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This article is about space — the scientific and philosophical concepts. For other uses of space, see space (disambiguation).
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Attempting to understand the nature of space has always been a prime occupation for philosophers and scientists. Perhaps as a result of this considerable discussion, it is difficult to provide an uncontroversial and clear definition of the nature of space, except its physical definition (see below). This article looks at the way space is dealt with variously by physicists, mathematicians and philosophers, and at the relation between space and the mind.

Physics and space

Space is one of the few fundamental quantities in physics meaning it can't be defined via other quantities because there is nothing more fundamental known at present. Thus, similar to the definition of other fundamental quantities (like time and mass), space is defined via measurement. Currently, the standard space interval, called a standard meter or simply meter, is defined as the distance traveled by light in a vacuum during a time interval of 1/299 792 458 of a second (exact).

In classical physics, space is a three-dimensional Euclidean space where any position can be described using three coordinates. Relativistic physics examines spacetime rather than space; spacetime is modeled as a four-dimensional manifold, and currently, there are theories that can support even eleven-dimensional spaces.

Before Einstein's work on relativistic physics, time and space were seen as independent dimensions. Einstein's work unified the two into spacetime. In spacetime, measurements of space and time are held to be relative to velocity.


Main article: Measurement

The measurement of physical space has long been important. Geometry, the name given to the branch of mathematics which measures spatial relations, was popularised by the ancient Greeks, although earlier societies had developed measuring systems. The International System of Units, (SI), is now the most common system of units used in the measuring of space, and is almost universally used within science.

Geography is the branch of science concerned with identifying and describing the Earth, utilising spatial awareness to try and understand why things exist in specific locations. Cartography is the mapping of spaces to allow better navigation, for visualisation purposes and to act as a locational device. Astronomy is the science involved with the observation, explanation and measuring of objects in outer space.

Astronomy and space

Main article: Outer space

In astronomy, space refers collectively to the relatively empty parts of the universe. Any area outside the atmospheres of any celestial body can be considered 'space'. Although space is certainly spacious, it is now known to be far from empty, and filled with a tenuous plasma. In particular, the boundary between space and Earth's atmosphere is conventionally set at the Karman line.

Mathematics and space

In mathematics, a space is a set, with some particular properties and usually some additional structure. It is not a formally defined concept as such, but a generic name for a number of similar concepts, most of which generalize some abstract properties of the physical concept of space.

In particular, a vector space and specifically a Euclidean space can be seen as generalizations of the concept of a Euclidean coordinate system. Important varieties of vector spaces with more imposed structure include Banach space and Hilbert space. Distance measurement is abstracted as the concept of metric space and volume measurement leads to the concept of measure space.

As far as the concept of dimension is defined, this need not be 3: it can also be 0 (a point), 1 (a line), 2 (a plane), more than 3, and with some definitions, a non-integer value. Mathematicians often study general structures that hold regardless of the number of dimensions.

Kinds of mathematical spaces include:

The philosophy of space

Main article: Philosophy of space and time

Space has a range of definitions.

  • One view of space is that it is part of the fundamental structure of the universe, a set of dimensions in which objects are separated and located, have size and shape, and through which they can move.
  • A contrasting view is that space is part of a fundamental abstract mathematical conceptual framework (together with time and number) within which we compare and quantify the distance between objects, their sizes, their shapes, and their speeds. In this view space does not refer to any kind of entity that is a "container" that objects "move through".

These opposing views are relevant also to definitions of time. Space is typically described as having three dimensions, and that three numbers are needed to specify the size of any object and/or its location with respect to another location. Modern physics does not treat space and time as independent dimensions, but treats both as features of spacetime – a conception that challenges intuitive notions of distance and time.

An issue of philosophical debate is whether space is an ontological entity itself, or simply a conceptual framework we need to think (and talk) about the world. Another way to frame this is to ask, "Can space itself be measured, or is space part of the measurement system?" The same debate applies also to time, and an important formulation in both areas was given by Immanuel Kant.

In his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant described space as an a priori notion that (together with other a priori notions such as time) allows us to comprehend sense experience. With Kant, neither space nor time are conceived as substances, but rather both are elements of a systematic framework we use to structure our experience. Spatial measurements are used to quantify how far apart objects are, and temporal measurements are used to quantify how far apart events occur.

Similar philosophical questions concerning space include: Is space absolute or purely relational? Does space have one correct geometry, or is the geometry of space just a convention? Historical positions in these debates have been taken by Isaac Newton (space is absolute), Gottfried Leibniz (space is relational), and Henri Poincaré (spatial geometry is a convention). Two important thought-experiments connected with these questions are: Newton's bucket argument and Poincaré's sphere-world.

The psychology of space

The way in which space is perceived is an area which psychologists first began to study in the middle of the 19th century, and it is now thought by those concerned with such studies to be a distinct branch within psychology. Psychologists analysing the perception of space are concerned with how recognition of an object's physical appearance or its interactions are perceived.

Other, more specialised topics studied include amodal perception and object permanence. The perception of surroundings is important due to its necessary relevance to survival, especially with regards to hunting and self preservation. "Veridical perception" is the term used to describe the processing of the information provided by the sensory organs to an extent whereby it allows interaction with the actuality of that perceived.

It is worth noting that the way we perceive space may not necessarily be representative of the actuality of space.

Anxiety and space

Space can also cause anxiety in people, with agoraphobia manifesting itself in some people as a fear of open spaces, and claustrophobia being the fear of enclosed spaces. Astrophobia is the fear of celestial space, Kenophobia is the fear of empty spaces and spacephobia is the fear of outer space.

Personal space

Main article: Personal space

The term personal space refers to the amount of space a person likes to maintain between their own person and that of other people.

Use of space

The definition of physical space in relation to ownership, in which space is seen as property, has long been an important issue. Whilst some cultures assert the rights of the individual in terms of ownership, other cultures will identify with a communal approach to land ownership. Spatial planning is a method of regulating the use of space at land-level, with decisions made at regional, national and international levels. Space can also impact on human and cultural behaviour, being an important factor in architecture, where it will impact on the design of buildings and structures, and on farming.

Ownership of space is not restricted to land. Ownership of Airspace and of waters is decided internationally.

Public space is a term used to define areas of land which are open to all, whilst private property is that area of land owned by an individual or company, for their own use and pleasure.


Space perception. Encyclopædia Britannica from Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Accessed June 12, 2005.da:Rum de:Raum es:Espacio eo:Spaco fa:فضا fr:Espace gl:Espazo ko:공간 io:Spaco ia:Spatio it:Spazio he:מרחב nl:Ruimte ja:空間 pl:Przestrzeń pt:Espaço ru:Пространство simple:Space fi:Avaruus sv:Rymden zh:空间