Main   Terms   People   Interviews   Resources   Events

Cosmology, Stars and Life

Prior to the discovery of the expansion of the Universe there was little that cosmology could contribute to the question of extraterrestrial life aside from probabilities and prejudices. After our discovery of the expansion and evolution of the Universe the situation changed significantly. The entire cosmic environment was recognised as undergoing steady change. The history of the Universe took on the complexion of an unfolding drama in many acts, with the formations of first atoms and molecules, then galaxies and stars, and most recently, planets and life. The most important impact of the discovery of the Universe’s expansion is that it gives the Universe a changing history and thereby links the cosmos to the local conditions needed for the existence of life.

In the 1930s, the distinguished biologist J.B.S. Haldane took an interest in Milne’s proposalE.A. Milne, Relativity, Gravitation, and World Structure, Clarendon, Oxford, 1935.that there might exist two different time-scales governing the rates of change of physical processes in the Universe: one, t, for ‘atomic’ changes and another, τ, for ‘gravitational changes’ where τ = ln(t/to) with to constant. Haldane explored how changing from one timescale to the other could alter ones picture of when conditions in the Universe would become suitable for the evolution of biochemical life.J.B.S. Haldane, Nature 139, 1002 (1937) and Nature 158, 555 (1944).; J.D. Barrow and F.J.Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, Oxford UP, Oxford (1986).In particular, he argued that it would be possible for radioactive decays to occur with a decay rate that was constant on the t timescale but which grew in proportion to t when evaluated on the τ scale. The biochemical processes associated with energy derived from the breakdown of adenosine triphosphoric acid would yield energies which, while constant on the t scale, would grow as t2 on the τ scale. Thus there would be an epoch of cosmic history on the τ scale before which life was impossible but after which it would become increasingly likely. Milne’s theory subsequently fell into abeyance although the interest in gravitation theories with a varying Newtonian ‘constant’ of gravitation led to detailed scrutiny of the paleontological and biological consequences of such hypothetical changes for the past history of the Earth.J.D. Barrow and F.J.Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, Oxford UP, Oxford (1986). Ultimately, this led to the formulation of the collection of ideas now known as the Anthropic Principles. B. Carter, in Confrontation of Cosmological Theories with Observation, ed. M. Longair, Reidel, Dordrecht,1974. ; J.D. Barrow, “The Mysterious Lore of Large Numbers,” in Modern Cosmology in Retrospect,...

Another interface between the problem of the origin of life and cosmology has been the perennial problem of dealing with finite probabilities in situations where an infinite number of potential trials seem to be available. For example, in a universe that is infinite in spatial volume (as would be expected for the case for an expanding open universe with non-compact topology), any event that has a finite probability of occurring should occur not just once but infinitely often with one-hundred percent probability if the spatial structure of the Universe is exhaustively random.G.F.R. Ellis and G.B. Bundrit, Quart. Jl. Roy. Astron. Soc. 20, 37 (1979).In particular, in an infinite universe we conclude that there should exist an infinite number of sites where life has progressed to our stage of development. In the case of the steady-state universe, it is possible to apply this type of argument to the history of the universe as well as its geography because the universe is assumed to be infinitely old. Every past-directed world line should encounter a living civilisation. As a result, it has been argued that the steady state universe makes the awkward prediction that the universe should now be teeming with life along every line of sight. J.D. Barrow and F.J.Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, Oxford UP, Oxford (1986).

The key ingredient that modern cosmology introduces into considerations of biology is that of time. The observable universe is expanding and not in a steady state. The density and temperature are steadily falling as the expansion proceeds. This means that the average ambient conditions in the universe are linked to its age. Roughly, in all expanding universes, dimensional analysis tells us that the density of matter, r, is related to the age t measured in comoving proper time and Newton’s gravitation constant, G, by means of a relation of the form


The expanding universe creates an interval of cosmic history during which biochemical observers, like ourselves, can expect to be examining the Universe. Chemical complexity requires basic atomic building blocks which are heavier than the elements of hydrogen and helium which emerge from the hot early stages of the universe. Heavier elements, like carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen, are made in the stars, as a result of nuclear reactions that take billions of years to complete. Then, they are dispersed through space by supernovae after which they find their way into grains, planets, and ultimately, into people. This process takes billions of years to complete and allows the expansion to produce a universe that is billions of light years in size. Thus we see why it is inevitable that the universe is seen to be so large. A universe that is billions of years old and hence billions of light years in size is a necessary pre-requisite for observers based upon chemical complexity. Biochemists believe that chemical life of this sort, and the form based upon carbon in particular, is likely to be the only sort able to evolve spontaneously. Other forms of living complexity (for example that being sought by means of silicon physics) almost certainly can exist but it is being developed with carbon-based life-forms as a catalyst rather than by spontaneous evolution.

The inevitability of universes that are big and old as habitats for life also leads us to conclude that they must be rather cold on the average because significant expansion to large size reduces the average temperature inversely in proportion to the size of the universe. They must also be sparse, with a low average density of matter and large distances between different stars and galaxies. This combination of low temperature and density also ensures that the sky is dark at night (the so called ‘Olbers’ Paradox’ first noted by Halley,)E.R. Harrison, Darkness at Night, Harvard UP, Cambridge Mass., 1987.because there is too little energy available in space to provide significant apparent luminosity from all the stars. We conclude that many aspects of our Universe which, superficially, appear hostile to the evolution of life are necessary prerequisites for the existence of any form of biological complexity in the Universe.

Life needs to evolve on a timescale that is intermediate between the typical timescale that it takes for stars to reach a state of stable hydrogen burning, the so called main-sequence lifetime, and the timescale on which stars exhaust their nuclear fuel and gravitationally collapse. This timescale t*, is determined by a combination of fundamental constants of Nature


where mN is the proton mass, h is Planck’s constant, and c is the velocity of light. R.H. Dicke, Rev. Mod. Phys. 29, 355, 363 (1957) and Nature 192, 440 (1961). ; J.D. Barrow and F.J.Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, Oxford UP, Oxford (1986).

In expanding universes of the Big Bang type the reciprocal of the observed expansion rate of the universe, Hubble’s constant Ho≈ 70 Km.s-1Mpc-1, is closely related to the expansion age of the universe, to, by a relation of the form


The fact that the age t≈ 1010yr deduced from observations of Ho in this way is a little larger than the main sequence lifetime, t*, is entirely natural in the Big Bang theory that is, we observe a little later than the time when the Sun forms). However, the now defunct steady state theory, in which there is no relation between the age of the universe (which is infinite) and the measured value of Ho would have had to regard the closeness in value of Ho-1 and t* as a complete coincidence.M.J. Rees, “Comments on Astrophysics,” Space Phys., 4, 182 (1972).

Contributed by: Dr. John Barrow

Cosmic Questions

Was the Universe Designed? Topic Index
Cosmology, Life and the Anthropic Principle

Cosmology, Stars and Life

Biology and Stars: Is There a Link?
Habitable Universes
Changing Constants
Possible Responses to Coincidences


John Barrow

Related Media:

The Anthropic Principle
Is there Intelligent Life Elsewhere in the Universe?
Did the Universe Have a Beginning?
Was the Universe Designed?
Are we Alone?
Interview Index
Hubble Deep Field Animation
  Media Index

Other Resources:

Big Bang Cosmology and Theology
Glossary Terms
Bonus Material Home...