The universe is commonly defined as the totality of everything that exists, including all physical matter and energy, the planets, stars, galaxies, and the contents of intergalactic space, although this usage may differ with the context (see definitions, below). The term universe may be used in slightly different contextual senses, denoting such concepts as the cosmos, the world, or nature. Observations of earlier stages in the development of the universe, which can be seen at great distances, suggest that the universe has been governed by the same physical laws and constants throughout most of its extent and history.
Throughout recorded history, several cosmologies and cosmogonies have been proposed to account for observations of the universe. The earliest quantitative geocentric models were developed by the ancient Greeks, who proposed that the universe possesses infinite space and has existed eternally, but contains a single set of concentric spheres of finite size – corresponding to the fixed stars, the Sun and various planets – rotating about a spherical but unmoving Earth. Over the centuries, more precise observations and improved theories of gravity led to Copernicus’s heliocentric model and the Newtonian model of the Solar System, respectively. Further improvements in astronomy led to the realization that the Solar System is embedded in a galaxy composed of billions of stars, the Milky Way, and that other galaxies exist outside it, as far as astronomical instruments can reach. Careful studies of the distribution of these galaxies and their spectral lines have led to much of modern cosmology. Discovery of the red shift and cosmic microwave background radiation revealed that the universe is expanding and apparently had a beginning.
According to the prevailing scientific model of the universe, known as the Big Bang, the universe expanded from an extremely hot, dense phase called the Planck epoch, in which all the matter and energy of the observable universe was concentrated. Since the Planck epoch, the universe has been expanding to its present form, possibly with a brief period (less than 10-32 seconds) of cosmic inflation. Several independent experimental measurements support this theoretical expansion and, more generally, the Big Bang theory. Recent observations indicate that this expansion is accelerating because of dark energy, and that most of the matter in the universe may be in a form which cannot be detected by present instruments, and so is not accounted for in the present models of the universe; this has been named dark matter. The imprecision of current observations has hindered predictions of the ultimate fate of the universe.
Current interpretations of astronomical observations indicate that the age of the universe is 13.75 ±0.17 billion years, and that the diameter of the observable universe is at least 93 billion light years or 8.80×1026
metres. According to general relativity, space can expand faster than the speed of light, although we can view only a small portion of the universe due to the limitation imposed by light speed. Since we cannot observe space beyond the limitations of light (or any electromagnetic radiation), it is uncertain whether the size of the universe is finite or infinite.
Size, age, contents, structure, and laws
The universe is immensely large and possibly infinite in volume. The region visible from Earth (the observable universe) is a sphere with a radius of about 46 billion light years, based on where the expansion of space has taken the most distant objects observed. For comparison, the diameter of a typical galaxy is only 30,000 light-years, and the typical distance between two neighboring galaxies is only 3 million light-years. As an example, our Milky Way Galaxy is roughly 100,000 light years in diameter, and our nearest sister galaxy, the Andromeda Galaxy, is located roughly 2.5 million light years away. There are probably more than 100 billion (1011) galaxies in the observable universe. Typical galaxies range from dwarfs with as few as ten million (107) stars up to giants with one trillion (1012) stars, all orbiting the galaxy’s center of mass. Thus, a very rough estimate from these numbers would suggest there are around one sextillion (1021) stars in the observable universe; though a 2010 study by astronomers resulted in a figure of 300 sextillion (3×1023).
The observable matter is spread uniformly (homogeneously) throughout the universe, when averaged over distances longer than 300 million light-years. However, on smaller length-scales, matter is observed to form “clumps”, i.e., to cluster hierarchically; many atoms are condensed into stars, most stars into galaxies, most galaxies into clusters, superclusters and, finally, the largest-scale structures such as the Great Wall of galaxies. The observable matter of the universe is also spread isotropically, meaning that no direction of observation seems different from any other; each region of the sky has roughly the same content. The universe is also bathed in a highly isotropic microwave radiation that corresponds to a thermal equilibrium blackbody spectrum of roughly 2.725 kelvin. The hypothesis that the large-scale universe is homogeneous and isotropic is known as the cosmological principle, which is supported by astronomical observations.
The present overall density of the universe is very low, roughly 9.9 × 10-30 grams per cubic centimetre. This mass-energy appears to consist of 73% dark energy, 23% cold dark matter and 4% ordinary matter. Thus the density of atoms is on the order of a single hydrogen atom for every four cubic meters of volume. The properties of dark energy and dark matter are largely unknown. Dark matter gravitates as ordinary matter, and thus works to slow the expansion of the universe; by contrast, dark energy accelerates its expansion.
The most precise estimate of the universe’s age is 13.73±0.12 billion years old, based on observations of the cosmic microwave background radiation. Independent estimates (based on measurements such as radioactive dating) agree, although they are less precise, ranging from 11-20 billion years to 13-15 billion years. The universe has not been the same at all times in its history; for example, the relative populations of quasars and galaxies have changed and space itself appears to have expanded. This expansion accounts for how Earth-bound scientists can observe the light from a galaxy 30 billion light years away, even if that light has traveled for only 13 billion years; the very space between them has expanded. This expansion is consistent with the observation that the light from distant galaxies has been redshifted; the photons emitted have been stretched to longer wavelengths and lower frequency during their journey. The rate of this spatial expansion is accelerating, based on studies of Type Ia supernovae and corroborated by other data.