For those unacquainted with basic findings of modern astronomy, the universe is unfathomably large and extremely old. It is sometimes thought that the universe does not look designed at all but wasteful. On February 14, 1990, the Voyager 1 space probe captured a humbling image of earth from about 3.7 billion miles away. Carl Sagan's most famous quote is a comment on this picture which shows earth it as a pale blue dot:
"We succeeded in taking that picture [from deep space], and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam. The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity -- in all this vastness -- there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. It's been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known."
I agree with Carl Sagan that space is very humbling and can be used to put our petty and sometimes not so petty squabbling into context. We all share this planet and it would be nice if we could all become the stewards God intended us to be. Sagan, however, reaches a conclusion I do not share:
"One of science's alleged crimes is revealing that our favorite, most reassuring stories about our place in the universe and how we came to be are delusional. Instead, what science reveals is a universe much older and much vaster than the tidy, anthropocentric proscenium of our ancestors. We have found from modern astronomy that we live on a tiny hunk of rock and metal third from the sun, that circles a humdrum star in the obscure outskirts of an ordinary galaxy, which contains some four hundred billion other stars, which is one of about a hundred billion other galaxies that make up the universe, and according to some current views, a universe that is one among an immense number, perhaps an infinite number, of other universes. In this perspective the idea that our planet is at the center of the universe, much less that human purpose is central to the existence of the universe, is pathetic."
Stephen Hawking in a Brief history of time wrote:
"We have developed from the geocentric cosmologies of Ptolemy and his forebears, through the heliocentric cosmology of Copernicus and Galileo, to the modern picture in which the earth is a medium-sized planet orbiting around an average star in the outer suburbs of an ordinary spiral galaxy, which is itself one of about a million million galaxies in the observable universe. Yet the strong anthropic principle would claim that this whole vast construction exists simply for our sake. This is very hard to believe. Our Solar System is certainly a prerequisite for our existence, and one might extend this the whole of our galaxy to allow for an earlier generation of stars that created the heavier elements. But there does not seem to be any need for all those other galaxies, nor for the universe to be so uniform and similar in every direction on the large scale." [pg 130]
Here is a rather nihilistic quote from Robert S Jones in Physics for the Rest of Us
"The whole incredible big bang story with its climactic human ending is merely the result of physical and chemical processes that are completely random, accidental and meaningless. We may think we're pretty good and important, but there is absolutely nothing in the blind, meaningless events to suggest the slightest purpose, value or significance in our existence. If we should be so foolish as to annihilate ourselves in an atomic holocaust or through the strangling pollution of the earth, it will make not the least difference in the scheme of things. The planets, stars and galaxies will continue on their cosmic schedules, completely oblivious to our passing. So much for human significance." [page 151]
Prolific Christian apologist C.S. Lewis articulated his reasons for being an atheist before becoming a Christian in The Problem of Pain
and they are concise and poignant:
Look at the universe we live in. By far the greatest part of it consists of empty space, completely dark and unimaginably cold. The bodies which move in this space are so few and so small in comparison with the space itself that even if every one of them were known to be crowded as full as it could hold with perfectly happy creatures, it would still be difficult to believe that life and happiness were more than a by-product to the power that made the universe. As it is, however, the scientists think it likely that very few of the suns of space--perhaps none of them except our own--have any planets; and in our own system is it improbable that any planet except the Earth sustains life. And Earth herself existed without life for millions of years and may exist for millions more when life has let her. And what is it like while it lasts? It is arranged that all the forms of it can live only by preying upon one another. In the lower forms this process entails only death, but in the higher there appears a new quality called consciousness which enables it to be attended with pain." [pg 12-14]
C.S. Lewis raised more issues than just the size, age and emptiness of the universe, but those are what this article will focus on. As we can see from the brief listing above, prominent authors have articulated the notion that the universe looks very inhospitable from the perspective of a designer or very much oblivious to our existence. From this perspective, imagining we are climax of creation as Genesis 1 teaches might be the greatest act of geocentric hubris imaginable! But what if it was actually true? How much more significant would that make us?
Before addressing the question I really want to drive home the point and explain just how big, old and empty our universe is. I find it fascinating and share the opinion of the Psalmist -- though he only had an amazing looking sky without light pollution to go by -- when he wrote: "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands." The invention of telescopes and modern astronomy has made the skies more beautiful and more humbling, not less. For those who are not interested in touring through a bunch of wondrous, technical scientific jargon, feel free to scroll down to resolution of this problem. In short, it will be argued the universe could not be any younger or smaller to support life. Given all that we know about it, it is in fact just just the right age and size!
An Overview of the universe
The Age of the Universe
Based on the best available information today, the universe is thought to be about 13.8 billion years old and the earth clocks in at around 4.54 billion. We don't realize how big those numbers actually are because we have nothing concrete to compare them to. To help, keep in mind that using rough estimates, if you wanted to count non-stop to one million it would take about 23 days. That assumes 2-seconds per number. Counting to one billion would require 95 years as the larger the number the longer it takes to count. When we look at our place in the cosmos chronologically, we arrived 13,788,800,000 years into the universe's 13,789,000,000 year existence. That is absolutely mind boggling and a far cry from being created on day six. Using the far shorter history of Earth as our calibrated beginning, we notice that it existed for billions of years before humans arrived. Imagine if Genesis 1 actually read: "On the four-billionth, five-hundred and forty-two millionth and eight-hundred thousandth day of earth's history, God created man in his image."
If the entire history of the universe was compressed into a single year with it now being midnight--the start of the next year, anatomically modern humans are about 8 minutes old and Jesus arrived less than 5 seconds ago. The vast majority of the history of the universe has occurred without us. We are just a recent blip on the radar. Below is a rough timeline I put together compressing the history of the universe into a single calendar year:
Nature can be frightening here. All our pain, all our suffering, all our beliefs, all our love, all our hate, everything we are and all of human existence is but a fraction of the blinking of the universe's eye.
How Big is the Universe
Our sun is so massive, it would take 1.3 million clones of our planet to fill its volume. Yet as big as the sun is, that pales in comparison to the empty space between the sun and the earth. Light is the fastest thing in the known universe. It travels 186,000 miles per second (or 6 trillion miles a year). It is so fast a beam of light could lap the earth around the equator 7.5 times in a single second. Despite its alarming speed, it takes light from the sun 8.3 minutes to reach earth because it is a staggering 93,000,000 miles away. The moon is but a stones throw away at a quarter of a million miles. When we look at the sun we are seeing it as it was 8.3 minutes ago. If the sun disappeared right now it would be business as usual for the next 8.3 minutes. Light that already left the sun is still in transit and we would see it until the last of it arrives. It is sometimes said that looking at space is like looking at history. That number, 93,000,000 miles, or one earth-sun distance, is known as 1 A.U. or astronomical unit. For comparison purposes, Pluto is 40 A.U.s away and it sees the sun as it was 5.5 hours ago. When we look at distant stars we are seeing the light that left them thousands of years ago in some cases. The further out we get, the older the image we see. We see some galaxies as they were many billions of years ago. Given that we can't break the speed of light, imagine how impossible it would be to meaningfully communicate with a distant alien species if one existed.
When we look up at the night time sky, all the stars we see are in our own Milky Way galaxy. Astronomers estimate that the Milky Way galaxy houses anywhere from 100 billion to 300 billion stars. We have located our own sun as being on the edge of a spiral band ever swirling about the galactic center. Most know the earth moves around the sun but fewer people realize that the sun and her solar system orbits the center of the galaxy at a rate of about a half million miles per hour. Next time you think you're not going anywhere, think again!
Our closest celestial neighbor is Proxima Centauri. Just how close is it to us? It is only slightly over four from us. Four is a pretty small number so that might not seem too bad but notice I left out the unit. Four what? Four light years! While it seems like a light year
should be a measure of time
, it is actually a measure of distance
. In astronomy the spaces between objects are so large that we have to measure them in light years (ly). A light year, simply put, is the distance light--the fastest thing in the universe-- travels in one year. As it turns out this is about 6,000,000,000,000 (six trillion) miles. Proxima Centauri is then roughly 25 trillion miles away from our sun. Put that into the GPS!
To give a sense of scale, if the sun was reduced to have the diameter of a typical period marking the end of a sentence (roughly 0.5 millimeters) then Proxima Centauri would be about 8 miles away. If earth was compressed to the size of a period, the sun would have a diameter slightly smaller than a tennis ball and it would be about 19 feet away. Where would Proxima Centauri be? Almost 900 miles away! The distance between stars is enormous in space but it is dwarfed by the even more mind-blowing and unfathomable distances between galaxies.
The Milky Way galaxy is roughly 100,000 light years across. Since we know a light year is about six trillion miles, if we multiplied those numbers we get a distance of 600,000,000,000,000,000 miles! That's roughly 600 quadrillion miles--whatever that means! That number is everything but understandable to us yet the galaxy itself is minuscule in comparison to the universe as a whole. Our galaxy is only one of hundreds of billions of other galaxies spread throughout our universe. As gigantic as these galaxies are, there is something far larger between them all and that is empty space. Cold dark nothingness makes up the majority of the cosmos. Transported to inter-galactic space, everywhere you look would be pitch black. You wouldn't even be able to see your own hands in front of you without a light source. NASA astronauts on Apollo 11 lost vision of the moon when they entered the dark side of it. There is probably just under one atom per cubic meter in deep space. For those who remember moles and Avogadro's number from Chemistry class, compare that to 8.36 x 10^24 molecules that make up a single cup of water! Yet this empty space between galaxies with almost zero density is so massive in extent, it may contain more of the universe's mass than what we find inside all of its 100 billion galaxies with 200 sextillion stars combined.
Just how big is the visible universe? This question is sort of misleading because a normal observer would assume the dimensions of the universe are static when in fact, they are not. The universe--the very fabric of space-- is expanding and it is doing so at an accelerating rate! This is why Edwin Hubble saw that the light from most galaxies appears to be "red-shifting" as they are moving away from us. Think about how the sound of a siren of an emergency vehicle changes when it is moving towards your location compared to when it is moving away from it. Waves of light act similarly. This is known as the Doppler effect. So when our wonderful James-Webb space telescope looks at a young galaxy that formed 300 million years after the big bang, it is looking out 13.5 billion light years. But remember, looking at the sky is like looking back in time because of stellar transit times. It took that light 13.5 billion years to get here. The universe has been expanding the entire time that light has been traveling across the cosmos so the universe is much bigger. It may very well be the case that some light is so far away it hasn't actually reached us yet and given the universe is expanding faster than light at its edges, it never will. The visible or observable universe is estimated at being 93 billion light years across.
, or possibly concussion, if your head is now spinning from this information, it's not hard to see why some people are overwhelmed by the cosmos and think our existence is insignificant and fleeting. On cosmic scales our lives are less than the blink of an eye and most of the history of the universe has gotten along just fine without us. The earth is just another atomic pebble dizzily orbiting its star -- a star which itself orbits around a gargantuan black hole in the center of the Milky Way galaxy along with a few hundred billion other stars. Our galaxy is one of a mere 100-200 billion other galaxies, all filled with a 100 billion stars or more. In 4.5 billion years it will collide with Andromeda-- the closest large spiral galaxy to our own. It is estimated that there are 200 billion trillion stars in the universe. In scientific notation that is (2 x 10^11) multiplied by (1x10^12). Written out that is 200 sextillion or 200,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars. For many the cosmos seems completely oblivious to us. We have a creation myth where we appear insignificant and meaningless in the grand scheme of things than what modern science tells us?
Is the Universe too Big or Too Old?
Goldilocks and the Three Bears:
At the table in the kitchen, there were three bowls of porridge. Goldilocks was hungry. She tasted the porridge from the first bowl. "This porridge is too hot!" she exclaimed. So, she tasted the porridge from the second bowl. "This porridge is too cold," she said. So, she tasted the last bowl of porridge. "Ahhh, this porridge is just right," she said happily and she ate it all up.
Just like the last bowl of porridge, as it turns out, our universe is exactly the right size and age for life. In fact, it couldn't be any other age or size! Follow along the information from NASA's WMAP page:
The universe began with an unimaginably enormous density and temperature. This immense primordial energy was the cauldron from which all life arose. Elementary particles were created and destroyed by the ultimate particle accelerator in the first moments of the universe. There was matter and there was antimatter. When they met, they annihilated each other and created light. Somehow, it seems that there was a tiny fraction more matter than antimatter, so when nature took its course, the universe was left with some matter, no antimatter, and a tremendous amount of light. Today, WMAP measures that there is more than a billion times more light than matter. WMAP determined that about 4.6% of the mass and energy of the universe is contained in atoms (protons and neutrons). All of life is made from a portion of this 4.6%.
To Address the Question now:
The only chemical elements created at the beginning of our universe were hydrogen, helium and lithium, the three lightest atoms in the periodic table. These elements were formed throughout the universe as a hot gas. It's possible to imagine a universe where elements heavier than lithium would never form and life never develop. But that is not what happened in our universe. We are carbon-based life forms. We are made of and drink water (H2O). We breathe oxygen. Carbon and oxygen were not created in the Big Bang, but rather much later in stars. All of the carbon and oxygen in all living things are made in the nuclear fusion reactors that we call stars. The early stars are massive and short-lived. They consume their hydrogen, helium and lithium and produce heavier elements. When these stars die with a bang they spread the elements of life, carbon and oxygen, throughout the universe. New stars condense and new planets form from these heavier elements. The stage is set for life to begin. Understanding when and how these events occur offer another window on the evolution of life in our universe. WMAP determined that the first stars in the universe arose only about 400 million years after the Big Bang. But what made the stars?
The motor for making stars (and galaxies) came early and was very subtle. Before the completion of the first fraction of a second of the universe, sub-atomic scale activity, tiny "quantum fluctuations", drove the universe towards stars and life. With the sudden expansion of a pinhead size portion of the universe in a fraction of a second, random quantum fluctuations inflated rapidly from the tiny quantum world to a macroscopic landscape of astronomical proportions. Why do we believe this? Because the microwave afterglow light from the Big Bang has an extraordinarily uniform temperature across the sky. There has not been time for the different parts of the universe to come into an equilibrium with each other *unless* the regions had exponentially inflated from a tiny patch. The only way the isotropy (uniformity) could have arisen is if the different regions were in thermal equilibrium with each other early in the history of the universe, and then rapidly inflated apart. WMAP has verified that other predictions from the inflation theory also appear to be true..
As the universe inflated, the tiny quantum fluctuations grew to become tiny variations in the amount of matter from one place to another. A tiny amount is all it takes for gravity to do its thing. Gravity is one of the basic forces of nature and controls the evolution of the large scale structure of the universe. Without gravity there would be no stars or planets, only a cold thin mist of particles. Without the variations in the particle soup initiated by the quantum fluctuations, gravity could not begin to concentrate tiny amounts of matter into even larger amounts of matter. The end result of the pull of gravity: galaxies, stars and planets. The fluctuations, mapped in detail by the WMAP mission, are the factories and cradles of life.
 The existence of life depends on the amount of stuff or mass in our universe. If there was too much stuff the universe would have collapsed back on itself after the big bang. This leads to no life. If there was too little stuff or mass then the expansion would have been so great gravity would not have been able to coalesce matter into stars and galaxies. Again, this leads to no life. NASA's WMAP page
Our universe seems to have Goldilocks properties: not too much and not too little -- just enough mass and energy to support the development of life.
As it turns out, the estimated 200,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars in our universe are not too many or too little. The amount of mass in our universe appears just right.
 The age of our universe is also just right. If the universe's history was compressed into a single year, Jesus may have only arrived 5 seconds ago, but that was exactly when he needed to. The big bang did not produce any heavy elements. We were left with primordial hydrogen, helium and lithium. Elements like carbon and oxygen needed time to form and they did so in stars through nucleosynthesis (see the image below). Higher elements on the periodic table were formed in the cores of stars that exploded in a supernova eruption once their fuel was exhausted. Our sun is thought to be a third-generation star. Granted the elements in our universe--those elements absolutely necessary for life-- needed to go through several star cycles in order to be produced, our universe could not be much younger than it is right now to sustain us. We needed a third generation star and time for advanced life and the environment suitable for it to develop.
 The size of our universe is related to the amount of stuff (mass) in our universe and also how long it has been expanding for. As we saw in the previous two examples, both of these are just right for the development of advanced life. John Polkinghorne wrote:
The size of the universe is essentially a function of its age. We need time to create second-generation stars, and then for life to evolve, so 13.7 billion years seems about right. If all the 10^22 stars of the observable universe were not there, we would not be here to be daunted by cosmic immensity. In many respects there is no difference between 14 thousand years, 14 million years, and 14 billion years: they are all immense to us and all equally comprehensible to God.
The truth is the universe could not be much smaller and support advanced life. Astrophysicist Michale G. Strauss
said: "Since this is the youngest universe to support life like us, it is also the smallest universe that can support life like us." He also sums things up
with a poignant rocket analogy:
Sometimes critics of the Christian God will argue that since they wouldn't do something in a certain way then God wouldn't do it that way either, and so God must not exist. In the case of the universe they argue it would be ridiculous to create such a vast universe with very few places in the universe that are hospitable to life. But the critics are missing some important points. First, though vast, the universe is the smallest it can be to do the job of hosting a life-supporting planet as discussed above. Second, if the goal of the creator is to make a home for humans who do have significance, the infrastructure for that home must be adequate. The critics don't see the overall picture of the purpose of the universe. Let me give you an example. When I was growing up I was fascinated by the space program which had the goal of sending humans to the moon and bringing them back to earth safely. To make such a mission possible, the most powerful rocket ever made was built: the Saturn V. On top of this rocket that stood 36 stories high was a little tiny command module with barely enough room for three astronauts to sit in. Out of the entire rocket only a tiny fraction of the infrastructure was hospitable to life in space. So I guess the rest of the Saturn V was a colossal waste of space and indicates the lack of any real designer. The size and scope of the Saturn V was exactly what was required to send humans to the moon just as the size and scope of our universe is exactly what is required for us to live. Both the universe and the Saturn V are exquisitely designed to support life in only a tiny region of its entirety. But there is no wasted space. We live in a small big universe.
It is also important to note the subjective notion in this complain against the universe. For all we know, God may have made the universe insanely large as a testament to his power and glory. Or to give us something to do. These need not be mutually exclusive.