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What Do We Really Know About the Universe?

There’s so much that we’ve come to learn about our Universe.

From just about any standpoint, existence is pretty funky and weird. But when you get right down to the fundamental physics of it all, it gets even weirder! While many people may think that in the realm of science, everything is clear-cut and ordered. But is that the way things really work?

Throughout millennia, scholars and philosophers have debated endlessly whether life and the cosmos are orderly or chaotic. The sciences have not been immune to this debate, and many significant discoveries have been taken up by either one school of thought or the other.

Learning about the motions of the planets, gravity, atomic theory, relativity, quantum mechanics, and the large-scale structure of the Universe has sometimes been used to add weight to ideas of both order and chaos.

At present, there’s a lot of ambiguity when it comes to this question, and future discoveries may help to resolve it. But in the meantime, it’s good to take stock of what we’ve learned and what it can tell us about life as we know it.

Panoramic view of the Milky Way. Source: ESO/S. Brunier

What is the Universe?

The word “Universe” comes from the Latin “Universum”, which was used by Roman authors to refer to the cosmos as they knew them. This consisted of the Earth and all life as well as the Moon, the Sun, the planets that they knew about (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn) and the stars.

The term “cosmos”, on the other hand, is derived from the Greek word kosmos, which means “order” or “the world”. Other words commonly used to define all of known-existence include “Nature” (from the Germanic word natur) and the English word “everything” (self-explanatory).

Today, the word Universe is used by scientists to refer to all existing matter and space. This includes the Solar System, the Milky Way, all known galaxies, and superstructures. In terms of modern science and astrophysics, it also includes all time, space, matter, energy, and the fundamental forces that bind them.

Cosmology, on the other hand, is used to describe the study of the Universe (or cosmos) and the forces that bind it. Thanks to thousands of years of scholarship, what we know about the physical Universe has grown by leaps and bounds. And yet, there is still so much that we don’t understand.

To get a sense of where we are today, we must first take a look back.

History of cosmology

Human beings have been studying the nature of existence pretty much ever since they’ve been able to walk upright and speak. However, most of what we know about the study of the cosmos goes back only as far as the existence of written records.

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Luckily, many of these records come from oral traditions that predate writing, so a general idea of what our ancestors believed does exist. What we know indicates that the earliest accounts of the Universe’s creation tended to be symbolic and metaphorical in nature.

As far as we can tell, every culture that has existed has had its own version of a creation story. In many, time and all life began with a single event, where a God or gods were responsible for creating the world, the heavens, and everything in between. Most creation stories either included or culminated with the birth of humanity.

Archaeological evidence suggests that as far back as 8000 BCE, people tracked celestial events, such as the movement of the Moon, in order to create calendars. By the 2nd millennium BCE, astronomy began to emerge as a field of study.

Some of the earliest recorded observations of the heavens are attributed to the ancient Babylonians. These would go on to inform the cosmological and astrological traditions of the cultures in the Near East and the Mediterranean for thousands of years to come.

Artist’s impression of the “Arrow of Time”. Source: NASA/GSFC

The notion of finite time is sometimes traced to this period and perhaps to the Zorastrian religion. At the core of this is the belief that the Universe was created, represents the unfolding of a divine plan, and has an end.

Later doctrines espoused that time began with creation, or self-creation, and will end with a triumph of order over chaos, and a version of the Day of Judgement where all of creation will be reunited with the Creator. These concepts are likely to have been transmitted to Judaism in around the 6th century BCE with the Persian conquest of Babylon.

The idea of time as a linear progression would go on to inform western cosmology for thousands of years, and still exists today (for example, with the “Big Bang” and the “Arrow of Time” theories.)

Between the 8th century BCE and the 6th century CE (the period often referred to as “Classical Antiquity”), the concept that physical laws governed the Universe began to gain greater traction. In both India and Greece at this time, scholars began offering explanations for natural phenomena that emphasized cause and effect.

Birth of the atom

By the 5th century BCE, Greek philosopher Empedocles theorized that the Universe was composed of the four elements of earth, air, water, and fire. Around the same time, a similar system emerged in China that consisted of the five elements of earth, water, fire, wood, and metal.

This idea would become influential, but would soon be countered by Greek philosopher Leucippus who theorized the idea that the Universe was composed of indivisible particles known as “atomos” (Greek for “uncuttable”).

The concept would be popularized by his pupil, Democritus (460 – 370 BCE), who argued that atoms were indestructible, eternal, and determined the properties of all matter.

The Greek philosopher Epicurus (341–270 BCE) would refine and elaborate on this idea. For this reason, it would come to be associated with the school of philosophy he inspired (Epicureanism).

The Indian philosopher Kanada, who is believed to have lived between the 6th and 2nd century BCE, proposed a similar idea. In his philosophy, all matter was composed of “paramanu” – indivisible and indestructible particles. He also proposed that light and heat were the same substance in a different form.

Particles of the Standard Model of particle physics . Source: Daniel Dominguez/CERN

The Indian philosopher Dignana (480 – 540 CE), who was one of the Buddhist founders of Indian logic school of thought, went even farther by proposing that all matter was made up of energy.

These theories were largely forgotten in the west but would remain popular among Islamic and Asian scholars, who translated them into Arabic and other languages. By around the 14th century, interest in “atomism” would reemerge in the west, thanks to the translation of classical works back into Latin.

Earth’s place in the Solar System

Between the 2nd millennium BCE and the 2nd century CE, astronomy and astrology continued to develop and evolve. During this time, astronomers monitored the proper motions of the planets and the movement of the constellations through the Zodiac.

It was also during this time that Greek astronomers articulated the geocentric model of the Universe, where the Sun, planets, and stars revolve around the Earth.

These traditions were summarized in the 2nd century CE mathematical and astronomical treatise, the Almagest, which was written by Greek-Egyptian astronomer Claudius Ptolemaeus (aka. Ptolemy).

This treatise and the cosmological model it contained would be considered as canon by many medieval European and Islamic scholars and would remain the authoritative source on astronomy for over a thousand years.

During the Middle Ages (ca. 5th – 15th century CE), Indian, Persian, and Arabic scholars maintained and expanded on classical astronomical traditions. At the same time, they added to them by proposing some revolutionary ideas – like the rotation of the Earth.

Some scholars went even further and proposed heliocentric models of the Universe – such as Indian astronomer Aryabhata (476–550 CE), Persian astronomers Albumasar ( 787 – 886 CE), and Al-Sijzi (945 – 1020 CE).

It is possible that their works were inspired by the earlier works of Aristarchus of Samos (310 -230 BCE), Seleucus of Seleucia (190 BCE – 150 BCE), and certain Pythagorean philosophers from the 4th and 5th centuries BCE.

“Figure of the heavenly bodies”. Source: Bartolomeu Velho/BNF

By the 16th century, Nicolaus Copernicus published a complete model of a heliocentric Universe. He proposed this model initially in a 40-page manuscript titled Commentariolus (“Little Commentary”), which was released in 1514.

His theory resolved the lingering issues that plagued previous heliocentric models and was based on seven general principles. These postulated that:

  1. There is no single center of all the celestial orbs or spheres.
  2. The center of the Earth is the center, not of the universe, but only of gravity and of the lunar sphere.
  3. All the spheres encircle the Sun, which is as it were in the middle of them all, so that the center of the universe is near the Sun.
  4. The ratio of the Earth’s distance from the Sun to the height of the firmament is so much smaller than the ratio of the Earth’s radius to its distance from the Sun that the distance between the Earth and the Sun is imperceptible in comparison with the loftiness of the firmament.
  5. Whatever motion appears in the firmament is due, not to it, but to the Earth. Accordingly, the Earth together with the circumjacent elements performs a complete rotation on its fixed poles in a daily motion, while the firmament and highest heaven abide unchanged.
  6. What appear to us as motions of the Sun are due, not to its motion, but to the motion of the Earth and our sphere, with which we revolve about the Sun as [we would with] any other planet. The Earth has, then, more than one motion.
  7. What appears in the planets as [the alternation of] retrograde and direct motion is due, not to their motion, but to the Earth’s. The motion of the Earth alone, therefore, suffices [to explain] so many apparent irregularities in the heaven.

Copernicus would expand on these ideas in his magnum opus – De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) which he finished in 1532. However, fearing persecution, Copernicus would not allow it to be published until shortly before his death (in 1534).

In this work, Copernicus would reiterate his seven major arguments and provide detailed calculations to back them up. His ideas would go on to inspire Italian astronomer, mathematician, and inventor Galileo Galilei (1564 – 1642).

Galileo would use a telescope of his own creation, his understanding of physics and mathematics, and the rigorous application of the scientific method to refine Copernicus’ observations and calculations.

Galileo’s observations of the Moon, the Sun, and Jupiter would prove to be very influential, and helped reveal flaws in the geocentric model. His observations of the Moon, for example, revealed a pockmarked and cratered surface, while his observations of the Sun revealed sunspots.

Comparison of the geocentric and heliocentric models. Source: history.ucsb.edu

He was also responsible for the discovery of Jupiter’s largest moons – Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto – which would later be named the “Galilean Moons” in his honor.

These discoveries contradicted the long-held notions that the heavens were perfect spheres (consistent with Christian theology) and that no planets other than Earth had satellites.

His observations of the planets revealed that their appearances and positions in the sky were consistent with the theory that they orbited the Sun.

He shared these observations in treatese like the Sidereus Nuncius (The Starry Messenger) and the On the Spots Observed in the Sun, both of which were published in 1610.

But it was his 1632 treatise, Dialogo sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo (Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems), where he advocated for the heliocentric model of the Universe.

Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) refined the model further with his Laws of Planetary Motion, which demonstrated that the orbits of the planets were elliptical, rather than perfect circles (as Galileo and previous astronomers had maintained).

This effectively settled the “Great Debate” about the nature of the Solar System and made heliocentrism the scientific consensus from the late 17th century onward.

From the Solar System to the Milky Way

Another revolutionary discovery that emerged during the 17th and 18th centuries was the realization that our Solar System was not unique. Thanks to the invention of the telescope, our understanding of the Milky Way changed drastically.

Rather than being a giant cloud in the form of a band (as was previously thought), astronomers began to understand that the nebulous structure they had been observing in the night sky for millennia was actually billions of distant stars.

Granted, the idea was not entirely new. In the 13th century, Persian astronomer and polymath Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (1201 – 1274) suggested this very possibility in his book, Tadhkira:

“The Milky Way, i.e. the Galaxy, is made up of a very large number of small, tightly clustered stars, which, on account of their concentration and smallness, seem to be cloudy patches. Because of this, it was likened to milk in color.”

However, it was not until the Scientific Revolution (ca. 16th – 18th century) that astronomers were able to directly observe this. In The Starry Messenger, Galileo described the observation he conducted of the “nebulous stars” that were contained in the Almagest’s star catalog.

These observations led him to conclude that the “nebulous” sections of the Milky Way’s band were actually “congeries of innumerable stars grouped together in clusters”. This discovery further bolstered the case for heliocentrism, since it showed that the Universe was much larger than previously thought.

In 1755, German philosopher Immanuel Kant theorized that the Milky Way was a massive cluster of stars that were held together by the force of their mutual gravity. He further predicted that these stars (along with the Solar System) were part of a flattened disk that rotated around a common center – much like the planets around the Sun.

In 1785, astronomer William Herschel attempted to create the first map of the Milky Way. His estimates of its size and shape were thrown off by the fact that much of our galaxy is obscured by dust and gas, but his attempt was an indication of the progress that was being made.

By the 19th century, improved optics and telescopes allowed astronomers to map out more of the night sky, which led many to conclude that our Solar System was merely one of billions in the Milky Way.

By the 20th century, they would come to see that the Milky Way was merely one of billions in the Universe. But one thing at a time.

Newton and Einstein revolutionize everything

Humanity’s understanding of the Universe would be revolutionized again in the late 17th century by the work of British polymath Sir Isaac Newton (1642/43 – 1727). Using Kepler’s theory of motion, he developed a theory of gravity (aka. Universal Gravitation).

This was summarized in his major work, Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (“Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy”), which was published in 1687 and contained Newton’s Three Laws of Motion. These laws stated that:

  1. When viewed in an inertial reference frame, an object either remains at rest or continues to move at a constant velocity, unless acted upon by an external force.
  2. The vector sum of the external forces (F) on an object is equal to the mass (m) of that object multiplied by the acceleration vector (a) of the object. In mathematical form, this is expressed as, F=ma
  3. When one body exerts a force on a second body, the second body simultaneously exerts a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction on the first body.

These laws described how objects exert forces on each other, and how motion occurs as a result. From his work, Newton was able to calculate the mass of the planets, determine that Earth is not a perfect sphere, and how Earth’s interaction with the Sun and Moon influences ocean tides.

These and other detailed calculations would have a profound influence on the sciences, and would form the basis of Classical Physics (aka. Newtonian Physics), which would remain the accepted canon for the next 200 years.

This would change in the early 20th century, when a young theoretical physicist named Albert Einstein began publishing a series of papers discussing his theories of Special and General Relativity.

These theories were in part the result of attempting to resolve the inconsistencies between Newtonian physics and the recently-discovered laws of electromagnetism – best summarized by Maxwell’s equations and the Lorentz force law).

Einstein would address this inconsistent in one of the papers he wrote in 1905 while working at a patent office in Bern, Switzerland. Titled, “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies“, this paper became the basis of Special Relativity (SR).

Einstein’s theory challenged the previously-held working consensus that light moving through a medium would be dragged along by that medium. This meant that the speed of light (which had already been determined) was the sum of its speed through a medium plus the speed of that medium.

This led to all kinds of theoretical complications, and experiments attempting to resolve them all obtained null results. Instead, Einstein stated that the speed of light is the same in all inertial reference frames, a theory that did away with the need for mediums or extraneous explanations.

As a theory, SR not only simplified the mathematical calculations and resolved issues between electromagnetism and physics, it also closely agreed with the speed of light and explained aberrations that had emerged in experiments.

Between 1907 and 1911, Einstein began applying his theory of SR to gravitational fields, another area where Newtonian Physics had difficulty. By 1911, these efforts culminated with the publication of “On the Influence of Gravitation on the Propagation of Light“.

This paper laid the groundwork for General Relativity (GR). In it, Einstein predicted that time is relative to the observer and is dependent on their position within a gravity field, and that gravitational mass is identical to inertial mass (aka. the Equivalence Principle).

Another thing Einstein predicted in this paper was the idea that two observers situated at varying distances from a gravitating mass would perceive the flow of time differently (aka. gravitational time dilation). These theories remain an established part of modern physics.

The Universe is dark

Einstein’s theories, which garnered widespread-acceptance, had many consequences for the sciences. In particular, his field equations for Relativity also predicted the existence of Black Holes and a Universe that was either in a state of constant expansion or contraction.

In 1915, a few months after GR became widely publicized, German physicist and astronomer Karl Schwarzschild found a solution to Einstein’s field equations that gave rise to the theory of black holes decades before one was observed.

Also known as a Schwarzschild radius, this solution described how the mass of a sphere could become so compressed that the escape velocity from the surface would be the same as the speed of light. The “radius” in this case refers to the size below which the gravitational attraction between the particles of a body must cause it to undergo irreversible gravitational collapse.

In 1931, Indian-American astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar expanded on this by using SR to calculate how massive a body would need to become before it collapsed in on itself – later referred to as the Chandrasekhar limit.

By 1939, the discovery of neutron stars backed up Chandrasekhar’s theories by showing that white dwarf with a mass below this limit do in fact collapse. The resulting object (a neutron star) is super-dense as a result and has an incredibly powerful magnetic field.

From this, physicists like Robert Oppenheimer argued that a white dwarf of sufficient mass would continue to collapse and form a black hole. While this was another mass limit entirely (known as the Tolman–Oppenheimer–Volkoff limit), it was consistent with Chandrasekhar’s theory.

By the 1960s and 1970s, astrophysicists conducted many tests of GR using black holes and large-scale structures (like galaxies and galaxy clusters). This would come to be known as the “Golden Age of General Relativity” (1960 – 1975) since it allowed Einstein’s theory to be tested like never before.

However, astrophysicists noticed something particularly chilling about these tests as well. When looking at galaxies and larger concentrations of matter in the Universe, they found that the observed gravitational effects of these objects were not consistent with their apparent mass.

This led the scientific community to conclude that within galaxies, there was a whole lot of mass that they could not see. This gave rise to the theory of Dark Matter, a mysterious mass that does not interact with “normal matter” (aka. visible or baryonic matter) via the electromagnetic force.

This means it does not absorb, reflect or emit light, making it extremely hard to spot. It only interacts with matter through its gravitational force. Dark matter is believed to outweigh visible matter roughly six to one, making up about 27% of the universe. It is also thought to have had a profound influence on its evolution.

The Universe is expanding

Another consequence of GR was the prediction that the Universe was either in a constant state of expansion or contraction. By 1927 – 1929, Belgian physicist (and Roman Catholic priest) Georges Lemaître and American astronomer Edwin Hubble confirmed that it was the former.

At the time, Einstein was still looking for a way to rationalize the idea of a static Universe. To this end, he proposed the “Cosmological Constant”, which was a yet-undetected force that “held back gravity” to ensure the distribution of matter in the cosmos was uniform over time.

Using redshift measurements of other galaxies, Hubble proved Einstein wrong. These measurements showed that light coming from these galaxies had shortened wavelengths – i.e. was shifted to the red end of the spectrum – which indicated that the intervening space was expanding.

Hubble’s observations also showed that the galaxies that were farthest from our own were receding faster. This phenomenon would come to be known as Hubble’s Law, and the rate at which this was happening would come to be known as the Hubble Constant.

In 1931, Georges Lemaitre would use the phenomena he co-discovered to articulate an idea that the Universe had a beginning. Upon confirming independently that the Universe was expanding, he suggested that it was progressively smaller the farther back in time one looked.

At some point in the past, he reasoned, the entire mass of the Universe would have been concentrated on a single point. These discoveries triggered a debate between physicists, who were divided into two schools of thought.

The majority still advocated that the Universe was in a steady-state (i.e. the Steady State Theory), where matter is continuously created as the Universe expands, thus ensuring uniformity over time.

On the other side, there were those who believed that the Universe was gradually expanding, and the density of matter was slowly decreasing as a result. This idea came to be known as the “Big Bang Theory”, a moniker which was facetiously assigned by proponents of the Steady State Theory.

After several decades, multiple lines of evidence emerged that favored the Big Bang interpretation. This included the discovery and confirmation of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) in 1965, which had been predicted by the Big Bang Theory.

CMB is basically “relic radiation” left over from the Big Bang that has been expanding at the speed of light ever since. By gauging the distance of the CMB, which is about 13.8 billion years in all directions, scientists were able to place constraints on the age of the Universe.

By the 1990s, improvements in ground-based telescopes and the introduction of space telescopes led to new and startling discoveries. Scientists had believed that gravity would eventually cause the expansion of the universe to slow. However, astronomers now observed that for the past four billion years, cosmic expansion has actually been accelerating.

This gave rise to the theory of Dark Energy, a mysterious force that somehow works against gravity and pushes the cosmos further apart. Theorists came up with different explanations for Dark Matter. Some suggested that Einstein’s “cosmological constant” may have been correct all along. Others suggested that Einstein’s theory of gravity was incorrect and a new theory was needed which include some kind of field that creates this cosmic acceleration.

One leading cosmological theory today is described by the Lambda Cold Dark Matter (λCDM). It is currently the simplest model that accounts for most of the observed properties of the Universe. It states that most of the universe is made up of dark energy, dark matter, and ordinary matter and is also referred to as the standard model of Big Bang cosmology. It assumes that general relativity is the correct theory of gravity on cosmological scales and accounts for many of the properties of the cosmos, including the cosmic microwave background and the acceleration of the expansion of the universe.

The Lambda CDM model of the Universe. Source: Alex Mittelmann/Coldcreation

So what don’t we know?

The answer to that question is, quite a lot really! To answer it effectively, though, we need to take a look at how scientists study the Universe from top to bottom and take note of where the gaps lie.

For starters, scientists understand how matter, time and space behave on the largest of scales. This is best summarized by GR, which accurately describes how mass and gravity are related and affect spacetime.

However, since the 1960s, astrophysicists have come to accept that there is a whole lot of mass out there that they cannot see. While this makes sense theoretically, attempts to find Dark Matter so far have yielded nothing conclusive.

So while you could say that we know how much matter is out there, we cannot conclusively account for most of it. Similarly, we have known that the Universe is in a state of expansion since the late 1920s. However, we don’t know why exactly.

The rate at which the Universe is expanding can be explained by the presence of a Dark Energy. But just like Dark Matter, investigations have yet to determine what this truly is.

And there’s the extent of the Universe itself. With the discovery of the CMB, astronomers and cosmologists were able to trace the evolution of the cosmos and were able to make close estimates of how old it is. The current estimate is that the cosmos is 13.799 ± 0.021 billion years old.

But as for how big it is? That remains a mystery. Based on the rate of cosmic expansion, astrophysicists estimate that the “observable” Universe is a sphere measuring about 93 billion light-years across. However, beyond that, the Universe likely extends much farther and could even be infinite.

At the other end of things, scientists have determined that there are four fundamental forces (aka. fundamental interactions) that govern all matter and energy interactions in the Universe.

These forces consist of the gravitational force (which is attributed to the curvature of spacetime and is described by GR) and the three discrete fields of quantum mechanics – collectively known as Quantum Field Theory (QFT).

These fields include the weak nuclear force, the strong nuclear force, and electromagnetism – that deal with subatomic particles and their interactions, as described by the Standard Model of particle physics.

Another way to look at it is to group these interactions into a three-category system: gravitation, electroweak forces, and strong forces. These latter two categories are subdivided into the weak nuclear and electromagnetic forces, and into fundamental and residual nuclear forces.

Whereas gravitation binds planets, stars, galaxies and galaxy clusters together (i.e. the macro-level), electroweak forces bind atoms and molecules, while strong forces bind hadrons and atomic nuclei.

Here lies the problem. Scientists understand how gravity works on the largest of scales, but not the smallest. This makes it distinct from all other known forces in the Universe which have a corresponding subatomic molecule.

For electricity and magnetism, there are electrons and photons. For weak and strong nuclear forces, there are bosons, gluons, and mesons. At present, though, there’s no such thing as a “graviton”, at least not outside the hypothetical.

And so far, all attempts to find a conclusive theory of quantum gravity – aka. a Theory of Everything (ToE) – have failed. Several theories have been proposed to resolve this – the top contenders being String Theory and Loop Quantum Gravity – but none have been decisively proven yet.

How will it all end?

Okay, here’s the thing. we don’t know that either. Granted, the notion that the Universe had a beginning naturally gives rise to the idea that it will have a possible end. If the Universe did begin as a tiny point in spacetime that suddenly started to expand, does that mean it will continue to expand forever?

Or, as has also been theorized, will it cease expanding and start contracting, eventually reducing back into a tiny, spherical mass? This question is one that has raged ever since cosmologists began to debate how the Universe began – Big Bang or Steady State?

Prior to observations that showed how the Universe has been expanding at an accelerated rate, most cosmologists were of two minds on the subject. These were known as the “Big Crunch” and “Big Freeze” scenarios.

In the former, the Universe will expand until it runs out of energy and then begin to collapse in on itself. Assuming the Universe reaches a point where its mass density is greater than its critical density, the Universe will begin to contract.

Alternately, if the density of the Universe is equal to or below the critical density, the Universe will keep expanding until star formation ceases. Eventually, all the stars will reach the end of their lifespans and become dead husks or black holes.

Eventually, the black holes would collide and form larger and larger black holes. This would ultimately lead to “heat death” in the Universe, where the last electromagnetic radiation would be consumed. The black holes themselves would eventually disappear after they shed the last of their Hawking Radiation.

Since the 1990s, observations that led to the theory of Dark Energy stimulated new discussions on the fate of the Universe. It is now theorized that as space continues to expand, more and more of the observable Universe will pass beyond the CMB and become invisible to observers.

Meanwhile, the CMB will continue to redshift until it becomes visible only in the radio wavelength. Eventually, it will disappear entirely and astronomers will see nothing but blackness beyond the edge of what’s visible.

Another possibility is the “Big Rip” scenario, where continued expansion will eventually lead all galaxies, stars, planets, and even atoms themselves to be torn apart, leading to the death of all matter.

Big Crunch, Big Freeze, or Big Rip? At this juncture, we just don’t know. The same is true when it comes to theories of how the Universe began – was it a Big Bang or more of a Big Bounce?

This is also the case when it comes to our attempts to unify gravity with the other fundamental forces. Right now, the best we have are theories that have a certain logical consistency but remain unproven.

As Socrates famously said: “One thing only I know, and that is that I know nothing.” This knowledge, it is said, is what made Socrates the wisest man in all the land. In the same respect, humanity’s grasp of the Universe is strangely paradoxical.

We know it’s expanding, we’re just not sure how. We know how much mass is out there, we just can’t see most of it. We know how gravity works, just not how it fits with the other forces. We don’t know how it began or will end, but we have some theories that fit with the observable evidence.

So while there is much that we don’t know about the Universe, we at least have a pretty good idea of what we don’t know. This puts us at an advantage over previous generations of humanity who were not only ignorant of the Universe at large but ignorant or their ignorance.

We are also at a point in our technological evolution where we can see more of the Universe than ever before, whether that’s on the largest or smallest of scales. Between next-generation instruments, supercomputers, and particle accelerators, scientists are pushing the boundaries of what we can see.

The only way to overcome ignorance is to know where our ignorance lies and then address it. In that respect, humanity is poised to learn a great deal in the near future!

Top 10 things you can do about climate change

People throughout Canada — and throughout the world — are taking action to help fight climate change. What changes will you make? (Photo: Helena Lopes via Unsplash)

As the world warms, extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and intense, sea levels are rising, prolonged droughts are putting pressure on food crops, and many animal and plant species are being driven to extinction. It’s hard to imagine what we as individuals can do to resolve a problem of this scale and severity.

The good news: We are not alone. People, communities, cities, businesses, schools, faith groups and other organizations are taking action. We’re fighting like our lives depend on it — because they do.

In a world of more than seven billion people, each of us is a drop in the bucket. But with enough drops, we can fill any bucket.

Ten ways you can help fight climate change

1. Unite for bold climate action

On October 21, Canadians voted in a federal election. It was historic. Together, we sent a strong message that bold climate action from our federal leaders is non-negotiable.

Canada has a history of achievements under minority governments, like Medicare and universal pension plans. With a newly elected minority government, we hope you’ll work with us to ensure that a just transition to clean energy becomes part of this list!

This is a key moment. We must let our newly elected government know that we expect cooperation on stronger commitments and bold action. We will hold their feet to the fire to ensure this happens.

2. Use energy wisely — and save money too!

Canada is the top per-capita energy consumer in the world! By becoming more energy-efficient, you not only pollute less but save money too.

Consider making some or all of these small changes. Together, they can really add up.

  • A house with a furnace is like a car that idles all day. Swap your furnace for a heat pump, which works by extracting heat from one location and transferring it to another
  • Install a programmable thermostat
  • Swap your gas stove for an electric stove, which will also lower indoor air pollution
  • Unplug computers, TVs and other electronics when you’re not using them
  • Wash clothes in cold water. Hang-dry your clothes when you can and use dryer balls when you can’t
  • Look for the Energy Star label when buying new appliances
  • Winterize your home to prevent heat from escaping and try to keep it cool in the summer without an air conditioner
  • Change to energy-efficient light bulbs
  • Get a home or workplace energy audit to identify where you can make the most energy-saving gains

3. Get charged up with renewables

The global push for cleaner, healthier energy is on. With costs dropping every day, renewable energy is the best choice for the environment and the economy.

People throughout Canada are leading the renewable energy transition, making a big difference in towns, cities and rural areas. You can, too!

4. Eat for a climate-stable planet

The decisions we make about food can have a profound effect on the environment. Here are four simple ways you can make your diet more climate-friendly.

  • Eat more meat-free meals
  • Buy organic and local whenever possible
  • Don’t waste food
  • Grow your own

Fun fact: You can also help save the planet by eating insects!

5. Start a climate conversation

Solving climate change requires us all to work together. We can’t do that without finding common ground with those who may not share our perspective.

Since people often trust peers, family members and loved ones more than they trust experts, scientists and environmental organizations, you can talk to people about climate change in ways we can’t. You are more likely to open people’s minds.

Learn from CliMate, a fun and interactive chatbot that teaches you how to have conversations about climate change that decrease divisiveness and help cultivate empathy and find common ground. Overcoming polarization is key to moving forward on climate solutions.

6. Green your commute

The many ways to reduce your transportation emissions will also make you healthier, happier and save you a few bucks. Whenever and wherever you can:

  • Take public transit
  • Ride a bike or advocate for bike lanes in your community
  • Car-share
  • If you have a large, inefficient vehicle, retire it and switch to an electric or plug-in hybrid vehicle
  • Fly less (if you do fly, make sure you offset your emissions)

7. Consume less, waste less, enjoy life more

“We use too much, too much of it is toxic and we don’t share it very well. But that’s not the way things have to be. Together, we can build a society based on better not more, sharing not selfishness, community not division.” — The Story of Stuff

Focusing on life’s simple pleasures — spending time in nature, being with loved ones, making a difference to others — provides more purpose, belonging and happiness than buying and consuming. Plus, when we consume less, we produce fewer emissions and are gentler on the earth. Sharing, making, fixing, upcycling, repurposing and composting are all good places to start.

Fire up your commitment to the people and places you love by acting every day on the understanding that we are one with nature.

8. Invest in renewables and divest from fossil fuels

Even if you can’t install solar panels or a wind turbine, you can still be a part of the clean-energy economy. Search online for local renewable energy co-ops to join. As a member, you’ll own part of the co-op’s renewable energy projects and will receive a return on your investment. You can also speak to your financial adviser about clean energy/technology investments.

Let industry know you care about climate change by meeting with your bank or investment adviser to make sure your investments do not include fossil fuels. And make sure your workplace, pension fund or university doesn’t invest in fossil fuels either. And make sure your workplace, pension fund, university or bank doesn’t invest in fossil fuels either. If they do, join or start a divestment campaign.

9. Support or join youth-led movements

Young people have the most at stake when it comes to climate change. Their futures are on the line if we can’t meet the 1.5 C cap on warming. All over the world, kids, teenagers and young adults are taking matters into their own hands in inspiring ways. Help them grow their movement by joining and supporting them however you can. Find a group in your home community and ask how you can help.

If you’re an adult, be careful not to take over. Be humble. Listen. Let the youth lead.

Find local youth-led movements in Canada here:

10. Get politically active and vote

Although it’s important to take action to reduce our individual carbon footprints, we also need to focus on changing the larger system. That’s where we have the greatest opportunity to reduce emissions.

Vote for leaders at all levels of government who take climate change seriously. They should commit to setting science-based targets to reduce harmful carbon emissions, implementing clear plans to reach those targets, adapting to climate change and shifting to a clean-energy economy.

Make sure you are registered to vote and then get informed for all elections — not just the ones that get the most media attention. Candidates’ positions on climate change vary widely, so research the parties, ask questions about climate change at town halls or debates and let your candidates know you are voting for the climate. Know that your vote really matters.

If you’re too young to vote, encourage your class or school to join a Student Vote program, which provides students the opportunity to experience participation in the election process. You can also talk to your parents about the importance of voting for climate action.

  • New Brunswick municipal: May 11, 2020
  • Nova Scotia municipal: October 17, 2020
  • Saskatchewan provincial: October 26, 2020
  • Saskatchewan municipal: July 25, 2020 (resort villages), November 9 (urban municipalities)

Frequently Asked Questions

Follow Official Sources for Accurate Information!
Help control the spread of rumors. Visit FEMA’s rumor control page external icon .
Beware of fraud schemes related to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). Visit Office of Inspector General’s COVID-19 fraud alert page external icon .

Coronavirus Disease 2020 Basics

A novel coronavirus is a new coronavirus that has not been previously identified. The virus causing coronavirus disease 2020 (COVID-19), is not the same as the coronaviruses that commonly circulate among humans and cause mild illness, like the common cold.

A diagnosis with coronavirus 229E, NL63, OC43, or HKU1 is not the same as a COVID-19 diagnosis. Patients with COVID-19 will be evaluated and cared for differently than patients with a common coronavirus diagnosis.

On February 11, 2020 the World Health Organization announced an official name for the disease that is causing the 2020 novel coronavirus outbreak, first identified in Wuhan, China. The name of this disease is coronavirus disease 2020, abbreviated as COVID-19. In COVID-19, ‘CO’ stands for ‘corona,’ ‘VI’ for ‘virus,’ and ‘D’ for disease. Formerly, this disease was referred to as “2020 novel coronavirus” or “2020-nCoV”.

There are many types of human coronaviruses including some that commonly cause mild upper-respiratory tract illnesses. COVID-19 is a new disease, caused by a novel (or new) coronavirus that has not previously been seen in humans. The name of this disease was selected following the World Health Organization (WHO) best practices external icon for naming new human infectious diseases.

People in the U.S. may be worried or anxious about friends and relatives who are living in or visiting areas where COVID-19 is spreading. Some people are worried about getting the disease from these people. Fear and anxiety can lead to social stigma, for example, toward people who live in certain parts of the world, people who have traveled internationally, people who were in quarantine, or healthcare professionals.

Stigma is discrimination against an identifiable group of people, a place, or a nation. Stigma is associated with a lack of knowledge about how COVID-19 spreads, a need to blame someone, fears about disease and death, and gossip that spreads rumors and myths.

Stigma hurts everyone by creating more fear or anger toward ordinary people instead of focusing on the disease that is causing the problem.

People can fight stigma by providing social support in situations where you notice this is occurring. Stigma affects the emotional or mental health of stigmatized groups and the communities they live in. Stopping stigma is important to making communities and community members resilient. See resources on mental health and coping during COVID-19. Everyone can help stop stigma related to COVID-19 by knowing the facts and sharing them with others in your community.

How COVID-19 Spreads

COVID-19 is caused by a coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2. Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that are common in people and may different species of animals, including camels, cattle, cats, and bats. Rarely, animal coronaviruses can infect people and then spread between people. This occurred with MERS-CoV and SARS-CoV, and now with the virus that causes COVID-19. More information about the source and spread of COVID-19 is available on the Situation Summary: Source and Spread of the Virus.

The virus that causes COVID-19 is thought to spread mainly from person to person, mainly through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs. Spread is more likely when people are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet).

COVID-19 seems to be spreading easily and sustainably in the community (“community spread”) in many affected geographic areas. Community spread means people have been infected with the virus in an area, including some who are not sure how or where they became infected.

The number of cases of COVID-19 being reported in the United States is rising due to increased laboratory testing and reporting across the country. The growing number of cases in part reflects the rapid spread of COVID-19 as many U.S. states and territories experience community spread. More detailed and accurate data will allow us to better understand and track the size and scope of the outbreak and strengthen prevention and response efforts.

The virus that causes COVID-19 is spreading from person-to-person. People are thought to be most contagious when they are symptomatic (the sickest). That is why CDC recommends that these patients be isolated either in the hospital or at home (depending on how sick they are) until they are better and no longer pose a risk of infecting others. More recently the virus has also been detected in asymptomatic persons.

How long someone is actively sick can vary so the decision on when to release someone from isolation is made using a test-based or non-test-based strategy (i.e. time since illness started and time since recovery) in consultation with state and local public health officials. The decision involves considering the specifics of each situation, including disease severity, illness signs and symptoms, and the results of laboratory testing for that patient.

Learn more about CDC’s guidance on when to release someone from isolation and discharge hospitalized patients with COVID-19. For information on when someone who has been sick with COVID-19 is able to stop home isolation see Interim Guidance for Discontinuation of In-Home Isolation for Patients with COVID-19.

Someone who has been released from isolation is not considered to pose a risk of infection to others.

Quarantine means separating a person or group of people who have been exposed to a contagious disease but have not developed illness (symptoms) from others who have not been exposed, in order to prevent the possible spread of that disease. Quarantine is usually established for the incubation period of the communicable disease, which is the span of time during which people have developed illness after exposure. For COVID-19, the period of quarantine is 14 days from the last date of exposure because the incubation period for this virus is 2 to 14 days. Someone who has been released from COVID-19 quarantine is not considered a risk for spreading the virus to others because they have not developed illness during the incubation period.

Coronaviruses are generally thought to be spread from person to person through respiratory droplets. Currently, there is no evidence to support transmission of COVID-19 associated with food. Before preparing or eating food it is important to always wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds for general food safety. Throughout the day use a tissue to cover your coughing or sneezing, and wash your hands after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing, or going to the bathroom.

It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object, like a packaging container, that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.

In general, because of poor survivability of these coronaviruses on surfaces, there is likely very low risk of spread from food products or packaging.

Learn what is known about the spread of COVID-19.

Based on information about this novel coronavirus thus far, it seems unlikely that COVID-19 can be transmitted through food – additional investigation is needed.

It is not yet known whether weather and temperature affect the spread of COVID-19. Some other viruses, like those that cause the common cold and flu, spread more during cold weather months but that does not mean it is impossible to become sick with these viruses during other months. There is much more to learn about the transmissibility, severity, and other features associated with COVID-19 and investigations are ongoing.

Community spread means people have been infected with the virus in an area, including some who are not sure how or where they became infected.

Generally coronaviruses survive for shorter periods at higher temperatures and higher humidity than in cooler or dryer environments. However, we don’t have direct data for this virus, nor do we have direct data for a temperature-based cutoff for inactivation at this point. The necessary temperature would also be based on the materials of the surface, the environment, etc. Regardless of temperature please follow CDC’s guidance for cleaning and disinfection.

At this time, CDC has no data to suggest that this new coronavirus or other similar coronaviruses are spread by mosquitoes or ticks. The main way that COVID-19 spreads is from person to person. See How Coronavirus Spreads for more information.

How to Protect Yourself

This is a rapidly evolving situation and the risk assessment may change daily. The latest updates are available on CDC’s Coronavirus Disease 2020 (COVID-19) website.

COVID-19 case counts for the United States are updated regularly online. See the current U.S. case count of COVID-19.

Visit the COVID-19 Prevention and Treatment page to learn about how to protect yourself from respiratory illnesses, like COVID-19.

There is information for people who have had close contact with a person confirmed to have, or being evaluated for, COVID-19 available online.

In light of new data about how COVID-19 spreads, along with evidence of widespread COVID-19 illness in communities across the country, CDC recommends that people wear a cloth face covering to cover their nose and mouth in the community setting. This is an additional public health measure people should take to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in addition to (not instead of) social distancing, frequent hand cleaning and other everyday preventive actions. A cloth face covering is not intended to protect the wearer, but may prevent the spread of virus from the wearer to others. This would be especially important in the event that someone is infected but does not have symptoms. A cloth face covering should be worn whenever people must go into public settings (grocery stores, for example). Medical masks and N-95 respirators are reserved for healthcare workers and other first responders, as recommended by current CDC guidance.

There is still a lot that is unknown about COVID-19 and how it spreads. This coronaviruses is thought to be spread most often by respiratory droplets. Although the virus can survive for a short period on some surfaces, it is unlikely to be spread from products or packaging that are shipped over a period of days or weeks at ambient temperatures. Currently there is no evidence to support transmission of COVID-19 associated with imported goods and there have not been any cases of COVID-19 in the United States associated with imported goods. Information will be provided on the Coronavirus Disease 2020 (COVID-19) website as it becomes available.

In healthcare settings across the United States, donated blood is a lifesaving, essential part of caring for patients. The need for donated blood is constant, and blood centers are open and in urgent need of donations. CDC encourages people who are well to continue to donate blood if they are able, even if they are practicing social distancing because of COVID-19. CDC is supporting blood centers by providing recommendations that will keep donors and staff safe. Examples of these recommendations include spacing donor chairs 6 feet apart, thoroughly adhering to environmental cleaning practices, and encouraging donors to make donation appointments ahead of time.

COVID-19 and Children

Based on available evidence, children do not appear to be at higher risk for COVID-19 than adults. While some children and infants have been sick with COVID-19, adults make up most of the known cases to date. You can learn more about who is at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19 at People who are at higher risk for severe illness.

You can encourage your child to help stop the spread of COVID-19 by teaching them to do the same things everyone should do to stay healthy.

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Stay home when you are sick, except to get medical care.
  • Cover your coughs and sneezes with a tissue and throw the tissue in the trash.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing; going to the bathroom; and before eating or preparing food.
  • If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. Always wash hands with soap and water if hands are visibly dirty.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces and objects (e.g., tables, countertops, light switches, doorknobs, and cabinet handles).
  • Launder items, including washable plush toys, as appropriate and in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions. If possible, launder items using the warmest appropriate water setting for the items and dry items completely. Dirty laundry from an ill person can be washed with other people’s items.

You can find additional information on preventing COVID-19 at Prevention for 2020 Novel Coronavirus and at Preventing COVID-19 Spread in Communities. Additional information on how COVID-19 is spread is available at How COVID-19 Spreads.

No. The symptoms of COVID-19 are similar in children and adults. However, children with confirmed COVID-19 have generally presented with mild symptoms. Reported symptoms in children include cold-like symptoms, such as fever, runny nose, and cough. Vomiting and diarrhea have also been reported. It’s not known yet whether some children may be at higher risk for severe illness, for example, children with underlying medical conditions and special healthcare needs. There is much more to be learned about how the disease impacts children.

CDC recommends that people wear a cloth face covering their nose and mouth in the community setting during the COVID-19 pandemic, however, children younger than 2 years of age are listed as an exception. Children younger than 2 years should not wear a cloth face covering because of concerns that they might suffocate.

Outbreaks can be stressful for adults and children. Talk with your children about the outbreak, try to stay calm, and reassure them that they are safe. If appropriate, explain to them that most illness from COVID-19 seems to be mild. Children respond differently to stressful situations than adults. CDC offers resources to help talk with children about COVID-19.

This is a new virus and we are still learning about it, but so far, there does not seem to be a lot of illness in children. Most illness, including serious illness, is happening in adults of working age and older adults. However, children do get the virus and become ill. Many schools across the country have announced dismissals for temporary periods. Keep track of school dismissals in your community. Read or watch local media sources that report school dismissals. If schools are dismissed temporarily, use alternative childcare arrangements, if needed.

If your child/children become sick with COVID-19, notify their childcare facility or school. Talk with teachers about classroom assignments and activities they can do from home to keep up with their schoolwork.

Discourage children and teens from gathering in other public places while school is dismissed to help slow the spread of COVID-19 in the community.

School Dismissals and Children

  • The key to slowing the spread of COVID-19 is to practice social distancing. While school is out, children should not have in-person playdates with children from other households. If children are playing outside their own homes, it is essential that they remain 6 feet from anyone who is not in their own household.
  • To help children maintain social connections while social distancing, help your children have supervised phone calls or video chats with their friends.
  • Make sure children practice everyday preventive behaviors, such as washing their hands often with soap and water. Remember, if children meet outside of school in groups, it can put everyone at risk.
    • Revise spring break plans if they included non-essential travel.
  • Information about COVID-19 in children is somewhat limited, but current data suggest children with COVID-19 may have only mild symptoms. However, they can still pass this virus onto others who may be at higher risk, including older adults and people who have serious underlying medical conditions.
  • Stay in touch with your child’s school.
    • Many schools are offering lessons online (virtual learning). Review assignments from the school, and help your child establish a reasonable pace for completing the work. You may need to assist your child with turning on devices, reading instructions, and typing answers.
    • Communicate challenges to your school. If you face technology or connectivity issues, or if your child is having a hard time completing assignments, let the school know.
  • Create a schedule and routine for learning at home, but remain flexible.
    • Have consistent bedtimes, and get up at the same time, Monday through Friday.
    • Structure the day for learning, free time, healthy meals and snacks, and physical activity.
    • Allow flexibility in the schedule—it’s okay to adapt based on your day.
  • Consider the needs and adjustment required for your child’s age group.
    • The transition to being at home will be different for preschoolers, K-5, middle school students, and high school students. Talk to your child about expectations and how they are adjusting to being at home versus at school.
    • Consider ways your child can stay connected with their friends without spending time in person.
  • Look for ways to make learning fun.
    • Have hands-on activities, like puzzles, painting, drawing, and making things.
    • Independent play can also be used in place of structured learning. Encourage children to build a fort from sheets or practice counting by stacking blocks.
    • Practice handwriting and grammar by writing letters to family members. This is a great way to connect and limit face-to-face contact.
    • Start a journal with your child to document this time and discuss the shared experience.
    • Use audiobooks or see if your local library is hosting virtual or live-streamed reading events.

  • Check with your school on plans to continue meal services during the school dismissal. Many schools are keeping school facilities open to allow families to pick up meals or are providing grab-and-go meals at a central location.

  • Watch your child for any signs of illness.
    • If you see any sign of illness consistent with symptoms of COVID-19, particularly fever, cough, or shortness of breath, call your healthcare provider and keep your child at home and away from others as much as possible. Follow CDC’s guidance on “What to do if you are sick.”
  • Watch for signs of stress in your child.
    • Some common changes to watch for include excessive worry or sadness, unhealthy eating or sleeping habits, and difficulty with attention and concentration. For more information, see the “For Parents” section on CDC’s website, Manage Anxiety and Stress.
    • Take time to talk with your child or teen about the COVID-19 outbreak. Answer questions and share facts about COVID-19 in a way that your child or teen can understand.
    • Go to CDC’s Helping Children Cope with Emergencies or Talking with Children About COVID-19 for more information.
  • Teach and reinforce everyday preventive actions.
    • Parents and caretakers play an important role in teaching children to wash their hands. Explain that hand washing can keep them healthy and stop the virus from spreading to others.
    • Be a good role model—if you wash your hands often, they’re more likely to do the same.
    • Make handwashing a family activity.
  • Help your child stay active.
    • Encourage your child to play outdoors—it’s great for physical and mental health. Take a walk with your child or go on a bike ride.
    • Use indoor activity breaks (stretch breaks, dance breaks) throughout the day to help your child stay healthy and focused.
  • Help your child stay socially connected.
    • Reach out to friends and family via phone or video chats.
    • Write cards or letters to family members they may not be able to visit.
    • Some schools and non-profits, such as the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning external icon and The Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence external icon , have resources for social and emotional learning. Check to see if your school has tips and guidelines to help support social and emotional needs of your child.
  • Older adults and people who have serious underlying medical conditions are at highest risk of getting sick from COVID-19.
    • If others in your home are at particularly high risk for severe illness from COVID-19, consider extra precautions to separate your child from those people.
    • If you are unable to stay home with your child during school dismissals, carefully consider who might be best positioned to provide childcare. If someone at higher risk for COVID-19 will be providing care (older adult, such as a grandparent or someone with a serious underlying medical condition), limit your children’s contact with other people.
    • Consider postponing visits or trip to see older family members and grandparents. Connect virtually or by writing letters and sending via mail.

Preparing Your Home and Family for COVID-19

Create a household plan of action to help protect your health and the health of those you care about in the event of an outbreak of COVID-19 in your community:

  • Talk with the people who need to be included in your plan, and discuss what to do if a COVID-19 outbreak occurs in your community.
  • Plan ways to care for those who might be at greater risk for serious complications, particularly older adults and those with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease.
    • Make sure they have access to several weeks of medications and supplies in case you need to stay home for prolonged periods of time.
  • Get to know your neighbors and find out if your neighborhood has a website or social media page to stay connected.
  • Create a list of local organizations that you and your household can contact in the event you need access to information, healthcare services, support, and resources.
  • Create an emergency contact list of family, friends, neighbors, carpool drivers, health care providers, teachers, employers, the local public health department, and other community resources.

Practice everyday preventive actions to help reduce your risk of getting sick and remind everyone in your home to do the same. These actions are especially important for older adults and people who have severe chronic medical conditions:

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Stay home when you are sick, except to get medical care.
  • Cover your coughs and sneezes with a tissue and throw the tissue in the trash.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing; going to the bathroom; and before eating or preparing food.
  • If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. Always wash hands with soap and water if hands are visibly dirty.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces and objects (e.g., tables, countertops, light switches, doorknobs, and cabinet handles).
  • Launder items, including washable plush toys, as appropriate and in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions. If possible, launder items using the warmest appropriate water setting for the items and dry items completely. Dirty laundry from an ill person can be washed with other people’s items.

Most people who get COVID-19 will be able to recover at home. CDC has directions for people who are recovering at home and their caregivers, including:

  • Stay home when you are sick, except to get medical care.

If you develop emergency warning signs for COVID-19 get medical attention immediately. Emergency warning signs include*:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
  • New confusion or inability to arouse
  • Bluish lips or face

*This list is not all inclusive. Please consult your medical provider for any other symptoms that are severe or concerning.

  • Use a separate room and bathroom for sick household members (if possible).
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing; going to the bathroom; and before eating or preparing food.
  • If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. Always wash hands with soap and water if hands are visibly dirty.
  • Provide your sick household member with clean disposable facemasks to wear at home, if available, to help prevent spreading COVID-19 to others.
  • Clean the sick room and bathroom, as needed, to avoid unnecessary contact with the sick person.
  • Avoid sharing personal items like utensils, food, and drinks.

Talk to the school or facility about their emergency operations plan. Understand the plan for continuing education and social services (such as student meal programs) during school dismissals. If your child attends a college or university, encourage them to learn about the school’s plan for a COVID-19 outbreak.

Plan for potential changes at your workplace. Talk to your employer about their emergency operations plan, including sick-leave policies and telework options. Learn how businesses and employers can plan for and respond to COVID-19.

Handwashing is one of the best ways to protect yourself and your family from getting sick. Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing; going to the bathroom; and before eating or preparing food. If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.

Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces such as tables, doorknobs, light switches, countertops, handles, desks, phones, keyboards, toilets, faucets, and sinks. If surfaces are dirty, clean them using detergent or soap and water prior to disinfection. To disinfect, most common EPA-registered household disinfectants will work. See CDC’s recommendations for household cleaning and disinfection.

CDC recommends handwashing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or, using alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol when soap and water are not available. These actions are part of everyday preventive actions individuals can take to slow the spread of respiratory diseases like COVID-19.

  • When washing hands, you can use plain soap or antibacterial soap. Plain soap is as effective as antibacterial soap at removing germs.
  • If soap and water are not readily available, you can use an FDA-approved alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. You can tell if the sanitizer contains at least 60% alcohol by looking at the product label.

CDC does not encourage the production and use of homemade hand sanitizer products because of concerns over the correct use of the ingredients external icon and the need to work under sterile conditions to make the product. Local industries that are looking into producing hand sanitizer to fill in for commercial shortages can refer to the World Health Organization guidance pdf icon external icon . Organizations should revert to the use of commercially produced, FDA-approved product once such supplies again become available.

  • To be effective against killing some types of germs, hand sanitizers need to have a strength of at least 60% alcohol and be used when hands are not visibly dirty or greasy.
  • Do not rely on “Do It Yourself” or “DIY” recipes based solely on essential oils or formulated without correct compounding practices.
  • Do not use hand sanitizer to disinfect frequently touched surfaces and objects. See CDC’s information for cleaning and sanitizing your home.

In Case of an Outbreak in Your Community

During an outbreak, stay calm and put your preparedness plan to work. Follow the steps below:

  • Stay home if you are sick. Keep away from people who are sick. Limit close contact with others as much as possible (about 6 feet).

Put your household plan into action.

  • Stay informed about the local COVID-19 situation. Be aware of temporary school dismissals in your area, as this may affect your household’s daily routine.
  • Continue practicing everyday preventive actions. Cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue and wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use a hand sanitizer that contains 60% alcohol. Clean frequently touched surfaces and objects daily using a regular household detergent and water.
  • Notify your workplace as soon as possible if your regular work schedule changes. Ask to work from home or take leave if you or someone in your household gets sick with COVID-19 symptoms, or if your child’s school is dismissed temporarily. Learn how businesses and employers can plan for and respond to COVID-19.
  • Stay in touch with others by phone or email. If you have a chronic medical condition and live alone, ask family, friends, and health care providers to check on you during an outbreak. Stay in touch with family and friends, especially those at increased risk of developing severe illness, such as older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions.

Depending on the situation, public health officials may recommend community actions to reduce exposures to COVID-19, such as school dismissals. Read or watch local media sources that report school dismissals or and watch for communication from your child’s school. If schools are dismissed temporarily, discourage students and staff from gathering or socializing anywhere, like at a friend’s house, a favorite restaurant, or the local shopping mall.

Follow the advice of your local health officials. Stay home if you can. Talk to your employer to discuss working from home, taking leave if you or someone in your household gets sick with COVID-19 symptoms, or if your child’s school is dismissed temporarily. Employers should be aware that more employees may need to stay at home to care for sick children or other sick family members than is usual in case of a community outbreak.

CDC makes recommendations, shares information, and provides guidance to help slow down the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S. including guidance for schools and businesses. CDC regularly shares information and provides assistance to state, local, territorial, and tribal health authorities. These local authorities are responsible for making decisions including “stay at home” or “shelter in place.” What is included in these orders and how they are implemented are also decided by local authorities. These decisions may also depend on many factors such as how the virus is spreading in a certain community.

Symptoms & Testing

Current symptoms reported for patients with COVID-19 have included mild to severe respiratory illness with fever 1 , cough, and difficulty breathing. Read about COVID-19 Symptoms.

Not everyone needs to be tested for COVID-19. For information about testing, see Testing for COVID-19.

The process and locations for testing vary from place to place. Contact your state, local, tribal, or territorial department for more information, or reach out to a medical provider. State and local public health departments have received tests from CDC while medical providers are getting tests developed by commercial manufacturers. While supplies of these tests are increasing, it may still be difficult to find someplace to get tested. See Testing for COVID-19 for more information.

Using the CDC-developed diagnostic test, a negative result means that the virus that causes COVID-19 was not found in the person’s sample. In the early stages of infection, it is possible the virus will not be detected.

For COVID-19, a negative test result for a sample collected while a person has symptoms likely means that the COVID-19 virus is not causing their current illness.

Higher Risk

COVID-19 is a new disease and there is limited information regarding risk factors for severe disease. Based on currently available information and clinical expertise, older adults and people of any age who have serious underlying medical conditions might be at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19.

Based on what we know now, those at high-risk for severe illness from COVID-19 are:

  • People aged 65 years and older
  • People who live in a nursing home or long-term care facility
  • People of all ages with underlying medical conditions, particularly if not well controlled, including:
    • People with chronic lung disease or moderate to severe asthma
    • People who have serious heart conditions
    • People who are immunocompromised
      • Many conditions can cause a person to be immunocompromised, including cancer treatment, smoking, bone marrow or organ transplantation, immune deficiencies, poorly controlled HIV or AIDS, and prolonged use of corticosteroids and other immune weakening medications
    • People with severe obesity (body mass index [BMI] ≥40)
    • People with diabetes
    • People with chronic kidney disease undergoing dialysis
    • People with liver disease
  • People who are pregnant should be monitored since they are known to be at risk with severe viral illness, however, to date data on COVID-19 has not shown increased risk

If you are at higher risk of getting very sick from COVID-19, you should:

  • Stock up on supplies
  • Take everyday precautions to keep space between yourself and others
  • When you go out in public, keep away from others who are sick
  • Limit close contact and wash your hands often
  • Avoid crowds, cruise travel, and non-essential travel

If there is an outbreak in your community, stay home as much as possible. Watch for symptoms and emergency signs. If you get sick, stay home and call your doctor. More information on how to prepare, what to do if you get sick, and how communities and caregivers can support those at higher risk is available on People at Risk for Serious Illness from COVID-19.

This list is based on:

  • What we are learning from the outbreak in other countries and in the United States.
  • What we know about risk from other respiratory infections, like flu.

As CDC gets more information about COVID-19 cases here in the United States, we will update this list as needed.

Based on available information, adults aged 65 years and older and people of any age with underlying medical conditions included on this list are at higher risk for severe illness and poorer outcomes from COVID-19. CDC is collecting and analyzing data regularly and will update the list when we learn more. People with underlying medical conditions not on the list might also be at higher risk and should consult with their healthcare provider if they are concerned.

We encourage all people, regardless of risk, to:

  • Take steps to protect yourself and others.
  • Call your healthcare provider if you are sick with a fever, cough, or shortness of breath.
  • Follow CDC travel guidelines and the recommendations of your state and local health officials.

Generally, well-controlled means that your condition is stable, not life-threatening, and laboratory assessments and other findings are as similar as possible to those without the health condition. You should talk with your healthcare provider if you have a question about your health or how your health condition is being managed.

Severity typically means how much impact the illness or condition has on your body’s function. You should talk with your healthcare provider if you have a question about your health or how your health condition is being managed.

Most people with disabilities are not inherently at higher risk for becoming infected with or having severe illness from COVID-19. Some people with physical limitations or other disabilities might be at a higher risk of infection because of their underlying medical condition.

  • People with certain disabilities might experience higher rates of chronic health conditions that put them at higher risk of serious illness and poorer outcomes from COVID-19. Adults with disabilities are three times more likely to have heart disease, stroke, diabetes, or cancer than adults without disabilities.

You should talk with your healthcare provider if you have a question about your health or how your health condition is being managed.

Healthcare Professionals and Health Departments

For recommendations and guidance on persons under investigation; infection control, including personal protective equipment guidance; home care and isolation; and case investigation, see Information for Healthcare Professionals. For information on specimen collection and shipment, see Information for Laboratories. For information for public health professional on COVID-19, see Information for Public Health Professionals.

COVID-19 and Funerals

There is currently no known risk associated with being in the same room at a funeral or visitation service with the body of someone who died of COVID-19.

COVID-19 is a new disease and we are still learning how it spreads. The virus that causes COVID-19 is thought to mainly spread from close contact (i.e., within about 6 feet) with a person who is currently sick with COVID-19. The virus likely spreads primarily through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes, similar to how influenza and other respiratory infections spread. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs. This type of spread is not a concern after death.

It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.

People should consider not touching the body of someone who has died of COVID-19. Older people and people of all ages with severe underlying health conditions are at higher risk of developing serious COVID-19 illness. There may be less of a chance of the virus spreading from certain types of touching, such as holding the hand or hugging after the body has been prepared for viewing. Other activities, such as kissing, washing, and shrouding should be avoided before, during, and after the body has been prepared, if possible. If washing the body or shrouding are important religious or cultural practices, families are encouraged to work with their community’s cultural and religious leaders and funeral home staff on how to reduce their exposure as much as possible. At a minimum, people conducting these activities should wear disposable gloves. If splashing of fluids is expected, additional personal protective equipment (PPE) may be required (such as disposable gown, faceshield or goggles and N-95 respirator).

Cleaning should be conducted in accordance with manufacturer’s instructions for all cleaning and disinfection products (e.g., concentration, application method and contact time). Products with EPA-approved emerging viral pathogens claims pdf icon external icon are expected to be effective against COVID-19 based on data for harder to kill viruses. After removal of PPE, perform hand hygiene by washing hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol if soap and water are not available. Soap and water should be used if the hands are visibly soiled.

A funeral or visitation service can be held for a person who has died of COVID-19. Funeral home workers should follow their routine infection prevention and control precautions when handling a decedent who died of COVID-19. If it is necessary to transfer a body to a bag, follow Standard Precautions, including additional personal protective equipment (PPE) if splashing of fluids is expected. For transporting a body after the body has been bagged, disinfect the outside of the bag with a product with EPA-approved emerging viral pathogens claims pdf icon external icon expected to be effective against COVID-19 based on data for harder to kill viruses. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for all cleaning and disinfection products (e.g., concentration, application method and contact time, etc.). Wear disposable nitrile gloves when handling the body bag.

Embalming can be conducted. During embalming, follow Standard Precautions including the use of additional PPE if splashing is expected (e.g. disposable gown, faceshield or goggles and N95 respirator). Wear appropriate respiratory protection if any procedures will generate aerosols or if required for chemicals used in accordance with the manufacturer’s label. Wear heavy-duty gloves over nitrile disposable gloves if there is a risk of cuts, puncture wounds, or other injuries that break the skin. Additional information on how to safely conduct aerosol-generating procedures is in the CDC’s Postmortem Guidance. Cleaning should be conducted in accordance with manufacturer’s instructions. Products with EPA-approved emerging viral pathogens claims pdf icon external icon are expected to be effective against COVID-19 based on data for harder to kill viruses. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for all cleaning and disinfection products (e.g., concentration, application method and contact time).

After cleaning and removal of PPE, perform hand hygiene by washing hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol if soap and water is not available. Soap and water should be used if the hands are visibly soiled.

Decedents with COVID-19 can be buried or cremated, but check for any additional state and local requirements that may dictate the handling and disposition of the remains of individuals who have died of certain infectious diseases.

When a U.S. citizen dies outside the United States, the deceased person’s next of kin or legal representative should notify US consular officials at the Department of State. Consular personnel are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, to assist U.S. citizens for overseas emergencies. If a family member, domestic partner, or legal representative is in a different country from the deceased person, he or she should call the Department of State’s Office of Overseas Citizens Services in Washington, DC, from 8 am to 5 pm Eastern time, Monday through Friday, at 888-407-4747 (toll-free) or 202-501-4444. For emergency assistance after working hours or on weekends and holidays, call the Department of State switchboard at 202-647-4000 and ask to speak with the Overseas Citizens Services duty officer. In addition, the US embassy external icon closest to or in the country where the U.S. citizen died can provide assistance.

CDC does not require an autopsy before the remains of a person who died overseas are returned to the United States. Depending on the circumstances surrounding the death, some countries may require an autopsy. Sources of support to the family include the local consulate or embassy, travel insurance provider, tour operator, faith-based and aid organizations, and the deceased’s employer. There likely will need to be an official identification of the body and official documents issued by the consular office.

CDC requirements for importing human remains depend upon if the body has been embalmed, cremated, or if the person died from a quarantinable communicable disease.

At this time, COVID-19 is a quarantinable communicable disease in the United States and the remains must meet the standards for importation found in 42 Code of Federal Regulations Part 71.55 and may be cleared, released, and authorized for entry into the United States only under the following conditions:

  • The remains are cremated; OR
  • The remains are properly embalmed and placed in a hermetically sealed casket; OR
  • The remains are accompanied by a permit issued by the CDC Director. The CDC permit (if applicable) must accompany the human remains at all times during shipment.
    • Permits for the importation of the remains of a person known or suspected to have died from a quarantinable communicable disease may be obtained through the CDC Division of Global Migration and Quarantine by calling the CDC Emergency Operations Center at 770-488-7100 or emailing [email protected]

Please see CDC’s guidance for additional information.

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