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Somewhere in Leo

John Lanigan fantasises at the cutting edge of philosophical cosmology.

The wall surrounding the universe is a polished, mirror-like surface. Oh yes, the bad news is that we are in a prison; the good news is that it is quite a roomy prison. The mirror gives back the reflection of objects within its hollow a hundred, a thousand, an infinite number of times. This causes confusion for astronomers: many of the heavenly bodies they photograph are reflections, although some of them are real. All the same, as no more than one heavenly body is needed to trigger an infinity of reflections, reflections of reflections and reflections of reflections of reflections at opposite poles of the surrounding mirror, the number of 3-dimensional objects within the hollow is probably quite small.

Here we should mention that some argue that we do not live inside a sphere,but rather inside an egg: an oval. No-one, it is true, can say for certain that the reflections the astronomers observe are not indeed laterally elongated ones, shortened but fattened – as they would be if the hollow is egg-shaped. Almost everyone has visited a fairground, seen their image in distorting mirrors – an expanded image if convex, miniaturised if concave, stretched sideways if the glass approximates to the inner surface of an egg. No-one can say for certain that the cosmic reflections are not similar shortenings-and-fattenings: everything depends on the shape of the hollow. The galaxies, the nebulae, the individual stars which are the stock-in-trade of the astronomer could, in truth, be in general vastly differently-shaped structures, only the mirror reducing them to the familiar spirals, barred spirals, spheres, doughnuts, dumb-bells or irregular shapes.

Other than a spherical or an egg-shaped wall, cylindrical, pyramidal, cuboid and less regular walls are also argued for. Now all the proposals so far, excepting the irregular forms, mean that all the objects within the universe undergo a distortion which is at least uniform. The reflection will be the same at opposite poles of the mirror relative to the object. The irregular hypothesis, though, takes away this symmetry. It would mean that the reflection, or some reflections of the reflection, or some reflections of the reflection of the reflection and so on of an object could be elongated, others foreshortened, others expanded, others distorted in less simple ways. At the very least, it is not hard to imagine a reflection being simultaneously elongated and foreshortened, as in the fairground distorting mirror which is a basically a cut-away cylinder stood on-end which has concavities here and there up and down its height.

At this juncture why deny ourselves the pleasure of dwelling for a moment on the way, despite the great speeds at which the universe is said to be rushing outward, the appalling distances, the awful statistics, all-in-all the daily rehearsal of superlatives and sublimities that is the astronomer’s bread-and-butter, that when it comes down to it, times, distances, sizes are measured by staid, down-to-earth sciences like geometry and trigonometry, plotted with perspex set-squares, right-angles and dividers in the quiet of a fluorescent-lit study? Let us also enjoy the irony of astronomers talking about these processes beyond the grasp of our imaginations all the while sipping from cups of tea.

How was the insight that the inside surface of our prison is reflective arrived at? This is easily explained. From the acceptance of dream-images as reflections on the silvery or pearl-like inner surface of the cavities housing the brain and the spinal cord, it was but a short step. That advance in thought has sparked not only an understanding of the nature of the inside surface of the sphere containing the universe, but of other surfaces also. Certainly one of the clinching points that ushered in the realisation about the reflected nature of dreams was the flatness of dream-images. Everyone has tried to pick up or otherwise manipulate an object in their dream, only to find that the object eludes their grasp and their will, somehow and stubbornly does not lend itself to being made use of. We have all found ourselves in perilous situations in dreams, tried to escape and found ourselves paralysed, unable to subtract ourselves from the danger of the ravening tiger or the constrictor snake. You can’t get your fingers under what is only an image, a reflection; you can’t get a hold on it. Many boys will know the delusion of getting up close to a film or television screen, although they surely know that what they are attempting is impossible, trying to glimpse the thighs of a girl sashaying her skirts. “She has thighs, that is sure,” the argument begins, continuing “how can it be that, by looking up-from-under, they will not be visible?” Here it ends.

Along the way, the mirror insight has meant the end of a number of long-cherished views. It has meant the demise of the Expanding Universe. Cosmologists have held that the universe is in continual, even accelerating expansion. The evidence for this view lay in the belief that all galaxies were receding from us at speed, and that the further away they were the faster they were receding. The universal recession was supposedly proved by the red-shift, a shift of the light from the galaxies towards the red end of the spectrum, as perceived from Earth. A red shift is associated with objects travelling away from the observer. Even if knowledge of the wall around the universe had not put paid to this theory, there are two something elses that would have. One of them is connected with the Big Bang model.

Cosmologists told us that preceding the supposed expansion of the universe, all matter was gathered into a dot much smaller than an atom. Even at the time, some critics with a taste for hurtful polemic exclaimed: “We will not waste our time refuting this ridiculous notion. Why, my toenail alone contains innumerable atoms!” More patient observers of the debate likened this kind of objection to Johnson’s refutation of Bishop Berkeley’s idealism. (You will recall that Johnson pretended to refute Berkeley by kicking a stone to prove its physical existence.) Wise commentators replied that Johnson had not been properly understood. But let us allow the Big Bang theory to stand, at least for the present. Shall we go back to the very dense dot that was much smaller than an atom? We have to assume that what was to become the universe was contained inside it. It exploded, and its contents flew outward in all directions. Among these contents were parts that would become our galaxy, our sun, even our planet.

The cosmologists told us that therefore everything was receding from us, from our galaxy. But what about parts of the dot that were nearer to its centre than us? Surely we are not so provincial as to suppose that we were, and remain, at the centre of the dot? No; the parts that were nearer the centre than our part should be still coming after our galaxy, chasing us now from the site of the Big Bang. They started from further back, nearer to the centre. Our part had a head start. So how can the parts that followed us be receding from our galaxy? They cannot be. Thus the whole edifice of an Expanding Universe comes crumbling around its proponents’ ears.

The site of the Big Bang has been located somewhere in Leo. Wherever it may or may not have been located is, however, somewhat beside the point. The dot exploded, out we rushed preceded by and followed by certain other parts on the same trajectory. To recapitulate, the red shift, also of course known as the Doppler effect after its discoverer Christian Johann Doppler (1803-1853), refers to the fact that when bodies are moving away from us their light shifts towards the red end of the spectrum. This is because light waves emanating from a receding object are stretched out, each light wave departing from its source a little later, and so from a greater distance than its predecessor, and the longer the wavelength, the redder it is. This has been verified in practice. It will be true that parts that were nearer to the outside surface of the dot than we will exhibit red shift to us. They had a head start on us, they are accelerating faster than us. The parts that followed us, though, cannot be said to be receding. Our galaxy may be receding from them, just as the parts ahead of us are receding from us. But let us emphasize that it is we who are receding from our followers, not they from us. If recession is not universal, then the expansion edifice falls. Even one exception would ensure the house came down.

Astronomers also note a blue shift, displayed by bodies which are approaching us. Our followers can no more display such a blue-shift than they are capable of exhibiting a red-shift. They are not closing in on us, because we had a head start and are accelerating away from them. We are receding from them – but not they from us. The Expanding Universe turns out to be a flawed hypothesis for these reasons. Only if our followers were going backwards, back to the place somewhere in Leo where the Big Bang occurred – that is, only if they were receding from us – could they exhibit red-shift.

There is something else again. We were told by the astronomers that our galaxy, the Milky Way, was not in itself expanding. We were told that galaxies did not expand in themselves: only the universe as a whole expanded, and so also the distances between galaxies, the galaxies being carried along willy-nilly like logs in a river. The universe was expanding like a Spotted Dick pudding with raisins randomly distributed inside it, the raisins receding from each other because the dough was being stretched by the expansion of the pudding as a whole caused by the heat of the oven. The astronomers told us that compared to their size, the distances that separated galaxies were not disproportionately large. Our Spotted Dick is looking very raisin-rich. In sum, if most of the universe is occupied by galaxies, and if galaxies do not in or of themselves expand, whither the Expanding Universe? The astronomers also told us that the galaxies did not occur alone. Clouds of gas often linked galaxy and galaxy. They formed clusters. The clusters themselves did not occur alone. They formed super-clusters. Is it not idle to suppose that the super-clusters themselves do not form super-super-clusters? Now if galaxies do not in themselves expand, why any more should super-super-clusters expand? Why does not gravity come to the rescue of super-super-clusters every bit as much as it does to single galaxies to prevent them being torn apart by expanding space?

The most that can be said for these fallacies now laid bare is that, yes, the universe could be expanding, but the expansion is not potentially infinite. It will cease before it comes into contact with the mirror-like wall. “The exposure of a number of red herrings, wobbly skittles, purely mischievous diversionary manoeuvres” characterises the effect on previously-held beliefs of the insight that we live inside a spheroid with a mirror-like inside surface. There are among us some rather over-zealous Johnny-come-lately or born-again Steady-Staters who have used intemperate language in attempting to give the coup-de-grace to our opponents. Unfortunately, such invective ignores the patient work of generation upon generation, of supposition upon supposition, of trial-and-error, and a wise person distances themself from it.

It will not have escaped the attentive reader that there does remain one potential saviour, not of a universe with infinite space into which to expand, but of the red shift and of its corollary (given that the astronomers told us that everything around us exhibited this red-shift) – that all galaxies are receding from our own. This idea may appeal to certain kinds of religionist, and otherwise to profoundly anthropocentric conceptionists of the cosmos. It would give the lie to the siting of the Big Bang in Leo, and render absurd the ongoing quest for parts of the dot coming after us, just some way back, chasing our galaxy. The idea here is that our Milky Way was the very centre of the dot. If that were the case, then indeed everything else could be receding from us. But this view implies a degree of anthropo-, planetary, solar-systemic and galactic centrism which few will feel able to endorse. Meanwhile, studies aimed at identifying our followers, chasing our galaxy from the direction of Leo, are in progress.

© John Lanigan 2007

John Lanigan is a writer and translator (from Japanese, Italian, French) living in London. (laniganjp@yahoo.co.jp)

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