bang. The probe also confirmed that the universe is expanding (the rate of expansion is known as the Hubble constant) — although a bit slower than what has been previously calculated.

In an interview with Associated Press, Brian Greene, a physicist from Columbia University, gushed about Planck’s amazing discoveries: “What a wonderful triumph of the mathematical approach to describing nature. The precision is breathtaking. The satellite is measuring temperature variations in space — which arose from processes that took place almost 14 billion years ago — to one part in a million. Amazing.”

The data from the Planck satellite confirms the theory of inflation, specifically, what happened right after the Big Bang. In the Big Bang theory, the universe was initially the size of an atom and in a split second, it exploded violently, expanding much faster than the speed of light. Prior to the Big Bang, there was nothing — no time and no matter. Since time and space are intricately linked, once space was created, time could begin.

Any discussion of the Big Bang inevitably raises the really Big Question: “Why does the universe exist?” Certainly, this question is not one that Planck’s astonishing data can answer. Throughout the ages, the world’s greatest thinkers — theologians, scientists, and philosophers, among so many others — have grappled with this question without arriving at any conclusive answers; however, it is worthwhile to contemplate and discuss the question. Jim Holt, an essayist and contributor to the New York Times Book Review, recently published Why the World Exists: An Existential Detective Story. The book is a fascinating exploration of the Big Questions with some of today’s leading thinkers (theologians, scientists, philosophers, writers, mathematicians, etc). Reading the book is like dropping into a lively, erudite, college-level seminar that is inspired as well as thought-provoking.

For now the universe will hold off celebrating its birthday with a cake, knowing that trying to blow out 13.8 billion candles might be a bit too taxing — especially so soon after the Big Bang.

For further reading: Universe: The Definitive Visual Guide edited by Martin Rees, DK (2012).
Big Bang: The Story of the Universe by Heather Couper and Nigel Henbest, DK (1997).
Why the World Exists: An Existential Detective Story by Jim Holt, Liveright (2013)
Bang! The Complete History of the Universe by Brian May, Carlton Books (2013)

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