I assume that about 99.9% of the sun-rays that do not fall on any planet or any other celestial body keep on traveling farther and farther unto infinity. Apparently such rays get lost. Keeping in mind the colossal energy Sun has produced since 4.5 billion years I am somehow reluctant to reconcile myself to the idea that Nature would have allowed wastage of so much energy produced by the Sun. Nonetheless I want to get enlightened whether it got really lost or got utilized. If it got utilized I want to know how it may have got utilized at all and whether any sustainable evidence is available in support of any such finding?

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    $\begingroup$ I'd guess you can probably add a few more 9s to the end of that $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 22, 2016 at 14:44
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    $\begingroup$ Lots of good information here as well: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olbers%27_paradox $\endgroup$
    – Rag
    Commented Aug 22, 2016 at 22:34
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    $\begingroup$ Mother Nature don't care. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 22, 2016 at 23:25
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    $\begingroup$ Do not anthropomorphize nature. Nature does not have a mind, a will or a sense of "balance". Nature knows only one thing: the laws of nature, i.e. physics. In there you will find no such thing as a "Oh, must not waste anything!". Instead, the most final and definite law of nature is that of Entropy. Entropy means: every action generates waste. Waste heat to be exact. And in the end, the universe as we know it will be entirely dead because there is nothing but waste heat left, with no difference in energy potential left to utilize for things like sunlight, work or even life. $\endgroup$
    – MichaelK
    Commented Aug 23, 2016 at 6:56
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidGrinberg I'd probably just round it right up to 100% myself. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 23, 2016 at 7:13

3 Answers 3


The light from the Sun spreads, at least initially, in a roughly isotropic fashion into the universe.

As it gets further from the Sun, some of that light will interact with the interstellar medium (ISM) and therefore some of the energy emitted by the Sun will be used to excite atoms and molecules or even ionise some atoms. This will be the fate of almost all the light which is emitted from the Sun in the direction of the plane of our Galaxy, which contains sufficient molecular gas and dust to block starlight travelling through it for any distance. We know this happens because we can "see" dark clouds in the Milky Way, that can be penetrated by longer wavelength radiation to reveal all the billions of Sun-like stars that lie behind them. Roughly speaking, about half the visible light from the Sun will be absorbed every 1000 light years when travelling in directions within $\pm 5$ degrees of the Galactic plane, so it is essentially all absorbed within a few thousand light years.

But most of the Sun's light is not travelling in the direction of the Galactic plane, and interstellar and intergalactic space has a very low density of gas and dust. The equivalent extinction number for the intergalactic medium is that light travels many billions of light years with almost no chance of being absorbed (see Zu et al. 2010).

This means that most of the light from the Sun will travel to cosmological distances (billions of light years) over the course of the next billions of years. Indeed, light emitted from the Sun shortly after its birth has already travelled 4.5 billion light years. That this happens is demonstrated by the fact that we can observe galaxies (the light from which is nothing more than the summation of light from many stars like the Sun) that are 4.5 billion (and more) light years away.

As the sunlight travels towards cosmological distances, its wavelength is "stretched" by the expansion of the universe, becoming redder and redder. We know this happens because distant galaxies have redshifted spectra. If the universe keeps expanding, then its matter density will continue to decrease and there is little to stop the radiation from the Sun travelling on forever, with a wavelength that scales as the scale factor, $a$, of the universe.

We could consider a co-moving and co-expanding cube containing the Sun's radiation as the universe expands. The total radiative energy inside that cube diminishes as $a^{-1}$ - that is, the energy content of the universe in the form of radiation from stars (and other sources) becomes energetically less important as the universe expands and appears to be being superseded by the energy contained in the vacuum itself (a.k.a. dark energy).

In conclusion, most of the energy emitted by the Sun is not "used" for anything; it propagates into space, becoming more and more dilute and less energetically important as cosmic time marches on.

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    $\begingroup$ Am I incorrect to point out that light emitted 4.5 billion years ago has indeed (from its reference) traveled 4.5 billion lightyears, but is much more than 4.5 billion lightyears as measured in ours? $\endgroup$
    – Nij
    Commented Aug 21, 2016 at 7:27
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    $\begingroup$ @Nij yes I think you are correct, the "wavefront" ends up being more than 4.5 billion light years away because of the expansion of space. $\endgroup$
    – ProfRob
    Commented Aug 21, 2016 at 8:13
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    $\begingroup$ It gets only quadratically weaker, not exponentially. Also, light can escape from most gravitational wells -- light leaves Earth just fine, and can go on forever! By definition, only black holes can confine light to orbit them. BUT all that's irrelevant: because there is no "center" of the universe! The matter is spread across infinitely in every direction, like an infinite chess board where 1/100th of the squares are filled up with matter and galaxies. The light just keeps seeing more expanding space, with matter inside, but there's no central force for it to orbit. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 22, 2016 at 12:40
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    $\begingroup$ @Nij from lights reference it hasn't moved at all (length contraction) and no time has passed to get there $\endgroup$
    – Steve Cox
    Commented Aug 22, 2016 at 14:30
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    $\begingroup$ @DmitryGrigoryev It demonstrates that light emitted by stars can and does travel more than 4.5 billion (and more) light years without being absorbed by anything. $\endgroup$
    – ProfRob
    Commented Aug 22, 2016 at 16:40

You want nature to be frugal and efficient. You want all the energy of the sun to have a purpose. However what you want nature to be like has no bearing on what it is.

The light from the sun is a colossal amount of energy in human terms, but very minor in comparison to the rest of the universe. The light that didn't fall onto anything left the solar system and was never "used".

The root of your misunderstanding is that you think that the sun has a purpose. It is a ball of plasma that emits energy. See for example Ernst Mayr's essay on Teleology

  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – called2voyage
    Commented Aug 22, 2016 at 13:45

Entropy is a fundamental condition of our universe, and has been recognized as such since as long ago as Newton's laws of thermodynamics.

Entropy: Order does not increase over time, it decreases, except locally with the expenditure of energy. This expenditure trades off increased disorder elsewhere for increased order locally, and the tradeoff is always negative: The amount of order gained is always smaller than the amount of disorder created.

Each emitted photon either keeps moving until the end of Time as we know it, slowly losing energy as the cosmos expands, or else, it interacts with other particles along the way. However, the notion that those interactions, or the lack of interactions, implies greater and lesser degrees of Utility or of Purpose or of Destiny is a metaphysical one, not an astronomy question or even a physics question.


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