The term universe has a variety of meanings based on the context in which it is described. In materialist philosophical terms, the universe is the summation of all particles that exist and the space in which all events occur which has an equivalent idea amongst some theoretical scientists known as the total universe. In cosmological terms, the universe is thought to be a finite or infinite space-time continuum in which all matter and energy exist. (It has been hypothesized by some scientists that the universe may be part of a system of many other universes, known as the multiverse.) The terms known universe, observable universe, or visible universe are often used to describe the part of the universe that can be seen or otherwise observed by humanity. Due to the fact that cosmic inflation removes vast parts of the total universe from our observable horizon, most cosmologists currently accept that it is impossible to observe the whole continuum and may use our universe, referring only to that knowable by human beings in particular.
The ultimate fate of our universe is a topic in cosmology. Rival scientific theories predict whether the universe will be of finite or infinite duration. Once it was accepted that the universe had a beginning a finite time ago, the ultimate fate of the universe becomes a valid cosmological question, one depending upon the universe's average density of matter and rate of expansion.
Expansion and age, and the Big Bang theory
- Main article: Age of the universe
The most important result of cosmology, the understanding that the universe is expanding, is derived from redshift observations and quantified by Hubble's Law. Extrapolating this expansion back in time, one approaches a gravitational singularity, a rather abstract mathematical concept, which may or may not correspond to reality. This gives rise to the Big Bang theory, the dominant model in cosmology today. The age of the universe from the time of the Big Bang, was estimated to be about 13.7 billion (13.7 × 109) years, with a margin of error of about 1 % (± 200 million years), according to NASA's WMAP (Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe). However, this is based on the assumption that the underlying model used for data analysis is correct. Other methods of estimating the age of the universe give different ages.
A fundamental aspect of the Big Bang can be seen today in the observation that the farther away from us galaxies are, the faster they move away from us. It can also be seen in the cosmic microwave background radiation which is the much-attenuated radiation that originated soon after the Big Bang. This background radiation is remarkably uniform in all directions, which cosmologists have attempted to explain by an early period of inflationary expansion following the Big Bang.
Size of the universe and observable universe
- Main article: Observable universe
There is disagreement over whether the universe is indeed finite or infinite in spatial extent and volume.
However, the observable universe, consisting of all locations that could have affected us since the Big Bang given the finite speed of light, is certainly finite. The edge of the cosmic light horizon is 13.7 billion light years (4.19 Gpc) distant. The present distance (comoving distance) to the edge of the observable universe is larger, due to the ever increasing rate at which the universe has been expanding; it is estimated to be about 78 billion light years (7.8 × 1010 light years, or 7.4 × 1026 m). This would make the comoving volume, of the known universe, equal to 1.9 × 1033 cubic light years (assuming this region is perfectly spherical). The observable universe contains about 7 × 1022 stars, organized in about 100 billion galaxies, which themselves form clusters and superclusters. The number of galaxies may be even larger, based on the Hubble Deep Field observed with the Hubble Space Telescope. The Hubble Space Telescope discovered galaxies such as Abell 1835 IR1916, which are over 13 billion light years from Earth.
Both popular and professional research articles in cosmology often use the term "universe" when they really mean "observable universe". This is because unobservable physical phenomena are scientifically irrelevant; that is, they cannot affect any events that we can perceive. See also Causality (physics).
Shape of the universe
An important open question of cosmology is the shape of the universe. Mathematically, which 3-manifold represents best the spatial part of the universe?
Firstly, whether the universe is spatially flat, i.e. whether the rules of Euclidean geometry are valid on the largest scales, is unknown. Currently, most cosmologists believe that the observable universe is very nearly spatially flat, with local wrinkles where massive objects distort spacetime, just as a lake is (nearly) flat. This opinion was strengthened by the latest data from WMAP, looking at "acoustic oscillations" in the cosmic microwave background radiation temperature variations.
Secondly, whether the universe is multiply connected, is unknown. The universe has no spatial boundary according to the standard Big Bang model, but nevertheless may be spatially finite (compact). This can be understood using a two-dimensional analogy: the surface of a sphere has no edge, but nonetheless has a finite area. It is a two-dimensional surface with constant curvature in a third dimension. The 3-sphere is a three-dimensional equivalent in which all three dimensions are constantly curved in a fourth.
If the universe is indeed spatially finite, as described, then traveling in a "straight" line, in any given direction, would theoretically cause one to eventually arrive back at the starting point.
Strictly speaking, we should call the stars and galaxies "views" of stars and galaxies, since it is possible that the universe is multiply-connected and sufficiently small (and of an appropriate, perhaps complex, shape) that we can see once or several times around it in various, and perhaps all, directions. (Think of a house of mirrors.) If so, the actual number of physically distinct stars and galaxies would be smaller than currently accounted. Although this possibility has not been ruled out, the results of the latest cosmic microwave background research make this appear very unlikely.
Fate of the universe
Depending on the average density of matter and energy in the universe, it will either keep on expanding forever or it will be gravitationally slowed down and will eventually collapse back on itself in a "Big Crunch". Currently the evidence suggests not only that there is insufficient mass/energy to cause a recollapse, but that the expansion of the universe seems to be accelerating and will accelerate for the whole of eternity (see accelerating Universe). Other ideas of the fate of our universe include the Big Rip, the Big Freeze, and Heat death of the universe theory. For a more detailed discussion of other theories, see the ultimate fate of the universe.
There is some speculation that multiple universes exist in a higher-level multiverse (also known as a megaverse), our universe being one of those universes. For example, matter that falls into a black hole in our universe could emerge as a Big Bang, starting another universe. However, all such ideas are currently untestable and cannot be regarded as anything more than speculation. The concept of parallel universes is understood only when related to string theory.
Different words have been used throughout history to denote "all of space", including the equivalents and variants in various languages of "heavens," "cosmos," and "world." Macrocosm has also been used to this effect, although it is more specifically defined as a system that reflects in large scale one, some, or all of its component systems or parts. (Similarly, a microcosm is system that reflects in small scale a much larger system of which it is a part.)
Although words like world and its equivalents in other languages now almost always refer to the planet Earth, they previously referred to everything that exists—see Copernicus, for example—and still sometimes do (as in "the whole wide world"). Some languages use the word for "world" as part of the word for "outer space", e.g. in the German word "Weltall".
- Albert Einstein (1952). Relativity: The Special and the General Theory (Fifteenth Edition), ISBN 0-517-88441-0
- Richard Powell: An Atlas of the Universe - a series of images at various scales, with explanations.
- Cosmos - an "illustrated dimensional journey from microcosmos to macrocosmos"
- A Review of the Universe - Structures, Evolutions, Observations, and Theories
- Age of the Universe at Space.Com
- My So-Called Universe by Jim Holt, on various arguments for and against an infinite Universe and parallel universes
- Parallel Universes by Max Tegmark
- Logarithmic Maps of the Universe
- Seti@Home - the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence
- Seti@Home Teamsearch for Extraterrestrial Intelligence
- Universe - Space Information Centre by Exploreuniverse.com
- Number of Galaxies in the Universe
- Size of the Universe at Space.Com
- Book 'History of the Universe' web site