How much stuff is in the Universe?

“The most incomprehensible thing about the Universe is that it is comprehensible.” -Albert Einstein

The observable Universe is huge. Incredibly, mind-bogglingly huge. When we look out, in any direction, we see galaxies upon galaxies upon galaxies, stretching for billions and billion of light years.

This one picture, taken of a region of sky just one-tenth the size of the Moon, contains more than 10,000 unique galaxies. And there are maybe close to a hundred billion galaxies similar to ours in the Universe; each one contains billions and billions of stars and planets, along with huge molecular and atomic clouds of gas and dust.

All of these galaxies cluster together gravitationally: the places that start out with more matter pull on more and more galaxies, becoming clusters or giant clusters of galaxies, while the places that start out with less can’t attract them at all, and become great voids in space.

In fact, we’ve mapped out where the matter close to our neighborhood (within a few hundred million light years) lives, and here’s what we’ve found!

Pretty impressive, no?

But it gets better. Based on a whole host of observations, we can simulate, on large scales, what the matter in the Universe ought to look like! And what we find, spread out over a sphere 93 billion light years in diameter, is a Universe filled with stars, galaxies, and clusters like so.

All told, there are around a whopping 1080 atoms filling our observable Universe. This is a ridiculously huge number. If you and I were to each choose an atom in the Universe at random, the probability that we’d each choose the same atom is 1 in 1080, or about as likely as winning the powerball jackpot ten times. In a row.

But the Universe is also very large, and these atoms aren’t packed together very tightly. So I’ve got a couple of questions for you.

What if you took all of the atoms in the Universe and packed them together into a solid disk with the same radius as the observable Universe?

How thick do you suppose that disk would be, containing all of the matter in the Universe?

Let’s ask the second one: what if, instead of a disk, you packed all of the atoms in the Universe together into a solid cylinder whose length extended across the diameter of the Universe?

With all the atoms in the Universe packed in there, how thick would this cylinder be?

You’ve had your fun guessing; I’ve got the answers all figured out, but where’s the fun in a giveaway like that?!

Come on, Ethan, don’t be like that! GIMME THE ANSWERS!

Okay, okay already. If you compressed the Universe into a disk, it would be about 200 microns thick, or about the size of a paramecium.

But if you compressed the Universe into a cylinder, it would have the same diameter as Earth’s orbit around the Sun!

Pretty impressive? Not as impressive as this fact: the cylinder case would be so dense that it, itself, would be a black hole, with light unable to escape it! Just some food for thought on a Friday, and I hope you enjoyed thinking about it!

Update: I realized that the cylinder wouldn’t form a black hole, but an object from which no light could escape stretched across the entire Universe known as a cosmic string! WTF is a cosmic string? You’ll have to come back on Monday…

Comments

  1. #1 ogremkv
    August 27, 2010

    I actually had a conversation similar to this. I found a map of the galaxies within 2 billion light-years from the SDSS3 project. It makes one feel really, really, really tiny.

  2. #2 nuspirit
    August 27, 2010

    “All told, there are around a whopping 10^80 atoms filling our observable Universe. This is a ridiculously huge number.”

    A nice post, but I’ll have to slight exception to the above quote. Very large but finite numbers are actually pretty fascinating by themselves and a measly 10^80 is pretty much a no-starter in that race :) If anyone’s interested, look up stuff like Knuth’s notation, Graham’s number and Friedman’s TREE function for some pretty awesomely huge numbers.

  3. #3 Richard
    August 27, 2010

    I am uncertain what density or how tightly the atoms are to be packed in the cylinder or disk. I am probably just missing something but get even more confused when told the cylinder would be a black hole.

  4. #4 NewEnglandBob
    August 27, 2010

    What is the number of photons in the universe? 10^100?

  5. #5 Pierce R. Butler
    August 27, 2010

    Last night I was reading Neil F. Comins’s Heavenly Errors: Misconceptions About the Real Nature of the Universe (2001), in which he (a professor of physics & astronomy) states:

    Our Milky Way galaxy is but one of an estimated 50 billion galaxies in the visible universe. [pg 64]

    Has the count doubled in the last decade, or is anything less than an order of magnitude just considered a rounding error in the wonderful world of astronomical numbers?

  6. #6 JEFFK
    August 27, 2010

    Isn’t there vastly more non-stuff than stuff? How much space does the non-stuff occupy? (Non-stuff is everything else besides atomic matter, like dark-matter.)

  7. #7 Rory Kent
    August 27, 2010

    Great post! My answers to both questions were horribly wrong, but I expected that might be the case. I like how much you can learn by viewing something from a different perspective. For example got me wondering what the Schwarzschild radius of the observable universe is, and from that what the density of a typical black hole is. As it turns out, the observable universe is almost 1/5th as dense as a black hole. Madness.

  8. #8 Brian
    August 27, 2010

    I too was very confused by the issue of density in the hypothetical disk/cylinder. Are the atoms supposed to have the density of paper? A star? A neutron star?

    (Now you’re probably going to tell me that it would only make a difference of a fraction of a micron, which is why you didn’t bother to mention it….)

  9. #9 the guy
    August 27, 2010

    I admit to not being totally up-to-date on this sort of thing, but I thought all the matter in the universe was at one time compressed into a single point?

    This:

    “What if you took all of the atoms in the Universe and packed them together into a solid disk with the same radius as the observable Universe?”

    with the answer you gave makes it sound impossible to compress all the universe’s matter into a point.

    Or do you have to take all the atoms and separate them into the smallest possible sub-atomic particles first?

  10. #10 qetzal
    August 28, 2010

    @Brian (#8),

    I assumed each atom is a solid sphere with a diameter of 1 angstrom, and was able to get numbers consistent with Ethan’s. (Although I screwed up calculating the second one, so that vote was incorrect.)

  11. #11 Wayne Robinson
    August 28, 2010

    Guy,

    I wouldn’t say that I’m up to date with it either, but my understanding is that matter and antimatter only came into existence at the end of the inflation period and was not pre-existing at the “singularity” (which is also a misnomer discussed in a previous post by Ethan) at the start of the Big Bang. There was a very slight excess of matter over antimatter, and this excess represents all the ordinary matter in the Universe.

  12. #12 MadScientist
    August 28, 2010

    Gaah – too busy to do the calculations carefully. I voted “less than 1 atom” but then did some quick (unchecked) calculations and even when taking a 1B lightyear radius for the universe and a spacing of 12 pico meters between atoms I still have a layer over 10**26 atoms thick (obviously my volume calculations are very sloppy, but it’s apparent that my initial guess of 1 atom is a mistake of biblical proportions).

  13. #13 Rob
    August 28, 2010

    “Packed together” is too vague to make this discussion mean anything. At what density? The density of ice? Most of the atoms are hydrogen, so the density of solid H2?

  14. #14 Bjoern
    August 28, 2010

    @Pierce R. Butler:

    Has the count doubled in the last decade, or is anything less than an order of magnitude just considered a rounding error in the wonderful world of astronomical numbers?

    It’s the second one. Factors of two are often considered negligible in astronomy. ;-) (and from the wording, I’d say that Ethan was anyway only giving an order of magnitude estimation).

    @NewEnglandBob: The number density of baryons (which should be roughly equal to the number density of atoms) is about a factor of 10^(-10) smaller than the number density of photons (as far as I know, this refers to the photons from the CMBR, but even if one takes all photons into account, this only about doubles the number of photons, I’d estimate). So the number of photons in the observable universe should be (very roughly) 10^90 to 10^91.

  15. #15 Roland
    August 28, 2010

    But…if the Universe is ~14 billion years old, we can only observe what’s in a sphere 28 billion light years in diameter, not “…93 billion light years in diameter.” Where did that figure come from?

  16. #16 Bjoern
    August 29, 2010

    @Roland:

    But…if the Universe is ~14 billion years old, we can only observe what’s in a sphere 28 billion light years in diameter, not “…93 billion light years in diameter.” Where did that figure come from?

    Try these (Ned Wright explains it much better than I can):
    http://www.astro.ucla.edu/~wright/cosmology_faq.html#DN

    (The error that you probably make is that you think the universe expands at light speed.)

  17. #17 Sili
    August 29, 2010

    Bugger. Shoulda done the back of the envelope estimates instead of going with my gut and thinking that the Universe is far larger than I could comprehend.

  18. #18 metin2 Hile
    August 30, 2010

    I voted “less than 1 atom” but then did some quick (unchecked) calculations and even when taking a 1B lightyear radius for the universe and a spacing of 12 pico meters between atoms I still have a layer over 10**26 atoms thick (obviously my volume calculations are very sloppy, but it’s apparent that my initial guess of 1 atom is a mistake of biblical proportions).

  19. #19 OKThen
    August 30, 2010

    “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”

    Of course, “stuff” can be “packed” into simple metaphysical disks in mathematically boring ways that have little to do with our complex understanding of the “observable universe”.

  20. #20 Ross
    August 31, 2010

    How big would the universe be if it was packed into a sphere?
    I get about 5 light years across if you assume that 1Atom = 1 Angstrom & 10^80 particles, but if the particles are protons/neutrons with a radius ~ 10^-15m and they pack like oranges, then I get a bucket about the size of Jupiter’s orbit, which seems a tad small.

  21. #21 Sphere Coupler
    September 3, 2010

    “How big would the universe be if it was packed into a sphere?”

    Please don’t, I just had a big bowl of chili and I don’t even have room for desert.

  22. #22 chilrum
    September 16, 2010

    Another way to look at it is that if you could get two more universes (for some reason saying that makes me feel like sarah palin) you could use them to cover up the ends of the cylinder…

  23. #23 chilrum
    September 16, 2010

    Or…

    In other words…

    If you took our current universe and you dropped it, this is how far it would have fallen.

    Right?

  24. #24 Dingle
    September 21, 2010

    OK, so I assumed that the avg radius of an atom is 10^-12 meters, the universe is 10^26 meters containing 10^80 atoms. Then I gave up and watched an old episode of Lexx on Hulu.com.

  25. #25 Justice Noble
    November 19, 2010

    Where is the New Divine Universe and the 7th Heaven?

  26. #26 Justice Noble
    November 19, 2010

    Who is on the Lord’s side and when is the End Time on Earth

  27. #27 John Balnis
    July 19, 2013

    I voted ‘molecule’ on the first question, and light years on the second. Pretty close… I knew the cylinder was gonna be much thicker because you begin on the premise of a straight line and extend outward. A disc with the same diameter length as a cylinder of the same length is gonna be incredibly thin in comparison.