Type “Where is the center of the universe?” into Google and you’ll be surprised to learn that it’s actually an art gallery in Brooklyn, New York.
Of course, cosmologists who study the nature of the universe in which we live would disagree, but the real answer to this question has not been certain for very long. In fact, it’s changed many times over the centuries.
Our ancient ancestors believed Earth was the center of the universe until the 16th century when mathematician and astronomer Nicholas Copernicus pointed out that the Earth revolved around the sun. That made the sun the new center.
As astronomers continued to explore the night sky, however, they discovered that there is more to the universe than just the sun and planets in our tiny solar system.
Expanding the universe
It was not until the 20th century that humankind began to develop a real sense of just how grand and vast our universe truly is.
Between 1914 and 1919, American astronomer Harlow Shapley mapped distant stars in our home galaxy, the Milky Way to discover that Earth — and the rest of the solar system — is not at the center of the galaxy. In fact, we’re not even close: the sun is just one of 100 billion stars in the Milky Way, and it rests at an unimportant, obscure corner in one of the galaxy’s spiral arms, 10,000 light years from the galactic center.
Below is a look at some of the nearby stars to our solar system as well as where we are in the galaxy:
For a long time, astronomers thought that the Milky Way galaxy was all that existed in the universe. After all, it’s about 100,000 light years across — over 50,000 times larger than our solar system.
But soon after Shapley discovered that we were not at the center of our galaxy, American astronomer Edwin Hubble rocked the scientific community even further. Hubble showed that our galaxy isn’t even all that special — in fact, numerous other galaxies exist beyond the Milky Way that are billions of light years away.
Hubble’s monumental discovery expanded the known universe from thousands of light years to billions of light years. Then in 1929, he made another ground-breaking find: not only was the universe incredibly large, but it’s also growing larger by the second.
These two monumental findings came with a tiny problem: They made it far more difficult to pinpoint the universe’s center.
State of the universe
How do you find the center of an ever-expanding space? The answer depends on whether the universe is infinite or finite. Astronomers are still divided on this question.
If the universe is infinite, then you can say that each person is at the center of their own observable universe.
Think about it this way: There’s an infinite amount of space to your right and left and above and below you. You see all of the stars and galaxies in your observable universe expanding away from you, which makes it appear as if you’re at the center of it all. The same is true for the person standing next to you.
But in truth there is no center of the universe in this scenario: There’s only the perception of being at the center due to the nature of the infinite space expanding around you.
If the universe is finite, however, then it’s harder to imagine where the center might be. Picture a balloon expanding. The material the balloon is made of is finite, just like the space in the universe.
Now imagine that all the stars and galaxies rest on the surface of that expanding balloon. In theory, if you traveled the entire circumference of the universe, you would end up exactly where you started. And, you’d never really cross a central point on your expedition.
In this scenario, there is, again, no real center of the universe.
In the end, after centuries of research, it turns out that Earth is not the center of the universe. Nor is the sun, the solar system, or even the Milky Way galaxy.
As far as we know, there simply is no center of the universe — and that’s a conclusion that’s taken great, innovative minds to discover and accept.