Is Everything Actually Shrinking?

Whoa, here’s something to think about. Maybe the Universe isn’t expanding at all. Maybe everything is actually just shrinking, so it looks like it’s expanding. Turns out, scientists have thought of this.

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Video Transcript

It’s tinfoil hat day again at The Guide To Space. There’s some people who would have you believe the Universe is expanding. They’re peddling this idea it all started with a bang, and that expansion is continuing and accelerating. Yet, they can’t tell us what force is causing this acceleration. Just “dark energy”, or some other JK Rowling-esque sounding thing. Otherwise known as the acceleration that shall not be named, and it shall be taught in the class which follows potions in 3rd period.

I propose to you, faithful viewer, an alternative to this expansionist conspiracy. What if distances are staying the same, and everything is in fact, shrinking? Are we destined to compress all the way down to the Microverse? Is it only a matter of time before our galaxy starts drinking its coffee from a thimble or perhaps sealed in a pendant hanging on Orion’s belt? So, could we tell if that’s actually what’s going on?

Representation of the timeline of the universe over 13.7 billion years, and the expansion in the universe that followed. Credit: NASA/WMAP Science Team.
Representation of the timeline of the universe over 13.7 billion years, and the expansion in the universe that followed. Credit: NASA/WMAP Science Team.

Better get some scotch tape for the hats, kids. This one gets pretty rocky right out of the gate.
The first horrible and critical assumption here is that shrinking objects and an expanding universe would look exactly the same, which without magic or handwaving just isn’t the case. But you don’t have to take my word for it, we have science to punch holes in our Shrink-truther conspiracy.

Let’s start with distances. If we assumed the Earth and everything on it was getting smaller, we’d also be shrinking things like meter sticks. In the past they would have been larger. If everything was larger in the past, including the length of a meter, this means the speed of light would have appeared slower in the past. So was the speed of light slower in the past? I’m afraid it wasn’t, which really hobbles the shrinky-dink universe plot. But how do we know that?

The diagram shows the electromagnetic spectrum, the absorption of light by the Earth's atmosphere and illustrates the astronomical assets that focus on specific wavelengths of light. ALMA at the Chilean site and with modern solid state electronics is able to overcome the limitations placed by the Earth's atmosphere. (Credit: Wikimedia, T.Reyes)
The diagram shows the electromagnetic spectrum, the absorption of light by the Earth’s atmosphere and illustrates the astronomical assets that focus on specific wavelengths of light. ALMA at the Chilean site and with modern solid state electronics is able to overcome the limitations placed by the Earth’s atmosphere. (Credit: Wikimedia, T.Reyes)

You’ve probably seen spectral lines before or at least heard them referenced. Scientists use them to determine the chemical composition of materials. A changing speed of light would affect the spectral lines of distant objects, and because some people are just super smart and were able to do the math on this, we know that when we look at distant gas clouds we find the speed of light has changed no more than one part in a billion over the past 7 billion years.

Shrinking objects would also become more dense over time. This means that the universal constant of gravity should appear smaller in the past. Some have actually studied this, to determine whether it has changed over time, and they’ve also seen no change.

Artists illustration of the expansion of the Universe (Credit: NASA, Goddard Space Flight Center)
Artists illustration of the expansion of the Universe (Credit: NASA, Goddard Space Flight Center)

If objects in the Universe were shrinking, the Universe would actually be collapsing. If galaxies weren’t moving away from each other, their gravity would cause them to start falling toward each other. If they were shrinking, assuming their mass doesn’t change, their gravity would be just as strong, so shrinking wouldn’t stop their mutual attraction. A Universe of shrinking objects would look exactly opposite to what we observe.

So, good news. We’re pretty sure that objects, and us, and all other things in the Universe are not shrinking. We’re still not sure why anyone would name a thing Shrinky Dinks. Especially a craft toy marketed at children.

Hearing the Early Universe’s Scream: Sloan Survey Announces New Findings

Imagine a single mission that would allow you to explore the Milky Way and beyond, investigating cosmic chemistry, hunting planets, mapping galactic structure, probing dark energy and analyzing the expansion of the wider Universe. Enter the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, a massive scientific collaboration that enables one thousand astronomers from 51 institutions around the world to do just that.

At Tuesday’s AAS briefing in Seattle, researchers announced the public release of data collected by the project’s latest incarnation, SDSS-III. This data release, termed “DR12,” represents the survey’s largest and most detailed collection of measurements yet: 2,000 nights’ worth of brand-new information about nearly 500 million stars and galaxies.

One component of SDSS is exploring dark energy by “listening” for acoustic oscillation signals from the the acceleration of the early Universe, and the team also shared a new animated “fly-through” of the Universe that was created using SDSS data.

The SDSS-III collaboration is based at the powerful 2.5-meter Sloan Foundation Telescope at the Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico. The project itself consists of four component surveys: BOSS, APOGEE, MARVELS, and SEGUE. Each of these surveys applies different trappings to the parent telescope in order to accomplish its own, unique goal.

BOSS (the Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey) visualizes the way that sound waves produced by interacting matter in the early Universe are reflected in the large-scale structure of our cosmos. These ancient imprints, which date back to the first 500,000 years after the Big Bang, are especially evident in high-redshift objects like luminous-red galaxies and quasars. Three-dimensional models created from BOSS observations will allow astronomers to track the expansion of the Universe over a span of 9 billion years, a feat that, later this year, will pave the way for rigorous assessment of current theories regarding dark energy.

At the press briefing, Daniel Eistenstein from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics explained how BOSS requires huge volumes of data and that so far 1.4 million galaxies have been mapped. He indicated the data analyzed so far strongly confirm dark energy’s existence.

This tweet from the SDSS twitter account uses a bit of humor to explain how BOSS works:

APOGEE (the Apache Point Observatory Galactic Evolution Experiment) employs a sophisticated, near-infrared spectrograph to pierce through thick dust and gather light from 100,000 distant red giants. By analyzing the spectral lines that appear in this light, scientists can identify the signatures of 15 different chemical elements that make up the faraway stars – observations that will help researchers piece together the stellar history of our galaxy.

MARVELS (the Multi-Object APO Radial Velocity Exoplanet Large-Area Survey) identifies minuscule wobbles in the orbits of stars, movements that betray the gravitational influence of orbiting planets. The technology itself is unprecedented. “MARVELS is the first large-scale survey to measure these tiny motions for dozens of stars simultaneously,” explained the project’s principal investigator Jian Ge, “which means we can probe and characterize the full population of giant planets in ways that weren’t possible before.”

At the press briefing, Ge said that MARVELS observed 5,500 stars repeatedly, looking for giant exoplanets around these stars. So far, the data has revealed 51 giant planet candidates as well as 38 brown dwarf candidates. Ge added that more will be found with better data processing.

A still photo from an animated flythrough of the universe using SDSS data. This image shows a small part of the large-scale structure of the universe as seen by the SDSS -- just a few of many millions of galaxies. The galaxies are shown in their proper positions from SDSS data. Image credit: Dana Berry / SkyWorks Digital, Inc.
A still photo from an animated flythrough of the universe using SDSS data. This image shows a small part of the large-scale structure of the universe as seen by the SDSS — just a few of many millions of galaxies. The galaxies are shown in their proper positions from SDSS data. Image credit: Dana Berry / SkyWorks Digital, Inc.

SEGUE (the Sloan Extension for Galactic Understanding and Exploration) rounds out the quartet by analyzing visible light from 250,000 stars in the outer reaches of our galaxy. Coincidentally, this survey’s observations “segue” nicely into work being done by other projects within SDSS-III. Constance Rockosi, leader of the SDSS-III domain of SEGUE, recaps the importance of her project’s observations of our outer galaxy: “In combination with the much more detailed view of the inner galaxy from APOGEE, we’re getting a truly holistic picture of the Milky Way.”

One of the most exceptional attributes of SDSS-III is its universality; that is, every byte of juicy information contained in DR12 will be made freely available to professionals, amateurs, and lay public alike. This philosophy enables interested parties from all walks of life to contribute to the advancement of astronomy in whatever capacity they are able.

As momentous as the release of DR12 is for today’s astronomers, however, there is still much more work to be done. “Crossing the DR12 finish line is a huge accomplishment by hundreds of people,” said Daniel Eisenstein, director of the SDSS-III collaboration, “But it’s a big universe out there, so there is plenty more to observe.”

DR12 includes observations made by SDSS-III between July 2008 and June 2014. The project’s successor, SDSS-IV, began its run in July 2014 and will continue observing for six more years.

Here is the video animation of the fly-through of the Universe: