Is the universe finite or infinite?

March 27, 2015 by Fraser Cain, Universe Today
Illustration of the ESA Planck Telescope in Earth orbit. Credit: ESA

Two possiblities exist: either the Universe is finite and has a size, or it's infinite and goes on forever. Both possibilities have mind-bending implications.

In another episode of Guide to Space, we talked: "how big is our Universe". Then I said it all depends on whether the Universe is finite or infinite. I mumbled, did some hand waving, glossed over the mind-bending implications of both possibilities and moved on to whatever snarky sci-cult reference was next because I'm a bad host. I acted like nothing happened and immediately got off the elevator.

So, in the spirit of he who smelled it, dealt it. I'm back to shed my cone of shame and talk big . And if the Universe is finite, well, it's finite. You could measure its size with a really long ruler. You could also follow up statements like that with all kinds of crass shenanigans. Sure, it might wrap back on itself in a mindbending shape, like a of monster donut or nerdecahedron, but if our Universe is infinite, all bets are off. It just goes on forever and ever and ever in all directions. And my brain has already begun to melt in anticipation of discussing the implications of an infinite Universe.

Haven't astronomers tried to figure this out? Of course they have, you fragile mortal meat man/woman! They've obsessed over it, and ordered up some of the most powerful sensitive space satellites ever built to answer this question.Astronomers have looked deep at the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation, the afterglow of the Big Bang. So, how would you test this idea just by watching the sky?

Here's how smart they are. They've searched for evidence that features on one side of the sky are connected to features on the other side of the sky, sort of like how the sides of a Risk map connect to each other, or there's wraparound on the PacMan board. And so far, there's no evidence they're connected.

In our hu-man words, this means 13.8 billion light-years in all directions, the Universe doesn't repeat. Light has been travelling towards us for 13.8 billion years this way, and 13.8 billion years that way, and 13.8 billion years that way; and that's just when the light left those regions. The expansion of the Universe has carried them from 47.5 billion light years away. Based on this, our Universe is 93 billion light-years across. That's an "at least" figure. It could be 100 billion light-years, or it could be a trillion light-years. We don't know. Possibly, we can't know. And it just might be infinite.

If the Universe is truly infinite, well then we get a very interesting outcome; something that I guarantee will break your brain for the entire day. After moments like this, I prefer to douse it in some XKCD, Oatmeal and maybe some Candy Crush.

Consider this. In a cubic meter (or yard) of space. Alright, in a box of space about yay big (show with hands), there's a finite number of particles that can possibly exist in that region, and those particles can have a of configurations considering their spin, charge, position, velocity and so on.

Tony Padilla from Numberphile has estimated that number to be 10 to the power of 10 to the power of 70. That's a number so big that you can't actually write it out with all the pencils in the Universe. Assuming of course, that other lifeforms haven't discovered infinite pencil technology, or there's a pocket dimension containing only pencils. Actually, it's probably still not enough pencils.

There are only 1080 particles in the observable Universe, so that's much less than the possible configurations of matter in a cubic meter. If the Universe is truly infinite, if you travel outwards from Earth, eventually you will reach a place where there's a duplicate cubic meter of space. The further you go, the more duplicates you'll find.

Artist’s conception of Planck, a space observatory operated by the European Space Agency, and the cosmic microwave background. Credit: ESA and the Planck Collaboration – D. Ducros

Ooh, big deal, you think. One hydrogen pile looks the same as the next to me. Except, you hydromattecist, you'll pass through places where the configuration of particles will begin to appear familiar, and if you proceed long enough you'll find larger and larger identical regions of space, and eventually you'll find an identical you. And finding a copy of yourself is just the start of the bananas crazy things you can do in an infinite Universe.

In fact, hopefully you'll absorb the powers of an immortal version of you, because if you keep going you'll find an of yous. You'll eventually find entire duplicate observable universes with more yous also collecting other yous. And at least one of them is going to have a beard.

The Hubble Ultra Deep Field seen in ultraviolet, visible, and infrared light. Credit: NASA, ESA, H. Teplitz and M. Rafelski (IPAC/Caltech), A. Koekemoer (STScI), R. Windhorst (Arizona State University), and Z. Levay (STScI)

So, what's out there? Possibly an infinite number of duplicate observable universes. We don't even need multiverses to find them. These are duplicate universes inside of our own infinite universe. That's what you can get when you can travel in one direction and never, ever stop.

Whether the Universe is finite or infinite is an important question, and either outcome is mindblenderingly fun. So far, astronomers have no idea what the answer is, but they're working towards it and maybe someday they'll be able to tell us.

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Denovalin
5 / 5 (4) Mar 27, 2015
"...You'll eventually find entire duplicate observable universes with more yous also collecting other yous. And at least one of them is going to have a beard...."

So is my beard proof there are multiple me's in this same Universe? Whoa. What happens when I shave?
billpress11
not rated yet Mar 27, 2015
Ah, this is truly mind boggling. If in an infinite universe their could be an infinite number of you's shaving at the same time in an identical galaxy wouldn't this also create the need for information to be lost and recreated infinitely? After all there is just a finite number of elements to create the infinite number of you's. Also, what could an infinite universe expand into?
PointyHairedEE
not rated yet Mar 27, 2015
Yes, definitely. But like every scientist, that's my opinion, I may be wrong. And a Short Poll of humanity says, "We could care less ... forever." Proof, how long did it take Veeger to "reach interstellar space"? Which it really hasn't due to something still in our sun's realm called the Oort Cloud.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (4) Mar 27, 2015
Is the universe finite or infinite?

I find this question slightly nonsensical, as the universe is a four dimensional spacetime (at least) and not just a three dimensional blob. Within a (again: at least) four dimensional spacetime you can create structures that are at one and the same time (!) finite and infinite in three dimensions.

E.g. by the only true and constant ruler we have to measure any kind of distance (light) a black hole (its event horizon) has a finite diameter when measured from the outside. Measured from the inside, however, the diameter of a black hole is infinite (light, traversing the black hole, will take an infinite amout of time to travel from one point on the event horizon) to another. So what's the true size of a black hole? Finite or infinite? The answer is: both (or "it depends" if you prefer)

So whether or not the universe is one-of-a-kind or encased in a 'bulk' (like in brane theory) the question about its size makes not much sense.
Dethe
1 / 5 (5) Mar 27, 2015
The latest observations indicate, that the scope of observable reality is just a tiny portion of the Universe. Our Universe looks like the infinite fractal landscape under the fog with limited visibility scope. For observer floating at the water surface this surface will appear always finite, because the surface ripples scatter at finite distance - no matter where he is just floating. This picture also illustrates, that this scattering is responsible for the red shift, i.e. the perceived change of wavelength of distant sources with distance.
Dethe
1 / 5 (5) Mar 27, 2015
So far, astronomers have no idea what the answer is
Of course they have - they're just unwilling to admit, that the Big Bang model (which assumes quite finite Universe) faces increasing hurdles. The FLRW metric of Big Bang model implies, the observable Universe should have radius 96 GLyrs - every other number would violate the Big Bang model.
wolf_larson13
3 / 5 (1) Mar 27, 2015
If the universe is finite what does this imply about the continuity of our conscious existence? If a branch of my existence dies how would that be appreciable (what would it matter) to the branches that manage to avoid that death? Does this imply a resonance (across spatially and temporally disconnected spaces) in conscious existence that evades death (at least until there are no other potential options)?
wolf_larson13
5 / 5 (1) Mar 27, 2015
@Dethe. I wondered too about a Big Bang in an infinite universe. It appears that cosmologists do not agree that the Big Bang implies a finite universe:
www dot astro dot ucla dot edu/~wright/infpoint.html
Dethe
1 / 5 (6) Mar 27, 2015
The Universe of finite age expanding with finite speed from singularity of finite size cannot be an infinite - period. I'm of course aware, that many cosmologists don't actually believe the Big Bang very much and its logical implications consider rather distracting. But it's not my problem - I'm not proponent of Big Bang model and I'm not taking money for its development.
greg1357
4.5 / 5 (2) Mar 27, 2015
I think the author is not properly defining (or only using one version of) the concept of infinite space. He assumes in an infinite space universe there'd also be infinite mass/energy. You could have an infinite space universe with only finite matter/energy. Such that with a FTL ship or wormhole, you travel to the edge of "occupied" space, which would be the edge of the universe, but you keep going, occupying nothingness, making that "part" of the universe. So if you want to say the universe has defined and finite size based on the space it occupies that can be true, but it can simultaneous be infinite because the actual space/nothingness surrounding the occupied universe is still there, its not like you come to a wall at the end of the occupied space and have to turn back.
Dethe
1 / 5 (2) Mar 27, 2015
You could have an infinite space universe with only finite matter/energy.
We cannot until the Universe is homogeneous, as the Big Bang model also assumes. In particular, the infinite space universe with only finite matter / energy would also violate the Big Bang model, namely it's Friedman solution - which pose rather strict constrain for Universe size and matter. Of course, the mass/energy DENSITY may not be infinite even in infinitely large universe - but this is another story.
ShotmanMaslo
not rated yet Mar 27, 2015
The Universe of finite age expanding with finite speed from singularity of finite size cannot be an infinite - period.


The singularity could really be finite or infinite. We do not know the nature of the singularity. Big Bang does not say whether the universe is finite or infinite, it is compatible with both options. There are Big Bang models of both kinds.

The FLRW metric of Big Bang model implies, the observable Universe should have radius 96 GLyrs


Observable universe. Not the entire universe.
OdinsAcolyte
not rated yet Mar 27, 2015
Truth is often stranger than fiction
TimLong2001
not rated yet Mar 27, 2015
ad absurdum
Doug_Huffman
1 / 5 (1) Mar 27, 2015
I was tickled to see him fail to give credit to Arthur Stanley Eddington.
vic1248
1 / 5 (1) Mar 27, 2015
Commented on that at the source yesterday:

http://www.univer...t-147032

I would highlight:

I was just thinking recently that since the universe is expanding, "space" itself is increasing, so doesn't that mean new "space" is being "created" all the time?!
antigoracle
not rated yet Mar 27, 2015
Or is it beyond infinite?
Doug_Huffman
not rated yet Mar 28, 2015
I was just thinking recently that since the universe is expanding, "space" itself is increasing, so doesn't that mean new "space" is being "created" all the time?!
Of course by Smolin's background-independent physics. As (virtual) particles increase, more space is required to allow the relations among them. It is these relations that require/create space and relational-space.
rockyvnvmc
3.7 / 5 (3) Mar 28, 2015
IF the 'universe' (allowing that it IS, simply a 'universe', as opposed to being a 'multiverse') is truly finite, then what's outside of it's boundaries ?

Sorry, but something Has to exist beyond it, if indeed, it is finite... An analogy would be the cells of and bacterium residing in, our bodies, believing our bodies to be a 'universe', in which case, everyone would be a universe, unto themselves, with innumerable 'universes' existing outside of them.

To my way of thinking, we live in a 'multiverse', comprised of an innumerable number of 'universes', existing in the same time/space as ours, but operating at different vibrational frequencies. Regardless of whether our 'universe' is finite, or infinite.

But then I'm not a 'scientist'... merely a 'philosopher'.
Dethe
1 / 5 (4) Mar 28, 2015
Big Bang does not say whether the universe is finite or infinite, it is compatible with both options. There are Big Bang models of both kinds.
Only for people who never heard of Big Bang model. The primordial atom of Lemaître was always assumed to be a very tiny thing and definitely finite in both size, both age. But I'm aware that the people who are facing the problems of Big Bang model are trying to make the problem of Universe size fuzzy, as it would make the Big Bang model difficult to falsify. It's an ideological thing.

There are no "Big Bang model of both kinds" - only the Friedman models, in which the Universe expands into infinity, steady-state or collapsing state. Everything else is just a fantasy.
Dethe
1 / 5 (3) Mar 28, 2015
According to inflationary model proposed in 1970 by Alan Guth the "inflation," would have swelled the universe from a diameter vastly smaller than a proton to that of a grapefruit. That's still puny, compared to its size some 13.7 billion years later, but the force expanding it to that point would have been enough to break the hold of gravity and allow it to continue expanding from that point. believe that something happened in this unimaginably brief period to make the universe expand with enormous speed – much faster than the speed of light – rather than collapse into itself under the force of gravity, like a black hole. The Inflationary Model has now become an essential basis of contemporary cosmology. The size of grapefruit is not chosen accidentally - it does fit the wavelength of CMBR radiation, which is supposed to be a Hawking radiation of the Universe after inflationary period. Every else size of Universe at this point would imply different CMBR wavelength.
adam_russell_9615
not rated yet Mar 28, 2015
So if we look far enough will we find evil Spock?
N6FB
not rated yet Mar 28, 2015
This stuff is interesting, but it is like arguing how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. With something this complicated, everybody has a different opinion on a the sequence of events that have led us to where we presently are. We pile supposition upon supposition and wind up with gobledegook.

The most probable scenario goes back to Occam's Razer proposition; the simplist answer is probably the correct one. In this case, it is that we are in a closed system which oscillates from "big bang" expansion phase to a contraction phase, and then does it again and again and again.

I know this sounds overly simplistic, but makes much sense compared to the speculations being published these days.
Dethe
2 / 5 (4) Mar 28, 2015
the simplist answer is probably the correct one. In this case, it is that we are in a closed system which oscillates from "big bang" expansion phase to a contraction phase, and then does it again and again and again
The simplest proposal is steady state eternal & infinite Universe. The red shift is caused with scattering of light at notoriously known quantum fluctuations of vacuum, which manifest itself with zero point energy, CMB radiation and many other quantum stuffs.. There is no apparent reason for some temporal evolution of Universe, it's oscillations the less..
Reg Mundy
2 / 5 (4) Mar 28, 2015
@antialias_physorg
Is the universe finite or infinite?

E.g. by the only true and constant ruler we have to measure any kind of distance (light) a black hole (its event horizon) has a finite diameter when measured from the outside. Measured from the inside, however, the diameter of a black hole is infinite (light, traversing the black hole, will take an infinite amout of time to travel from one point on the event horizon) to another. So what's the true size of a black hole? Finite or infinite? The answer is: both (or "it depends" if you prefer)
.

Why do you think "the only true and constant ruler we have to measure any kind of distance (light)"? How does this sit with quantum entanglement (spooky action at a distance?) which is instantaneous? Perhaps we should look for a different "ruler"....
chris35745
2 / 5 (4) Mar 28, 2015
Its sad that the author prattles on and uses the same ignorant 'science' that all the other scientists use. Infinite yous? Really??. Why dont you at least come up with something original and unique instead? How about this: The universe IS infinite and goes on forever in all directions. There are even completely different forms of matter and phenomenon that completely defy and even invalidate our so called ' laws of physics'. Im sure that there are stars shining in the heavens somewhere where they are so cool, a human could actually walk on their surface without being incinerated, yet they have planets circling them that have life on them. Im pretty sure that you could travel trillions of trillions of trillions of light millenia in any direction and see things we havent even imagined. And yes, Im sure that faster than light travel is a certainty.
ShotmanMaslo
not rated yet Mar 29, 2015
Only for people who never heard of Big Bang model. The primordial atom of Lemaître was always assumed to be a very tiny thing and definitely finite in both size, both age.


Again, you are confused about the difference between observable universe and the entire universe. All those statements about the universe being the size of a proton, or a grapefruit etc refer to observable universe, or some similar spatial horizon of some significance. However the size of the entire universe, including parts beyond the horizon, is unknown. It could be both finite or infinite. If it is infinite, then the primordial state was likely also infinite, just extremely compressed. Tough it is hard to reason with any certainty about what really happened in the first instant of existence.
ShotmanMaslo
not rated yet Mar 29, 2015
IF the 'universe' (allowing that it IS, simply a 'universe', as opposed to being a 'multiverse') is truly finite, then what's outside of it's boundaries ?


There are finite geometries with no boundaries. If you go in one direction far enough, you would ultimately return back to where you started. Like walking on the surface of a sphere, but in 3 dimensions instead of 2.
Dethe
1 / 5 (4) Mar 29, 2015
Nice try, but these geometries still have boundaries in higher dimensions. The concept of finite universe doesn't answer much of questions, it just adds another ones. Which is why it's so favored with people, who are payed for answering of questions.
vidyunmaya
1 / 5 (1) Mar 29, 2015
Sub: Search Origins- Finite Universe to relative infinite Universe under Cosmos
http://www.scribd...Dec-1999
http://www.scribd...del-2003
http://www.scribd...rse-2003
cdt
5 / 5 (1) Mar 29, 2015
Infinity does not entail a guarantee that another you is out there. .3 + 4/70 in decimal form goes on infinitely: .3571248, with the 571248 repeated over and over. No matter how deeply you look you will never find a second occurrence of the digit 3 in that number (at least not in base ten). So if there is a guarantee that an infinite number of copies of me would exist in an infinite universe, that guarantee has to come from something more than infinity itself. All that infinity does is allow for this possibility.
astroboy2002
1 / 5 (2) Mar 29, 2015
The universe would have to be finite because light has a finite speed and since nothing can travel faster than the sped of light and since nothing can expand faster than the speed of light so it could only expand so much so the universe will keep on getting bigger but it is impossible for the universe to be infinite. This is not just for the observable universe because it can only expand so much from the center of the universe (Point Of Big Bang)
Dethe
1 / 5 (1) Mar 29, 2015
Benni
1 / 5 (1) Mar 29, 2015
Part III: Considerations on the Universe as a Whole
Albert Einstein 97

"If we are to have in the universe an average density of matter which differs from zero, however small may be that difference, then the universe cannot be quasi-Euclidean. On the contrary, the results of calculation indicate that if matter be distributed uniformly, the universe would necessarily be spherical (or elliptical). Since in reality the detailed distribution of matter is not uniform, the real universe will deviate in individual parts from the spherical, i.e. the universe will be quasi-spherical. But it will be necessarily finite. In fact, the theory supplies us with a simple connection 1) between the space-expanse of the universe and the average density of matter in it."

Above quote is taken directly from a little paper called General Relativity, a much hated document by those who have never seen a Differential Equation they could solve.

antialias_physorg
4 / 5 (4) Mar 30, 2015
The universe would have to be finite because light has a finite speed and since nothing can travel faster than the sped of light

Speed of light is a limit for massive particles (i.e. anything that travels at the speed of light must have a mass of zero). It may not be the limit for other propagation forms (none of the proposed ones have yet been detected, of course)

The current big bang model does posit a period of inflation between 10E-35 and 10E-33 to 10E-30 seconds in which space expanded much more rapidly than light could have travelled. Though this is a volumetric expansion and not an expansion of some outside border. The idea of a 3D border to the universe is not a sensible model.
Accata
not rated yet Mar 30, 2015
The idea of a 3D border to the universe is not a sensible model
The ekpyrotic cosmology handles the Universe so - it implies the 3D foam of Universes, the bubbles of which are mutually colliding within higher-dimensional branes. This model is similar to so-called "shock wave cosmology", as proposed by J. Smoller and B. Temple [PNAS, 2002]. According to Penrose and Gurzadyan, the circular echoes of these colliding boundaries of parallel Universes are already visible as as circles inside of CMBR noise on the sky. I'm not saying, this model is physically relevant in context of steady state Universe model - but at least these guys really handled the boundaries of Universe as a 3D borders.
Multivac jr_
5 / 5 (1) Mar 30, 2015
It's conceivable that our just-barely-out-of-the-trees ape brains might not be up to the task of answering many of the questions those brains can come up with. Sort of like how a flea would have a real problem understanding the true nature of a dog, or be able to determine whether there were an infinite number of possible dogs to live on.
But that doesn't mean it's not fun (and a way to pass the time) to chase our proverbial tails contemplating the fundamental nature of existence, and who knows? One day we might just nail it.
Anyway, there's no math I know of that can prove the existence of three dimensions, and in any case dimensions are abstract constructs/models and so are not real in and of themselves. Maybe we've become too stuck on our extant models to consider other possibilities (e.g. a 2-D, but highly-folded Universe? Or a 1-D, balled-up Universe?). That seems like it would have some bearing on the answer to the question posed by the article, or maybe not.
Dethe
1 / 5 (3) Mar 30, 2015
our just-barely-out-of-the-trees ape brains might not be up to the task of answering many of the questions those brains can come up with
These apes already revealed the secrets of cold fusion, dense aether model, antigravity or free energy. The another thing is, what the majority of these apes (which controls the public opinion by now) is willing to admit by now. For example, heliocentric model was revealed with ancient Greeks before two thousands of years already - but its acceptation took many centuries. Currently we are in state of mental block only. The only problem with Universe understanding is in your head only - we have all necessary data collected for it.
Multivac jr_
5 / 5 (1) Mar 30, 2015
Oh, and the point I was getting at when I ran low on characters was that maybe the answer is "all of the above" but in a way I don't read/hear about much.
That is, assuming a Big Bang resulted in the creation of the space-time continuum we call "the Universe," it may be that our Bang wasn't the only Bang. So while our expanding, deformed bubble of a Universe marks the theoretical limits of our perceptions, I see no reason why there can't be many other Big Bangs (past, present, and future), with each a discreet "Universe" all it's own. [cont.]
Multivac jr_
5 / 5 (1) Mar 30, 2015
...At the boundaries of each Universe would be the boundary of the next Universe, with all of them together forming a foamy Metaverse (which would be pretty darned big). Beyond the foam is the Void, which is distinct from existence (no spacetime exists there… yet) and undefinable as either finite or infinite as true Nothingness would be… nothing.

Time seems interchangeable with motion because most if not all phenomena can be explained via the physics of motion, so it may not exist as a discreet force at all (no force-carrier... …particle for it has been discovered yet but then we haven't found gravitons yet, either).

So maybe there are countless (but finite… at least for now) numbers of Big Bangs banging' out spacetimes (or spacemotions, as it were) in an expanding, "foamy" Metaverse made of all the Big Bangin' bubbles.
Multivac jr_
5 / 5 (1) Mar 30, 2015
[Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it's not the soul of contemplative speculation or of parsing profound complexities, e.g. the nature of the Universe, plus I'm not all that witty and the comment system is really tedious, which discourages it's use, I reckon]
Benni
1 / 5 (1) Mar 30, 2015
The idea of a 3D border to the universe is not a sensible model.


But the big difference between what you comprehend about the Universe & what Einstein in his General Relativity understood about the mechanics of the universe is "energy distribution". Simply put, you understand just about zero when it comes to the Laws of Conservation of Energy.

Your posts are absolutely boring mundane nonsense, paraphrasing basic grade school level material. Go take a course in Differential Equations so you can better comprehend why Einstein was very clear about the structure of the universe, follow that up with some courses in Thermodynamics, in short.......get out of grade school.
stardust magician
not rated yet Mar 31, 2015
Of course it's finite.
The BIG BANG stopped, so much came out and no more!
russell_russell
not rated yet Apr 04, 2015
Imagine yourself as light.
And you are allow to ask yourself the same questions you asked yourself as if you were still human.
As light what is 'measure' for you?
Do you have duration (time)? Do you have distance? You are moving. Your path is a geodesic.
When you were human you said light 'travels'. Now you are light. As light what do you say about the word 'travel' now?

When you were human you assigned light properties. Paths, motions, oscillation , correspondence, entanglement and more. The mechanics packaged in math.
There was no shortage of imagination to assign properties.

When you were human you assigned the universe properties.
There was a shortage of imagination to assign properties.

As light what properties can you assign the universe?
As light is the universe infinite or finite?

You did so well to help flatlanders understand their universe.
Giving predictions about what happens in their finite or infinite universe coming in contact with our universe.

solen
not rated yet Apr 11, 2015
Is it not possible that the area of the infinite universe that we happen to be able to see is expanding while other sections of it, too far for us to see, are either stable or contracting. If it is infinite, everything is possible, but not everything HAS to exist. I'm betting there is nowhere where I have a beard!

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