Cosmic Sightseeing 6

The Answer to Time, Life and the Universe

As I promised, I am answering last week’s multiple choice puzzle.

The answer is: e.

Drawn to scale, my timeline would be too long to fit into the observable Universe. (note: observable meaning as far as we can ‘see’).

Say what?

A few weeks ago, as I was engrossed in the ipad app “Wonders of the Universe”, I was struck by an idea posed by narrator Professor Brian Cox (kind of like a modern-day Carl Sagan but with a charming British accent). The quote:

“The arrow of time has created a bright window in the Universe’s adolescence during which life is possible, but it’s a window that won’t stay open for long. As a fraction of the lifespan of the Universe, as measured from it’s beginning to the evaporation of the last black hole, life as we know it is only possible for one-thousandth of a billion billion billionth, billion billion billionth, billion billion billionth, of a per cent. ….The most astonishing wonder of the Universe isn’t a star or a planet or a galaxy; it isn’t a thing at all—it’s a moment in time. And that time is now.”

It was an intriguing thought, but the numbers were overwhelming.

Whenever I try visualize the events in the formation of the Cosmos, I am blown away by the dizzying parade of astronomical numbers. As an artist, I always try to picture things graphically to help me understand. So, I decided to put Professor Cox’s numbers into a to-scale timeline. Personally, I have always been bugged by graphs or timelines that are not to scale. Unless you get the visual relationships correct, what’s the point? A not-to-scale timeline is nothing more than a simple list. Worse, it could be misleading.

A Mini-Nutshell History of Time and the Cosmos

In the first instants following the Big Bang, things happened so fast that the events are measured in infinitesimal increments of time. It’s difficult to fathom.

And how can you understand the entire Universe packed into a space smaller than an atom? Or a temperature of 1,000 trillion trillion degrees Celsius? Or the sudden expansion during the “Inflation Era” when Everything suddenly blew up to the size of a grapefruit?

Can you visualize the entire Universe being the size of a grapefruit?

Anyway, the grapefruit-Universe cooled and expanded and gradually things began to take form. The chaotic collection of particles began to coalesce into the first tiny nuclei of the very first element to be born in the Cosmos: Helium.

And that all happened in less than one second. The first phases of Cosmic events went pretty quickly.


Images like this NASA image of the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation are the closest thing we have to a picture of the beginning of Time. Not a visual image, but interpreted by radio telescopes, it shows the thermal radiation leftover from the Big Bang, glowing most strongly in the microwave section of the spectrum. credit: NASA, DMR, COBE Project















But, it took hundreds of millions of years for things to cool and expand, and for the force of gravity to pull together the newly forming elements, gathering into giant dust clouds —the first infant galaxies—places where clumps of gas would collapse and ignite. The first stars were born.

This image from the Hubble Space Telescope shows the Tarantula Nebula (made into a composite image with information from other telescopes). Nebulae are giant dust-clouds, where matter can condense, forming new stars. Credits: X-ray: NASA/CXC/PSU/L.Townsley et al.; Optical: NASA/STScI; Infrared: NASA/JPL/PSU/L.Townsley et al


And in another nine billion years or so, on an outer arm of the galaxy the Milky Way… Planet Earth formed, one of (probably) countless other planet-worlds sprinkled throughout the Universe. And another billion or so years after that, the very first life forms on Earth…tiny blue-green algae floating in a vast primeval ocean.

From there, a few more billion years of evolution, and here we are today, trying to make sense of it all. Some of us even trying to graph it…

But, life as we know it will not continue forever. Our own Sun will burn out in 5 billion years. But, somewhere else in the Cosmos, life could possibly thrive for quite a long time after our own world has died. And if those alien beings, whatever, wherever they might be, figure out how to live sustainably, they could enjoy a hospitable Universe for another 100,000,000,000,000,000 years or so.

But eventually…conditions in the Cosmos will change. Stars burn through all their fuel and eventually die. Our own galaxy will probably end up getting sucked down into a black hole. Things are going to fizzle out eventually, everywhere in the Cosmos.

But it’s going to take a very, very, very long time…about 10, 000,000,000, 000,000,000, 000,000,000, 000,000,000, 000,000,000, 000,000,000, 000,000,000, 000,000,000, 000,000,000, 000,000,000, 000,000,000 or so years.


So, if I take Professor Cox’s intriguing idea and sketch it as a to-scale timeline, what will it reveal?

I think what I learned from my graphic experiment, is that the real action in the Universe, —the formations of galaxies, stars, planets, the evolution of life—takes place way toward the young end of the timeline. Relative to the whole of Time, it seems like a flurry of activity, relatively fast, then a very, very, very long time of fizzling out.

A brief life, and a long, lingering Cosmic death.


In order to draw the timeline to scale, the red bar would have to extend for 1, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000 meters, or 10^81m.

That’s a red band extending around three times farther than the extent of the observable Universe, which is 13.7 billion light years, or 10^27m.

Is your head swimming? Mine sure is.

Here’s how I figured it

According to Prof. Cox’s statement, life (blue) is one thousandth of a billion billion billionth, billion billion billionth, billion billion billionth, of one percent of total Time (red). That’s a decimal point with 83 zeros and a 1, or ten to the negative 83rd power, or 10^-83 in scientific notation.

So, if I draw the span of Life as a 1 centimeter long blue bar within a red bar representing all of Time, then

Blue = Red x 10^-83.

If Blue = 1 cm, then

.01 ÷ 10^-83m = Red

.01 ÷ 10^-83m = 10^81m, or unfreakingbelievably long

So, in order to draw a red bar 10^81 meters long, I would need a piece of paper that would be far too wide to fit into the observable Universe, which is 13.7 billion light years, or 10^27 meters.

That was really surprising to me. But, it was even more surprising to see how close to the Beginning we really are, relative to the total length of Time. When I tried to figure out where inside the red bar to plot the blue, I figured it like this:

1. How many years is blue?

2. Blue = 10^100years x 10^-83

3. Blue = 10^17, or 100,000,000,000,000,000

4. If Blue = 1 centimeter, than the time period from the Big Bang until the present, 13,700,000,000 years, would be a very small space on my timeline.


Boil it down, I learned that the Universe will last a really, really, really long time. Now I can picture it.

Leave a comment, question, rant, rave, argument, correction, whatever! But be sure to show your work. I showed you mine.


Next week: A look into the Pacific Ocean with artwork by teen artist Miranda Andersen. She’s inspirational…a filmmaker, environmental activist and talented painter.  Check it out!


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