Fr. George Coyne, former director of the Vatican Observatory and a guest on this week's show, often speaks about our 13.7 billion-year-old universe in terms of fertility. In this lecture (jump to the 3:25 mark), he describes a rich cycle of cosmic birth, death, and replenishment. Three generations of stars, he says, had to live and die in order to sow the chemical abundance that made life on our planet possible.

For many of us, this metaphor of a rich, cosmic soil is possible to envision as the daffodils and day lilies sprout with the return of Spring, at least here in Minnesota. On the other hand, the scale of such a vast time span is hard to comprehend. I don't know about you, but I can't even wrap my mind around the idea.

Thankfully, Fr. Coyne helps us make sense of this incomprehensible scenario. He crunches nearly 14 billion years into a one-year time line. With the birth of the universe on January 1st at 12 a.m., 364 days and 58 minutes had to pass before humans even entered the scene. And, we've been studying the stars for only the last two seconds!

Universe in a Year

Seeing the age of the universe explained in this way provides a strange sense of relief. We are merely specks on the continuum. Knowing this, perhaps we can forgive ourselves for not having all the answers and open ourselves to the mystery of creation and the laws of nature — even if that means we get it wrong over and over.

Share Your Reflection



Carl Sagan used the cosmic calendar idea in his series Cosmos back in 1980. I don't know if Carl originated the idea, but I hope Friar Coyne gives credit where credit is due.

Carl also said one of the profound statements I appreciate: We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.

I was hoping someone would point out Sagan's "Cosmic Calendar". I am fascinated by the way a leading atheist astronomer and a leading Jesuit astronomer have settled on the same teaching device.

I heard that in 1964- during a philosophy of science course at UofC.
No one thought it original at the time- probably not-but I loved it and used it ever since.
A lot of roads lead to home.

I feel young all over again!

Hmm. I think I'm going to put this up somewhere I can see it often. Thanks so much!

I appreciate the value of the chart as a tool, but one must be careful to discount the hidden bias that seems to show all of creation has been leading to the creation of man. Perhaps the chart can be extended showing the decades to come until the expected heat death of the universe? This would show us in better context, IMO.

Since the heat death of the universe is expected to be 1*10E100 years from it's beginning (that's 1 followed by 100 zeros), when you compare it to a calendar year (as above), just a single second would represent trillions upon trillions of years. We are just at the very beginning of an incomprehensibly long-lived universe.

I had a friend who's wife went to Cornell. Carl Sagan demonstrated the big bang theory in the females dorm.  She was never the same!!