The shape of the universe is determined by a struggle between the momentum of expansion and the pull of gravity. The rate of expansion is expressed by the Hubble Constant, Ho,
while the strength of gravity depends on the density and pressure of the
matter in the universe. If the pressure of the matter is low, as is the case
with most forms of matter we know of, then the fate of the universe is governed
by the density. If the density of the universe is less than the "critical
density" which is proportional to the square of the Hubble constant, then
the universe will expand forever. If the density of the universe is greater
than the "critical density", then gravity will eventually win and the universe
will collapse back on itself, the so called "Big Crunch". However, the results
of the WMAP mission and observations of distant supernova have suggested
that the expansion of the universe is actually accelerating which implies
the existence of a form of matter with a strong negative pressure, such as
the cosmological constant.
This strange form of matter is also sometimes referred to as the "dark energy".
If dark energy in fact plays a significant role in the evolution of the universe,
then in all likelihood the universe will continue to expand forever.
Geometry of the Universe
density of the universe also determines its geometry. If the density of the
universe exceeds the critical density, then the geometry of space is closed
and positively curved like the surface of a sphere. This implies that initially
parallel photon paths converge slowly, eventually cross, and return back
to their starting point (if the universe lasts long enough). If the density
of the universe is less than the critical density, then the geometry of space
is open, negatively curved like the surface of a saddle. If the density of
the universe exactly equals the critical density, then the geometry of the
universe is flat like a sheet of paper. Thus, there is a direct link between
the geometry of the universe and its fate.
The simplest version of the inflationary theory, an extension of the Big Bang
theory, predicts that the density of the universe is very close to the critical
density, and that the geometry of the universe is flat, like a sheet of paper.
That is the result confirmed by the WMAP science.
Measurements from WMAP
The WMAP spacecraft can measure the basic parameters of the Big Bang theory including the geometry of the universe. If the universe were open, the brightest microwave background fluctuations
(or "spots") would be about half a degree across. If the universe were flat,
the spots would be about 1 degree across. While if the universe were closed,
the brightest spots would be about 1.5 degrees across.
Recent measurements (c. 2001) by a number of ground-based and balloon-based experiments, including MAT/TOCO, Boomerang, Maxima, and DASI,
have shown that the brightest spots are about 1 degree across. Thus the universe
was known to be flat to within about 15% accuracy prior to the WMAP results.
WMAP has confirmed this result with very high accuracy and precision. We
now know that the universe is flat with only a 2% margin of error.
Last updated: Monday, 03-21-2005