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Narrated by Barrett Whitener
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The Possibility of a "Finite" and Yet "Unbounded" Universe
The development of non-Euclidean geometry led to
the recognition of the fact, that we can cast doubt on the
infiniteness of our space without coming into conflict with the laws
of thought or with experience. These questions
have already been treated in detail and with unsurpassable lucidity by
Helmholtz and Poincaré, whereas I can only touch on them briefly here.
In the first place, we imagine an existence in two dimensional space.
Flat beings with flat implements, and in particular flat rigid
measuring-rods, are free to move in a plane. For them nothing exists
outside of this plane: that which they observe to happen to themselves
and to their flat " things " is the all-inclusive reality of their
plane. In particular, the constructions of plane Euclidean geometry
can be carried out by means of the rods. In contrast to ours, the universe of
these beings is two-dimensional; but, like ours, it extends to
infinity. In their universe there is room for an infinite number of
identical squares made up of rods, i.e. its volume (surface) is
infinite. If these beings say their universe is " plane," there is
sense in the statement, because they mean that they can perform the
constructions of plane Euclidean geometry with their rods. In this
connection the individual rods always represent the same distance,
independently of their position.
Let us consider now a second two-dimensional existence, but this time
on a spherical surface instead of on a plane. The flat beings with
their measuring-rods and other objects fit exactly on this surface and
they are unable to leave it. Their whole universe of observation
extends exclusively over the surface of the sphere. Are these beings
able to regard the geometry of their universe as being plane geometry
and their rods withal as the realisation of "distance"? They cannot
do this. For if they attempt to realize a straight line, they will
obtain a curve, which we "three-dimensional beings" designate as a
great circle, i.e. a self-contained line of definite finite length,
which can be measured up by means of a measuring-rod. Similarly, this
universe has a finite area that can be compared with the area, of a
square constructed with rods. The great charm resulting from this
consideration lies in the recognition of the fact that the universe of
these beings is finite and yet has no limits.
But the spherical-surface beings do not need to go on a world-tour in
order to perceive that they are not living in a Euclidean universe.
They can convince themselves of this on every part of their "world,"
provided they do not use too small a piece of it. Starting from a
point, they draw "straight lines" (arcs of circles as judged in
three dimensional space) of equal length in all directions. They will
call the line joining the free ends of these lines a "circle." For a
plane surface, the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its
diameter, both lengths being measured with the same rod, is, according
to Euclidean geometry of the plane, equal to a constant value p, which
is independent of the diameter of the circle.
By means of this relation the spherical beings can determine
the radius of their universe, even when only a relatively small part of their world sphere
is available for their measurements. But if this part is very small
indeed, they will no longer be able to demonstrate that they are on a
spherical "world" and not on a Euclidean plane, for a small part of
a spherical surface differs only slightly from a piece of a plane of
the same size.
Thus if the spherical surface beings are living on a planet of which
the solar system occupies only a negligibly small part of the
spherical universe, they have no means of determining whether they are
living in a finite or in an infinite universe, because the "piece of
universe" to which they have access is in both cases practically
plane, or Euclidean. It follows directly from this discussion, that
for our sphere-beings the circumference of a circle first increases
with the radius until the "circumference of the universe" is
reached, and that it thenceforward gradually decreases to zero for
still further increasing values of the radius. During this process the
area of the circle continues to increase more and more, until finally
it becomes equal to the total area of the whole" world-sphere."
Perhaps the reader will wonder why we have placed our "beings" on a
sphere rather than on another closed surface. But this choice has its
justification in the fact that, of all closed surfaces, the sphere is
unique in possessing the property that all points on it are
equivalent. I admit that the ratio of the circumference c of a circle
to its radius r depends on r, but for a given value of r it is the
same for all points of the "worldsphere"; in other words, the "world-sphere" is a " surface of constant curvature."
To this two-dimensional sphere-universe there is a three-dimensional
analogy, namely, the three-dimensional spherical space which was
discovered by Riemann. its points are likewise all equivalent. It
possesses a finite volume, which is determined by its "radius".
Is it possible to imagine a spherical space? To imagine a
space means nothing else than that we imagine an epitome of our "space" experience, i.e. of experience that we can have in the
movement of "rigid" bodies. In this sense we can imagine a spherical
Suppose we draw lines or stretch strings in all directions from a
point, and mark off from each of these the distance r with a
measuring-rod. All the free end-points of these lengths lie on a
spherical surface. We can specially measure up the area (F) of this
surface by means of a square made up of measuring-rods.
With increasing values of r, F increases from
zero up to a maximum value which is determined by the "world-radius,"
but for still further increasing values of r, the area gradually
diminishes to zero. At first, the straight lines which radiate from
the starting point diverge farther and farther from one another, but
later they approach each other, and finally they run together again at
a "counter-point" to the starting point. Under such conditions they
have traversed the whole spherical space. It is easily seen that the
three-dimensional spherical space is quite analogous to the
two-dimensional spherical surface. It is finite (i.e. of finite
volume), and has no bounds.
It may be mentioned that there is yet another kind of curved space: "elliptical space." It can be regarded as a curved space in which the
two " counter-points " are identical (indistinguishable from each
other). An elliptical universe can thus be considered to some extent
as a curved universe possessing central symmetry.
It follows from what has been said, that closed spaces without limits
are conceivable. From amongst these, the spherical space (and the
elliptical) excels in its simplicity, since all points on it are
equivalent. As a result of this discussion, a most interesting
question arises for astronomers and physicists, and that is whether
the universe in which we live is infinite, or whether it is finite in
the manner of the spherical universe. Our experience is far from being
sufficient to enable us to answer this question. But the general
theory of relativity permits of our answering it with a moderate degree
The Structure of Space According to the General Theory of Relativity
According to the general theory of relativity, the geometrical
properties of space are not independent, but they are determined by
matter. Thus we can draw conclusions about the geometrical structure
of the universe only if we base our considerations on the state of the
matter as being something that is known. We know from experience that,
for a suitably chosen co-ordinate system, the velocities of the stars
are small as compared with the velocity of transmission of light. We
can thus as a rough approximation arrive at a conclusion as to the
nature of the universe as a whole, if we treat the matter as being at
The behavior of measuring-rods and clocks is influenced by gravitational fields, i.e.
by the distribution of matter. This in itself is sufficient to exclude
the possibility of the exact validity of Euclidean geometry in our
universe. But it is conceivable that our universe differs only
slightly from a Euclidean one, and this notion seems all the more
probable, since calculations show that the metrics of surrounding
space is influenced only to an exceedingly small extent by masses even
of the magnitude of our sun. We might imagine that, as regards
geometry, our universe behaves analogously to a surface which is
irregularly curved in its individual parts, but which nowhere departs
appreciably from a plane: something like the rippled surface of a
lake. Such a universe might fittingly be called a quasi-Euclidean
universe. As regards its space it would be infinite. But calculation
shows that in a quasi-Euclidean universe the average density of matter
would necessarily be nil. Thus such a universe could not be inhabited
by matter everywhere.
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 between
the space-expanse of the universe and the average density of matter in
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