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An Ancient Universe: How Astronomers Know the Vast Scale of Cosmic Time



A guide for teachers, students, and the public on how we know that the universe is old -- and how to answer creationist claims that everything began only 6000 years ago. The 20-page review sets out some of the ways scientists have measured the age of the solar system and the universe at large.
How Astronomers Know the Vast Scale of Cosmic Time
An Ancient Universe
A Guide for Teachers, Students, and the Public
Published by the American Astronomical Society
with the Astronomical Society of the Pacific
This booklet was written by a
subcommittee of the Astronomy
Education Board of the American
Astronomical Society: Andrew Fraknoi
(Foothill College), George Greenstein
(Amherst College), Bruce Partridge
(Haverford College) and John Percy
(University of Toronto).
The electronic version of this booklet
is available from the American
Astronomical Society’s website at
ancientuniverse.html and from the
Astronomical Society of the Pacific at
The authors thank Chris Impey
(University of Arizona), Douglas
Richstone (University of Michigan),
Nalini Chandra (University of
Toronto), Douglas Hayhoe (Toronto
District School Board), and Eugenie
Scott (National Center for Science
Education) for their helpful comments,
and Susana Deustua of the American
Astronomical Society for overseeing
the production of the published
Layout by Crystal Tinch
(American Astronomical Society)
Printing made possible through a
generous grant from the American
Astronomical Society; Robert Milkey,
Executive Director.
Copyright 2004
American Astronomical Society
2000 Florida Ave., NW
Suite 400
Washington, DC. 20009
All rights reserved. Permission to
reproduce this booklet in its entirety
for any non-profit, educational purpose
is hereby granted. For all other uses
contact the Education Office of the
American Astronomical Society, at the
address given above.
In the past 150 years, scientists have greatly advanced
our understanding of the natural world. We know that we live
on an ancient planet, that life on Earth has evolved in its diversity
and complexity, and that the universe itself has evolved from a
hot and dense early state. These assertions are supported by a
web of evidence, and the ideas behind them can be and have
been tested with a wide range of experiments. The understanding
of our place in the universe and our place in the scheme of
living creatures is one of the greatest achievements of the human
Many good books and articles have been published for
teachers and the public on the scientific basis of evolutionary
ideas in biology. But rather little is available to help explain
how we know that the galaxies, stars, and planets are really
old. In this booklet, we want to give you some of the background
on how scientists have been able to measure ages so vast that
human history is a mere blink of an eye in comparison. We also
provide some references to classroom activities, and resources
for further exploration of some the astronomical ideas we discuss.
As part of our discussion, we want to emphasize the
methods by which scientists study cosmic age and evolution,
and how this relates to the interwoven structure of scientific
knowledge. We note that science and religion deal with different
aspects of human existence. For example, science cannot answer
such questions as why there is a universe or whether the universe
has a “purpose”. What science is very good at, however, is
searching out physical laws that describe the behavior of matter
and energy in the universe, and seeing how such laws make
stars, planets, and 7th grade students possible.
A small, but vocal, minority of religious individuals has
been urging a major revision of how evolution is taught in U.S.
schools. Based on their personal beliefs, they find fault not only
with biological evolution, but also with modern astronomical
ideas about the age, expansion, and evolution of the universe.
They have been actively pressing their case in the political, media,
and educational arenas, and their loud arguments sometimes
drown out other perspectives, including science.
As a consequence, there has been much concern, in
both the educational and scientific communities, about attempts
to abolish the teaching of evolution in our schools. Astronomers
share this concern because the term evolution – which just means
change with time – is an underlying theme in all of science.
Not only is evolution a unifying concept in biology but it also
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describes the way in which the planets, stars, galaxies, and universe
change over long periods of time.
Evidence from a host of astronomical observations, which we
will discuss below, strongly supports the great age of these objects, as
well as the fact that they change significantly over the billions of years
of cosmic history. Students should be given the chance to learn about
these changes and what they mean for the development of life on Earth.
Concerned by the tendency to de-emphasize the teaching of
evolution, the President and Council of the American Astronomical
Society, the main organization of professional astronomers in the United
States of America, issued a formal statement on behalf of the
astronomical community in 2000. The Society’s members include men
and women from a wide range of ethnic, cultural, and religious
backgrounds. The statement reads in part:
“Research...has produced clear, compelling and widely
accepted evidence that astronomical objects and systems
evolve. That is, their properties change with time, often over
very long time scales. Specifically, the scientific evidence clearly
indicates that the Universe is 10 to 15 billion years old, and
began in a hot, dense state we call the Big Bang.
Given the ample evidence that change over time is a crucial
property of planets, including our own, of stars, of galaxies
and of the Universe as a whole, it is important for the nation’s
school children to learn about the great age of, and changes in,
astronomical systems, as well as their present properties. . . .
Children whose education is denied the benefits of this
expansion of our understanding of the world around us are
being deprived of part of their intellectual heritage. They may
also be at a competitive disadvantage in a world where scientific
and technological literacy is becoming more and more
important economically and culturally.
President Robert D. Gehrz
On behalf of The American Astronomical Society”
Let’s take a look at the scientific discoveries that lie behind the
Society’s statement.
The Universe: An Overview
Astronomy is increasingly recommended as an integral part of
the school science curriculum. The study of astronomy is deeply rooted
in culture and philosophy. It harnesses our curiosity, imagination, and
a sense of shared exploration and discovery, and it is also an area of
great interest to people of all ages—especially children. With new and
better telescopes on the ground and in space, astronomy is one of the
most exciting and rapidly-growing sciences today.
And what we learn from our instruments is that we live in a
wonderful universe. No wonder astronomy has inspired artists and
poets through the ages, from ancient Greece to today’s television series.
Astronomy, the study of the universe, reveals a cosmos that is vast,
varied, and beautiful. The sky is our window on this universe. The sky
and its contents are there for all to see on any clear night.
When astronomers talk about the universe, they mean everything
that is accessible to our observations. The universe includes all that we
can survey or experiment on, from the moon that orbits our own planet
out to the most distant islands of stars in the vastness of space. Since we
cannot visit most of the universe, we rely on the information it can send
to us. Fortunately, we receive an enormous amount of cosmic information
all the time, coded into the waves of light and other forms of energy that
come to us from objects at all distances. The main task of astronomy is
to decode that information and assemble a coherent picture of the cosmos.
Locally, our planet is one of nine that orbits the pleasantly
energetic star we call the Sun. The solar system (Sun’s system) also
includes dozens of moons and countless pieces of rocky and icy debris
left over from when the system formed. Astronomers now have many
samples of these other worlds to analyze, including the rocks the
astronauts brought back from the Moon, the meteorites (chunks of rock)
that fall from space, including a few that were blasted off Mars long ago,
and the cosmic dust we can catch high in the atmosphere.
The Sun is one of hundreds of billions of stars that make up a
magnificent grouping (or island) of stars we call the Milky Way galaxy.
Over a hundred of these stars are now known to have planets, just the
way the Sun does. Some stars show evidence of being much older than
the Sun, and some are just gathering together from the raw material of
the galaxy.
One of the nicest things about the universe is that it sends its
information to us at the fastest possible signal speed, the speed of light.
This is an amazing 300,000 kilometers per second (or 186,000 miles
per second, in units your student may be more familiar with). The other
stars are so far away, however, that even at this speed, light from the
next nearest star takes 4.3 years to reach us. And it takes light over
100,000 years to cross the Milky Way galaxy. (The distance light travels
in one year, about 9.5 trillion kilometers, is called a light-year and is a
useful unit of measurement for astronomy. We can then say that the
nearest star is 4.3 light-years away.)
Telescopes on Earth: These two
domes house the twin Keck
Telescopes perched high above
the clouds on Mauna Kea (an
extinct volcano) on the Big Island
of Hawaii. Each dome contains a
telescope with many mirror
segments, which combine to give
a light collecting area of 10 meters
(about 10 yards) across. With
such telescopes, astronomers
can detect the light of very distant
(and thus faint) objects. (Courtesy
of William Keck Observatory and
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Despite these
distances, the stars are so
bright that we receive enough
light (and other radiation)
from them to learn a great
deal about how they work
and how long ago some of
them formed.
Beyond the Milky
Way lies the realm of the other
galaxies. Our largest
telescopes reveal billions of
other galaxies (collections of
billions of stars) in every
direction we look. The Milky
Way shares its cosmic
neighborhood with several
dozen other galaxies, but only
one that is bigger than we are.
That one, the great galaxy in
the constellation of
Andromeda, is 2.4 million
light-years away. The light we
see from the Andromeda
Galaxy tonight left it
2.4 million years ago, when
our species was just
beginning to establish a
fragile foothold on the surface
of planet Earth. Some galaxies
are so far away that their light
takes over ten billion years to
reach us.
As we shall see below, astronomers do not
quote such mind-boggling distances or times idly.
During the 20th century, they developed techniques for
measuring the distances to stars and galaxies and
establishing the vast scale of the universe in which we
find ourselves.
In similar ways, astronomers have also found
ways of establishing the scale of cosmic time. These
measurements show that the universe had its beginnings
about 14 billion years ago in a very dense, hot state we
call “the Big Bang”. The Sun and the Earth formed from
the “raw material” gas and dust in the Milky Way galaxy
some 4.5 to 4.6 billion years ago. The earliest evidence
we have for living things on Earth goes back to about
3.7 billion years ago.
On this scale, everything with which we are
normally concerned is recent indeed. Here is an
interesting thought experiment. Suppose we were to
compress the entire history of the universe from the Big
Bang to today into one calendar year. On that scale, the
dinosaurs would have flourished a mere few days ago,
and the life-span of a person would be compressed to a
tenth of a second. (To see this worked out in more detail,
see the “cosmic calendar” activity whose web link is
listed in the “For Further Exploration” section at the end.)
An Ancient Universe 5
Night Sky: The dome of the 4-meter Blanco Telescope at the Cerro Tololo Interamerican
Observatory in Chile is seen silhouetted against the Magellanic Clouds, two nearby galaxies
(seen as fuzzy star groups at left) and the inner regions of our own Milky Way Galaxy
(stretching upwards toward the right). Taken by Roger Smith with a very sensitive electronic
detector, the picture is also interesting because the only source of illumination is starlight.
(Courtesy Roger Smith/NOAO/AURA/NSF)
The Andromeda Galaxy: The
closest large galaxy to us is
called the Andromeda Galaxy, for
the constellation in which it is
found. It is a large spiral-shaped
collection of stars about 2.2
million lightyears from us–in
other words, light takes more
than 2 million years to reach us
from this galactic neighbor. The
area of the sky covered in this
image is more than five times the
area of the full moon. (Courtesy
of T.A. Rector and B.A. Wolpa,
National Optical Astronomy
The Process of Science: How Do We Know?
The nature of the universe, its age, its birth
and life story, have been deduced through the process
of science. This process has many aspects and stages.
In the case of astronomy, it usually starts with making
careful observations and measurements — something
students can begin to do through inspection of
astronomical images, and observation of the real sky.
Together with our knowledge of the laws of physics,
developed in laboratories here on Earth, these
observations provide the basis for our understanding
of the universe. From continuing observations,
astronomers develop models and theories to explain
how things work in the realms of the planets, stars,
and galaxies.
In science, we test our ideas by making
further observations and doing experiments. All
suggestions (hypotheses) must ultimately be confirmed
by testing them against the evidence of the real world.
As much as possible, we must leave our prejudices
and preferences outside the laboratory or observatory
door. When the experiments and observations have
spoken, we must accept their results gracefully.
When scientists measured the age of the
universe (as we will describe in a moment), they did
not hope or wish for it to have a particular age, and try to make their results
come out according to those wishes. Instead, they did the best they could to
understand the evidence nature provides and then reported what their
observations had told them.
The Ancient Universe
With all this in mind, let’s now look at what our observations and
experiments have revealed about the age of the universe and its contents.
We examine each thread of evidence separately, starting with the entire
universe and coming “down to Earth.” We will see that they fit together very
nicely to reflect the ages we discussed above.
a) The Age of the Expanding Universe
Astronomers can estimate the distance of each galaxy of a certain
type from its apparent size or brightness. The smaller and fainter a galaxy
appears compared to similar galaxies, the farther away it must be. We
experience the same effect here on Earth – the farther away a car, the closer
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together and fainter its headlights appear. In addition,
there are other ways of measuring the distances to
galaxies, using special stars that act like distance-
Astronomers can also determine the speed a
galaxy is moving by breaking up its light into its
component colors, rainbow-fashion. We call the light
spread out like this a “spectrum” and it is something
whose properties astronomers are very good at
measuring. Each element leaves a unique pattern in the
spectrum of light, allowing us to tell what objects in
the universe are composed of by studying these patterns.
But the spectrum also provides a “bonus” for those who
study the patterns carefully.
Christian Doppler showed in 1842 that when a
source of light is moving away from us, the motion stretches
the waves, slightly changing the colors we see in the
spectrum. This Doppler Effect, which applies to all kinds
of waves, also explains why the sound of a police siren
that is approaching us seems to have a higher pitch,
and one that is moving away from us seems
to have a lower pitch. When the source of
waves moves away from us, the waves are
slightly stretched, when it moves toward us,
they are slightly compressed. Doppler radar
uses waves that bounce off your moving car
and tell the police whether you are speeding
or not.
When we measure light from distant
galaxies we find that their waves are always
stretched, indicating that the galaxies are
moving away from us. By measuring the
stretching, we can determine the galaxies’
speeds, in the same way as police using
Doppler radar. Astronomers have been
making such measurements of galaxies since
the first decade of the 20th century. We should
add that in terms of the modern theory of
gravity, the recession of galaxies is caused
by the expansion of space itself rather than
any activity on the part of the galaxies. The
expansion of space carries galaxies away
from us and it also stretches the waves of
light that galaxies emit to redder wavelengths.
In the 1920’s astronomer
Edwin Hubble made the remarkable
discovery that the speeds at which galaxies
are moving away from us are not random, but have a
pattern to them. The farther away a galaxy is, the faster
it is moving away. This pattern is now called “the
expanding universe”, since the same behavior of
receding galaxies is seen in every direction in the sky.
We are confined to view the stretching of space from
the Milky Way galaxy, but the same pattern would be
observed by someone on a different galaxy. All the
galaxies are stretching away from all the other galaxies.
Thus we cannot conclude from Hubble’s work that we
are at the center of the expansion or that we have any
special place in the universe.
Astronomers soon realized that they could use
measurements of the stretching of light to measure how
long ago the expansion began. To see how we do this,
imagine for a minute that you are attending a banquet
with lots of other people. At the end of the event, all
the participants get into their cars and drive away from
the banquet in different directions.
An Ancient Universe 7
Redshift Figure: These spectra show the dark absorption lines first seen
by Fraunhofer. These lines can be used to identify the chemical elements
in stars, but they also can tell us the speed with which stars and galaxies
move away from us. The pictures from bottom to top show a galactic star,
a nearby galaxy, a medium distance galaxy and a distant galaxy and their
spectra. The pictures on the left are negatives so the brightest parts of the
galaxies are black. Notice how the pattern of absorption lines shifts to the
red (longer wavelength) as the galaxies get fainter. The number above and
below the spectra are the measured wavelengths in nanometers. (Courtesy
of Edward L. Wright, Astronomy Department, University of California – Los
The Sun: Our star, the Sun, is a
powerhouse of nuclear energy,
shining via a process called
nuclear fusion. Deep in its core,
smaller atomic nuclei are
smashed together into larger
ones, releasing energy each step
of the way. Ultimately, some of
that energy emerges from the
Sun’s outer layers. This image,
taken in 1973, from Skylab, the
early US space station, shows an
enormous eruption (flare) on the
Sun’s surface. (Courtesy of
Say your home is 120 miles
from the lunch site, and you drive
home at 60 miles per hour. When
you get home at 5 pm, you realize
you forgot to look at your watch to
see when the banquet broke up. Still,
you soon realize that you have all
the information you need to figure
out when everyone started
“expanding” away from the lunch.
Since you traveled 120 miles at 60
mph, the trip took you 2 hours. Thus
you can calculate that you, and all
the other participants, must have left
at 3 pm. (To check, you might call a
number of other banquet attendees
and ask them to do the same
calculation for their trip home. They
may have traveled a different
distance, at a different speed, but the
departure time will be the same.)
In the same way, we can find
out roughly when the galaxies began their expansion by measuring how far
away they are and how fast they are moving. The simplest way to estimate the
age of the universe from galaxy motions is to divide galaxy distances by their
speeds. However, this calculation omits the fact that the universal expansion
used to be faster than it is now, but has slowed due to the gravity of galaxies
tugging on each other. When the effect of gravity and another small effect
which actually speeds up the expansion rate are included, the universe is
estimated to be 12 to 14 billion years old.
b) The Age of the Oldest Stars
The Sun and other stars shine by converting superheated hydrogen in
their centers into helium in a process called thermonuclear fusion. Under the
intense heat and pressure in a star’s core, hydrogen nuclei (the centers of
hydrogen atoms) fuse together and produce helium nuclei – and energy. This
is the same process that occurs in a hydrogen bomb on Earth. We can determine
how long a star can shine by this process in the following way.
We know from experiments in nuclear physics just how much energy
comes from fusing each atom of hydrogen. We also know the amount of hot
hydrogen in the star’s core, and how fast the star is using its energy. We can
therefore calculate how long the star will last before it runs out of fuel. The
answer for the Sun is about 10 billion years for its total lifetime. We know
from measurements of the age of the solar system – see below – that the Sun
is now about 4.5 billion years old. So our star is about halfway through its life.
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Other stars may have different lifetimes. Stars smaller
(less massive) than the Sun have longer lives because
they fuse their hydrogen fuel so much more slowly.
Similarly, a sub-compact car may have a smaller gas
tank than a large SUV (sport utility vehicle) but it may
be able to drive much longer on a full tank of gas,
because it uses its fuel much more slowly.
When a star has used up the available hydrogen
fuel in its center, it expands and becomes a “red giant”.
Once we find such a giant star, we know that it has
used up all its central hydrogen. If we can estimate its
initial mass, and hence its initial power, we can estimate
its lifetime, and we therefore know its age. This is
equivalent to saying that, if we see a car that has just
run out of gas, and if we know its horsepower, fuel
efficiency, and fuel capacity, we can figure out how
long it had been driving since the last fill-up before it ran
out of gas.
In this way, we can measure the ages of a large
number of stars. When we apply this method to the
oldest stars we can find, we obtain ages of 10 - 15 billion
c) The Age of Light from the Most Distant
Galaxies: The “Time Machine” Effect
Astronomers can measure the distances
to other galaxies from their apparent size or
brightness, and in many other ways. These
distances are so great that billions of years are
required for their light to reach us. Thus we are
actually seeing these galaxies not as they are
today, but as they were billions of years ago.
As we saw in the Overview section,
light travels at 300,000 kilometers per second.
During the last century, this number has been
measured with exquisite accuracy, and found
to be constant. But even at this extraordinary
speed, light takes considerable time to reach
us from distant objects. Light from the Sun, for
instance, takes eight minutes to reach us, so
that we see the Sun as it was eight minutes ago.
Similarly, we see the stars in the nighttime sky
as they were decades, centuries and even
thousands of years ago.
An example of the “time machine effect” in
everyday life is to listen for the slower sound of thunder
which accompanies a lightning flash; if the thunder
follows the lightning by 10 seconds, then it is about
3 kilometers away; if the thunder and the lightning are
simultaneous– the storm must be right on top of us!
Another example: for spacecraft exploring the outer
solar system, it takes many hours for their radio signals
(which travel at the speed of light) to reach the Earth;
quick changes by the spacecraft cannot be controlled
remotely from Earth because the communication time
would be too long. This is why many of the spacecraft’s
instructions must be carried in its on-board computer.
The galaxies are so distant that their light may
take billions of years to reach us. So when we look
deeply into space we are looking into the past, across
vast gulfs of time. When we study other galaxies, we
find that their stars are still being born from the loose
gas from which the galaxies formed. When we study
more distant, and therefore younger, galaxies, we see
larger numbers of stars being born. This is consistent
with the idea that gas converts into stars as time passes.
An Ancient Universe 9
Saturn and Some of Its Moons: This beautiful image of the planet Saturn
was taken in August 1981 by the Voyager 2 spacecraft when it was 21
million kilometers from the planet. Saturn is one of the giant outer planets
in our solar system, made mostly of liquid and gas. It has the most dramatic
ring system among the four large planets that are surrounded by such
swarms of small icy and dusty pieces. Three of Saturn’s icy moons (Tethys,
Dione, and Rhea) are visible as small dots of light at the bottom of the
picture. The shadow of Tethys can be seen under Saturn’s rings. (Courtesy
of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory/NASA)
The Hubble Deep Field: In
December 1995, the Hubble
Space Telescope, high above
the Earth, focused on a tiny spot
of dark sky for over 150
consecutive orbits. The result
was the deepest view into space
we had ever had up to that time.
Here we see about ¼ of that
“deep field” and it shows
galaxies (and only galaxies) at
many different distances. The
farthest among these galaxies
is estimated to be so far away,
its light has taken over 10 billion
years to reach us. (Courtesy
Robert Williams, the Hubble
Deep Field Team, and NASA)
We also find that more distant galaxies often look
like they are interacting or merging. This bears out a basic
prediction of gravity theory in an expanding universe, that
large galaxies are steadily assembled from smaller pieces.
In both cases, there is evidence of evolution—the universe
was not the same billions of years ago as it is now. We
will return to this idea in the next main section.
The “Hubble Deep Field” is a 10-day time exposure
made by the Hubble Space Telescope. Almost every object
in this image is a distant galaxy, seen as it was in the remote
past – at times up to 10 billion years ago. It is from images
such as this that we can unravel the history of the universe
and determine its age.
d) The Age of the Chemical Elements
Just after the Big Bang, the universe was made almost
entirely of the simplest elements: hydrogen and helium.
We have confirmed this by looking at galaxies that are really
far away– and thus as they were long ago. These have
greater proportions of hydrogen and helium than nearby
galaxies (which we are seeing as they are in the present
time). The chemical elements that are more complex than
hydrogen and helium were formed later — some in nuclear
reactions in the cores of stars, others when the most massive stars ended
their lives in gargantuan explosions that astronomers call a supernova. (A
spectacular supernova was observed in 1987 in the Large Magellanic Cloud,
one of the closest galaxies to ours.* Astronomers actually observed some of
the newly-formed elements emerging in this explosion.)
This idea, that it takes the enormous heat in the center of a star or in
the explosion of a star to transform one element into a more complicated
one is one of the great discoveries of modern astronomy and physics. All
the atoms in the Earth and in us that are more complex than hydrogen or
helium were “cooked up” inside earlier generations of stars. We can also
use this notion to measure the age of some of the elements.
Some types of atoms are radioactive; they decay or change into other
types of atoms at a rate that can be measured accurately in the laboratory.
As time goes on, less and less of the original or “parent” atom is left and
more and more of the product or “daughter” atom can be found all around
it. By comparing the amount of the parent to that of the daughter, astronomers
can determine how long it has been since the radioactive parent atom formed.
In this way, astronomers have determined that, although some radioactive
atoms (such as the ones produced by the 1987 supernova) are recently formed,
the oldest radioactive atoms in the universe were formed 10-20 billion years
ago. This age agrees with the age of the oldest stars.
*See the figure on page 16.
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The same radioactive dating technique allows
us to measure the ages of the oldest rocks on Earth, on
the Moon (from which astronauts brought back rocks),
and in meteorites, chunks of rock from space that land
on Earth. Such dating experiments have shown that the
age of the solar system (the Sun and its planets) is about
4.5 billion years, as we mentioned above. The universe
is a lot older than our little neighborhood. More recently,
the same technique has even been used to confirm the
ages of stars.
The key thing to notice is that all of the
independent estimates of the age of the universe are in
remarkable agreement – our best estimate being about
14 billion years, give or take a 10 percent measurement
uncertainty. All this strengthens astronomers’ view that
the universe, the galaxies, and the stars are truly ancient
and not recent creations.
Scientists always try to test their ideas in more
than one way, if possible. That is why the agreement of
different techniques is so important. Age estimates for
the universe based on radioactive atoms observed in
old stars, models of the lifetimes of stars, and the
expansion history since the big bang all give the same
answer. This web of evidence means that the assertion
of a very old universe is not subject to possible problems
or limitations of any single technique.
The Changing Universe:
Evolution Happens!
Scientific observations have not only revealed
that the universe is very old, they have also shown that
it changes over time, or – to use the word that has stirred
so much controversy – that it “evolves”. These cosmic
changes are often very difficult to observe, because they
happen so slowly. We have been studying the sky with
powerful telescopes for only about a century, but
astronomical changes can take millions to billions of
years. We must therefore combine observations of many
different objects out there and use our deductive powers
to uncover evidence of cosmic evolution. Luckily, nature
has left a wide range of clues about evolution for us –
at every scale of the universe – which we can uncover
with some good astronomical detective work.
a) Changes in the Solar System
Because we have explored our solar system
(with people landing on the Moon, and robot spacecraft
landing on or flying by most of the planets), we have a
lot of information about the history of our neighbor
worlds. It is clear that all the planets have undergone
profound changes with time and have a common origin
in the great swirling cloud that made the Sun some 5
billion years ago.
We can calculate when the materials of the
Earth’s crust congealed from molten lava to hard rock
(the geological, not the musical kind). As we discussed
above, we can look at radioactive elements in the rock,
and see how much of the radioactive parent and how
much of the stable daughter elements are there. Our
laboratory work shows that the process of radioactivity
An Ancient Universe 11
A Martian Meteorite: Millions of years ago, an enormous
impact (a large chunk of rock or ice hitting Mars) blasted
parts of the red planet’s crust out into space. After a long
time, some of these pieces of Mars landed on Earth. This
Martian rock was found in Antarctica in 1984. We know it
came from Mars, because scientist have found pockets
of air inside, and this air is exactly like Mars’ atmosphere
and not like Earth’s. Such chunks from space (called
meteorites) allow astronomers to study the chemical
makeup of other parts of the solar system. (Courtesy NASA
Johnson Space Flight Center)
The Earth from Space: This image of our planet was taken in August 1992 by the GOES-7 satellite. You can see Hurricane Andrew
near North America. (Courtesy of F. Hasler, et al, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and NASA)
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is not affected by temperature, pressure, or other outside factors, and proceeds
at a rate set only by the little natural clocks built into the nucleus of the atom.
Since many rocks have more than one radioactive element, they actually
have several nuclear clocks running at the same time. These can be compared
to check our results. Individual rocks on Earth have measured ages that range
from last week (for rocks that just congealed from lava flows in Hawaii) to
more than 4 billion years ago.
If you take a good look at a world map, you can see that the continents
“fit into” one another like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The coastline of Africa,
for instance, neatly fits into that of South America. This is because these
continents used to be joined, but have been drifting apart. Far back in the
past, the very face of our world was different. Today, scientists can actually
measure the rate at which the continents are moving – a few centimeters per
year – and estimate how long it has taken them to move apart to their present
Impact craters on the Earth, Moon, and other worlds are formed by
the bombardment of chunks of rock and ice from space. By studying these
craters, we can learn how common these impacts have been. The Moon is a
good place to do this, because its craters have not been eroded away, as they
have on the active Earth. The Moon turns out to contain many old craters,
and fewer young ones. So we conclude that the solar system experienced
many more impacts in the distant past than today.
At the beginning, there were many more chunks of rock and ice around,
but as our system has evolved, many of those chunks have either hit the
planets and moons or have been flung out of the system by the influence of a
large planet’s gravity. By the way, we can observe the impacts of smaller
chunks with the Earth today, and observe “near misses” by larger objects. In
this way, we can determine the current rate of impacts. This provides another
measure of the great age of the surfaces of the Moon and the solid planets.
We’re grateful that the number of impacts has been decreasing, since
large impacts can have devastating effects on the Earth. There is strong
evidence that 65 million years ago, such a chunk about 10 kilometers across
hit what is now Mexico. The resulting explosion raised so much dust and
smoke that the entire Earth experienced a long dark period. The lack of sunlight
and warmth killed off much vegetation, and many animals, perhaps including
the dinosaurs. When geologists dig in 65 million years old rock layers, when
the fossil record shows a “great dying”, they find higher traces of elements
that are rare on Earth but more common in rocks from space. The huge mass
of particles from the impact was carried by our planet’s winds all over the
Earth and is now part of the rocks from that time.
By killing off large number of living species, such giant impacts can
re-direct the course of biological evolution on our planet. Geologists have
uncovered drastic sea level changes and episodes of volcanism that may also
have profoundly affected the history of life on Earth. New species can thrive
in environments created by drastic change, as our ancestors, the small
mammals, began to do 65 million years ago.
An Ancient Universe 13
Top - Artist’s Conception of an
Asteroid Impact: Artist Don Davis
paints a view of what a large
asteroid might look like as it hits
the Earth. Just such an asteroid
is thought to have hit the Earth 65
million years ago, destroying
more than half of all living species
on our planet. (Courtesy of NASA
Ames Research Center)
Bottom - The Cratered Face of
the Moon: On its way to Jupiter,
the Galileo spacecraft captured
this view of the north polar region
of the Moon in 1992. You can see
craters of all sizes, each made
when a chunk of rock (or
occasionally, ice) hit the Moon and
exploded from the violence of the
impact. (Courtesy of Jet
Propulsion Laboratory/NASA)
The primary evidence of Earth’s biological
history comes from fossils—the hard parts of formerly
living creatures turned into stone by geological
processes. The radioactive atoms in some fossils can
be used to measure their ages directly. The fossil record
is not complete, but there is clear evidence that
organisms have generally evolved from simple to more
complex over the past few billion years. Evolution of
species is like a roadmap of the Earth’s history.
Other planets evolve also. Robotic spacecraft
orbiting and landing on Mars have found many dry river-
beds there. But Mars is too cold today for water to exist
in liquid form. Furthermore, the planet’s atmosphere is
so thin that any liquid water would rapidly evaporate
away. Yet the river-beds and the geological formations
our robotic rovers have explored in 2004 are evidence
that in the distant past Mars had liquid water flowing
on its surface. We conclude that Mars too has evolved.
It was warmer and had a thicker atmosphere billions of
years ago, but because of its lower gravity, has now
lost much of its sheltering air.
These and many other lines of evidence reveal
that the planets of the solar system have changed over
time. By studying these changes, we can gain insight
into Earth’s past and perhaps its future.
b) Changes in Stars
One of the great discoveries of modern science
is that stars (like people) live only a measurable lifetime
and then die. Although the lives of the stars are
enormously longer than the span of a human life, we
can learn about the life story of the stars by studying
them at many different stages in their life cycle, from
birth to death. As an analogy, imagine that a hypothetical
race of aliens visited the Earth for an hour or two, and
had to make observations to piece together the life cycle
of humans. Studying one human being or even three or
four in that short time would hardly give them much
useful information.
The trick would be to examine as many humans
of different types as possible and then deduce the
different stages in our lives. For example, a few of them
might visit a maternity ward, and see humans in a stage
just before or after birth. They might even see a birth in
progress. Others in the same hospital might witness
the stages just before and after death. Some out on the
street would observe people of various ages: young ones
with their parents, old ones with their children, teenagers
and adults in various groupings.
Similarly, astronomers (able to glimpse any given
star for only a “moment” of its long existence) must
examine many stars and hope to find some in each stage
of its life. And we have been able to do exactly that –
we have found young stars near the “maternity wards”
of gas and dust where they are born. We can observe
stars like our own Sun, which are in the stable “adult”
stage of their lives. (A good number of such sun-like
stars nearby are surrounded by one or more planets,
just like the Sun.) We can see red giant stars in “mid-
life crisis”, bloated by changes deep within. Studying
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An Ancient Universe 15
stellar corpses called white dwarfs and neutron stars, we observe the after-
effects of stellar death.
The slow processes of stellar life and death can be deduced from
groupings of stars called star clusters, groups of stars which are born together
and live out their lives as a group. A good example of such a group is the
beautiful Pleiades cluster, which can be seen in the fall and winter sky. In
such a cluster, different stars go through their lives at different paces, and we
can find stars that started together, but are now in very different stages of their
Changes in how stars live their lives can be observed directly in a
special class of stars called “pulsating variable stars”; the North Star – Polaris
– is one example. This star expands and contracts in rhythmic fashion, every 4
days. But as it slowly swells with age, it becomes larger, and the regular
expansion and contraction take measurably longer.
What do we learn from studying the stars in different stages (and by
simulating their behavior and physics on high-speed computers)? We find that
stars evolve from one form to another – from energetic youngsters, to stable adults,
to bloated giants, and on to death and becoming a corpse.
Recall from our earlier discussion that, because some stars explode, new
stars include some of the materials produced by previous generations of stars.
Facing page top - Old Riverbed on
Mars: This spectacular image of
part of a winding channel called
Nanedi Valles was taken by the
Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft in
1998. The channel is about 2.5 km
across, and shows a variety of
geologic features that strongly
suggest the channel was carved
by running water. (Courtesy of Malin
Space Science Systems/JPL/
Facing page bottom - The Pleiades
Star Cluster: Stars are often found
in groups. This relatively nearby
grouping is about 400 lightyears
away, and contains several
hundred stars. The brightest of
them are visible to the naked eye
or in binoculars, and are labeled
here with their names from
classical mythology. The stars look
fuzzy because there is a cloud of
dust moving among them and the
dust reflects the stars’ light.
(Courtesy of the Space Telescope
Science Institute Digital Sky
Left - The Orion Nebula: This
Hubble image shows part of a vast
cloud of gas and dust from which
new stars and new planets are
forming. Located in the star pattern
called Orion about 1500 lightyears
away, this star forming region
reveals how stars continue to be
born whenever enough cosmic raw
material can gather together.
(Courtesy C. O’Dell & S. Wong
(Rice University) & NASA)
Thus the number of more complex atoms in the universe
is slowly growing. We have good evidence that our Sun
(with its planets) was not among the first stars the universe
produced, but formed later from materials enriched by
the deaths of previous generations.
This is a key idea in astronomy – that the
evolution of the stars gradually changes the make-up of
the cosmos. The stars are not mere backdrops to our
existence on Earth – creatures as complex as we are
could not have evolved on Earth without the materials
that earlier generations of stars contributed to the cosmic
“element-pool.” And the Sun itself will not last forever,
but will someday die. In the process, it will eventually
expand and make life on Earth impossible, quite
independent of what we humans do.
c) Changes in the Universe
As we have mentioned, light takes a good deal
of time to reach us from the distant parts of the universe.
Therefore, if we look far out, we are also looking far
back in time. By examining light (and other radiation)
coming from different epochs in cosmic history, we can
learn about the evolution of the entire universe.
For example, observations reveal that quasars,
gigantic energetic events in the cores of galaxies, are
more common at great distances than they are nearby.
Thus we conclude that they were more common in the
distant past than today. In a universe that is not evolving,
we should see as many of these hyper-active galaxy
cores in each period of cosmic history. But if we see
more in the past, it implies that over time the quasars
have become less common. The evidence shows that
they are active when galaxies are young, but generally
tend to fade out as they the galaxies get older. Our Milky
Way galaxy seems to have a dead quasar at its center as
do several other galaxies in our neighborhood.
In the same way, observations show that
galaxies that are billions of light years away, and are
therefore seen as they were billions of years ago, are
forming stars at a much greater rate than nearby, older
galaxies. Early in their lives, galaxies have more
resources for forming new stars, but it gets harder to
make new structures from the diminishing supply of
raw material as the galaxies grow older. Again, we see
that the galaxies themselves are evolving.
Perhaps the most spectacular discovery of all
was a faint “hiss” of radio signals coming equally from
all directions in the universe. This background hiss has
a spectrum (a range of waves) that can only be produced
by matter compressed to high density and heated to
enormous temperatures. What could have filled the
entire universe with such radiation? Our evidence
shows that it is the faint remnant of the blazing inferno
of the Big Bang, now cooled down by the expansion of
the universe. This discovery provides direct evidence
that, far back in the past, the universe was ultra-dense
and ultra-hot, very different from the cold and much
Supernova 1987A: This Hubble Space Telescope
image shows the remnant of a supernova – a star that
blew itself to pieces. We first saw the light of the
explosion on Earth in 1987, and this image was taken
in 1994. The remnant of the explosion itself is the blob
of stuff in the center; the rings are regions of material
ejected by the star earlier in its death throes. They have
been “lit up” by the energy of the explosion. The inset
at the bottom shows the expansion of the exploded
material in the center from 1994 through 1996. Seven
to nine years after the star “formally exploded”, the
remnant is seen to expand at almost 10 million
kilometers per hour. Supernovae are nature’s way of
making and recycling some of the heavier elements
that make up the universe. (Courtesy of C. Pun & R.
Kirshner, the Space Telescope Science Institute, and
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An Ancient Universe 17
WMAP Image of the “Seeds” of
Galaxies: The first detailed, all-sky
picture of the infant universe. The
WMAP image reveals 13 billion+
year old temperature fluctuations
(shown as color differences) that
correspond to the seeds that grew
to become the galaxies. Encoded
in the patterns are the answers to
many age-old questions, such as the
age and geometry of the Universe.
(Courtesy “NASA/WMAP Science
more spreadout universe we see today. Many other lines of evidence also
point to a hot beginning for the cosmos.
Today, astronomers are mapping this “background radio radiation”
in detail to learn everything we can about how the universe evolved in
those early days. Recently these maps have started to reveal the “seeds” of
the structure we now see in the universe – denser regions of gas that
subsequently gave birth to the great groups of galaxies we observe around us.
Again, it is clear that the universe has changed profoundly since its
earliest days, going from a hot smoother state to the cooler “lumpier”
appearance we see today.
Science and Religion
Humanity has always wondered about the nature, origin, and
purpose of the universe, and these thoughts have been important parts of
many religious traditions. Science and religion are not necessarily in conflict.
Indeed, many scientists have strong religious beliefs. A survey of American
scientists conducted in 1997 found that 40% believed in a personal God,
the same number as was found in similar surveys conducted in 1914 and
1933 (See the article on “Scientists and Religion in America”, in the Sept.
1999 issue of Scientific American magazine.) Many people from a variety
of religious faiths accept the testimony of science, including evidence for
the great age of the universe. Indeed, they may find that it deepens their
understanding of creation and reinforces their faith.
The approach a person adopts for relating
science and religion probably depends on his or her
life experience and presuppositions. When talking with
students or young people in general, we should avoid
claiming that science and religion are necessarily
opposed to each other. Students need not give up their
faith to be scientists or to appreciate the scientific view
of the universe.
Neither do they need to reject science to keep
their faith. We should avoid giving simplistic answers
to questions about the relationship between science and
religion. Such questions are complex, and people of
many faiths have found many different answers to them.
The awe and splendor of the universe have
inspired artists and poets as much as they have
scientists. Planets, stars, galaxies, and their histories
remain a source of beauty and wonder for people of all
ages and all beliefs. The illumination brought by science
can enhance every form of spirituality – religious or
humanistic. The awareness, understanding, and
appreciation of the vast scales of space and time can
enhance the life of all people, young or old and whatever
their cultural background or religious belief.
Sharing a sense of belonging to the universe with
students can be one of the most satisfying tasks of a
teacher. None of us should feel insignificant or
unimportant when we look at, or think about, the
universe. To paraphrase the French scientist Henri
Poincare: “…astronomy is useful because it shows how
small our bodies, but how large our minds.” Knowing
that we are part of a vast, ever-evolving universe, billions
of years old, is part of the birthright of every thinking
being on planet Earth.
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For Further Exploration
Below are a few representative readings on the science topics in this booklet. A more detailed reading and web-
site list, with sources that also include responses to claims by those who doubt the age of the universe and its
evolution, plus a list of relevant classroom activities, can be found at
1. General Readings
The Oct. 1994 issue of Scientific American magazine was devoted to “Life in the Universe” and has articles on the
evolution of the universe, the Earth, and life.
Zimmer, C. “How Old Is It?” in National Geographic, Sept. 2001, p. 78. An excellent, up-to-date, profusely-illustrated
Any modern textbook in astronomy can give you a good introduction to how we measure ages and how we view
cosmic evolution. A list of currently available textbooks (and their web sites) is kept on the Web at:
2. The Age and Evolution of the Solar System
Hartmann, William “Piecing Together Earth’s Early History” in Astronomy, June 1989, p. 24.
Wood, John “Forging the Planets” in Sky & Telescope, Jan. 1999, p. 36.
Yulsman, T: “From Pebbles to Planets” in Astronomy, Feb. 1998, p. 56.
3. The Age and Evolution of the Universe
Chown, Marcus The Magic Furnace: The Search for the Origin of Atoms. 2001, Free Press/Simon & Schuster. Readable
history of the discovery of atomic structure and how stars build up atoms over time.
Ferris, Timothy The Whole Shebang. 1997, Simon & Schuster. See especially Chapter 7 on “Cosmic Evolution.”
Glanz, James “On Becoming the Material World” in Astronomy, Feb. 1998, p. 44. On how the elements were made in
the universe.
Larson, R. & Bromm, V. “The First Stars in the Universe” in Scientific American, Dec. 2001, p. 64.
Roth, Joshua “Dating the Cosmos: A Progress Report” in Sky & Telescope, Oct. 1997, p. 42.
4. Measuring Cosmic Distances
Eicher, D. “Candles to Light the Night” in Astronomy, Sep. 1994, p. 33. On ways we use cosmic objects that have a
standard brightness to measure distances.
Ferguson, Kitty Measuring the Universe: Our Historic Quest to Chart the Horizons of Space and Time.1999, Walker.
Reddy, F. “How Far are the Stars?” in Astronomy, June 1983, p. 6.
NOTE: More astronomy resources and web links for teachers on how best to convey the astronomical ideas in this
booklet can be found on the education web sites of the two sponsoring organizations:
· The Astronomical Society of the Pacific at
· The American Astronomical Society at
The Cosmic Calendar Activity referred to in the Overview section can be found at:
Cover image: PIA05988: Out of the Dust, A Planet is Born (Courtesy of NASA/JPL/Caltech)
Background image: PIA03153: Solar System Montage (Courtesy of NASA/JPL)
An Ancient Universe ©2004 American Astronomical Society
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ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Planetary scientists have developed a new theory about the violent early solar system collisions that created the Earth and Moon.
Forging the Planets " in Sky & Telescope
  • John Wood
Wood, John " Forging the Planets " in Sky & Telescope, Jan. 1999, p. 36.
How Old Is It An excellent, up-to-date, profusely-illustrated resource
  • C Zimmer
Zimmer, C. " How Old Is It? " in National Geographic, Sept. 2001, p. 78. An excellent, up-to-date, profusely-illustrated resource.
From Pebbles to Planets " in Astronomy, Feb
  • T Yulsman
Yulsman, T: " From Pebbles to Planets " in Astronomy, Feb. 1998, p. 56.
Candles to Light the Night On ways we use cosmic objects that have a standard brightness to measure distances
  • D Eicher
Eicher, D. " Candles to Light the Night " in Astronomy, Sep. 1994, p. 33. On ways we use cosmic objects that have a standard brightness to measure distances.
Kitty Measuring the Universe: Our Historic Quest to Chart the Horizons of Space and Time
  • Ferguson
Ferguson, Kitty Measuring the Universe: Our Historic Quest to Chart the Horizons of Space and Time.1999, Walker.
Marcus The Magic Furnace: The Search for the Origin of Atoms Readable history of the discovery of atomic structure and how stars build up atoms over time
  • Chown
Chown, Marcus The Magic Furnace: The Search for the Origin of Atoms. 2001, Free Press/Simon & Schuster. Readable history of the discovery of atomic structure and how stars build up atoms over time.
How Far are the Stars
  • F Reddy
Reddy, F. " How Far are the Stars? " in Astronomy, June 1983, p. 6.