After reading this space timeline, I have wondered how they managed to make these assumptions about various events like when the first black holes formed. This is obviously far beyond the good ol' carbon-14 dating procedure.


One property of distant objects, that follows from the limited speed of light, is that we are observing them in the past; the light that they emit takes time to reach us. For very distant objects, we are effectively observing the universe at a very early time.

Objects that are very far away, such as distant galaxies, are receding away from us, which causes the light that they emit to be doppler shifted. The recession velocity is proportional to the distance away, and in turn so is the magnitude of the redshift. This redshift allows us to put a number to the distance away; combining this with the speed of light limit allows us to determine how old the light we are observing from them is.

These two effects, the limited speed of light and redshift, effectively allow us to determine an evolutionary timeline for the universe, and place constraints on when certain objects appear.

  • $\begingroup$ You're right Rob, updated now to distinguish between carbon based and other radiometric dating techniues $\endgroup$ Dec 26 '15 at 16:00
  • $\begingroup$ Still wrong. Radiometric techniques can be used to date stuff that is found in the solar system (presolar grains) that is older than the solar system. Radioisotope dating has also been used on other stars. $\endgroup$
    – ProfRob
    Dec 26 '15 at 17:17
  • $\begingroup$ Given that I evidently don't know enough about radiometric techniques to comment on them, I've removed the first paragraph completely. The subsequent arguments address the theme of the OP's question $\endgroup$ Dec 26 '15 at 17:45

I have wondered how they managed to make these assumptions about various events like when the first black holes form.

When the first black holes formed ( and many other things ) are things we predict from theoretical models of the development of the universe. They are no proven facts, but better classed as speculative predictions based on theories. Different theories give different predictions.

The way it works ( broadly ) is this : We try and develop theoretical models of the universe's creation and early development that will develop into a universe that matches what ours looks like. Doing this has led to such controversial concepts as string theory, which are not proven facts in a scientific sense, but theories subject to ongoing investigation.

We try and verify ( or disprove ) theories by comparing what they predicts with what we see.

So these "histories" should be considered as "best guesses" to some extent.

The approximate date of the Sun's formation, for example, is based on our current best models for the evolution of stellar bodies like the sun, which of course are based on our current best measurements of whatever we can measure in relation to it.

For history related to objects we can examine in more detail, like stuff on Earth, some of which came from space, we can perform detailed analysis and look for patterns in related objects and areas. This makes estimates dating from the start of life on Earth on reasonably good.

So the far distant history beyond that is concerned we're relying primarily on models driven by astronomical observations and the law of physics we regard as "safe".

  • $\begingroup$ The "first black holes" business comes from observation, not from theory. In fact theory is struggling to explain how they could form so quickly. The age of the solar system is based on radioisotope dating in meteorites and is very accurate. Models for the evolution of the Sun are tuned to match this age. $\endgroup$
    – ProfRob
    Dec 26 '15 at 18:40
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ The age of the solar system is general thought accurate, but is subject to constant revision, as we simply do not know. It is what is considered most likely based on current evidence, not "very accurate". Physics has a different idea of what is "very accurate" than you seem to be using. Models of the sun vary in purpose and scope, but formation models are based on known physics and attempt to fit to what we understand. All models tend to work that way. Observation of black holes in inferred, not direct. $\endgroup$
    – StephenG
    Dec 26 '15 at 19:05
  • $\begingroup$ It is simply incorrect that the age of the solar system is "based on our current best models for the evolution of stellar bodies like the sun". The age of the solar system is known to about 1 million years (1 part in 4500) from radioisotope dating. $\endgroup$
    – ProfRob
    Dec 26 '15 at 23:41

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