The shape of the universe, is the local and global geometry of the universe. The local features of the geometry of the universe are primarily described by its curvature, whereas the topology of the universe describes general global properties of its shape as of a continuous object. The spatial curvature is related to general relativity, which describes how spacetime is curved and bent by mass and energy, while the spatial topology cannot be determined from its curvature; locally indistinguishable spaces with different topologies exist mathematically.
The shape of the entire universe can be described with three attributes:
- Finite or infinite
- Flat (zero curvature), open (negative curvature), or closed (positive curvature)
- Connectivity, how the universe is put together, i.e., simply connected space or multiply connected.
There are certain logical connections among these properties. For example, a universe with positive curvature is necessarily finite. Although it is usually assumed in the literature that a flat or negatively curved universe is infinite, this need not be the case if the topology is not the trivial one: for example, a three-torus is flat but finite.
The exact shape is still a matter of debate in physical cosmology, but experimental data from various independent sources (WMAP, BOOMERanG, and Planck for example) confirm that the universe is flat with only a 0.4% margin of error.
In formal terms, this is a 3-manifold model corresponding to the spatial section (in comoving coordinates) of the four-dimensional spacetime of the universe. The model most theorists currently use is the Friedmann–Lemaître–Robertson–Walker (FLRW) model. Arguments have been put forward that the observational data best fit with the conclusion that the shape of the global universe is infinite and flat, but the data are also consistent with other possible shapes, such as the so-called Poincaré dodecahedral space and the Sokolov–Starobinskii space (quotient of the upper half-space model of hyperbolic space by 2-dimensional lattice).
The observable universe can be thought of as a sphere that extends outwards from any observation point for 46.5 billion light years, going farther back in time and more redshifted the more distant away one looks. Ideally, one can continue to look back all the way to the Big Bang; in practice, however, the farthest away one can look using light and other electromagnetic radiation is the cosmic microwave background (CMB), as anything past that was opaque. Experimental investigations show that the observable universe is very close to isotropic and homogeneous.
Global structure covers the geometry and the topology of the whole universe—both the observable universe and beyond. While the local geometry does not determine the global geometry completely, it does limit the possibilities, particularly a geometry of a constant curvature.
The universe is often taken to be a geodesic manifold, free of topological defects; relaxing either of these complicates the analysis considerably. A global geometry is a local geometry plus a topology. It follows that a topology alone does not give a global geometry: for instance, Euclidean 3-space and hyperbolic 3-space have the same topology but different global geometries. As stated in the introduction, investigations within the study of the global structure of the universe include:
- Whether the universe is infinite or finite in extent.
- Whether the geometry of the global universe is flat, positively curved, or negatively curved.
- Whether the topology is simply connected like a sphere or multiply connected, like a torus.