Age of the Universe

There are at least 3 ways that the age of the Universe can be estimated. I will describe

The Age of the Elements

The age of the chemical elements can be estimated using radioactive decay to determine how old a given mixture of atoms is. The most definite ages that can be determined this way are ages since the solidification of rock samples. When a rock solidifies, the chemical elements often get separated into different crystalline grains in the rock. For example, sodium and calcium are both common elements, but their chemical behaviours are quite different, so one usually finds sodium and calcium in different grains in a differentiated rock. Rubidium and strontium are heavier elements that behave chemically much like sodium and calcium. Thus rubidium and strontium are usually found in different grains in a rock. But Rb-87 decays into Sr-87 with a half-life of 47 billion years. And there is another isotope of strontium, Sr-86, which is not produced by any rubidium decay. The isotope Sr-87 is called radiogenic, because it can be produced by radioactive decay, while Sr-86 is non-radiogenic. The Sr-86 is used to determine what fraction of the Sr-87 was produced by radioactive decay. This is done by plotting the Sr-87/Sr-86 ratio versus the Rb-87/Sr-86 ratio. When a rock is first formed, the different grains have a wide range of Rb-87/Sr-86 ratios, but the Sr-87/Sr-86 ratio is the same in all grains because the chemical processes leading to differentiated grains do not separate isotopes. After the rock has been solid for several billion years, a fraction of the Rb-87 will have decayed into Sr-87. Then the Sr-87/Sr-86 ratio will be larger in grains with a large Rb-87/Sr-86 ratio. Do a linear fit of

Sr-87/Sr-86 = a + b*(Rb-87/Sr-86)
and then the slope term is given by
b = 2x - 1
with x being the number of half-lives that the rock has been solid. See the isochrone FAQ for more on radioactive dating.

When applied to rocks on the surface of the Earth, the oldest rocks are about 3.8 billion years old. When applied to meteorites, the oldest are 4.56 billion years old. This very well determined age is the age of the Solar System. See the age of the Earth FAQ for more on the age of the solar system.

When applied to a mixed together and evolving system like the gas in the Milky Way, no great precision is possible. One problem is that there is no chemical separation into grains of different crystals, so the absolute values of the isotope ratios have to be used instead of the slopes of a linear fit. This requires that we know precisely how much of each isotope was originally present, so an accurate model for element production is needed. One isotope pair that has been used is rhenium and osmium: in particular Re-187 which decays into Os-187 with a half-life of 40 billion years. It looks like 15% of the original Re-187 has decayed, which leads to an age of 8-11 billion years. But this is just the mean formation age of the stuff in the Solar System, and no rhenium or osmium has been made for the last 4.56 billion years. Thus to use this age to determine the age of the Universe, a model of when the elements were made is needed. If all the elements were made in a burst soon after the Big Bang, then the age of the Universe would be to = 8-11 billion years. But if the elements are made continuously at a constant rate, then the mean age of stuff in the Solar System is

(to + tSS)/2 = 8-11 Gyr
which we can solve for the age of the Universe giving
   to = 11.5-17.5 Gyr

Radioactive Dating of an Old Star

A very interesting paper by Cowan et al. (1997, ApJ, 480, 246) discusses the thorium abundance in an old halo star. Normally it is not possible to measure the abundance of radioactive isotopes in other stars because the lines are too weak. But in CS 22892-052 the thorium lines can be seen because the iron lines are very weak. The Th/Eu (Europium) ratio in this star is 0.219 compared to 0.369 in the Solar System now. Thorium decays with a half-life of 14.05 Gyr, so the Solar System formed with Th/Eu = 24.6/14.05*0.369 = 0.463. If CS 22892-052 formed with the same Th/Eu ratio it is then 15.2 +/- 3.5 Gyr old. It is actually probably slightly older because some of the thorium that would have gone into the Solar System decayed before the Sun formed, and this correction depends on the nucleosynthesis history of the Milky Way. Nonetheless, this is still an interesting measure of the age of the oldest stars that is independent of the main-sequence lifetime method.

A later paper by Cowan et al. (1999, ApJ, 521, 194) gives 15.6 +/- 4.6 Gyr for the age based on two stars: CS 22892-052 and HD 115444.

The Age of the Oldest Star Clusters

When stars are burning hydrogen to helium in their cores, they fall on a single curve in the luminosity-temperature plot known as the H-R diagram after its inventors, Hertzsprung and Russell. This track is known as the main sequence, since most stars are found there. Since the luminosity of a star varies like M3 or M4, the lifetime of a star on the main sequence varies like t=const*M/L=k/L0.7. Thus if you measure the luminosity of the most luminous star on the main sequence, you get an upper limit for the age of the cluster:

Age < k/L(MS_max)0.7
This is an upper limit because the absence of stars brighter than the observed L(MS_max) could be due to no stars being formed in the appropriate mass range. But for clusters with thousands of members, such a gap in the mass function is very unlikely, the age is equal to k/L(MS_max)0.7. Chaboyer, Demarque, Kernan and Krauss (1996, Science, 271, 957) apply this technique to globular clusters and find that the age of the Universe is greater than 12.07 Gyr with 95% confidence. They say the age is proportional to one over the luminosity of the RR Lyra stars which are used to determine the distances to globular clusters. Chaboyer (1997) gives a best estimate of 14.6 +/- 1.7 Gyr for the age of the globular clusters. But recent Hipparcos results show that the globular clusters are further away than previously thought, so their stars are more luminous. Gratton et al. give ages between 8.5 and 13.3 Gyr with 12.1 being most likely, while Reid gives ages between 11 and 13 Gyr, and Chaboyer et al. give 11.5 +/- 1.3 Gyr for the mean age of the oldest globular clusters.

The Age of the Oldest White Dwarfs

A white dwarf star is an object that is about as heavy as the Sun but only the radius of the Earth. The average density of a white dwarf is a million times denser than water. White dwarf stars form in the centers of red giant stars, but are not visible until the envelope of the red giant is ejected into space. When this happens the ultraviolet radiation from the very hot stellar core ionizes the gas and produces a planetary nebula. The envelope of the star continues to move away from the central core, and eventually the planetary nebula fades to invisibility, leaving just the very hot core which is now a white dwarf. White dwarf stars glow just from residual heat. The oldest white dwarfs will be the coldest and thus the faintest. By searching for faint white dwarfs, one can estimate the length of time the oldest white dwarfs have been cooling. Oswalt, Smith, Wood and Hintzen (1996, Nature, 382, 692) have done this and get an age of 9.5+1.1-0.8 Gyr for the disk of the Milky Way. They estimate an age of the Universe which is at least 2 Gyr older than the disk, so to > 11.5 Gyr.

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© 1997-1999 Edward L. Wright. Last modified 22 Nov 1999