In A Really Big Universe


I’d got to thinking idly about Olbers’ Paradox, the classic question of why the night sky is dark. It’s named for Heinrich Wilhelm Olbers, 1758-1840, who of course was not the first person to pose the problem nor to give a convincing answer to it, but, that’s the way naming rights go.

It doesn’t sound like much of a question at first, after all, it’s night. But if we suppose the universe is infinitely large and is infinitely old, then, along the path of any direction you look in the sky, day or night, there’ll be a star. The star may be very far away, so that it’s very faint; but it takes up much less of the sky from being so far away. The result is that the star’s intensity, as a function of how much of the sky it takes up, is no smaller. And there’ll be stars shining just as intensely in directions that are near to that first star. The sky in an infinitely large, infinitely old universe should be a wall of stars.

Oh, some stars will be dimmer than average, and some brighter, but that doesn’t matter much. We can suppose the average star is of average brightness and average size for reasons that are right there in the name of the thing; it makes the reasoning a little simpler and doesn’t change the result.

The reason there is darkness is that our universe is neither infinitely large nor infinitely old. There aren’t enough stars to fill the sky and there’s not enough time for the light from all of them to get to us.

But we can still imagine standing on a planet in such an Olbers Universe (to save myself writing “infinitely large and infinitely old” too many times), with enough vastness and enough time to have a night sky that looks like a shell of starlight, and that’s what I was pondering. What might we see if you looked at the sky, in these conditions?

Well, light, obviously; we can imagine the sky looking as bright as the sun, but in all directions above the horizon. The sun takes up a very tiny piece of the sky — it’s about as wide across as your thumb, held at arm’s length, and try it if you don’t believe me (better, try it with the Moon, which is about the same size as the Sun and easier to look at) — so, multiply that brightness by the difference between your thumb and the sky and imagine the investment in sunglasses this requires.

It’s worse than that, though. Yes, in any direction you look there’ll be a star, but if you imagine going on in that direction there’ll be another star, eventually. And another one past that, and another past that yet. And the light — the energy — of those stars shining doesn’t disappear because there’s a star between it and the viewer. The heat will just go into warming up the stars in its path and get radiated through.

This is why interstellar dust, or planets, or other non-radiating bodies doesn’t answer why the sky could be dark in a vast enough universe. Anything that gets enough heat put into it will start to glow and start to shine from that light. The stars will slow down the waves of heat from the stars behind them, but given enough time, it will get through, and in an infinitely old universe, there is enough time.

The conclusion, then, is that our planet in an Olbers Universe would get an infinite amount of heat pouring onto it, at all times. It’s hard to see how life could possibly exist in the circumstance; water would boil away — rock would boil away — and the planet just would evaporate into dust.

Things get worse, though: it’s not just our planet that would get boiled away like this, but as far as I can tell, the stars too. Each star would be getting an infinite amount of heat pouring into it. It seems to me this requires the matter making up the stars to get so hot it would boil away, just as the atmosphere and water and surface of the imagined planet would, until the star — until all stars — disintegrate. At this point I have to think of the great super-science space-opera writers of the early 20th century, listening to the description of a wave of heat that boils away a star, and sniffing, “Amateurs. Come back when you can boil a galaxy instead”. Well, the galaxy would boil too, for the same reasons.

Even once the stars have managed to destroy themselves, though, the remaining atoms would still have a temperature, and would still radiate faint light. And that faint light, multiplied by the infinitely many atoms and all the time they have, would still accumulate to an infinitely great heat. I don’t know how hot you have to get to boil a proton into nothingness — or a quark — but if there is any temperature that does it, it’d be able to.

So the result, I had to conclude, is that an infinitely large, infinitely old universe could exist only if it didn’t have anything in it, or at least if it had nothing that wasn’t at absolute zero in it. This seems like a pretty dismal result and left me looking pretty moody for a while, even I was sure that EE “Doc” Smith would smile at me for working out the heat-death of quarks.

Of course, there’s no reason that a universe has to, or even should, be pleasing to imagine. And there is a little thread of hope for life, or at least existence, in a Olbers Universe.

All the destruction-of-everything comes about from the infinitely large number of stars, or other radiating bodies, in the universe. If there’s only finitely much matter in the universe, then, their total energy doesn’t have to add up to the point of self-destruction. This means giving up an assumption that was slipped into my Olbers Universe without anyone noticing: the idea that it’s about uniformly distributed. If you compare any two volumes of equal size, from any time, they have about the same number of stars in them. This is known in cosmology as “isotropy”.

Our universe seems to have this isotropy. Oh, there are spots where you can find many stars (like the center of a galaxy) and spots where there are few (like, the space in-between galaxies), but the galaxies themselves seem to be pretty uniformly distributed.

But an imagined universe doesn’t have to have this property. If we suppose an Olbers Universe without then we can have stars and planets and maybe even life. It could even have many times the mass, the number of stars and everything, that our universe has, spread across something much bigger than our universe. But it does mean that this infinitely large, infinitely old universe will have all its matter clumped together into some section, and nearly all the space — in a universe with an incredible amount of space — will be empty.

I suppose that’s better than a universe with nothing at all, but somehow only a little better. Even though it could be a universe with more stars and more space occupied than our universe has, that infinitely vast emptiness still haunts me.

(I’d like to note, by the way, that all this universe-building and reasoning hasn’t required any equations or anything like that. One could argue this has diverted from mathematics and cosmology into philosophy, and I wouldn’t dispute that, but can imagine philosophers might.)

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Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there.

3 thoughts on “In A Really Big Universe”

  1. I’m surprised anyone from that time period really thought of the night sky as dark. The first time I was in the African countryside (reasonably far from a city) and looked up, I thought the sky looked like rivers and streams of light in the distance, not the black curtain with pinpoints of light I was expecting.

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    1. I can understand that. The first really quality dark sky I saw was just last year when I finally saw the Milky Way as a coherent and impressive object (along with a good number of meteors). But it’s hard to argue that the day sky is incredibly bright in a way the night sky isn’t, after all.

      Olbers did live and work for quite some time in the cities of German states and of France, which wouldn’t be nearly as light-polluted as they are now, but would still be pretty impressively lit. Of course, he wasn’t the first to pose the problem; I’d imagine it gets to be compelling to any astronomer who’s noticed how many more stars there are in the telescope, and supposes them to just go on forever.

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