Friday, March 07, 2008

Funny, You Don't Look A Day Over 6000

Let there be light:

Happy birthday, Universe!

Kinda. It’s not really the Universe’s birthday, but now we do know to high accuracy just how old it is.


NASA’s WMAP is the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (which is a mouthful, and why we just call it WMAP). It was designed to map the Universe with exquisite precision, detecting microwaves coming from the most distant source there is: the cooling fireball of the Big Bang itself.

A lot of this information was determined a while back, just a couple of years after WMAP launched. But now they have released the Five Year Data, a comprehensive analysis of what all that data means. Here’s a quick rundown:

1) The age of the Universe is 13.73 billion years, plus or minus 120 million years. Some people might say it doesn’t look a day over 6000 years. They’re wrong.

2) The image above shows the temperature difference between different parts of the sky. Red is hotter, blue is cooler. However, the difference is incredibly small: the entire temperature range from cold to hot is only 0.0002 degrees Celsius. The average temperature is 2.725 Kelvin, so you’re seeing temperatures from 2.7248 to 2.7252 Kelvins.

3) The age of the Universe when recombination occurred was 375,938 years, +/- about 3100 years. Wow.

4) The Universe is flat.

5) The energy budget of the Universe is the total amount of energy and matter in the whole cosmos added up. Together with some other observations, WMAP has been able to determine just how much of that budget is occupied by dark energy, dark matter, and normal matter. What they got was: the Universe is 72.1% dark energy, 23.3% dark matter, and 4.62% normal matter. You read that right: everything you can see, taste, hear, touch, just sense in any way… is less than 5% of the whole Universe.

We occupy a razor thin slice of reality.

Almost as if we're the words on the page of a scroll.