Older Than the Universe

Estimates say that the universe is 13.8 billion years old, but there is a star that was dated at more than 14 billion years old. That can’t be possible, right? Can anything be older than the universe?

I saw a mention of this and so did some digging and found a longer article in All About Space magazine about this paradox.

The oldest star with a well-determined age in our galaxy is popularly called the Methuselah star and it is officially named HD 140283. It is 190.1 light-years away. Astronomers had set its age at about 14.5 billion years, which would make it older than the universe.

Methuselah was the nickname given by the press to the star in reference to the Biblical patriarch who was the longest-lived of all the figures in the Bible and was said to have died at age 969.

A post on the NASA website goes a bit deeper.  Astronomers have been observing this star for more than 100 years. It is located in the constellation Libra.

In 2000, using the Hipparcos satellite, the star was estimated to be 16 billion years old. That bothered scientists who were using 13.8 billion as the age of the universe.


Non-believers in science probably would say that no one can know the age of the universe. Some religious people would say it always existed and that God existed before the universe.  Scientists determined from observations of the cosmic microwave background that 13.8 billion years was the age of the universe.

This very old star is a metal-poor subgiant which means it is predominantly hydrogen and helium and contains very little iron. That composition means the star must have come into being before iron became commonplace – before or close to the Big Bang.

So how is this paradox explained? Is the cosmology wrong about the age of the universe? Is stellar physics wrong? Is the star’s distance wrong?

A new age calculation came via data from the Hubble telescope. It involves the rate of expansion of space, an analysis of the microwave background from the big bang, and measurements of radioactive decay. The short answer is that now they have marked the star’s age as overlapping the universe’s age

Scientists who deal with these very large numbers have a fudge factor and for the age of the universe, it seems to be an uncertainty factor of 800 million years, though a follow-up study updated the star’s age to 14.27 billion years.

Why does it matter when the universe began? Will it change my daily life? I don’t think knowing will change your life dramatically but it is one of those questions we have wanted to answer for a very long time.

The universe is expanding. Edwin Hubble showed that almost a hundred years ago. Everyone has heard of the Big Bang  – though for some people it’s only about a TV series. But if you at least paid attention to the show’s theme song you’d know that:

Our whole universe was in a hot, dense state
Then nearly fourteen billion years ago expansion started, wait…
Math, science, history, unraveling the mysteries
That all started with the big bang! Hey!

There certainly was once a state of hot denseness that exploded out and that stretched space. That means there was a starting point and we should be able to measure when that point occurred. The universe is still expanding from that very big bang.

The latest theories I found suggest that the discrepancies in the timeline may be due to dark energy, or causal set theory or gravitational waves or ripples in the fabric of space and time created by pairs of dead stars.

Do I understand any of that?  No, but apparently trying to answer the big questions leads scientists to lots of other useful information, in the way that going to the Moon or Mars leads to all kinds of inventions and discoveries.

I think searching for the answer might be more important than finding the answer.

Consider Infinity

Science and atheism usually sit at the same table. They are friendly. Sometimes they sit at the agnostics table, and it’s not that they are never friendly to the believers, but they have their usual place.

One time, over drinks, one of the believers said to science, “Well, I know you believe in one miracle.”

“Oh, what’s that?” said science, laughing.

“The Big Bang. Everything from nothing. That’s a pretty big miracle.”

Which brings us to infinity. It’s a topic so vast and unimaginable for most of us to wrap our brains around.

Infinity? Forever? Wait, what came before that big bang?

Physicists have a hard enough time figuring what happened at the very first moment of the big bang. But what about before that? Did time or anything exist before it?

Theories are out there. Maybe there was a series of bangs and they keep happening.  What about that whole string theory thing?

Maybe the universe isn’t infinite. Maybe it is just really big. Sounds like a joke, but cosmologist Janna Levin uses that kind of questioning in one of her books. And she is looking at a group of Big Questions –  black holes, the big bang, extra dimensions, and dark energy – questions so big we have to sometimes laugh.

That hit me hard in the funny part of the brain in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. The idea that the universe is expanding is scary.

In Janna Levin’s How the Universe Got Its Spots: Diary of a Finite Time in a Finite Space we can follow her through the the paradoxes of finitude. Those hot and cold spots left over from the Big Bang have a pattern that may eventually reveal the true size and shape of the cosmos.

“For a long time I believed the universe was infinite. Which is to say, I just never questioned this assumption that the universe was infinite. But if I had given the question more attention, maybe I would have realized sooner. The universe is the three-dimensional space we live in and the time we watch pass on our clocks. It is our north and south, our east and west, our up and down. Our past and future. As far as the eye can see there appears to be no bound to our three spatial dimensions and we have no expectation for an end to time. The universe is inhabited by giant clusters of galaxies, each galaxy a conglomerate of a billion or a trillion stars. The Milky Way, our galaxy, has an unfathomably dense core of millions of stars with beautiful arms, a skeleton of stars, spiraling out from this core. The earth lives out in the sparsely populated arms orbiting the sun, an ordinary star, with our planetary companions. Our humble solar system. Here we are. A small planet, an ordinary star, a huge cosmos. But we’re alive and we’re sentient. Pooling our efforts and passing our secrets from generation to generation, we’ve lifted ourselves off this blue and green water-soaked rock to throw our vision far beyond the limitations of our eyes.”