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How Big is the Universe?

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Why Should A Christian Care About the Size of the Universe?

One of the interesting arguments for a great age of the earth is the size of the universe. The argument goes like this:

    “Since the farthest galaxies are 13 billion light years away,* these galaxies must have existed 13 billion years ago. (That is when the light that now reaches our telescopes must have started on its way.) Since the galaxies were formed 13 billion years ago, the earth must have also evolved billions of years ago.”

    *One popular estimate at the time of this writing.

If you read our Creation Versus Evolution page, or our Dinosaurs and the Bible page you know that we stated that the earth is less than 10,000 years old. If the universe was formed 13 billion years ago as a result of a big bang (or some other mechanism), this “young age” of 10,000 years does not seem reasonable. However, a straightforward reading of the creation account in Genesis does not allow for the universe (and our world) to evolve over billions of years. Since the predicted ages from these two sources are in conflict, most people (unfortunately) take one of two positions:

  • Since the Bible disagrees with science, it must have errors in it and can not be trusted.
  • The Bible must be blindly trusted and even questioning its accuracy is forbidden. (This could even imply that scientists are somehow evil, or “tools of the devil.”)

The fact is that neither of these viewpoints is accurate. The Bible and science are not in conflict, a fact we establish on our Science and the Bible page.

Therefore, you ask, “How can you explain having a 10,000 year old Earth if science and the Bible agree? The universe has been proven to be 13 billion years old hasn’t it?” We are glad you asked. (You did ask, didn’t you? smile )

Note: Except for parts of the Milky Way, most of the stars visible to the naked eye are closer than 6,000 light years.[1] Therefore, this page deals primarily with stars and galaxies that can be seen and measured only with the help of scientific equipment.

How Astronomers Measure the Distances

To understand where the numbers come from, you need to understand how the size of the universe is measured. We located an excellent (and completely unbiased) source on the Internet that explains how science measures these distances and will include the links for you as the reasoning progresses below.

The First Measurement Technique, the Parallax Method

Stated simply, as the Earth orbits the Sun, our viewpoint of the universe changes. Astronomers observe the apparent change in position that closer stars make relative to distant “reference stars” while the Earth moves. Less apparent movement implies that the star being measured is farther away (and behaving more like the reference stars). More movement implies that the star being measured is closer to the earth (and behaving less like the reference stars). The best measurements are made 6 months apart, since those are the two points at which our viewpoint from the Earth has changed the most (half an orbit). This measurement technique makes the assumption (not specifically stated) that the reference stars do not move or move in a pattern we know perfectly. For a brief explanation of the parallax method, click on the link below.

Click here for a brief explanation of the parallax method Determining Distances Through Parallax

Let’s see how this method works with the star closest to the Earth, Alpha Centauri. (Note: the results on this page are rounded to the nearest three significant digits.)

The formula looks like this:      

d = the distance, measured in light years
3.262 is a constant that takes care of the units
p = the parallax, measured in arc seconds

Therefore, if d = 4.28 light years, then p = 0.762 arc seconds. Now let’s look at the facts:

  • The two measurements to determine the parallax would have been made 6 months apart, at opposite ends of the Earth’s orbit.
  • These measurements assume that the reference stars did not move. (This is difficult to believe in a universe that astronomers admit is expanding.)
  • These measurements assume the star we are measuring did not move.
  • This is the measurement of the closest star, and therefore represents the best accuracy we can get with this method.
  • The measured parallax is less than of one degree.

Now, let’s repeat the calculations, for an object that is 10,000 light years from us—the greatest distance we would expect from reading the Bible.

If d = 10,000 light years, then p = 0.000326 arc seconds—only 0.0000000906 degrees.

Summing up again, we now add the following difficulty (to those encountered in the measurements made to Alpha Centauri).

  • The theory of general relativity states that light is bent by gravitational fields (when it passes by other stars).[2]

Is it possible that this bending of light (alone) could reach a level of 90 billionths of one degree? (The size of the measurement.) The conclusion is obvious. The parallax measurement, even for an object only 10,000 light years away (and therefore still in our Galaxy, the Milky Way), is so tiny that it is very difficult to measure accurately. This implies that the parallax method is not really valid for determining the distance of anything that is farther away than approximately 10,000 light years.

The Second Measurement Technique, the Luminosity Method

Astronomers are aware of the parallax method’s shortcoming and have other ways of measuring larger stellar distances. Unfortunately, all of these other techniques measure distances indirectly. For example, we can calculate the distance to a star once we know its luminosity, or energy output. (Luminosity is not the same as the star’s apparent brightness, although the two values are “connected.”) For a brief explanation of the luminosity method, click on the link below.

Click here for a brief explanation of the luminosity method Determining Distances Through Luminosity

If you used the link, you noticed that the luminosity method depends on the accuracy of the parallax method to establish “standards.” Stated another way, a star’s luminosity can be calculated with certainty only if we already know the distance to the star. Sad face

The Ultimate Measurement Technique, Using Cepheid Variable Stars

Cepheid variable stars are stars whose apparent brightness change with time. In 1912 Miss Henrietta Leavitt reported the period-luminosity relation of Cepheid variable stars in the Small Magellanic Cloud (currently considered to be the third closest galaxy to ours). Stated simply, when the length of the variable star’s period (the duration between the star’s times of highest brightness) is plotted on a logarithmic chart against its (estimated) luminosity, the result is a straight line. This implies that if you measure the star’s period, you can use the graph to estimate its luminosity. Today, the use of Cepheid variable stars is considered the most reliable method available for measuring large cosmic distances. To find out more about this technique, click on the link below.

Click here for an explanation of Cepheid variable stars as distance indicators Cepheid variable stars as distance indicators

Notice that even these special stars need to be measured (calibrated) by some other method to define their actual luminosity. Although we are in no way criticizing the work that has been done in astronomy, it should be apparent that for distances beyond a few thousand light years that the distances are still estimates. To demonstrate this point, let’s examine the parallax measurement required to fix the distance to a Cepheid variable star in the Small Magellanic Cloud.

Astronomers currently estimate the Small Magellanic Cloud to be about 210,000 light years from Earth. Therefore, using our parallax formula, we know that if d = 210,000 light years, then p = 0.0000155 arc seconds, or 0.00000000431 degrees. Based on this, we know that when the scientists first measured the distance to this star, they measured a parallax of 0.0000155 arc seconds. This parallax measurement precisely confirmed the distance and “standardized” the period/luminosity graph, allowing astronomers to use it with confidence.

What About VLBA?

You may read about the use of the VLBA, the Very Long Baseline Array string of ten radio telescopes stretching from Mauna Kea Hawaii to St. Croix Virgin Islands (about 5,000 miles). It is reported that by using the VLBA that accurate distance measurements can be made to NGC4258 (reported to be 23.5 million light years away). Coordinating these ten radio stations to “work together as the world’s largest dedicated, full-time astronomical instrument” is impressive. Still, a claim that the VLBA can accurately define the distance to an object over 20 million light years away may be deceptive.

The VLBA is primarily a “telescope” designed to produce images of celestial bodies. It is not a “distance measuring device.” (Note: these “images” are patterns of radio waves which are like, but not the same as, visible light images seen through a conventional telescope.) The VLBA can very accurately observe a variety of radio phenomena in the frequency 100 MHz to 100 GHz and display them in great detail. (The detail, or resolution, of those images can be as fine as one thousandth of an arc second. This resolution is like measuring the print quality of a laser printer in dots per inch.) Still, although such signals give us a good, sharp “picture,” they do not indicate distance. Stated another way, the VLBA must use techniques like those we discussed on this page to measure distances, and an attempt to refer to it’s technology as a way of directly measuring these great distances is deceptive. Incidentally, this is not meant in any way to diminish the value of the efforts of the people associated with the VLBA, or research done by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. (At our site, we have shown repeatedly that science is good.) It is only intended to show that the primary purpose of the VLBA is not distance measurement.

The Final Analysis

Now, look at what you just read. We understand that science can make some amazing measurements. Still, how valid is an angular measurement that requires the following?

  • Measuring 4 billionths of one degree
  • over a period of six months
  • measuring an object that must not move
  • against background stars that must not move (in an expanding universe)
  • where the bending of light by gravitational fields according to general relativity has to be known (and compensated for) over a distance of 210,000 light years.

What happens if any of the stars moved and/or the light was bent one ten millionth of a degree when the parallax measurement was being made? Under such conditions, we could be led to believe that a star 10,000 light years away was actually 210,000 light years away. (Remember, we are still looking at distances of only 210,000 light years, not 13,000,000,000 light years.) For that matter, what happens if your “reference stars” were not as far away as you thought they were?

Although science has great faith in the measurement of the brightness of variable stars, the connection of that brightness to their actual luminosity and their distance is weak (since they are indirect measurement methods). If you followed our comments, you should realize that believing in stellar measurements of more than a few thousand light years requires more faith than believing the Bible. To be fair, the lack of more accurate stellar measurement techniques does not prove that our universe extends only 10,000 light years either. The choice of which numbers you choose to believe is yours.

One More Wrinkle—Time

According to the theory of relativity, time changes for anything that moves at high speed (that is, anything that has high velocity). This is especially true when that velocity approaches the speed of light. For example, the theory tells us that if some people made a round trip to the Andromeda Galaxy in a space vehicle that traveled at the speed of light, they would think the round trip took them about thirty years. However, here on Earth that crew would not seem to return until 4 million years later.

Now, consider that we live in an expanding universe that scientists tell us is the result of an explosion. If the big bang theory is true,* the Earth and all the other heavenly bodies are moving at “explosive” but unknown velocities. Would you agree that this makes time calculations rather difficult? (Remember, this “time” is used with the Cepheid Variable Star data to estimate the age of the universe.)

    *Many scientists debate this, and modify or contradict the big bang theory. For example, the big bang theory predicts an expansion of the universe that is too rapid to allow for the uniformity of the universe that we observe (stated simply). To compensate for this, Alan Guth, a Professor of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, developed today’s well known “Inflationary Theory.”

As you can see, one problem leads to another, leaving us with more unanswered questions than we had before. Since time itself varies by huge factors when the observer’s frame of reference changes, how can scientists identify the frame of reference that measures the age of the universe? The truthful answer is they can not.

On the other hand, the Bible has proven itself to be true and accurate—something we briefly demonstrate on our How Do You Know The Bible Is True? page. Since both the size and the age of our universe are difficult to define, and since the Bible is a document that has proven itself true for over 1,900 years, you may then agree with us that it makes more sense to accept what the Bible says at face value. (That is, you can trust the Bible when it tells you that you can literally go to heaven—the real bottom line for all of us.)

Cited References

[1] Humphreys, D. Russell Starlight and Time, Master Books, Green Forest, AR (1994) p 44.

[2] Hawking, Stephen The Illustrated A Brief History Of Time, Bantam Books, New York (1996) p 41-42.

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