Posted by on Sep 15, 2017 in Main |

Society secretary Dominic Curran, Welcomes Mr David Leyshon to Keighley Astronomical society

Mr David Leyshon was the guest speaker at the September 2017 meeting. The subject matter was entitled. ‘How old is the universe’


Mr Leyshon explained that the figure we have currently come to is 13.8 billion years.


In the 18th century, the concept that the age of the Earth was calculated in the millions, if not billions, of years. However, most scientists throughout the 19th century and into the first decades of the 20th century presumed that the universe itself was in a Steady State and eternal, with maybe stars coming and going but no changes occurring at the largest scale known at the time.



He explained that the first scientific theories indicating that the age of the universe might be finite were the studies of thermodynamics, formalised in the mid-19th century. The concept of entropy dictates that if the universe (or any other closed system) were infinitely old, then everything inside would be at the same temperature, and thus there would be no stars and no life. No scientific explanation for this contradiction was put forth at the time.


Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955)


In 1915 Albert Einstein published the theory of general relativity and in 1917 constructed the first cosmological model based on his theory. In order to remain consistent with a steady state universe, Einstein added what was later called a cosmological constant to his equations. However, already in 1922, also using Einstein’s theory, Alexander Friedmann, and independently five years later Georges Lemaître, showed that the universe cannot be static and must be either expanding or contracting. Einstein’s model of a static universe was in addition proved unstable by Arthur Eddington.



The first direct observational hint that the universe has a finite age came from the observations of ‘recession velocities’, mostly by Vesto Slipher, combined with distances to the ‘nebulae’ (galaxies) by Edwin Hubble in a work published in 1929. Earlier in the 20th century, Hubble and others resolved individual stars within certain nebulae, thus determining that they were galaxies, similar to, but external to, our Milky Way Galaxy. In addition, these galaxies were very large and very far away. Spectra taken of these distant galaxies showed a red shift in their spectral lines presumably caused by the Doppler effect, thus indicating that these galaxies were moving away from the Earth. In addition, the farther away these galaxies seemed to be (the dimmer they appeared to us) the greater was their red shift, and thus the faster they seemed to be moving away.


Edwin Hubble (1889 – 1953)


This was the first direct evidence that the universe is not static but expanding. The first estimate of the age of the universe came from the calculation of when all of the objects must have started speeding out from the same point. Hubble’s initial value for the universe’s age was very low, as the galaxies were assumed to be much closer than later observations found them to be.




The first reasonably accurate measurement of the rate of expansion of the universe, a numerical value now known as the Hubble constant, was made in 1958 by astronomer Allan Sandage. His measured value for the Hubble constant came very close to the value range generally accepted today.

However Sandage, like Einstein, did not believe his own results at the time of discovery. His value for the age of the universe was too short to reconcile with the 25-billion-year age estimated at that time for the oldest known stars. Sandage and other astronomers repeated these measurements numerous times, attempting to reduce the Hubble constant and thus increase the resulting age for the universe. Sandage even proposed new theories of cosmogony to explain this discrepancy.



This issue was finally resolved by improvements in the theoretical models used for estimating the ages of stars. As of 2013, using the latest models for stellar evolution, the estimated age of the oldest known star is 14.46±0.8 billion years.

The discovery of microwave cosmic background radiation announced in 1965 finally brought an effective end to the remaining scientific uncertainty over the expanding universe. The recently launched space probes WMAP, launched in 2001, and Planck, launched in 2009, produced data that determines the Hubble constant and the age of the universe independent of galaxy distances, removing the largest source of error.