March 31, 2023

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The metric expansion of space is the increase of the distance between two distant parts of the universe with time. It is an intrinsic expansion whereby the scale of space itself changes. This is different from other examples of expansions and explosions in that, as far as observations can ascertain, it is a property of the entirety of the universe rather than a phenomenon that can be contained and observed from the outside. Metric expansion is a key feature of Big Bang cosmology, is modeled mathematically with the FLRW metric, and is a generic property of the Universe we inhabit. However, the model is valid only on large scales (roughly the scale of galaxy clusters and above). At smaller scales matter has become bound together under the influence of gravitational attraction and such things do not expand at the metric expansion rate as the Universe ages. As such, the only galaxies receding from one another as a result of metric expansion are those separated by cosmologically relevant scales larger than the length scales associated with the gravitational collapse that are possible in the age of the Universe given the matter density and average expansion rate. At the end of the early universe’s inflationary period, all the matter and energy in the Universe was set on an inertial trajectory consistent with the equivalence principle and Einstein’s general theory of relativity and this is when the precise and regular form of the universe’s expansion had its origin (that is, matter in the Universe is separating because it was separating in the past due to the inflaton field). According to measurements, the Universe’s expansion rate was decelerating until about 5 billion years ago due to the gravitational attraction of the matter content of the Universe, after which time the expansion began accelerating. In order to explain the acceleration physicists have postulated the existence of dark energy which appears in the simplest theoretical models as a cosmological constant. According to the simplest extrapolation of the currently-favored cosmological model (known as “ΛCDM”), this acceleration becomes more dominant into the future. While special relativity constrains objects in the Universe from moving faster than light with respect to each other when they are in a local, dynamical relationship, it places no theoretical constraint on the relative motion between two objects that are globally separated and out of causal contact. It is thus possible for two objects to become separated in space by more than the distance light could have travelled, which means that, if the expansion remains constant, the two objects will never come into causal contact. For example, galaxies that are more than approximately 4.5 gigaparsecs away from us are expanding away from us faster than light. We can still see such objects because the Universe in the past was expanding more slowly than it is today, so the ancient light being received from these objects is still able to reach us, though if the expansion continues unabated, there will never come a time that we will see the light from such objects being produced today (on a so-called “space-like slice of spacetime”) and vice versa because space itself is expanding between Earth and the source faster than any light can be exchanged. Because of the high rate of expansion, it is also possible for a distance between two objects to be greater than the value calculated by multiplying the speed of light by the age of the Universe. These details are a frequent source of confusion among amateurs and even professional physicists. Due to the non-intuitive nature of the subject and what has been described by some as “careless” choices of wording, certain descriptions of the metric expansion of space and the misconceptions to which such descriptions can lead are an ongoing subject of discussion in the realm of pedagogy and communication of scientific concepts.

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