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Thought for the Day: Why Age Of Universe Questions Are Not Interesting

How old is the universe?  It is 5775 years and change.  If you ask google, however, you will get this answer:
In physical cosmology, the age of the universe is the time elapsed since the Big Bang. The current measurement of the age of the universe is 13.798±0.037 billion years 
How does one reconcile the current scientific "measurement" with the our knowledge that the number the Torah gives us is true?

One way is to dismiss the scientific "measurement".  You can first question the use of the word "measurement".  Measuring is an activity that involves actually observing a phenomenon or object and comparing its size/weight/temperature/spectrum/density/etc with known standards.  (Please note my precise use of words: all scientific measurements are made by comparing to a standard.  More on that later.  Of course, it can't be too much later, I only have three or four paragraphs to spend.)  We therefore cannot actually measure the age of the universe.  What cosmologists do do is to observe how long certain reactions take to occur, then extrapolate back.  There was originally only energy, then some cosmic cholent of sub-atomic particles, which then condensed (that's the word they use) into protons, neutrons, electrons, other-ons, which then became hydrogen, helium, then stars formed, fusion happened, heavier elements formed, and WALA -- a universe is born.

How long do each of those processes take?  No one knows, but there are lots of guesses (more or less educated guesses, but guesses none the less).  Guesses aren't so bad if you final calculation (a much better word that measurement for this activity) doesn't depend much on the details.  Unfortunately, this calculation depends crucially on all those details; as told to me in graduate school by one of the leading cosmologist of the time, David Schramm.  In fact, besides being on shaky ground in the first place, there are serious challenges to this calculation.  One of which is the calculated age of the Earth, currently pegged at 4.54 billion years.  So to make just a simple planet takes 4.54 billion years, which is many, many steps in to the process; yet the entire process only takes 13.8 billion years?  It only takes a few hours to make bread, but it takes months and months just to go from seed to flour.  Something is wrong with this picture.

So the measurement itself, which is really a calculation is seriously flawed.  Suppose you could deal with that.  There's a much deeper problem: how do you measure time in the early universe?  Think about any clock; they are all simply counting cycles of repetitive physical processes.  Let me use a pendulum clock just to make the argument more transparent.  A pendulum swings back and forth, back and forth, very regularly.  Note, however, that a long pendulum swings more slowly and a short pendulum swings faster.  That means that the measurement of a unit of time depends on being able to make measurements of length.  In the early universe, though... there was no matter; what are the clocks by which you are measuring rates?

The only distance available is the size of the universe... which is constantly changing -- which means your clocks keep ticking at different rates.  All of that is without bringing in relativity; which says that the observed rate depends critically on the motion of the observer.  And that means that you can't even synchronize your clocks around the universe; so to make a "universal" time, you have to just make something up... you can make up a time that makes things take billions of years on your made up clocks or six days on your made up clocks or 1/2 hour on your made up clocks.  Knock yourself out.

Put all that together and you are on very solid ground to assert without any feelings of embarrassment or shame that the universe is actually 5775 years old.  This year, anyway; it'll be 5776 years old after next Rosh HaShannah.  G'mar Chasima Tova!


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