Categories: Cosmology

Astronomy Without A Telescope – Assumptions


The current standard model of the universe, Lambda-Cold Dark Matter, assumes that the universe is expanding in accordance with the geometrical term Lambda – which represents the cosmological constant used in Einstein’s general relativity. Lambda might be assumed to represent dark energy, a mysterious force driving what we now know to be an accelerating expansion of space-time. Cold dark matter is then assumed to be the scaffolding that underlies the distribution of visible matter at a large scale across the universe.

But to make any reasonable attempt at modelling how the universe is – and how it unfolded in the past and will unfold in the future – we first have to assume that it is roughly the same everywhere.

This is sometimes called the Cosmological Principle which states that when viewed on a sufficiently large scale, the properties of the Universe are the same for all observers. This captures two concepts – that of isotropy, which means that the universe looks roughly the same anywhere you (that is you) look – and homogeneity, which means the properties of the universe look roughly the same for any observers anywhere they are and wherever they look. Homogeneity is not something we can expect to ever confirm by observation – so we must assume that the part of the universe we can directly observe is a fair and representative sample of the rest of the universe.

An assessment of isotropy is at least theoretically possible down our past light-cone. In other words, we look out into the universe and receive historical information about how it behaved in the past. We then assume that those parts of the universe we can observe have continued to behave in a consistent and predictable manner up until the present – even though we can’t confirm whether this is true until more time has passed. But anything outside our light cone is not something we can expect to ever know about and hence we can only ever assume the universe is homogenous throughout.

You occupy a position in space-time from which a proportion of the universe can be observed in your past light cone. You can also shine a torch beam forwards towards a proportion of the future universe - knowing that one day that light beam can reach an object that lies in your future light cone. However, you can never know about anything happening right now at a distant position in space - because it lies on the 'hypersurface of the present'. Credit: Aainsqatsi.

Maartens has a go a developing at developing an argument as to why it might be reasonable for us to assume that the universe is homogenous. Essentially, if the universe we can observe shows a consistent level of isotropy over time, this strongly suggests that our bit of the universe has unfolded in a manner consistent with it being a part of a homogenous universe.

The isotropy of the observable universe can be strongly implied if you look out in any direction and find:
• consistent matter distribution;
• consistent bulk velocities of galaxies and galactic clusters moving away from us via universal expansion.
• consistent measurements of angular diameter distance (where objects of the same absolute size look smaller at a greater distance – until a distance of redshift 1.5, when they start looking larger – see here); and
• consistent gravitational lensing by large scale objects like galactic clusters.

These observations support the assumption that both matter distribution and the underlying space-time geometry of the observable universe is isotropic. If this isotropy is true for all observers then the universe is consistent with the Friedmann–Lemaître–Robertson–Walker (FLRW) metric. This would mean it is homogenous, isotropic and connected – so you can travel anywhere (simply connected) – or it might have wormholes (multiply connected) so not only can you travel anywhere, but there are short cuts.

That the observable universe has always been isotropic – and is likely to continue being so into the future – is strongly supported by observations of the cosmic microwave background, which is isotropic down to a fine scale. If this same isotropy is visible to all observers – then it is likely that the universe has, is and will always be homogenous as well.

Finally, Maartens appeals to the Copernican Principle – which says that not only are we not the center of the universe, but our position is largely arbitrary. In other words, the part of the universe we can observe may well be a fair and representative sample of the wider universe.

Further reading: Maartens Is the universe homogenous?

Steve Nerlich

Steve Nerlich is a very amateur Australian astronomer, publisher of the Cheap Astronomy website and the weekly Cheap Astronomy Podcasts and one of the team of volunteer explainers at Canberra Deep Space Communications Complex - part of NASA's Deep Space Network.

Recent Posts

Hypervelocity Stars Teach us About Black Holes and Supernovae

A new study shows how hypervelocity stars could teach us more about the most powerful…

20 hours ago

The Discovery of a Hot Neptune that Shouldn’t Exist

1800 light-years away, an unlikely survivor orbits an aged star. This rare planet is called…

1 day ago

Fly Around Jezero Crater on Mars in This New Video

There’s a reason Jezero Crater was chosen as the landing site for the Perseverance Rover:…

1 day ago

Did Supernovae Help Push Life to Become More Diverse?

Life on Earth has been around for a long time—at least 3.8 billion years. During…

2 days ago

Another Look at the Aftermath of DART's Impact Into Dimorphos

When the DART spacecraft slammed into asteroid Dimorphos on September 26, 2022, telescopes worldwide (and…

2 days ago

A New Mission Will Search for Habitable Planets at Alpha Centauri

The TOLIMAN space telescope will search for exoplanets next door, and has contracted with EnduroSat…

3 days ago