What do "homogeneity" and "isotropy" mean? (Intermediate)

Can you please give me the definitions of homogeneity and isotropy in astronomy terms?

This is a good question, because these concepts are a bit subtle. Homogeneous is defined as "the same in all locations" while isotropic means "the same in all directions." Imagine that the whole universe is an infinitely large field with one perfectly symmetrical hill, which you are seated atop. Look around: you see an isotropic universe, since the hill is equally green and equally steep in all directions. But the universe is not homogeneous: it has a hill!

These concepts are important because most modern cosmology is based on the "cosmological principle," the assumption that, on large scales, the universe is both homogeneous and isotropic. Studies of large-scale structure in the universe and analysis of the microwave background radiation help confirm that this assumption is justified.

This page was last updated June 27, 2015.

About the Author

Kate Becker

Kate Becker

With more than a decade of experience as a science writer, Kate Becker has written on a wide variety of science and science policy subjects for web, print, radio, and television, with an emphasis on astronomy and physics. As a researcher for NOVA and NOVA scienceNOW, the nation's premiere science documentary series, Kate investigated everything from human hibernation to invisibility cloaks. She studied physics at Oberlin College and astronomy at Cornell University, and she's had the good fortune to observe with the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico and the Very Large Array in New Mexico, two of the very best places on this pale blue dot of a planet.

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