The first systematic theory of the size and shape of the universe that attempted to explain observed data was constructed by Ptolemy in the 2d cent. In this theory the solar system was thought to be the entire universe, with the earth at its center and the distant stars located just beyond the farthest planet. This belief was held until the 16th cent., when Copernicus advanced the idea that the sun, rather than the earth, is at the center of the system and that the stars are at very great distances compared to the planets. During the first part of the 20th cent., astronomers discovered that the sun is only one of billions of stars in the Milky Way galaxy and is located far from the galactic center.
Estimates of the size of the universe have been refined as methods of measuring galactic and extragalactic distances have improved. Close stellar distances were at first found by measuring a star's trigonometric parallax. A more powerful contemporary method is to analyze the light reaching the earth from an object by means of a spectroscope; the distance of a very faint object can be estimated by comparing its apparent brightness to those of similar objects at known distances. Another method depends on the fact that the universe as a whole appears to be expanding, as indicated by red shifts (see Doppler effect) in the spectral lines of distant galaxies. Hubble's law makes it possible to estimate their distances from the speed with which they are rushing away from the earth. At present the universe is believed to be at least 10 billion light-years in diameter. One problem with estimating the size of the universe is that space itself (or more properly, space-time) may be curved, as held by the general theory of relativity. This curvature would affect measurements of distance based on the passage of light through space from objects as far away as 5 billion light-years or more.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.