You are the Center of the Universe (and so am I, and so is Gursplex on Alpha Eck)

wmap.jpgOne of the concepts that confuses people most about the Universe is the Earth’s location relative to the Big Bang. People constantly ask, “Where is the center of the Universe?” and “Where was the Big Bang relative to us today?” and perhaps the most articulate of all, “Why does the Cosmic Microwave Background appear in all directions if it came from the Big Bang?” We are creatures accustomed to life in a three dimensional universe, and it is extraordinarily difficult to visualize our place in space. It is even harder to visualize that every place in space was once at the center of the Big Bang. (image credit: NASA/WMAP Science Team)

I have to admit that I’m still building my own personal perspective on the Universe, and every once in a while I still have a mental break through. This is hard. A complete understanding can’t come all at once.

But, being a blogger, I’m going to try and get you as far as I can in one posting.

An excellent starting point is, as always, the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB). This diffuse microwave signal comes from everywhere and lies behind everything. It was formed at the moment the Universe cooled just enough for electrons to combine with atomic nuclei. Prior to that moment, photons couldn’t travel very far without being absorbed by something and then re-emitted with a new color and/or new direction. After that moment, those photons were set free to travel to us today. That moment was called recombination and it occurred roughly 380,000 years after the Big Bang.

Today, 13.7 +/- 0.2 billion years after the Big Bang, we are seeing CMB photons that originated in a sphere of space around the point that would eventually become the place of the Earth. Similarly, photons that originated at the point where the Earth is now located are possibly being observed by aliens at the location where the photons we are seeing originated. Thus, the CMB photons we see are nothing more than a sphere shaped sample of all the photons released during recombination; they are just one small section of the universe. Think of it this way: Imagine the universe as a giant liquid (it is so big we can’t see its edges to define its shape). A scuba diver hovering within the liquid might be able to illuminate the fluid within 10 feet of his head. The fluid beyond the illuminated sphere is still there. It just can never be seen.

Luckily, the universe isn’t a boring liquid, and the light we see isn’t reflecting off any farthest boring visible point. Unfortunately, the photons we see do come from the farthest visible surface of the universe. Luckily, because the universe was a plasma (which behaves loosely like a fluid), any waves propagating through the early universe will be visible to us. Unfortunately, the waves in the early universe have been stretched out to appearing all but flat with the expansion of the universe. Luckily, we have the technology to discern the 1 part in 10,000 remains of the waves.

And what is magical is this: we can use those waves to determine the shape of the universe. If you stand in a room and sing, you will hear your voice come back to you in different ways depending on the shape of the room. At a certain level, it is possible for good forensic scientists to listen to a recording and determine the shape of the room the recording was made within. At a certain level, it is also possible for good cosmologists to determine the shape of the universe based on the waves within the CMB. What we have learned is this: the geometry of the universe is Euclidean. This means parallel lines stay the same distance apart forever. We also know the universe is closed. That means that if a line starts at one point and keeps going for a very very very(!!!) long time, it will eventually get back to where it started, just like a line on the surface of a sphere or a torus.

In fact, a torus is a closed Euclidean shape. Two parallel lines on the surface will always stay the same distance apart and they will eventually circle back to their starting point. It is currently thought that our universe is best visualized as a 4 dimensional hyper-torus.

Here I have to admit, I get the geometry but I can’t actually visualize anything expanding from a singularity – a single point – into a donut.

But this I do understand – I am at the center of the universe. And so are you. And so is everything anyone will ever see with a telescope. At one moment – the first moment – the entire universe was a single point, and that point expanded into everything. Imagine a balloon that when empty is a single point. As you blow it up, the balloon expands. Where on the surface of the balloon is the center of balloon? Everywhere. We are on the surface of a multidimensional universe and every point was at the center. Every point. Even my point and your point.

But there are more issues I have to admit to struggling to comprehend. In the shadowlands at the edge of understanding theorists are looking for evidence of pockets of inflation that went at different rates, or perhaps that simply never stopped expanding. They are looking for evidence of Branes, and probing for variations in gravity.

The CMB is mankind’s first and last best hope for understanding our place in the universe.

14 Comments

  1. Jorge Schrauwen June 21, 2007 at 3:39 am #

    After reading this I have one question…
    If we somehow build a ultra utlra… (well you get the point) sensitive telescope… does that mean we can see ourselfs? since a proton that shot of should eventually end up back here…

    If the answer is yes… the image would be in reverse right?

    Note: we assume the earth was around for ever and will be for ever for it to work since else we might be gone when the first “images” of a earth will start to appear.

    Does my question make any sense to you? It got me more confused by asking it.

  2. HoosierHoops June 21, 2007 at 9:49 am #

    Wow..I had to reread your blog about 10 times slowly..then print it out..
    That is so interesting to say the least..
    so as a follow up.. you said,
    It is currently thought that our universe is best visualized as a 4 dimensional hyper-torus.
    I thought the 4th Dimension was time..or is that apples and oranges?
    I liked your reference to the universe being like
    the Ocean, that i can relate to.
    The String theorist predict 10 or 11 dimensions right? That kind of throws a monkey wrench into the Torus shape right? And Membranes to boot?
    Do you work with Theorists and combine your actual visual data that you observe with thier kind of ‘wacky’ ideas? :) Doesn’t your visual proof validate thier theories? Like the time Einstein was proved right about gravity bending light via observation?
    Anyway that was a great article…

  3. Astrogeek June 21, 2007 at 10:59 am #

    I’m sorry, but Gursplex on Alpha Eck is *not* the center of the universe. Everybody knows that Raxacoricofallapatorian is the real center of the universe.

  4. Scott Sherman November 14, 2007 at 7:41 pm #

    Hi, If the Universe if infinite then it seems to me that we are all at the center of the Universe. Any direction we go in will be the same distance.

    And, if we consider the relativity of time/space then in terms of the Universe our galaxy is incredibly small. Our solar system much smaller, our planet very small and each of us . . . a blip on a blip. In terms of infinity there is not much difference between our galaxy (one can imagine it being in the center) and our-selves.

    To consider that I, you and everyone else is in the center of the universe is not too unmanageable of a concept considering the above.

    With respect to electrical energies flowing back and forth through the universe, I like to think that every second, sixty seconds a minute infinite quantities of energy flow through my electrical system with an in/out pulse. And, when I smile and conduct love that that pulse brings love into my life (the law of attraction) and sends it out to the universe.

    What do you thing?

  5. AlexG June 17, 2008 at 4:23 am #

    The CMB permeates the whole of space and although it
    comes from a black-body at only 4 deg Kelvin it must
    amount to an enormous total energy. Has anyone calculated
    the solar-mass equivalent of this energy ?

  6. shanky October 2, 2008 at 11:20 pm #

    h!!!!

    though i m a software eng. still i found your article very illuminating…
    but can anyone explain “recombination” more clearly and in less technical way…

  7. Kou January 7, 2009 at 5:50 am #

    Wow, that was a fantastic read. I was staying up until 5am trying to understand this myself, but it was fun the whole way through. I love trying to understand the universe and my place within it. Now, I have more questions than answers, but I couldn’t be happier knowing there is so much more left of the universe to be seen let alone understood.

  8. Kevin Theil S√∏rensen March 9, 2009 at 8:58 am #

    I think it’s important to distinguish between the center of the universe, and the relative cycles of movement.

    Every point isn’t the center of the universe, because everything that is perceived through our senses, are experienced in our consciousness. In other words, the information we receive through our senses, are subjective interpretations of reality.

    Consciousness is the center of reality, because everything we experience, takes place within it. This means that every point that is observed, becomes part of our consciousness because we observe it. Everything that is observed, is experienced in consciousness. Because consciousness is the center of existence, everything that is experienced in it, becomes the center as well. Everything is experience, and experience exists in consciousness (the center of reality). As a result, only the experience of everything observed, is the relative center of reality.

    When discussing the center of the universe, we should think in cycles and relations, rather than experience. Because everything is experience, what we really want to know, is the relationship between different elements of this experience. We know the moon orbits the earth, and that the planets in our solar system orbit the sun. Nobody would state that the Earth doesn’t orbit the Sun, because Earth is the relative center of the universe. It doesn’t matter if the Earth or the sun is defined as the center, because the relationship between them is still the same. Earth orbits the Sun, no matter which are proclaimed the center. Again, both Earth and Sun are the center of the universe, because they are experienced in consciousness. But that has nothing to do with their relationship between each other, being different elements within our experience.

    The Moon orbits the Earth, the Earth orbits the Sun. These elements define how we experience time, because the speed of time is a result of their movements and cycles. What cycles does our solar system have? What does are solar system orbit? What does our galaxy orbit? These are the relationships that are relevant, regarding the center of the universe.

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  10. Brent April 4, 2011 at 3:01 am #

    Dr. Pam –
    I found your post from 2007 after googling for “center of the universe is relative” and “computer simulation of center of universe”. Isn’t it ironic that the Church censured Galileo for his observation that the Earth was not the center of the universe. And now 300 years later we find that, well, maybe the Church wasn’t so wrong, and that both were possibly correct. It is one of the difficult facets of the Christian faith to come to terms with knowledge that at first appears incomprehensible – but then science opens doors to understanding. Kind of like “a day is like a thousand years (to the Lord) and a thousand years but a day.” The concept appears self-contradictory at first.

    It’s not the Truth that has changed, but our perception of it, hmm? OK, so what I really want to know is, do you know of any computer simulations that show what a universe that revolved around a stationary Earth would look like. Not that I really need to “see” it – more I just want to know if, in fact, anyone has gone to the trouble to create the simulation. Your post is amazing by itself; almost entirely the scientific validation of the concept that I was looking for. But I am sure there are others. Can you advise or guide me?

    God bless you!

  11. etak April 30, 2012 at 6:38 pm #

    think we are only one of the solar systems spinning within the gratitional pull/sphere the core of the universe.this pull is weakening so the universe is expanding year after year. think there are other universes as well… and we are not the only alien around if each universe gives a chance to have an earth that is suitable for living organisms to evolove.

  12. Shahidur Rahman Sikder September 15, 2012 at 4:54 pm #

    “An individual respective very location is the present and the rest all locations are of the deep of the past”. In this way; in the universe, there has been no incidence of present and future at all at any site of space, all are submerged into their respective depths of the past. Such as; our home planet is present before us at this moment, likewise just at this time it is again submerged into the depth or the past from another place of space. That is to say; location of oneself is the present and all other remaining places have dived inside the deeper parts of the past of all.

    In or under the circumstances:

    In the universe, everything at all is the result of central or your location is central or our place is center or my brain is centre or from our location, position of our home planet is center point in the universe.

    Also see New Discovery of the Universe at http://t.co/jVFHtSCr

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