Does Space Expand?

Cosmic Variance
By Sean Carroll
Oct 6, 2008 9:35 PMNov 5, 2019 8:17 AM


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There seems to be something in the air these days that is making people speak out against the idea that space is expanding. For evidence, check out these two recent papers:

The kinematic origin of the cosmological redshift Emory F. Bunn, David W. Hogg A diatribe on expanding space J.A. Peacock Expanding Space: the Root of all Evil? Matthew J. Francis, Luke A. Barnes, J. Berian James, Geraint F. Lewis

Admittedly, my first sentence is grossly unfair. The correct thing way to paraphrase the underlying argument here is to say that "space is expanding" is not the right way to think about certain observable properties of particles in general-relativistic cosmologies. These aren't crackpots arguing against the Big Bang; these are real scientists attacking the Does the Earth move around the Sun? problem. I.e., they are asking whether these are the right words to be attaching to certain indisputable features of a particular theory. Respectable scientific theories are phrased as formal systems, usually in terms of equations. But most of us don't think in equations, we think in words and/or pictures. This is true not only for non-specialists interested in science, but for scientists themselves; we're not happy to just write down the equations, we want sensible ways to think about them. Inevitably, we "translate" the equations into natural-language words. But these translations aren't the original theory; they are more like an analogy. And analogies tend to break under pressure. So the respectable cosmologists above are calling into question the invocation of expanding space in certain situations. Bunn and Hogg want to argue against a favorite cosmological talking point, that the cosmological redshift is not an old-fashioned Doppler shift, but a novel feature of general relativity due to the expansion of space. Peacock argues against the notion of expanding space more generally, admitting that while it is occasionally well-defined, it often can be exchanged for ordinary Newtonian kinematics by an appropriate choice of coordinates. They each have a point. And there are equally valid points for the other side. But it's not anything to get worked up about. These are not arguments about the theory -- everyone agrees on what GR predicts for observables in cosmology. These are only arguments about an analogy, i.e. the translation into English words. For example, the motivation of B&H is to do away with confusions in students caused by the "rubber sheet" analogy for expanding space. Taken too seriously, thinking of space as an expanding rubber sheet convinces students that the galaxy should be expanding, or that Brooklyn should be expanding -- and that's not a prediction of GR, it's just wrong. In fact, they argue, it is perfectly possible to think of the cosmological redshift as a Doppler shift, and that's what we should do. Well, maybe. On the other hand, there is another pernicious mistake that people tend to make: the tendency, quite understandable in Newtonian mechanics, to talk about the relative speed between two far-away objects. Subtracting vectors at distinct points, if you like. In general relativity, you just can't do that. And realizing that you just can't do that helps avoid confusions along the lines of "Don't sufficiently distant galaxies travel faster than light?" And reifying a distinction between the Doppler shift and the cosmological redshift is a good first step toward appreciating that you can't compare the velocities of two objects that are far away from each other. The point is, arguments about analogies (and, by extension, the proper words in which to translate some well-accepted scientific phenomenon) are not "right" or "wrong." The analogies are simply "useful" or "useless," "helpful" or "misleading." And which of these categories they fall into may depend on the context. Personally, I think "expanding space" is an extremely useful concept. My universe will keep expanding.

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