Ask Ethan #70: Does the Universe have a center? (Synopsis)

“I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all the kinds of things you can’t see from the center.” -Kurt Vonnegut

The Universe is expanding and cooling, with all but a few of the closest galaxies receding from our view. In fact, the farther away an object is, the faster it appears to recede.

Image credit: E. Siegel. Image credit: E. Siegel.

This may sound an awful lot like an explosion to you, and the name "the Big Bang" sure gives that same implication, doesn't it? Yet despite these facts, it turns out that the idea that the Universe has a center is completely false, and is actually contradicted by both relativity and the Universe that we have.

Image credit: The Cosmic Perspective / Jeffrey O. Bennett, Megan O. Donahue, Nicholas Schneider and Mark Voit. Image credit: The Cosmic Perspective / Jeffrey O. Bennett, Megan O. Donahue, Nicholas Schneider and Mark Voit.

How to make sense of it all? Find out on this week's Ask Ethan!

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On the largest scales -beyond the horizon from where light can't reach us, do we "know" enough about the geometry of the universe to state, that there is NO center? If I lived on the 2D surface of a torus, I can see there is no central point on that surface, but in a 3D space enclosing it there is a center point (which is not a part of my 2D world). Is it possible our universe might have a "center", but we aren't privileged to see it.

By Omega Centauri (not verified) on 11 Jan 2015 #permalink

Ethan: I was a little irritated by this article. It said this:

"Instead, I want you to think of space itself as the surface of a balloon. Not the three-dimensional “this is a balloon in space,” but the two-dimensional surface of the balloon itself. And I want you to imagine this surface has coins glued to it. This balloon is going to expand — and I don’t care whether it’s because it’s being blown up or whether the surface is simply being stretched — but I want you to consider each coin as a galaxy, or in our case, an observer."

Why? There is no evidence whatsoever that the 3D space of the universe is anything like the surface of a balloon. There is no evidence of any "higher dimensions" wherein the space of the universe somehow curves back on itself. There is no evidence that the universe is like the old "asteroids" game as per this videao. There is no evidence to support the assertion that the universe has no centre. That isn't physics, or cosmology, it's speculation. And IMHO it's wrong to present speculation as fact.

By John Duffield (not verified) on 12 Jan 2015 #permalink


I lived on the 2D surface of a torus, I can see there is no central point on that surface, but in a 3D space enclosing it there is a center point (which is not a part of my 2D world). Is it possible our universe might have a “center”, but we aren’t privileged to see it.

That point is not "in" the surface of the torus. Similarly, the extra-dimensional center of a spherically curved universe would not be in the universe (unless you picture some giant wormhole running through the center, just slightly off-center enough that one part of the surfaces goes through the central point of the sphere. But that seems unlikely).


There is no evidence whatsoever that the 3D space of the universe is anything like the surface of a balloon

Its expanding in all directions. That's (at least one bit of) the evidence. Thus, 'no evidence whatsoever' is factually wrong.

Indeed. If you're going to claim absolutes, you need to be absolutely sure you've checked first...

First off, I really like this series as a way to clarify thinking. It never seems like I have quite enough mathematics to really understand what is going on!

The redshift measurements indicating the expansion (and now the acceleration) of the universe are fairly easy to understand. Once the model is set up, with the space between galaxies expanding, the FLRW, equations, at least in principle, are straightforward. Any observed acceleration must imply dark energy. The big leap of faith always seems to be the expansion of space at very large scales. I’m afraid my knowledge here is bounded by novels about “Flatland.” The analogy of the balloon seems to make sense only in the context of >3 spacial dimensions. Is this what we are really talking about here, or am I missing something simple?

By Michael Retzer (not verified) on 15 Jan 2015 #permalink

Yes, the universe has a is the earth...and US!!!
The Great Man said: The Kingdom of God is within YOU!!!

From article called:

Planck Satellite Confirms WMAP Findings: Universe is not Copernican
The Modern World is Faced with the Breach of a Far Reaching Paradigm...and which was what pissed off PJ because of the little, FACTUAL flourishes I added, but here it is in its original form:

Most cosmologists will not admit it publicly, but perhaps over a beer they would tell you what is happening. Observations over the last 50 years, culminating with the Planck satellite results (March 2013) set modern science on a counter revolution leading closer to ideas formed 500 years ago. Today’s cosmology is based on two broad principles: The Copernican Principle (we are not in a special place in the universe) and the Cosmological Principle (The Copernican Principle, plus isotropy- the view from anywhere in the universe looks about the same). Starting with early studies of the cosmic microwave background (CMB), and in recent years culminating with results from the COBE then the WMAP satellites, scientists were faced with a signal at the largest scales of the universe- a signal that pointed right back at us, indicating that we are in a special place in the universe.

Without getting overly technical, the Copernican and cosmological principles require that any variation in the radiation from the CMB be more or less randomly distributed throughout the universe, especially on large scales. Results from the WMAP satellite (early 2000s) indicated that when looking at large scales of the universe, the noise could be partitioned into “hot” and “cold” sections, and this partitioning is aligned with our ecliptic plane and equinoxes. This partitioning and alignment resulted in an axis through the universe, which scientists dubbed “the axis of evil”, because of the damage it does to their theories. This axis passes right through our tiny portion of the universe. Laurence Krauss commented in 2005:

“ But when you look at [the cosmic microwave background] map, you also see that the structure that is observed, is in fact, in a weird way, correlated with the plane of the earth around the sun. Is this Copernicus coming back to haunt us? That’s crazy. We’re looking out at the whole universe. There’s no way there should be a correlation of structure with our motion of the earth around the sun — the plane of the earth around the sun — the ecliptic. That would say we are truly the center of the universe.”

Most scientists brushed the observation off as a fluke of some type, and many theories were created to explain it away. Many awaited the Planck mission. The Planck satellite was looked upon as a referee for these unexpected (and unwelcome) results. The Planck satellite used different sensor technology, and an improved scanning pattern to map the CMB. In March 2013, Planck reported back, and in fact verified the presence of the signal in even higher definition than before!

There are cosmologists and scientists who recognize the signal for what it is, and recent articles have started talking about the need for some “new physics” to explain the results. Even on the Planck mission website Professor Efstathiou states:

“Our ultimate goal would be to construct a new model that predicts the anomalies and links them together. But these are early days; so far, we don’t know whether this is possible and what type of new physics might be needed. And that’s exciting”

Other observations have independently validated the “axis of evil” in recent years, and this adds credibility to the CMB observations. These observations include galaxy rotation alignments to our tiny part of the universe . Very recent reports include observations of alignment between “sky distributions of powerful extended quasars and some other sub-classes of radio galaxies” and “a plane passing through the two equinoxes and the north celestial pole (NCP)”. Also anisotropy of cosmic acceleration in Union2 Type Ia supernova appear to be aligning with the CMB features. All this supports the contention that the Copernican Principle (and cosmological) have effectively been invalidated without even discussing the quantization of various astronomical features about us, which further support the contention.

The question is ‘what will modern science do now’? Will they invent additional parameters to keep the current theories alive (in addition to those already added: dark matter, dark energy, redshift as expansion, big bang inflation, etc.) or will they consider the possibility that we are in a special place as observations clearly indicate?

Hello rimmer9; making up stories again, are you? Nothing you have written has 'pissed me off' per se. Believe what you will, but don't bother prosletyzing your untruths. This is NOT a flat earth. There is NO axis of evil. Enjoy J4.

He can't. He knows he's a sinner and he has to pyramid sell his cult to others to get a ticket in to the big gig.

The other alternative would be not to be such a cunt, but that requires self awareness and personal change.

So not going to happen.

Therefore shout loudly so nobody can see their personal failures and doubts, and force people to "believe" so he gets a scout badge to show off to Arkela.

Someone who really believes doesn't have to shout about it.

Someone who is shit scared because they don't believe have to scream faith from the rooftops.

Heh, heh, heh ......

Actually I find it sad, PJ.

Only religions have said that god will hate them and punish them for not believing in the "right" religion. No god has ever said to someone that they hate the person and will punish them.

This is why the brainwashing of religion should be banned. The child brainwashed by their parents will live their life terrified to live it in case they're "doing it wrong".

Terror is VERY real to children. To a child there really ARE monsters under the bed. Because terror is a real thing to them.

And brainwashing into a religion by parents of their children abuses this real and present problem for their personal gratification.

It should be forbidden to indoctrinate children in religion until they have reached majority and considered legally an adult.

This includes circumcision: only adults can do it to themselves. Not parents to their child, who has no choice in the matter.

Religion should be between you and whatever you believe is talking to you. And you should be old enough to know how to talk to it.

Hey, WOW, your last para is a good one. A bit difficult to talk to a non-existent non-entity. One thing to hear the voices - another to start answering back, don't you think? :)
We seem to have dropped off topic again.

Since everything we deal with, or observe, has a centre of equilibrium, should it not follow, the universe also has a centre of mass?

Hey you Spinners, you're so hateful. I've never said if you don't believe in God or in what I believe, that you will be punished. What I say, the way I say it, is because I know it pisses off some of you here tremendously because you can't accept TRUTH, even when its looking you right in the eye, (as with the NASA videos you couldn't accept, even though they were spewing out the truth right in your face about their BS) and so it is obvious you get pissed by the way you reply. WOW enjoys what he does...cussing away, in a very articulate way I should say. Of course you can believe whatever the hell you want, all I'm saying is that to me there must be some Super, Unfathomable Intelligent force, or entity at work in all that transpires in the Universe. That to me makes more sense than what many times have turned out to be a bunch convoluted results from the theories you love so much, and which only produce more and more questions, and which in the end, makes many of those working with them look like fools, that they have to continually, make up, some alternate "theory" amendments to the ones which are already non-workable, and why...because they get it wrong...AGAIN and AGAIN!!!

As it is said, the universe is not obligated to make any sense to anyone. Aside from that, you all should know by now, that the burden of trying to, disprove, the existence of A Superior, Intelligent being is on you. The Intelligent entity/energy, from the beginning, provided, visible, physical, non physical etc., "proof" as, evidence, of the existence of such Supreme and Orderly intelligence. So why don't you all instead try something different and try to prove there is no such Intelligence? You know why you don't do it, cause you can't prove it, still the, CREATED Universe, remains what it is, while dismissing the ignorance and arrogance of the blind, cause as I say, a lot of you are just too proud to admit there is something, or someone, gazillions of times more, Majestic, than thou, because you care more about your pride, and it being shattered by TRUTH!!!
So what if the earth is the center of the universe? So what if the earth is flat? So what if the earth is not a globe, or a pear, and that it does not rotate? So What if YOU are wrong...Huh!?
The only reason, or at least one of the main reasons Aristarcookoo, Coperincapricious, and other loonies, came up with the round world theory crap, was only because they needed to discredit what it says in the Bible, (which depicts a flat, stationary earth, and not a round one) since they were also the same as some of you - non believers in a Superior Entity or intelligence - and so that was one of the main reasons they came up with the round world theory BS, even though it has never been proven cause those theories have only always been assumptions:

(gravity which holds the billions of tons of water stuck ever so tightly to the earth, even at the, supposed, bottom or upside down hemisphere, but a ship doesn't sink or isn't pulled down to the bottom, while also at the same time balloons and birds, man and planes can easily take off and fly in ANY direction; even WE, can jump up and down etc., etc., despite that, supposed, Super Powerful gravitational force pulling everything towards the center of a spinning pear, and even though a cannon ball when shot straight up, can fall or descend STRAIGHT back down, literally, right back into the cannon muzzle from where it was shot, which "proves" the earth does not spin!).

because as I've said, many of you were conditioned to become capricious and exaggeratedly melodramatic, and which will only cause you to remain stagnant in your search for the truth....

Three probes scanned the heavens, and three times the radiation measurements came back contradicting and "DESTROYING" YOUR theories!

Since way back in 2006 even the supposed atheist Russians said:
“The discovery casts doubts on all contemporary concepts of the nature and development of the universe,” says Leonid Speransky, an astrophysicist and professor with the Lomonosov State University in Moscow. “Even the Einstein theory of relativity seems obsolete now. Until recently space and time were believed to have unfolded in a chaotic way after the Big Bang, and the universe was thought to be homogeneous and expanding continuously. Now scientists will have to "acquiesce" to an ORDERED way of development of the universe as if it was born and developed in compliance with a scenario, Written Beforehand.”
"The standard model of modern physics including the Big Bang theory is no longer capable of providing an explanation of principal characteristics in the observable universe e.g. its temperature, expansion and even the existence of galaxies in it. Problems tend to multiply year in and year out, (again and again, but they never learn). Even the black holes emit radiation in contradiction with all existing laws of physics".
Some Magoeio guy arrived at the conclusion that the axis of Evil was not bad at all and should be renamed an “Axis of Good.” “The so-called standard model of the universe is really UGLY (AND USELESS) and complicated. Hopefully, the old (BS) model will be deleted...MUSHED UP!”

But go on, continue with your fantasy trying to find the truth with old, erroneous interpretations of observations.
The worst thing about it all is that those who remain blind and who have children will continue, or have continued permitting the government-controlled scientists teaching in the government-controlled educational system, teach and indoctrinate those innocent, gullible children, the BS being perpetrated by the so-called professional astronomers who are in like manner, controlled by the NASA reptilians, and the rest of the snakes who run the pathetic!!! All, a lot of people are asking for, is for the real truth to be presented and taught, but unfortunately, there are still too many who are glued and locked up in the box with their too engrained false believes.
I'ld rather simply believe their is some Majestic someone/something, taking care of the orderly operation of the universe. It's much easier and feels more comfortable, than constantly being disillusioned by the never ending...Wrong Again, results, to where even some of the most popular scientists, embarrassingly, have had to admit, over and over, they don't know what the hell their doing!

We've been told that, "once upon a time", some 14 billion years ago, everything in the universe became compacted to the size of a golf-ball at an ultimate density until there was a massive big-bang. That singularity would be the center of our universe, with everything exploding from it.
Yet, in your article you say that "the Big Bang happened everywhere in our Universe at once". That doesn't make any sense to me.

By Carmon Elliott (not verified) on 15 Oct 2015 #permalink

@Carmon Elliott #13: I would encourage you to type "Big Bang" into the search box for Ethan's blog. This particular horse has been beaten to the consistency of chunky salsa by now.

Repeat after me: The Big Bang Was Not An Explosion. The Big Bang Was Not An Explosion.

The Big Bang is a uniform expansion of space. There is no "outside" into which "everything exploded" into. Space itself expanded and stretched, and the contents thereof was merely carried along for the ride.

By Michael Kelsey (not verified) on 15 Oct 2015 #permalink

"Since everything we deal with, or observe, has a centre of equilibrium, should it not follow, the universe also has a centre of mass?"

Everything we deal with is limited within space.

Space isn't limited within space.

So the conclusion doesn't really have to follow, since it relies on an axiom that doesn't apply, PJ.

To an extent, yes, there is, but it's not a special point, except a fairly arbitrarily by any observer. And pretty much impossible to find. And quite useless.

There is actually no answer to the question. The balloon analogy is true only if the Universe is a 3-dimensional sphere around a 4-dimensional space. In other words, if the Universe is curved in 4th dimension. But this is only a hypothesis. What the Universe does look like for us now is enourmously vast conglomeration of objects in a plain 3-dimensional space. And this conglomeration has a shape. And any shape in 3 dimensions has a center. From this viewpoint, yes, there is a center. And the post seems to be blind because of its inablily to see this simple argument. I ask myself the question in the title for a long time already, so... quite dissappointing.

By Mikhail Batcer (not verified) on 06 Jul 2016 #permalink

Relativity is nonsense. It is not science but pure philosophy. Relativity is just a lot of abstract equations designed to fill all the gaps that so many null experiments left behind. They are ad hoc equations, impossible to verify, since matter is not anymore matter, velocity is not any more velocity, time is not any more time... etc.

So many needing some kind of religion, accept this beautiful new religion of cosmology, with huge gaps needed of further ad hoc assumptions and gap filling abstract equations. No cause effect is demanded any more. No verification is needed neither. We have a new Messiah, Einsten et all, and we all most follow blindly.

Not a mistery that cosmology is at its darkest crisis ever.

Needless to say engineers - no time to play- don´t give a damn about relativity when they are paid to put a rocket in a fixed place at space. Or put your GPS right on spot in the Fifth Avenue.

@Liberty #17: What wonderful ignorance! Especially your last paragraph, where you reveal just how deeply you don't know anything. Astronautical engineering most assuredly _does_ use relativity, as does GPS.

If the calculations your GPS receiver uses did not include special relativity (the effect of each satellite's speed on changing the time signal you receive), then it would give you positions which were wrong by several kilometers (Long Island instead of Fifth Avenue). If those same calculations did not include general relativity (the effect of gravitational redshift on the time signals), then you'd be off by tens of meters (the Flatiron Building instead of the Museum of Mathematics).

Just because you are too ignorant (and opposed to learning) to understand something doesn't make it wrong. It just makes you ignorant.

By Michael Kelsey (not verified) on 19 Sep 2016 #permalink

"The balloon analogy is true only if the Universe is a 3-dimensional sphere around a 4-dimensional space."

Analogies are, by definition, NOT TRUE. They analogise a portion of the reality in a simpler visual or mental structure. The analogy is true IF YOU ARE SPEAKING OF SPACE EXPANSION HAVING NO CENTRE. If you're talking of space being surrounding something in a different dimension, then it isn't.

"Relativity is nonsense."

Nope, THAT was nonsense. You don't like or understand it, therefore you claim it is in error because the error being you is an anathema to you.

"So many needing some kind of religion"

Science isn't a religion.

Look up the definition of both terms. If you dare.