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If the Universe Is Expanding, What Does It Expand Into?

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If the universe is expanding, then what does it expand into?

Richard Muller:

The universe doesn't have to be expanding into anything in order to expand. I know that sounds ridiculous, so let me give you a different example that is easier to understand. 

Imagine that you have a line that goes on forever. On that line, you have a mark every inch. There are an infinite number of inches. Now move each marker so that they are separated by two inches. The whole pattern has expanded. It still goes to infinity, but the markers are further apart. The pattern has expanded, but the length is still infinite. 

Now a new example: Suppose you have a long piece of rubber, going all the way to infinity. (That piece of rubber represents the universe.) The rubber has marks on it every inch. Now stretch the rubber, until the markers are two inches apart. It still goes to infinity—but it has expanded.

Physicists think of "space" not as emptiness, but similar to a piece of rubber. (But they don't call it rubber; they call it the "vacuum." "Particles," in physics, are just vibrations of the vacuum.) The vacuum can expand, just like the piece of rubber. But because it goes all the way to infinity, it doesn't need more space. A clever way to say it is that "there's lots of room at infinity". (That's clever, but it doesn't really explain anything.)

Now here is something new that might confuse you, or might help. In the standard physics theory, the galaxies are all getting farther apart; that is the expansion of the universe. Yet in the way the theory describes it (I mean in General Relativity Theory), none of the galaxies are actually moving. All that is happening is that the amount of space (vacuum) in between them is increasing.

No, you will not learn this in school, or even in college (unless you have an extraordinary professor). It is usually taught in graduate school, when you are earning a Ph.D. degree. At that point the language you will encounter is this: "In the Big Bang Theory, all galaxies have fixed coordinates. (That means they are not moving.) The 'expansion' is described by the 'metric tensor,' which describes the distances between those fixed coordinates. In the Big Bang Theory, it is the metric tensor which is changing; that represents the expansion of the universe, even though the galaxies aren't moving. The recent discovery of accelerated expansion means that the rate of expansion is increasing."

Maybe you've read about the curvature of space. Put a black hole between two unmoving objects, and the distance between them will suddenly increase—even though they haven't moved. So "distance" is not as simple as people thought. It was Einstein who came up with the remarkable idea that "space" (that is, vacuum) is flexible; it can curve and stretch.

I expect you will find this to be very confusing. That's not a bad sign; it is a good one. When you learn new things that are completely different than you ever imagined, then "confusion" is the first step.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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Big Questions
Why Do Fruitcakes Last So Long?
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Fruitcake is a shelf-stable food unlike any other. One Ohio family has kept the same fruitcake uneaten (except for periodic taste tests) since it was baked in 1878. In Antarctica, a century-old fruitcake discovered in artifacts left by explorer Robert Falcon Scott’s 1910 expedition remains “almost edible,” according to the researchers who found it. So what is it that makes fruitcake so freakishly hardy?

It comes down to the ingredients. Fruitcake is notoriously dense. Unlike almost any other cake, it’s packed chock-full of already-preserved foods, like dried and candied nuts and fruit. All those dry ingredients don’t give microorganisms enough moisture to reproduce, as Ben Chapman, a food safety specialist at North Carolina State University, explained in 2014. That keeps bacteria from developing on the cake.

Oh, and the booze helps. A good fruitcake involves plenty of alcohol to help it stay shelf-stable for years on end. Immediately after a fruitcake cools, most bakers will wrap it in a cheesecloth soaked in liquor and store it in an airtight container. This keeps mold and yeast from developing on the surface. It also keeps the cake deliciously moist.

In fact, fruitcakes aren’t just capable of surviving unspoiled for months on end; some people contend they’re better that way. Fruitcake fans swear by the aging process, letting their cakes sit for months or even years at a stretch. Like what happens to a wine with age, this allows the tannins in the fruit to mellow, according to the Wisconsin bakery Swiss Colony, which has been selling fruitcakes since the 1960s. As it ages, it becomes even more flavorful, bringing out complex notes that a young fruitcake (or wine) lacks.

If you want your fruitcake to age gracefully, you’ll have to give it a little more hooch every once in a while. If you’re keeping it on the counter in advance of a holiday feast a few weeks away, the King Arthur Flour Company recommends unwrapping it and brushing it with whatever alcohol you’ve chosen (brandy and rum are popular choices) every few days. This is called “feeding” the cake, and should happen every week or so.

The aging process is built into our traditions around fruitcakes. In Great Britain, one wedding tradition calls for the bride and groom to save the top tier of a three-tier fruitcake to eat until the christening of the couple’s first child—presumably at least a year later, if not more.

Though true fruitcake aficionados argue over exactly how long you should be marinating your fruitcake in the fridge, The Spruce says that “it's generally recommended that soaked fruitcake should be consumed within two years.” Which isn't to say that the cake couldn’t last longer, as our century-old Antarctic fruitcake proves. Honestly, it would probably taste OK if you let it sit in brandy for a few days.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Stuffing and Dressing?
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For carbohydrate consumers, nothing completes a Thanksgiving meal like stuffing—shovelfuls of bread, celery, mushrooms, and other ingredients that complement all of that turkey protein.

Some people don’t say “stuffing,” though. They say “dressing.” In these calamitous times, knowing how to properly refer to the giant glob of insulin-spiking bread seems necessary. So what's the difference?

Let’s dismiss one theory off the bat: Dressing and stuffing do not correlate with how the side dish is prepared. A turkey can be stuffed with dressing, and stuffing can be served in a casserole dish. Whether it’s ever seen the inside of a bird is irrelevant, and anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong and should be met with suspicion, if not outright derision.

The terms are actually separated due to regional dialects. “Dressing” seems to be the favored descriptor for southern states like Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia, while “stuffing” is preferred by Maine, New York, and other northern areas. (Some parts of Pennsylvania call it "filling," which is a bit too on the nose, but to each their own.)

If “stuffing” stemmed from the common practice of filling a turkey with carbs, why the division? According to The Huffington Post, it may have been because Southerners considered the word “stuffing” impolite, so never embraced it.

While you should experience no material difference in asking for stuffing or dressing, when visiting relatives it might be helpful to keep to their regionally-preferred word to avoid confusion. Enjoy stuffing yourselves.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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