Is Space Wasteful or do we live in a Goldilocks universe?

I wanted to write up something on the common argument that the universe looks inhospitable to life…too big…too old…let me know your thoughts. This is an abridgment:

S. Hawkin 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]

Carl Sagan wrote:

“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.”

To Address the Question now:
[1] 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. They are just right.

[2] 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.

[3] 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. The truth is the universe could not be any 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.

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I went through a whole tour of the universe in the article because why the heck not. I love astronomy! But since that information is long and secondary to the question under consideration, I removed it from the OP.

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 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.

In conclusion, 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. Could we imagine a scarier creation myth where we appear more insignificant and more meaningless in the grand scheme of things than what modern science tells us?

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Yeah

Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.

Douglas Adams, H2G2

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Challenge accepted.

The universe was created by a 3rd grader from an advanced civilization. He was supposed to create a universe filled with pretty galaxies and nebulae, but no intelligent life. This last part was very important. To ensure that he met the requirements the teacher placed radio detection stations every 300 light years apart throughout space, and if these stations detect signals from intelligent life the universe will be instantly destroyed. Not only was the universe not made for us, but it was specifically created to not have us. Worse still, that poor 3rd grader is probably going to get a failing grade.

Scarier?

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Pick your bias. Some biases are correct.

And a secular astronomer said near the period of the total solar eclipse in the U.S. in 2017 that the size of our moon was magical.

As far as imagining “big quantities” goes, here’s a way to imagine a billion of something - easily fitting in a pile on your living room floor: Imagine a cubic meter (a little more than a yard for you metricphobes). Now imagine that cube sliced into its 1000 flat layers each 1 mm thick (you can easily see the smallest markings, millimeters, on any meter stick). Slice it along the other two axes as well so that your 1 m^3 is now 1 billion cubic millimeters! - each one like a large grain of sand.

I know I’ve used this link before, but whenever anyone starts waxing poetic about us being the first to appreciate our “pale blue dot” insignificance, it’s always appropriate to keep Dennis Danielson’s “Great Copernican Cliche” article handy to provide corrective perspective. The entire pdf makes for an excellent educational hour or two of reading, but for those who don’t want to wade in… he shines light on the modern nonsense of imagining that we are the first centuries to realize how small the earth is or to realize “how humble” our position in the universe is. A lot of this comes from physicists who might be excused for their ignorance of history, but they cannot be excused for ignoring the painstaking correction to all this that historians and researchers like Danielson have since provided.

This is a bit esoteric, but one of the processes that still amazes me is cluster formation on flow cells used for DNA sequencing. Essentially, you dilute your DNA sample down to picomolar ranges which should contain a few hundred million DNA molecules in 1.5 ml or so. Each individual DNA molecule will bind to the solid substrate on the flow cell where it is copied many, many times. At this point, you get 200 million tiny but detectable (for the flow cell I use) dots that can be sequenced, each started by a single molecule. Molarity and Avogadro’s number were kind of abstract in Chem 101, so its kind of crazy to see them physically manifested in that way.

The sea change that I find more compelling is Hubble’s discovery that Andromeda was actually a distant galaxy, and that there were probably more out there. That was in 1924 or so. Before that, most thought that the Milky Way was perhaps the only galaxy. That’s just 100 years ago. How large has our universe grown in just the last century?

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So while our eclipse experience on Earth today is virtually unrivaled anywhere in the solar system, it is simply a temporary coincidence.

 
It is cool that it sure appears that the universe was designed to be discovered – from here, with our special moon. Huge amounts of knowledge about how stars work has been discovered – and more is still being discovered – during total solar eclipses. That is not to mention all of the other details about why so much of the cosmos is visible, unobstructed, from here.

…and during the brief tenure of humankind.

It would only be wasteful if we were the only world in ten to the twenty five

1 : 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000

where God sprinkled magic life dust.

Maybe not wasteful but “generous.”

As it turns out the moon is 400x smaller than the sun but also 400x closer. Makes for awesome eclipses. Though I’d love to see something like Jupiter from Europa’s surface.

I always break out the meter sticks and make a meter cube after asking my students how many cm3 are in a meter cubed. But while we can show a billion grains of sand or even a billion grains of rice, I don’t think the concept of a billion miles means much except really far distance.

A lot of people thought there was one galaxy in the early 1900s. Having hard data on the actual extent of space…. Not that we even know that today… but intergalactic distances and so forth is new. But yeah, the other stuff may be overblown but I’m not sure a few examples from really educated people overturns the gist of the statements. I think the findings snowballed and we got smaller and smaller over time.

Touché. Wording will be altered.

I do wonder if a century from now, humans will be amazed at how we thought there was only one universe when in reality, there are gazillions.

Maybe but personally not a fan. Looks like philosophical, scientific speculation. Science requires testable predictions and the ability to be falsified. The universe very much looks fine tuned for life. I think the multiverse is the way around that via the inverse gambler’s fallacy.

Vinnie

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Saw a quote from Michael Shermer:

“Finally, from what we now know about the cosmos, to think that all this was created for just one species among the tens of millions of species who live on one planet circling one of a couple of hundred billion stars that are located in one galaxy among hundreds of billions of galaxies, all of which are in one universe among perhaps an infinite number of universes all nestled within a grand cosmic multiverse, is provincially insular and anthropocentrically blinkered. Which is more likely? That the universe was designed just for us, or that we see the universe as having been designed just for us?”
― Michael Shermer, [Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design]

Multiverse theology is becoming creedal for some.

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I’m behind on my string theory homework. (You still can’t have an infinite regress into eternity past. Cats ya know.)

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Hawking wasn’t too intellectually impaired and said time had a beginning:

  The Beginning of Time

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’'Tain’t; 'cause I said so."
Q.E.D.

That’s the ratio of the ratios of their surface areas and volumes.

The moon’s SA (and disk to scale) is sixteen thousand times smaller and its volume sixty four million.

It’s part of rational faith.

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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