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The Limit of an Expanding Universe

How will the world come to an end? This is one of the most controversial questions
nowadays. Scientists believe that the answer is hidden in the theory of the universes beginning.
Although measurements were begun in 1912 by Vesto Slipher at Lowell Observatory in Arizona
[1]
, the first clue of an expanding universe was revealed by Willem de Sitter in 1917: the most
remote celestial objects would be moving away from us [2]. The assumption that the universe
was static was completely shattered in 1929 by Edwin Hubble and Milton Humason at Mount
Wilson, California [3].

We can measure the motions of galaxies, with respect to the Earth, by observing the shifts
in their spectras wavelength. The first thought was that these were Doppler shifts, and so, using
=c/f, astronomers adapted the equation of the Doppler effect as follows:

0 =S
c +v
cv
[4]
,

where 0 is the wavelength of light measured now on earth from a receding source, S represents
the wavelength measured in the rest frame of the source at the time of emission, v is the speed of
the receding source and c the speed of light. Wavelengths that come from receding sources are
always towards the red end of the visible spectrum (longer wavelengths) [5]. This increase in
wavelength is known as the redshift.
By analyzing the redshifts of many distant galaxies, Edwin Hubble reached an impressive result:
a galaxys speed of recession is proportional to its distance from the Earth [6]. Today is known as
the Hubble law. By carrying out these experiments, Hubble also dismissed a common theory of
his time, that we are positioned at the center of the universe. His conclusion, the universe looks

1 H.D. Young and R.A. Freedman, Sears and Zemanskys fourteenth edition of
University Physics with Modern Physics, page 1527

2 Sir Arthur Eddington, The Expanding Universe, 1933, page 1

3 H.D. Young and R.A. Freedman, Sears and Zemanskys fourteenth edition of
University Physics with Modern Physics, page 1527

4 H.D. Young and R.A. Freedman, Sears and Zemanskys fourteenth edition of
University Physics with Modern Physics, page 1527

5 Oxford University Press, seventh edition of the Dictionary of Physics, page 495
more or less the same, no matter where in the universe we are, is called the cosmological
principle [7]. The raw interpretation of it is given by Roger A. Freedman: no matter which
galaxy you call home, you will see all the other galaxies receding from you in accordance with
the same Hubble law that we observe from Earth.
The scientists automatically deduced from the Hubble law that sometime in the past, the universe
was far more condensed than it is today. It was blown apart in a rapid expansion, in time,
reaching todays observable state. This was first put into words by George Lamatre in the 1930s,
calling it the Big Bang theory [8].
Taking into account the expansion described by Hubble, the general theory of relativity takes an
interesting turn. As the increased wavelength is not caused by a Doppler shift, it is believed that
it comes from the expansion of space itself [9]. This theory raised more questions than it
answered. Is the universe bounded or unbounded? This is one of the most important unanswered
questions of physics.
When tackling the analysis of an expanding universe, the gravitational attractions between
galaxies should slow the initial expansion [10]. If these attractions are strong enough, at some
point, the expansion will stop. In order to determine whether the universe is expanding
indefinitely or not, theoreticians periodically evaluate the universes mean density. If it is below a
critical level (known as critical density), the gravitational attractions wont be able to stop the
expansion. However, if it exceeds the critical density, the universe is bounded, meaning that an
eventual contraction will occur; this is known as the Big Crunch theory [11]. It was calculated that
the universes current critical density is 8.50 * 10 -27kg/m3 [12]. How? After extensive studies of the
average density in different galaxies and clusters of galaxies, astronomers have found several
ways to calculate it. For example, one way is to choose a patch of sky and count the number of
galaxies in it. You can calculate the average density of luminous matter based on an average

6 H.D. Young and R.A. Freedman, Sears and Zemanskys fourteenth edition of
University Physics with Modern Physics, page 1528

7 H.D. Young and R.A. Freedman, Sears and Zemanskys fourteenth edition of
University Physics with Modern Physics, page 1528

8 Oxford University Press, seventh edition of the Dictionary of Physics, page 43

9 H.D. Young and R.A. Freedman, Sears and Zemanskys fourteenth edition of
University Physics with Modern Physics, page 1529

10 H.D. Young and R.A. Freedman, Sears and Zemanskys fourteenth edition of
University Physics with Modern Physics, page 1530

11 Oxford University Press, seventh edition of the Dictionary of Physics, page 44


stars mass and the average number of stars in a galaxy. There are other variables that need to be
taken into account, such as the small amounts of gas and dust between the stars [13]. Another
technique is the study of galaxies motion within clusters of galaxies. Measurements show that
galaxies have different redshifts, which means they are moving with respect to the clusters mass
center. The speeds of these motions depend on the total mass of the cluster. The efficiency of this
method consists in the fact that by calculating the mentioned speeds, the average density of all
kinds of matter can be determined, both luminous and non-luminous [14]. It was approximated
that the average density of all matter in the universe is 31.5% of the critical density and that the
average density of luminous matter is 4.9% of the critical density [15]. Therefore, most of the
matter does not emit electromagnetic radiation. This is known as dark matter. Even with todays
technology, little is known about this kind of matter.
Due to the fact that the measurements showed the average density of matter to be less than the
critical density, the first assumption is that the universe is unbounded and will continue to expand
indefinitely. To confirm this, other measurements needed to be taken. It is known that the further
away an object is, the more time is required for the light to reach the reference point. Therefore,
we can look further back in time if the distance between the galaxy and the reference point is
increased. If the gravitational attractions between galaxies slowed the expansion, in the past it
shouldve been more rapid.
If we look back in time, it can easily be seen that, periodically, we came across some
results that were considered a revolution in science. This is also the case of cosmology in 1998,
when two teams of astronomers demonstrated that the expansion of our universe was
accelerating. So, not only our universe could be unbounded, but it expands indefinitely at
accelerating speeds. Moreover, these new findings suggest that the universe in not influenced by
luminous matter or dark matter, but by the energy of empty space [16]. This energy has no
gravitational effect, emits no electromagnetic radiation and is known as dark energy.

12 H.D. Young and R.A. Freedman, Sears and Zemanskys fourteenth edition of
University Physics with Modern Physics, page 1531

13 H.D. Young and R.A. Freedman, Sears and Zemanskys fourteenth edition of
University Physics with Modern Physics, page 1532

14 H.D. Young and R.A. Freedman, Sears and Zemanskys fourteenth edition of
University Physics with Modern Physics, page 1532

15 H.D. Young and R.A. Freedman, Sears and Zemanskys fourteenth edition of
University Physics with Modern Physics, page 1532

16 Mario Livio, John Wiley and Sons edition of An accelerating universe: infinite
expansion, the cosmological constant and the beauty of the cosmos, 2000, page 1