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Physics

Why this is a golden age for life to thrive across the universe

Almost all the stars that will ever exist have already been born, and they have been around long enough for life to evolve on planets that orbit them

By Michael Brooks

26 June 2024

This image from ESO?s VISTA telescope captures a celestial landscape of vast, glowing clouds of gas and tendrils of dust surrounding hot young stars. This infrared view reveals the stellar nursery known as NGC 6357 in a new light. It was taken as part of the VISTA Variables in the V?a L?ctea (VVV) survey, which is currently scanning the Milky Way in a bid to map our galaxy?s structure and explain how it formed.

ESO/VVV Survey/D. Minniti. Ackno

This story is part of our Cosmic Perspective special, in which we confront the staggering vastness of the cosmos and our place in it. Read the rest of the series聽here.

Since the opening act of the universe 13.8 billion years ago, a diverse set of characters have trod the boards 鈥 stars, planets, moons, quasars. But if you tend to get fidgety at the theatre, there is bad news: this cosmic performance has at least 100 billion years to go. Which raises a question: are we living at a special moment 鈥 the cliffhanger before the interval 鈥 or is this just an inconsequential moment in the mid-plot?

One hint that this is a special instant involves a swathe of observed properties of the universe known as fundamental constants. These include the strength of gravity, for example, and the fine-structure constant, known as alpha, which determines the way matter and light interact and thus how stars burn. If these numbers were just a shade different from how they are, then life might be impossible.

Why is it all so perfect? One possible answer is that these constants aren’t so constant. Perhaps they have been gradually changing over the life of the universe and we happen to live at an auspicious blip in time. at the University of Cambridge has spent decades investigating this idea,…

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