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!


Cosmic Sightseeing 5

Feeling Small


I stopped liking amusement park rides a long time ago. Back when I was a kid, I loved getting spun around and hung upside down, but my inner ears must have changed since then. Now, those rides feel like torture.

Anyway, who needs thrill rides when you have the Cosmos? It’s kicky enough just letting your mind wander through the bizarreries of the Universe. Like a Tilt-a-Whirl for the mind.

The Omega Nebula in the constellation Sagittarius. A nebula is a giant dust and gas cloud in interstellar space. The different colors correspond to different chemical elements or temperatures. This picture shows a 3-light year wide area.
Image: NASA, ESA, J. Hester (ASU)


I think many people find things like the sheer size of the universe too unsettling…it makes them feel small and insignificant. But, I find it energizing. I like to ponder how small I really am: one person on a planet of 7 billion people, among millions of other species, in a galaxy with billions of stars, in a universe with billions of galaxies.

Also known as “The Pillars of Creation”, this is a picture from the Hubble Telescope of the Eagle Nebula in the constellation Serpens. These towers of cold gas and dust are light-years long.


Last week, on Cosmic Sightseeing 3, I gave you a puzzle: to figure out what a series of images had in common. The answer was so easy it was hard! Everything I showed you was composed of matter.

Oh, duh, right?

The Cat’s Eye Nebula. This image shows a star experiencing the phase of stellar evolution similar to what our Sun will experience in a few billion years. This is a combination of an optical image from the Hubble Telescope, and an X-ray image from the Chandra X-ray Observatory.
Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO; Optical: NASA/STScl


But, as with most things, if you look closer—matter gets more interesting. Consider that you and I and the moon and all the stars are made of the same basic ingredients—the same 12 particles of matter—just combined in different ways. Take 12 miniscule particles, mix them up in various ways with the 4 Forces of Nature, add the elusive and mysterious Higgs Boson, and voilá…you’ve got everything from a fruit fly to the planet Jupiter.

And most of matter is—by far—empty space. If you could look close enough, with a microscope more powerful than anything we can dream of, you would see tiny particles surrounded by vast oceans of empty space.

And, the particles themselves—the very ones inside you and me right now—were almost certainly once part of something else very different…a tree, a dinosaur, a rock, or the inside of a distant star.

Stars are the furnaces where most matter is forged, after all.

I’ll never forget my favorite quote by Carl Sagan: “We are all made of star-stuff.”


The Hourglass Nebula, with its central star in its last throes as it becomes a white dwarf. This is a picture from the Hubble Space Telescope.
Image Credit: NASA, WFPC2, HST, R. Sahai and J. Trauger (JPL)


And, another thing about matter: it’s everything and practically nothing at the same time. Only about 5% of the mass of galaxies is actually composed of matter. The rest is either Dark Matter, or Dark Energy: stuff that is a complete unknown. We know it’s there, but we have no idea what it is.

95% of the Universe is made of stuff that is “not us”.

Feel like crawling back into bed and hiding under the covers? Not me. I’m going to keep sightseeing as long as I can.


The Boomerang Nebula, about 5,000 light years from Earth in the constellation Centaurus. This incredibly cold nebula has two symmetrical cones of matter that are being ejected from the central star. Another great image from the Hubble.
Image credit: NASA, ESA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)



A wonderful and amusing explanation of matter and the Higgs Boson

The BBC’s very awesome “Wonders of the Universe”


Next week…we’ll take a break from the Cosmos and dive into the Pacific Ocean. I’ll be pondering ancient sea creatures and I’ll also feature some wonderful student artwork by Miranda Andersen, guest artist to next week’s blog!


And, I’m giving you another few days to solve the TIME AND LIFE AND THE UNIVERSE puzzle from Cosmic Sightseeing 4.

Here’s a review. Just to be nice, I’ll make it easier this time:

Life in the Universe is possible for only a short period of time, relative to the total duration of the Universe itself. The numbers are astronomical, so I want to get a visualization of them by drawing a timeline.

But, I want the timeline to be to-scale. Timelines are just bogus if they’re not to-scale

I’ll show the entire duration of the universe (from the Big Bang at zero, to the time in the distant future when the Universe dissipates into nothingness) as a red bar, and the time period during which the universe is hospitable to life as a blue bar. I’m setting the size of the blue bar to be 1 centimeter. How wide does my paper need to be to fit the entire red bar?

Blue is one-thousandth of a billion billion billionth, billion billion billionth, billion billion billionth, of one percent of red.

So, how wide does my paper need to be?

Select the closest width:

a. 10 meters

b. 10 kilometers

c. 10,000 kilometers

d. 1 million kilometers

e. Fuggeddaboudit…the paper would not fit into the observable Universe (10 to the 27th power meters – give or take)

It’s a Tilt-a-Whirl for the mind.