Age of the Universe

The history of physics from ancient times to the modern day, focusing on space and time. The 1800s ended with the problem of how the Sun is fuelled. If it is fuelled by combustion, it should only burn for about 7000 years, but fossils were beginning to suggest that the Earth is at least millions of years old.

Last updated on 5th August 2017 by Dr Helen Klus

1. 19th Century problems with physics

The 1800s ended with a number of unresolved problems. The Michelson-Morley experiment of 1887 had shown that space is not filled with Aristotle's aether. This meant there was no explanation for how light can travel through space, since waves usually need a medium to travel in, and would have as yet unknown implications for the nature of space and time.

Olbers' paradox remained unsolved, as did the problem of explaining the shape of Mercury's orbit, and people were increasingly worried about how long the Sun could continue to burn.

In the 17th century, English natural philosopher Isaac Newton had suggested that comets fuel the Sun, arguing that:

...fixed stars, that have been gradually wasted by the light and vapours emitted from them for a long time, may be recruited by comets that fall upon them; and from this fresh supply of new fuel these old stars, acquiring new splendour, may pass for new stars[1].

By the end of the 1800s, it had been suggested that the Sun could be fuelled by a chemical process, like combustion, yet even if the entire mass of the Sun were made of petrol, it would still only burn for about 7000 years*.

This was not considered a problem in the 1700s, when the age of the Earth was accepted to be about 6000 years. This was based on Irish Bishop James Ussher's argument that the world had been created on the 23rd of October 4004 BCE. Ussher had come to this conclusion by reading the bible and adding the male lineage from Adam through to Solomon. Beyond the time of Solomon, he cross-referenced the lineage of Kings with known historical data[2]. Yet by the end of the 1800s, there was evidence that the Earth must be at least 35,000 times older than this.

The fossilised remains of as yet unknown animals had been found for thousands of years, and were often only found in specific strata - layers of sedimentary rock or soil. In the 1790s, British geologist William Smith suggested that different strata have different ages, where one layer of rock or soil forms over another. He argued that if the same fossils were found in strata at different locations, then the strata are probably the same age[3].

Photograph of rock strata.

Tilted rock strata. Image credit: Bob Jones/CC-SA.

British geologist John Phillips, used Smith's theory to show that there must have been at least three major geological eras: the Palaeozoic ('the Age of Fishes'), the Mesozoic ('the Age of Reptiles'), and the Cenozoic ('the Age of Mammals'). Phillips estimated that the Earth could be up to 96 million years old[4].

The remains of extinct dinosaurs were first correctly identified in England in the early 1800s. The first belonged to the herbivorous Iguanodon, discovered in Sussex by palaeontologist Mary Ann Mantell in 1822[5]. The second was the carnivorous Megalosaurus, discovered in Oxford and identified by palaeontologist William Buckland in 1824[6], and the third was the armoured Hylaeosaurus, also discovered in Sussex, and first identified by palaeontologist Gideon Mantell in 1833[7].

British biologist and palaeontologist Richard Owen coined the term Dinosauria to encompass all three genera in 1842. Dinosauria is derived from the Greek words deinos, which is translated as 'terrible, powerful or wondrous' and the word sauros, which means 'lizard'[8].

Artist's impression of an Iguanodon

Artist's impression of Iguanodon from the 1800s (no longer considered accurate). Image credit: Samuel Griswold Goodrich/Public domain.

Artist's impression of a Megalosaurus

Artist's impression of Megalosaurus from the 1800s (no longer considered accurate). Image credit: Samuel Griswold Goodrich/Public domain.

Artist's impression of a Hylaeosaurus

Artist's impression of Hylaeosaurus from the 1800s (no longer considered accurate). Image credit: Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins/Public domain.

In The Origin of Species, published in 1859, British naturalist Charles Darwin suggested that our current stage of evolution would require hundreds of millions of years[9].

British natural philosopher William Thomson, better known as Lord Kelvin, showed that it would take 20-40 million years for the Earth to cool to its current temperature from a molten state in 1897[10].

In 1898, Darwin's son, astronomer George Darwin, suggested that the Earth and Moon had once been part of the same molten mass but had broken apart. Astronomers now think that this occurred when it was hit by an object the size of Mars. George Darwin's theory showed that it would take at least 56 million years for the Moon to become tidally locked with the Earth, so that we only see one side[11].

Finally, in 1899, Irish physicist John Joly showed that it would take about 90 million years for the oceans to have accumulated their current salt content through mineral erosion[12].

2. 20th Century solutions

We now know that the Earth is about 4.54 billion years old. This was first determined by American geochemist Clair Cameron Patterson using the radioactive dating of meteorites in 1953[13].

American astronomer Edwin Hubble estimated that the universe is about 9 billion years old in 1929. Hubble's calculations have since been refined to show that the universe is about 14 billion years old.

The mystery of how the Sun is fuelled was solved in the early 1900s, with the discovery of nuclear fusion, which can fuel the Sun for about ten billion years.

The problems produced by the Michelson-Morley experiment would be resolved with German-Swiss-American physicist Albert Einstein's theory of special relativity and quantum mechanics.

Olbers' paradox would be resolved with the discovery of the big bang, and the shape of Mercury's orbit would be explained with Einstein's theory of general relativity.


Mass = 2×1030 kg,
Luminosity = 3.9×1026 J/s, and
Energy consumption during combustion = 45×106 J/kg.

Rate of combustion =
Luminosity/Energy consumption during combustion
= 8.7×1018 kg/s.
Lifetime =
Mass/Rate of combustion
= 2.3×1011 s = 7,300 years.

3. References

  1. Newton, I. and Motte, A. (trans), 1846 (1687), 'The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy', Daniel Adee.

  2. Fuller, J. G., 2005, 'A Date to Remember: 4004 BC', Earth Sciences History, 31, pp.5-14.

  3. Phillips, J. and Smedley, E. (ed), Rose, H. J. (ed), Rose, H. J. (ed), 1845, 'Geology' in 'Encyclopaedia Metropolitana: Or Universal Dictionary of Knowledge', B. Fellowes.

  4. Burchfield, J. D., 1998, 'The age of the Earth and the invention of geological time', Geological Society, 143, pp.137-143.

  5. Mantell, G., 1827, 'Illustrations of the Geology of Sussex', Lupton Relfe.

  6. Buckland, W., 1824, 'Notice on the Megalosaurus Or Great Fossil Lizard of Stonesfield: From the Transactions of the Geological Society', Richard Taylor.

  7. Mantell, G., 1833, 'The geology of the south-east of England', Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green and Longman.

  8. Owen, R., 2015, 'A Monograph on the Fossil Reptilia of the Wealden Formations', Cambridge University Press.

  9. Darwin, C., 2009 (1859), 'The Origin of Species', Project Gutenberg.

  10. Kwok, S., 2013, 'Stardust: The Cosmic Seeds of Life', Springer Science & Business Media.

  11. Chambers, J. and Mitton, J., 2013, 'From Dust to Life: The Origin and Evolution of Our Solar System', Princeton University Press.

  12. Whitrow, G. J., 2003, 'What is Time?', Oxford University Press.

  13. Patterson, C. C., 1953, 'The isotopic composition of meteoric, basaltic and oceanic leads, and the age of the Earth', Proceedings of the Conference on Nuclear Processes in Geologic Settings, 1, pp.36-44.

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The Star Garden is a science news and science education website run by Dr Helen Klus.

How we came to know the cosmos covers the history of physics focusing on space and time, light and matter, and the mind. It explains the simple discoveries we made in prehistoric times, and how we built on them, little by little, until the conclusions of modern theories seem inevitable. This is shown in a timeline of the universe.

The Star Garden covers the basics for KS3, KS4, and KS5 science revision including SATs, GCSE science, and A-level physics.

Space & Time

Pre 20th Century theories

1. History of Constellations

2. History of Latitude

3. History of Longitude

4. Models of the Universe

5. Force and Energy

6. Newton's theory of Gravity

7. Age of the Universe

20th Century discoveries

1. Special Relativity

2. General Relativity

3. Big Bang theory

4. History of Galaxies

5. Life Cycles of Stars

6. Red Giants and White Dwarfs

7. Neutron Stars and Black Holes

Missions to planets

1. The planet Mercury

2. The planet Venus

3. The planet Earth

3.1 The Earth's Moon

4. The planet Mars

4.1 The Asteroid Belt

5. The planet Jupiter

6. The planet Saturn

7. The planet Uranus

8. The planet Neptune

Beyond the planets

1. Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud

2. Pioneer and Voyager

3. Discoveries of Exoplanets