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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 Is the American Flag Displayed Backwards on Military Uniforms?
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In 1968, famed activist Abbie Hoffman decided to crash a meeting of the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington by showing up in a shirt depicting the American flag. Hoffman was quickly surrounded by police, who ripped his shirt off and arrested him for desecration of the Red, White, and Blue.

Hoffman’s arrest is notable today because, while it might be unpatriotic to some, wearing the American flag, burning it, or otherwise disrespecting it is not a violation of any federal law. In 1989, the Supreme Court ruled that it would be unconstitutional to prosecute any such action. Still, Americans have very fervent and strict attitudes toward displaying the flag, a longstanding symbol of our country’s freedom. According to the U.S. Flag Code, which was first published in 1923, you shouldn’t let the flag touch the ground or hang it upside-down. While there’s no express prohibition about reversing the image, it’s probably a safe bet you shouldn’t do that, either.

Yet branches of the U.S. military are often spotted with a seeming mirror reflection of the flag on their right shoulder. If you look at a member in profile, the canton—the rectangle with the stars—is on the right. Isn’t that backwards? Shouldn’t it look like the flag on the left shoulder?

The American flag appears on a military uniform
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Not really. The flag is actually facing forward, and it’s not an optical illusion.

When a service member marches or walks forward, they assume the position of a flagpole, with the flag sewn on their uniform meant to resemble a flag flapping in the breeze. With the canton on the right, the flag would be fluttering behind them. If it were depicted with the canton on the left, the flag would be flying backward—as though it had been hung by the stripes instead of the stars nearest to the pole. The position of the flag is noted in Army Regulation 670-1, mandating the star field should face forward. The official term for this depiction is “reverse side flag.”

As for Hoffman: His conviction was overturned on appeal. In 1970, while at a flag-themed art show in New York, he was invited to get up and speak. He wore a flag shirt for the occasion.

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 Causes Sinkholes?
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This week, a sinkhole opened up on the White House lawn—likely the result of excess rainfall on the "legitimate swamp" surrounding the storied building, a geologist told The New York Times. While the event had some suggesting we call for Buffy's help, sinkholes are pretty common. In the past few days alone, cavernous maws in the earth have appeared in Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, and of course Florida, home to more sinkholes than any other state.

Sinkholes have gulped down suburban homes, cars, and entire fields in the past. How does the ground just open up like that?

Sinkholes are a simple matter of cause and effect. Urban sinkholes may be directly traced to underground water main breaks or collapsed sewer pipelines, into which city sidewalks crumple in the absence of any structural support. In more rural areas, such catastrophes might be attributed to abandoned mine shafts or salt caverns that can't take the weight anymore. These types of sinkholes are heavily influenced by human action, but most sinkholes are unpredictable, inevitable natural occurrences.

Florida is so prone to sinkholes because it has the misfortune of being built upon a foundation of limestone—solid rock, but the kind that is easily dissolved by acidic rain or groundwater. The karst process, in which the mildly acidic water wears away at fractures in the limestone, leaves empty space where there used to be stone, and even the residue is washed away. Any loose soil, grass, or—for example—luxury condominiums perched atop the hole in the ground aren't left with much support. Just as a house built on a weak foundation is more likely to collapse, the same is true of the ground itself. Gravity eventually takes its toll, aided by natural erosion, and so the hole begins to sink.

About 10 percent of the world's landscape is composed of karst regions. Despite being common, sinkholes' unforeseeable nature serves as proof that the ground beneath our feet may not be as solid as we think.

A version of this story originally ran in 2014.

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