Astronomy is a science where human timescales become insignificant. It seems like everything we are watching takes millions or even billions of years to occur. To be sure, there are a few things that happen quickly, like supernovae, but those events are the exceptions. Everywhere we look we see the stately dance of stars and galaxies, the formation of worlds. The dance is spread across distances and times so vast that even those who study the universe have difficulty comprehending the sheer immensity involved. Stars and planets take hundreds of thousands of years to form, a galaxy collision may go on for millions of years.
And yet there is a significant portion of our fellow citizens who insist that the universe is only a few thousand years old. I encounter this belief all too often, a dogged insistence that everything was created just a few thousand years ago. There are variations on the theme, with differing numbers, but these beliefs generally accept that our universe and the Earth were formed within the last ten thousand years. Never mind we have literally mountains of evidence to the contrary, when that evidence clashes with worldviews instilled since birth by a religion and parents, a discouraging number of people ignore reality and cling to what they were taught. To admit otherwise would open up too many other dearly held beliefs to questioning, a truly uncomfortable challenge.
10,000 years? Pathetically inadequate!
I am going to be blunt here. This is not an case where the true answer lies somewhere betwixt two opposing views. This is a case where one of those views is simply and completely wrong. The entire realm of astronomy works on vast timescales. The suggestion that a mere 6,000 or 10,000 have passed since creation becomes completely absurd.
Astronomy is another field of science, like geology or biology, where all of the basic tenants rest upon a requirement for vast amounts of time. There is no single idea or concept that requires this, it is the entirety of all we know, every scrap of evidence. Thousand of interlocking observations, theories, our very understanding of the universe that insists on the passage of billions of years since the beginning. We certainly have a few details wrong here and there, our knowledge is ever subject to refinement, but it is clear that the history of the universe is rich with the passage of time.
Even my small personal telescope is capable of seeing objects billions of lightyears away. This telescope is a humble 45cm in aperture, perhaps big by amateur standards, but tiny compared to the monsters I work on. With this telescope I have peered at quasars, the ultra-bright cores of active galaxies that create beacons easily seen across the void. There are any number of quasars within reach of small amateur telescopes, ranging in distances from one to several billion lightyears away.
It is important to remember that in astronomy distance is time is distance. Since we are seeing things by the light they emit, and that it takes time for the light to reach us, the two concepts are the same. It takes one year for light to travel one lightyear, about 5.87 trillion miles. Thus, looking out into space is also looking back in time, the further we look from Earth, the further back in time we are peering. This is true for even nearby objects. Our Sun is a mere 93 million miles away, it takes the light 8.3 minutes to cover that distance. When you look at the Sun in the sky you are seeing the Sun as it was eight minutes ago.
As a result we do not have to guess how the universe came to look as it does, we can look back in time to see how it came to be! Do you want to study galaxies at half the current age of he universe? Just get a big telescope to observe galaxies a few billion lightyears away!
I admit I do not usually observe quasars at my modest telescope, they are challenging to find and not that interesting to look at aside from the curiosity of their great distance. My telescope was designed and built for the purpose of looking at nearer galaxies, objects a few million to tens of millions of lightyears away.
It is these vast systems of billions of stars that I love. there are majestic spirals, bright cores surrounded by gracefully sweeping arms. Others exhibit oddly distorted shapes and tidal features disrupted through collisions with neighbors. In nearer galaxies I can discern softly glowing HII regions where new stars and worlds are forming. My observing notes contain observations of hundreds of galaxies using not much more than a big piece of glass and my very un-digital eyeball.
After spending hours under a dark sky looking into the immensity of space I am often deeply affected by the reality of what I am looking at. I know the numbers, I have spent years learning about our universe and how it came to be. This awareness I have come to is truly awe inspiring. I make no claim to complete understanding but I do know this… The suggestion that all of the cosmos is only a few thousand years old is completely wrong.
The assertion that all of creation is contained in a short span of time is clearly the product of a limited human mind with no true understanding of our universe. Too often those limitations come from a self imposed blindness, of faith in a traditional view invented before we learned how to see the universe for what it really is. Those old traditional worldviews are completely understandable and very human. They are also very wrong. This vast universe pays little heed to our ephemeral existence or ideas, it operates on a timescale far more grand than we can truly comprehend. But still I try.