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Cosmic age problem


The cosmic age problem is a historical problem in astronomy concerning the age of the universe. The problem was that at various times in the 20th century, some objects in the universe were estimated to be older than the time elapsed since the Big Bang, as estimated from measurements of the expansion rate of the universe known as the Hubble constant, denoted H0. (This is more correctly called the Hubble parameter, since it generally varies with time).

Since around 1997–2003, the problem is believed to be solved by most cosmologists: modern measurements give an accurate age of the universe of 13.8 billion years, and recent age estimates for the oldest objects are either younger than this, or consistent allowing for measurement uncertainties.

Following theoretical developments of the Friedmann equations by Alexander Friedmann and Georges Lemaitre in the 1920s, and the discovery of the expanding universe by Edwin Hubble in 1929, it was immediately clear that tracing this expansion backwards in time predicts that the universe had almost zero size at a finite time in the past. This concept, initially known as the "Primeval Atom" by Lemaitre, was later elaborated into the modern Big Bang theory. If the universe had expanded at a constant rate in the past, the age of the universe now (i.e. the time since the Big Bang) is simply the inverse of the Hubble constant, often known as the Hubble time. For Big Bang models with zero cosmological constant and positive matter density, the actual age must be somewhat younger than this Hubble time; typically the age would be between 66% and 90% of the Hubble time, depending on the density of matter.

Hubble's early estimate of his constant was 550 km/s/Mpc, and the inverse of that is 1.8 billion years. It was believed by many geologists such as Arthur Holmes in the 1920s that the Earth was probably over 2 billion years old, but with large uncertainty. The possible discrepancy between the ages of the Earth and the universe was probably one motivation for the development of the Steady State theory in 1948 as an alternative to the Big Bang; in the (now obsolete) steady state theory, the universe is infinitely old and on average unchanging with time. The steady state theory postulated spontaneous creation of matter to keep the average density constant as the universe expands, and therefore most galaxies still have an age less than 1/H0. However, if H0 had been 550 km/s/Mpc, our Milky Way galaxy would be exceptionally large compared to most other galaxies, so it could well be much older than an average galaxy, therefore eliminating the age problem.



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