The Cosmos


Could the Universe Be Lopsided?

One hundred years ago, Einstein re-envisioned space and time as a rippling, twisting, flexible fabric called spacetime. His theory of general relativity showed how matter and energy change the shape of this fabric. One might expect, therefore, that the fabric of the universe, strewn with stars, galaxies, and clouds of particles, would be like a college student’s dorm room: a mess of rumpled, crumpled garments.

Indeed, if you look at the universe on the scale of stars, galaxies, and even galaxy clusters, you’ll find it puckered and furrowed by the gravity of massive objects. But take the wider view—the cosmologists’ view, which encompasses the entire visible universe—and the fabric of the universe is remarkably smooth and even, no matter which direction you turn. Look up, down, left, or right and count up the galaxies you see: you’ll find it’s roughly the same from every angle. The cosmic microwave background, the cooled-down relic of radiation from the early universe, demonstrates the same remarkable evenness on the very largest scale.

A computer simulation of the 'cosmic web' reveals the great filaments, made largely of dark matter, located in the space between galaxies. By NASA, ESA, and E. Hallman (University of Colorado, Boulder), via Wikimedia Commons

Physicists call a universe that appears roughly similar in all directions “isotropic.” Because the geometry of spacetime is shaped by the distribution of matter and energy, an isotropic universe must posses a geometric structure that looks the same in all directions as well. The only three such possibilities for three-dimensional spaces are positively curved (the surface of a hypersphere, like a beach ball but in a higher dimension), negatively curved (the surface of a hyperboloid, shaped like a saddle or potato chip), or flat. Russian physicist Alexander Friedmann, Belgian cleric and mathematician Georges Lemaître and others incorporated these three geometries into some of the first cosmological solutions of Einstein’s equations. (By solutions, we mean mathematical descriptions of how the three spatial dimensions of the universe behave over time, given the type of geometry and the distribution of matter and energy.) Supplemented by the work of American physicist Howard Robertson and British mathematician Arthur Walker, this class of isotropic solutions has become the standard for descriptions of the universe in the Big Bang theory.

However, in 1921 Edward Kasner—best known for his coining of the term “Googol” for the number 1 followed by 100 zeroes—demonstrated that there was another class of solutions to Einstein’s equations: anisotropic, or “lopsided,” solutions.

Known as the Kasner solutions, these cosmic models describe a universe that expands in two directions while contracting in the third. That is clearly not the case with the actual universe, which has grown over time in all three directions. But the Kasner solutions become more intriguing when you apply them to a kind of theory called a Kaluza-Klein model, in which there are unseen extra dimensions beyond space and time. Thus space could theoretically have three expanding dimensions and a fourth, hidden, contracting dimension. Physicists Alan Chodos and Steven Detweiler explored this concept in their paper “Where has the fifth dimension gone?

Kasner’s is far from the only anisotropic model of the universe. In 1951, physicist Abraham Taub applied the shape-shifting mathematics of Italian mathematician Luigi Bianchi to general relativity and revealed even more baroque classes of anisotropic solutions that expand, contract or pulsate differently in various directions. The most complex of these, categorized as Bianchi type-IX, turned out to have chaotic properties and was dubbed by physicist Charles Misner the “Mixmaster Universe” for its resemblance to the whirling, twirling kitchen appliance.

Like a cake rising in a tray, while bubbling and quivering on the sides, the Mixmaster Universe expands and contracts, first in one dimension and then in another, while a third dimension just keeps expanding. Each oscillation is called a Kasner epoch. But then, after a certain number of pulses, the direction of pure expansion abruptly switches. The formerly uniformly expanding dimension starts pulsating, and one of those formerly pulsating starts uniformly expanding. It is as if the rising cake were suddenly turned on its side and another direction started rising instead, while the other directions, including the one that was previously rising, just bubbled.

One of the weird things about the Mixmaster Universe is that if you tabulate the number of Kasner epochs in each era, before the behavior switches, it appears as random as a dice roll. For example, the universe might oscillate in two directions five times, switch, oscillate in two other directions 17 times, switch again, pulsate another way twice, and so forth—without a clear pattern. While the solution stems from deterministic general relativity, it seems unpredictable. This is called deterministic chaos.

Could the early moments of the universe have been chaotic, and then somehow regularized over time, like a smoothed-out pudding? Misner initially thought so, until he realized that the Mixmaster Universe couldn’t smooth out on its own. However, it could have started out “lopsided,” then been stretched out during an era of ultra-rapid expansion called inflation until its irregularities were lost from sight.

As cosmologists have collected data from instruments such as the Hubble Space Telescope, Planck Satellite, and WMAP satellite (now retired), the bulk of the evidence supports the idea that our universe is indeed isotropic. But a minority of researchers have used measurements of the velocities of galaxies and other observations, such as an odd line up of temperature fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background dubbed the “Axil of Evil” to assert that the universe could be slightly irregular after all.

For example, starting in 2008, Alexander Kashlinsky, a researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, and his colleagues have statistically analyzed cosmic microwave background data gathered by first the WMAP satellite and the Planck satellite to show that, in addition to their motion due to cosmic expansion, many galaxy clusters seem to be heading toward a particular direction on the sky. He dubbed this phenomenon “dark flow,” and suggested that it is evidence of a previously-unseen cosmic anisotropy known as a “tilt.” Although the mainstream astronomical community has disputed Kashlinsky’s conclusion, he has continued to gather statistical evidence for dark flow and the idea of tilted universes.

Whether or not the universe really is “lopsided,” it is intriguing to study the rich range of solutions of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Even if the preponderance of evidence today points to cosmic regularity, who knows when a new discovery might call that into question, and compel cosmologists to dust off alternative ideas. Such is the extraordinary flexibility of Einstein’s masterful theory: a century after its publication, physicists are still exploring its possibilities.

Go Deeper
Editor’s picks for further reading

Ars Technica: Is the lopsided Universe telling us we need new theories?
Science writer Matthew Francis asks whether the “axis of evil” reveals anything meaningful about the fundamental laws of physics.

Ask an Astronomer: What do “homogeneity” and “isotropy” mean?
A brief introduction to what astronomers mean when they talk about homogeneity and isotropy.

New Scientist: Planck shows almost perfect cosmos – plus axis of evil
A summary of conclusions from the Planck mission, which created the highest resolution map of the entire cosmic microwave background radiation.

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Paul Halpern

    Paul Halpern is Professor of Physics at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia. A prolific author, he has written thirteen science books, including "Einstein's Dice and Schrödinger’s Cat: How Two Great Minds Battled Quantum Randomness to Create a Unified Theory of Physics" (Basic Books). His interests range from space, time and higher dimensions to cultural aspects of science. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, Fulbright Scholarship, and an Athenaeum Literary Award, he has appeared on the History Channel, the Discovery Channel, the PBS series "Future Quest," and "The Simpsons 20th Anniversary Special." Halpern's books include "Time Journeys," "Cosmic Wormholes," "The Cyclical Serpent," "Faraway Worlds," "The Great Beyond," "Brave New Universe," "What's Science Ever Done for Us?," "Collider," and most recently "Edge of the Universe: A Voyage to the Cosmic Horizon and Beyond" (Wiley 2012). More information about his writings can be found at

    • Anonymous

      Some ideas I’ve read about how the big bang came to happen suggest the sudden appearance of an irregularity in forces that had previously been in equilibrium. Could it be that these irregularities were greater in the past and have smoothed out over time?

      Years ago I read that the universe is like a sphere but in three dimensions. Meaning that moving in a straight line through space is like walking in a straight line on the surface of the earth – you will eventually return to your starting point. Is that view still held? (Probably revealing my insufficient three dimensional thinking here, but a related question…do we know from which direction, relative to the earth, the big bang emanated?)

      • mark

        Just a quick answer to u r we know from which direction, relative to the earth, the big bang emanated?
        The short answer is No. Due to the inflationary period just after the big bang.
        A more complicated answer would be -..Yes, I am the centre of the universe

        • Anonymous

          LOL. Thanks. 🙂

    • mpc755

      Our Universe is a larger version of a galactic polar jet.

      ‘Was the universe born spinning?’

      “The universe was born spinning and continues to do so around a preferred axis”

      Our Universe spins around a preferred axis because it is a larger version of a galactic polar jet.

      ‘Mysterious Cosmic ‘Dark Flow’ Tracked Deeper into Universe’

      “The clusters appear to be moving along a line extending from our solar system toward Centaurus/Hydra, but the direction of this motion is less certain. Evidence indicates that the clusters are headed outward along this path, away from Earth, but the team cannot yet rule out the opposite flow. “We detect motion along this axis, but right now our data cannot state as strongly as we’d like whether the clusters are coming or going,” Kashlinsky said.”

      The clusters are headed along this path because our Universe is a larger version of a polar jet.

      It’s not the Big Bang; it’s the Big Ongoing.

      ‘Dark matter’ is now understood to fill what would otherwise be considered to be empty space.

      ‘Cosmologists at Penn Weigh Cosmic Filaments and Voids’

      “Dark matter … permeate[s] all the way to the center of the voids.”

      ‘No Empty Space in the Universe –Dark Matter Discovered to Fill Intergalactic Space’

      “A long standing mystery on where the missing dark matter is has been solved by the research. There is no empty space in the universe. The intergalactic space is filled with dark matter.”

      Dark matter which fills the space unoccupied by particles of matter is otherwise known as the aether.

      Dark energy is aether continuously emitted into the Universal jet.

      Our Universe is a larger version of the following artist’s image of a galactic polar jet.

      ‘The Milky Way’s dark matter halo appears to be lopsided’

      “the emerging picture of the dark matter halo of the Milky Way is dominantly lopsided in nature.”

      The Milky Way’s halo is not a clump of dark matter traveling along with the Milky Way. The Milky Way’s halo is lopsided due to the matter in the Milky Way moving through and displacing the aether, analogous to a submarine moving through and displacing the water.

      The Milky Way’s halo is the state of displacement of the aether.

      The Milky Way moves through and curves spacetime.

      The Milky Way’s halo is curved spacetime.

      The state of displacement of the aether is curved spacetime.

      The state of displacement of the aether is gravity.

    • Ollie in Seattle

      To assume the universe by 3 dimensional measurements is a bit of an presumption..

      Consider the following.
      -If I draw a 3 dimensional human figure on a piece of paper sitting on a chair eating an apple. Then I crumple that paper up. as far as the drawing of the 3 dimensional figure is concerned its world has not changed. The paper may be crumpled but his head is still connected to his neck, he is still sitting on a chair, and his existence is still what it was in that he is in the process of eating an apple. his drawing has not changed while the paper medium he is on might be turned upside down, crumpled, even if it is torn or shredded into a million pieces.. that drawing still exists on that paper medium.
      ——–If i were to erase the drawing with an eraser.. the data on that paper would not be destroyed. It would be removed from the paper condensed into small clumps that roll off the page, but if you took the time you could in theory separate the clumps into their original pieces and restore that image and the man would still be on that chair in that moment of time i placed him in. And he would know nothing of what had happened.

      -If you were in a 3d environment in a video game and wanted to get a grasp for your universe you could measure the world you exist in, search the boundaries of your world based on the phisics of that world in the game. but would be incapable of even comprehending what exists outside the universe of that game or what is happening to that game.
      ——–How would it know if its existence were frozen in time within a 3 dimensional CD or Flash disk?
      ——–How would it know if its existence were one of multiple spread across millions of computers or consoles each with a different set of potential outcomes and states of existence.

      —————-MORE IMPORTANTLY there is nothing granted within the physics of that universe in that game that would allow any sentience within the game to measure or recognize or comprehend anything outside of its universe.

      Even if the universe has a shape. What we perceive of it may not be the shape of the universe but just another sub layer within that universe that we are capable of understanding..

      we are shackled by our own limited grasp granted to us by our finite preceptions

    • There are actually two different types of time.

      1) Ultimate Time: If you removed all matter and energy (all particles) from the universe and were left with only an observer (for instance Einstein) and his pocket watch… would time still exist?

      Yes… that is ultimate time in a null universe. This would be unchangeable constant flow (NOTE: but the pocket watch is ticking away seconds from our time frame, and in an empty universe it is NOT time as we know it… maybe time does not exist?).

      2) Field Time: As soon as you step back into the what Einstein calls 4-D space-time (FPT field with tension on it) everything is completely regulated by the field tension. This is completely variable.

      The field tension is the universal cosmic speedometer.

      If the tension goes up… gravity goes up, and so does the speed of light and everything else with it.

      That includes any type of measuring device and the speed your brain is working.

      Increase or decrease tension and it changes everything along with it, that’s all electro-magnetic phenomena, vibrations… everything.

      It’s like being a character in a movie and you don’t know the speed the projector is running… fast, slow, stop, start… you don’t know.

      Net effect: you might not notice anything.

      But if you could remove yourself from the projector, take a step away from everything and take a look back, you would see the speed everything is happening.

      If the tension has been changing over billions and billions of years… this would be readily visible as red-shifted light.

      I’m talking about something completely independent from everything.

      Like H. George Wells sitting in the time machine.

      Anything Einstein said or proved is completely irrelevant to George.

      George can see things happening at all kinds of different speeds… and everyone else is completely unaware of it.

      The same thing can be happening without a time machine.

      There is no way to know the speed things are really happening.

      If everything is happening very slowly so is the way the brain see’s it.

      You have to think a level or two deeper to understand and most people can’t.

      There was an episode of STV with a planet with fast time. The inhabitants of the planet were completely unaware they were moving so fast. Same thing is true for anyone / everything… there is no way to know your true speed (unless someone / something comes along with different speed… but you still won’t know the true speed… you will only know your speed is different than someone else’s.

      For true speed you have to remove yourself from everything (the field), take a look back and hope there is a noticeable change in speed in the field time (or figure out how to negate the field time your body might still be using).

      3) Planck Time? (this might take a while)

      “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” — Max Planck

    • Mike Guy

      Well written – also, consider the Universe itself very well may be rotating.

      Imagine the Big Bang, not as a “Bang” but more as a time when a new dimension filled with the contents of Pure Energy, entangled with space itself, where what was before was absolutely nothing, then, the Dark Energy Field opened and filled this new “Level Plain” with Quarks, No Gluons, Protons, or Electrons, No Space, Time or Gravity – NOTHING

      Then as Energy (Matter) and Dark Energy (Space) started to interact with each other – and the Energy started to decay into Dark Energy/Space (Energy could be said to be compressed Space) the interaction creating Electromagnetic Energy – waveless particles like the Gluons, Electrons and Photons, Matter started to interact with Dark Energy and the transaction between the two gives rise to the foundation of all Structure in the Universe…

      We live in a Binary Universe – Electric Force and Magnetic Force are each representative of a Binary Universe, that is to say; there is a division between “Energy or Matter” and “Dark Energy or Space” each only possible with the other, their interaction the foundation of all

      Anyway – all Mass is decaying into more Space – all swirling around the point of origin, till one day the Structure is light enough to return from where it came…

      Super Massive Black Hole Super Nova!

      The point being – the Universe very well could be “lopsided” – it could be rotating the drain into oblivion, while appearing to get larger – the space increasing while the Mass decreasing – an implosion of Universal proportions, the cosmos stretching itself into the filaments and strands of a tattered ball of energy, gradually imploding into its origin where it will finally be light enough to emerge back from where it came…

      Orion Michael Guy

    • ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

      Everyone has the wrong idea of what energy, forces and fields are.
      Energy is a particle vibration or movement.
      You cannot have energy without a mass, energy is mass vibrating.
      Energy cannot be out on its own. (a supposed mass-less particle is a particle nonetheless, but there are no mass-less particles, so that’s irrelevant)

      Same thing goes for forces.
      A force is a group of particles arranged in a field pulling each other… and all of the particles absolutely have to be physically connected.

      A force (a group of connected particles) can only push very short distances and in rare circumstances like same pole magnets.

      But the point is… a force has to have particles involved.
      A force cannot be out on its own.

      Most of mainstream physics is a misconception.

      There is no such thing as pure energy.
      Again… Energy is a vibration on a particle (or particle movement).

      Can energy be converted into mass?
      Ummm… no, energy already has mass involved, it is a particle vibration or movement. There is no pure energy and you are not going to convert energy into mass.

      Think of a guitar string. If you pluck it… that is the energy. If you remove the guitar string from the scenario… can you still have the energy? No, of course not.

      Can you convert the guitar string vibration into mass? No… that is ridiculous.

      Look at what everything really is…

      Dimensions and units…
      mass = [M] = kilograms
      length = [L] = meters
      time = [T] = seconds
      frequency = [T^-1] = seconds ^-1
      speed = [L] / [T] …… = m/s
      acceleration = [L] / [T^2] …. = m / s^2
      momentum = [M] [L] / [T] … = kg_m / s
      force = [M] [L] / [T^2] . = kg_m / s^2
      energy = [M] [L^2] / [T^2] = kg_m^2 / s^2
      power = [M] [L^2] / [T^3] = kg_m^2 / s^3

      Notice mass [M] is not equal to energy [M] [L^2] / [T^2] …the vibration is missing

      Here is what Einsteins famous equation really looks like…

      [M] [L^2] / [T^2] = [M] [L^2] / [T^2]

      Energy already is a mass times speed^2.

      If you could just lop-off parts of an equation and claim whatever is left is equal… i.e. “energy equals mass” then you could also say that “power equals mass” and so does momentum and force. It is really stupid to think like that.
      Speed is NOT equal to length. Speed is equal to length divided by time.
      Energy is NOT equal to mass. Energy is equal to mass times speed squared.

    • thoithe

      First of all is Time is not a Dimension as this article has pointed out!
      Second Space is 10 dimensions without Time, again I did not say Time is as Dimension similar to X, Y, Z Dimension used to called.
      Therefore, Space Time has wrong concept due Time is as Dimension.
      You did not need Unified Field Theory, UFT, but Theory of Everything, TOE, THOE, THO-E, will clear the way for UFT . . .
      Three Dimensional Space is neither Hypersphere nor Hyperboloid Nor Flat, again THO-E and Particles Field will explain better about all of the Spaces above . . . . . . .
      Astrophysicists are about making same mistakes Riemann and Lobachevski , RaL, have made 200 years ago, but it is no surprise they started from them, RaL ,what they left off or over 200 years ago . . . . .
      I did not say RaL are wrong, but mistake in some perspective and concept and the way Mind worked as mind set . . . . . . . . . .
      Deterministic chaos is poor idea about Universe in chaos,
      Universe is more, far more chaos than deterministic chaos.

    • stevie 1950

      Maybe, like an old house, parts of the foundation are sagging, some parts lower than other parts, and the contents are rolling around on the floors in varying directions inside. Or, how about “The Carl Sagan Theory” – considering that the Universe looks a LOT like the neuro-pathway structure of a human brain, and just as multi-legged proteins walk around along the neuro-pathways of our brains, we too are multi-legged proteins walking around inside the real Carl Sagan’s brain, which so happens to be what we call our Universe.

    • ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

      If you ever go to a fair and see some clown making balloon animals — sometimes he will also just attach 10 full length long and thin balloons together into a cluster and the shape will always be the 3D asterisk.

      9 balloons would be too loose and 11 will not fit.
      10 is the perfect number and it is also the axis of the dodecahedron.
      10 balloons attached at their centers create 20 radii.
      That is full length thin balloons.

      If you use round balloons the shape also involves the dodecahedron

      There will always be 12 balloons if they pull the knotted ends into a common center.
      That is exactly how many fit. It is the same as the faces of the dodecahedron.
      Notice where the balloons always touch in groups of three? There are twenty spots like that. If you stuck drinking straws or pencils into all twenty spots all the way into the center… that is how the arrangement of strings form in the 3D asterisk. Just like the other thin balloon package.

      Note: No one is shooting for those shapes when they tie balloons together.
      Everyone comes up with the same shape because 12 round balloons or 10 thin balloons is how many fit together like that.
      It’s automatic shapes.

      Automatic shapes happen. It is the way everything happened.
      So the point is… strings can form the automatic shapes that then in turn form everything else. If they (the strings) are made from something smaller that automatic formation ability goes pooof right out the window.

      The Universe and everything in it had to form automatically by itself (it doesn’t have a formation instruction manual).