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by Albert EinsteinOctober 21st, 2022

*Relativity: The Special and General Theory by Albert Einstein is part of HackerNoon’s Book Blog Post series. You can jump to any chapter in this book **here**.*

But speculations on the structure of the universe also move in quite another direction. The development of non-Euclidean geometry led to the recognition of the fact, that we can cast doubt on the infiniteness of our space without coming into conflict with the laws of thought or with experience (Riemann, Helmholtz). These questions have already been treated in detail and with unsurpassable lucidity by Helmholtz and Poincaré, whereas I can only touch on them briefly here.

In the first place, we imagine an existence in two dimensional space. Flat beings with flat implements, and in particular flat rigid measuring-rods, are free to move in a plane. For them nothing exists outside of this plane: that which they observe to happen to themselves and to their flat “things” is the all-inclusive reality of their plane. In particular, the constructions of plane Euclidean geometry can be carried out by means of the rods e.g. the lattice construction, considered in Section XXIV. In contrast to ours, the universe of these beings is two-dimensional; but, like ours, it extends to infinity. In their universe there is room for an infinite number of identical squares made up of rods, i.e. its volume (surface) is infinite. If these beings say their universe is “plane,” there is sense in the statement, because they mean that they can perform the constructions of plane Euclidean geometry with their rods. In this connection the individual rods always represent the same distance, independently of their position.

Let us consider now a second two-dimensional existence, but this time on a spherical surface instead of on a plane. The flat beings with their measuring-rods and other objects fit exactly on this surface and they are unable to leave it. Their whole universe of observation extends exclusively over the surface of the sphere. Are these beings able to regard the geometry of their universe as being plane geometry and their rods withal as the realisation of “distance”? They cannot do this. For if they attempt to realise a straight line, they will obtain a curve, which we “three-dimensional beings” designate as a great circle, i.e. a self-contained line of definite finite length, which can be measured up by means of a measuring-rod. Similarly, this universe has a finite area that can be compared with the area, of a square constructed with rods. The great charm resulting from this consideration lies in the recognition of the fact that the universe of these beings is finite and yet has no limits.

Thus if the spherical surface beings are living on a planet of which the solar system occupies only a negligibly small part of the spherical universe, they have no means of determining whether they are living in a finite or in an infinite universe, because the “piece of universe” to which they have access is in both cases practically plane, or Euclidean. It follows directly from this discussion, that for our sphere-beings the circumference of a circle first increases with the radius until the “circumference of the universe” is reached, and that it thenceforward gradually decreases to zero for still further increasing values of the radius. During this process the area of the circle continues to increase more and more, until finally it becomes equal to the total area of the whole “world-sphere.”

Perhaps the reader will wonder why we have placed our “beings” on a sphere rather than on another closed surface. But this choice has its justification in the fact that, of all closed surfaces, the sphere is unique in possessing the property that all points on it are equivalent. I admit that the ratio of the circumference c of a circle to its radius r depends on r, but for a given value of r it is the same for all points of the “world-sphere”; in other words, the “world-sphere” is a “surface of constant curvature.”

It may be mentioned that there is yet another kind of curved space: “elliptical space.” It can be regarded as a curved space in which the two “counter-points” are identical (indistinguishable from each other). An elliptical universe can thus be considered to some extent as a curved universe possessing central symmetry.

It follows from what has been said, that closed spaces without limits are conceivable. From amongst these, the spherical space (and the elliptical) excels in its simplicity, since all points on it are equivalent. As a result of this discussion, a most interesting question arises for astronomers and physicists, and that is whether the universe in which we live is infinite, or whether it is finite in the manner of the spherical universe. Our experience is far from being sufficient to enable us to answer this question. But the general theory of relativity permits of our answering it with a moderate degree of certainty, and in this connection the difficulty mentioned in Section XXX finds its solution.

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*Einstein, Albert, 2004. Relativity: The Special and General Theory. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved May 2022 from **https://www.gutenberg.org/files/5001/5001-h/5001-h.htm#ch31**
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