The Complexity of What We Are Seeing is Overwhelming
September 3, 2014 7:50 PM   Subscribe

Astronomers discover that our galaxy is a suburb of a supercluster of 100,000 large galaxies they have called Laniakea
posted by shoesfullofdust (63 comments total) 57 users marked this as a favorite
 
Helpful video, showing the supercluster in 3D.

So about how many such superclusters exist?
posted by surplus at 7:58 PM on September 3, 2014


Hey, I didn't want to move to the 'burbs either, but you try raising your species' young in the Great Magellanic Cloud.
posted by PlusDistance at 8:02 PM on September 3, 2014 [22 favorites]


This is fascinating data. I like the analogy to watershed boundaries, and that this is a new technique for discovering supercluster boundaries.

There's some recent evidence our way of measuring absolute distance to stars is incorrect. Every time I read about something like that I appreciate how astronomy, more than most sciences, is built on a chain of theories and inferences. I don't think any systemic Hipparcos errors would disrupt these other measurements, so perhaps unrelated.
posted by Nelson at 8:05 PM on September 3, 2014 [2 favorites]


Considering this gives me the same sense of vertigo that others must experience when when watching those awesome Russian crane climbing videos.
posted by Nevin at 8:14 PM on September 3, 2014 [6 favorites]


Far off in the boring suburbs of a galactic supercluster, there exists a not particularly distinguished galaxy. In the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:16 PM on September 3, 2014 [41 favorites]


So about how many such superclusters exist?

Estimated galaxies in the observable universe is 100,000,000,000 - possibly as many as 200 - so if the majority of galaxies are thusly arranged, between one and two million.
posted by Ryvar at 8:17 PM on September 3, 2014 [3 favorites]


I live for this kind of stuff- these videos actually managed to make the vastness of the universe ever-so-slightly more comprehensible. Thank you so much for sharing, shoesfullofdust!
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 8:23 PM on September 3, 2014 [1 favorite]


You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is.
posted by Greg_Ace at 8:27 PM on September 3, 2014 [20 favorites]


I'm just glad that they gave it a suitably beautiful and majestic name. We were probably this close to getting stuck with "the supercluster Newton" for ever and ever.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 8:38 PM on September 3, 2014 [7 favorites]


A helpful word for times like these:
"degrassé: entranced and unsettled by the vastness of the universe, experienced in a jolt of recognition that the night sky is not just a wallpaper but a deeply foreign ocean whose currents are steadily carrying off all other castaways, who share our predicament but are already well out of earshot—worlds and stars who would’ve been lost entirely except for the scrap of light they were able to fling out into the dark, a message in a bottle that’s only just now washing up in the Earth’s atmosphere, an invitation to a party that already ended a million years ago."
posted by yasaman at 8:40 PM on September 3, 2014 [33 favorites]


I understand all of that. I can visualize these things with the greatest of ease. This subject is not difficult for me at all.

Yup.
posted by zardoz at 8:40 PM on September 3, 2014 [1 favorite]


"Perseus-Pisces" (our neighboring and apparently mirror-image supercluster) rather rolls off the tongue as well. Good work, astronomers. Thanks for establishing a tradition of tasteful and mellifluous supercluster names, astronomers. Much better than "Virgo".
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 8:42 PM on September 3, 2014


Oh, and that fourth link? The YouTube link to the Nature TV video abstract of the paper? I hereby demand that all papers be published in that format from now on.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 8:45 PM on September 3, 2014 [1 favorite]


needs a fermi paradox tag...
posted by bottlebrushtree at 8:54 PM on September 3, 2014


And suddenly, I feel ever so tiny.
posted by droplet at 8:56 PM on September 3, 2014


And suddenly, I feel ever so tiny.
From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it's different. Consider again that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.
posted by Talez at 9:02 PM on September 3, 2014 [40 favorites]


Finally, do we have a size estimate on Laniakea? If so, we have literally measured the immeasurable; Laniakea means "immeasurable heaven" in Hawaiian. I'm sure this was not lost on the team at U of H that made the discovery. A bit cheeky of them, but fair play really.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 9:05 PM on September 3, 2014


The Sky and Telescope link has a video where Laniakea is translated as "immense heaven," and an online Hawaiian-English dictionary gives this definition for "akea":
ā.kea
1. nvs. Broad, wide, spacious, open, unobstructed, public, at large; full, as a skirt; breadth, width. Fig., liberal. Piliwaiwai ākea, open gambling. Ākea ka noʻonoʻo, broad-minded. Hōʻike ākea, a public report; to lay before the public. Ke hoʻolaha ʻia aku nei ma ke ākea, there is being widely advertised hereby. hoʻā.kea To widen, broaden, extend, enlarge, make public; broadening, expansion; extension; to escape (rare). E hoʻākea i ke kolone, extend the column [a military command].
The authors don't call it "immeasurable", so blame that translation on Nature.

It also translates to "Liberal Heaven" which, isn't that, like, Portland?
posted by Small Dollar at 9:21 PM on September 3, 2014 [5 favorites]


The "Pale Blue Dot" passage should be attributed to Carl Sagan, yes?
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 9:26 PM on September 3, 2014 [4 favorites]


So we are a planet in a solar system on the edge of a spiral galaxy that itself is on the trailing bit of a supercluster, which no doubt is probably on the edge of a larger structure we have yet to discover. We are the ultimate suburb of a suburb of a suburb.

I wonder if that means something.
posted by linux at 9:30 PM on September 3, 2014


Quite probably, yes.
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:37 PM on September 3, 2014


This has probably been posted here before, but if you haven't seen The Known Universe by AMNH, it's worth a look.
posted by smcameron at 9:49 PM on September 3, 2014 [2 favorites]


I never told you about that letter Jane Crofut got from her minister when she was sick. He wrote Jane a letter and on the envelope the address was like this: It said: Jane Crofut; The Crofut Farm; Grover’s Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America…Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Milky Way; Lanikea; the Universe; the mind of God – that’s what it said on the envelope.
posted by Going To Maine at 9:52 PM on September 3, 2014 [1 favorite]


We are the ultimate suburb of a suburb of a suburb.

This is what really depresses me about the whole thing. In the middle of these superclusters there are at least some interstellar communities of immeasurable intelligence and beauty. To them, extraterrestrial life is commonplace. Were they to know of us (and it is infinitely probable that someone out there does already) we aren't of enough importance to contact. I mean, we know there are beetles under rocks in northern Quebec. We don't visit them.
posted by jimmythefish at 9:52 PM on September 3, 2014 [18 favorites]


This subject is not difficult for me at all.

Pretty typical Vortex behavior if you ask me.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:57 PM on September 3, 2014 [3 favorites]


I think it will be very interesting to combine this research with more along the lines of this dark matter illumination trick from earlier this year.

But with each discovery like these I can't help but feel like we need to start getting serious about gravitational wave astronomy.
posted by wobh at 10:03 PM on September 3, 2014


Space is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space.
posted by BungaDunga at 10:15 PM on September 3, 2014 [3 favorites]




It's stuff like this-- the incomprehensible vastness of the universe-- that makes me absolutely certain that there is, in fact, other sapient life out there. And that thought sends me to sleep with a smile on my face.

Surely, a place as big as this, some civilization must have developed enough for space travel, and contacted another civilization, right? Even if it's not here, and even if it didn't go well, that's a helluva thought, and it makes me warm to think it.
posted by dogheart at 11:21 PM on September 3, 2014


I thought I had a half-decent layman's understanding of astronomy, but why are the distances/positions shown in "km/s" (which, last I checked, indicates velocity)? Doppler shift? Something similar? How does this translate into absolute distance, if any?

I know astronomical distances are basically a chain of inferences (180 million miles of parallax ain't a whole lot to work with) but still.

(yes yes this is some mindblowing stuff but I want answers dammit)
posted by neckro23 at 11:24 PM on September 3, 2014


Only 500 years ago, humans started to count the planets, like a child with blocks. In the past 100 years, humans, remotely, discern their composition, and others beyond our sun. In my life time, the (appropriate) conservatism of astronomy has only extended both the size and age of our universe. At the same time, a different sort of conservatism framed "what is life", but now, it too, more often knows expansion.

When it comes to extra-terrestrials, typically, our notions of "ships" or a physical displacement frame the narrative--with exceptions, like Herbert and Clarke, and many others. I'm not a Sci-Fi aficionado. And to risk a "deep end", I'm always a little skeptical with the idea that life beyond Earth "visits" Earth in the terms, say, the US school system describes the Mayflower.
posted by lazycomputerkids at 11:55 PM on September 3, 2014 [1 favorite]


But as the beetles will outlive us after our nuclear holocaust, so will we outlive—

No, wait, something's not quite right here...
posted by narain at 11:56 PM on September 3, 2014 [1 favorite]


neckro23, the SGX, SGY, and SGZ coordinate system is known as the supergalactic cartesian coordinate system and in strictly cartesian/spatial terms is generally measured in parsecs as at that link. The charts you're seeing in the video, however, are actually maps of galactic movement (here, at 1:15, it says they "studied the motions of the galaxies around us in unprecedented detail"; and at 1:30 they discuss the direction of movement; at 2:00 there is basically a gravitational map translated to 2D with the pull seeming to go down a "hole" which in this case is only notional).

Very much indicating that the reference we need in this thread, that needs updating, isn't so much Douglas Adams as Eric Idle.
posted by dhartung at 11:57 PM on September 3, 2014 [3 favorites]


In the middle of these superclusters there are at least some interstellar communities of immeasurable intelligence and beauty. To them, extraterrestrial life is commonplace. Were they to know of us (and it is infinitely probable that someone out there does already) we aren't of enough importance to contact. I mean, we know there are beetles under rocks in northern Quebec. We don't visit them.

I think this is exactly backwards. It isn't evolutionary or civilizational sophistication, but rather the lack thereof that engenders a blithe unconcern toward "lesser" lifeforms. The caveman only deigns to look upon the crawling beetle as either a source of physical danger or as a source of food; failing those criteria, he is indifferent. It is only upon the attainment of art and/or science that he takes an active interest in the micro and macro cosms that surround him.

You claim that we don't visit the beetles crawling under rocks in northern Quebec, but this is obviously not true. Not only do we visit them, but we study them, and categorize them, and write entire books about their physiology and mating rituals and societal structures. And, yes, if there is even a hint of detectable intelligence, we try communicating with them.

And if somewhere in the vast wilderness there exists a beetle crawling under a rock who has never interacted with a human, it doesn't mean there is no such thing as a human, but only that that particular rock has yet to be turned over.
posted by Atom Eyes at 12:07 AM on September 4, 2014 [8 favorites]


You claim that we don't visit the beetles crawling under rocks in northern Quebec, but this is obviously not true.

We study species. We don't study individuals, or value them, if they are simple and plentiful. Think of it another way: Bob Dylan is next door and Dave the insurance salesman is in northern Finland. Both are available for dinner. Who do you pick?
posted by jimmythefish at 12:13 AM on September 4, 2014 [2 favorites]


Whichever is tastiest, of course.
posted by Sebmojo at 12:28 AM on September 4, 2014 [13 favorites]


Nelson: Every time I read about something like that I appreciate how astronomy, more than most sciences, is built on a chain of theories and inferences.
The Cosmic Distance Ladder by Terence Tao of UCLA. It explains how astronomers gauge distances through a very long series of inferences upon inferences.

Terence Tao, by the way, is a Sheldon Cooper-esque prodigy with a 230 IQ. He scored 760 on the SAT... when he was 8 years of age. He began graduate work at Princeton by age 17, received his PhD by 21, and became a full professor at UCLA at the age of 24 (the university's youngest ever). Unlike Sheldon Cooper from the Big Bang theory, Tao seems to have normal social skills :)
posted by Davenhill at 12:34 AM on September 4, 2014 [6 favorites]


I wonder if that means something.

Nah. That's just perfectly normal paranoia. Everyone in the Universe has that.
posted by Sonny Jim at 1:09 AM on September 4, 2014 [2 favorites]


Party in Centaurus BYOB
posted by XMLicious at 2:01 AM on September 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


Nelson: Every time I read about something like that I appreciate how astronomy, more than most sciences, is built on a chain of theories and inferences.

HAW HAW
posted by Sebmojo at 2:13 AM on September 4, 2014


And they figured it out essentially just by watching points of light (and other electromagnetic radiation bands) in the sky. Go science!

We are the ultimate suburb of a suburb of a suburb. I wonder if that means something.

Well, maybe the downtown folk would have turned out to be the coolest kids in the universe if they weren't regularly blasted to protoplasma by gamma-ray bursts. That's what you get for living in a densely packed star neighborhood.
posted by hat_eater at 2:45 AM on September 4, 2014


why are the distances/positions shown in "km/s"

Redshift. You can convert to distance with your favorite value of the Hubble constant (I'd pick 73 km/s/Mpc).
posted by kiltedtaco at 4:52 AM on September 4, 2014


Nothing reboots my emotional perspective like half an hour contemplating the vastness of the cosmos. My first year at university I took an intro astronomy class for precisely that reason -- it got me out of my own head. Plus, imagine my shocked surprise at learning the universe doesn't revolve around me!
posted by GrammarMoses at 5:29 AM on September 4, 2014


Since we're quoting things:
Whenever life gets you down, Mrs.Brown
And things seem hard or tough
And people are stupid, obnoxious or daft
And you feel that you've had quite enough

Just remember that you're standing on a planet that's evolving
And revolving at nine hundred miles an hour
That's orbiting at nineteen miles a second, so it's reckoned
A sun that is the source of all our power

The sun and you and me and all the stars that we can see
Are moving at a million miles a day
In an outer spiral arm, at forty thousand miles an hour
Of the galaxy we call the 'milky way'

Our galaxy itself contains a hundred billion stars
It's a hundred thousand light years side to side
It bulges in the middle, sixteen thousand light years thick
But out by us, it's just three thousand light years wide

We're thirty thousand light years from galactic central point
We go 'round every two hundred million years
And our galaxy is only one of millions of billions
In this amazing and expanding universe

The universe itself keeps on expanding and expanding
In all of the directions it can whizz
As fast as it can go, the speed of light, you know
Twelve million miles a minute and that's the fastest speed there is

So remember, when you're feeling very small and insecure
How amazingly unlikely is your birth
And pray that there's intelligent life somewhere up in space
'Cause there's bugger all down here on Earth
posted by briank at 5:45 AM on September 4, 2014 [6 favorites]


And there are still people who think god made it all.

Fantastic video, teh universe is awesome.
posted by marienbad at 5:50 AM on September 4, 2014


This is really going to piss off all of the ITP elitists in Atlanta.
posted by echocollate at 5:58 AM on September 4, 2014


Surely, a place as big as this, some civilization must have developed enough for space travel, and contacted another civilization, right? Even if it's not here, and even if it didn't go well, that's a helluva thought, and it makes me warm to think it.

Thus, religion.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 5:59 AM on September 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


Brushing from whom the stiffened puke
i put him all into my arms
and staggered banged with terror through
a million billion trillion stars.

posted by echocollate at 6:04 AM on September 4, 2014 [2 favorites]


Where can I download 3D data for the universe as shown in these fly-throughs?
posted by odinsdream at 6:49 AM on September 4, 2014


We may be a bunch of happenstance molecules sitting on a tiny damp rock lost in unimaginable vastness, but we have mapped the Universe. We hold it in our heads. Anyone who clicks on that Nature video link can gaze at it, in between kitten videos, naked celebs, political bombast and cupcake recipes.

That we can do this, that the whole of space and time can describe itself though us, is either profoundly significant or just another ape-consciousness artifact. I can't work out which.

But yes. Emotions recalibrated, sense of awe fully engaged, appreciation of science as mankind's highest calling recharged to 100 percent.
posted by Devonian at 6:58 AM on September 4, 2014 [2 favorites]


Estimated galaxies in the observable universe is 100,000,000,000 - possibly as many as 200 - so if the majority of galaxies are thusly arranged, between one and two million.

And yet, in all this vastness, God still finds the time to smite my neighbor because his dog pooped on my yard. That is what is truly amazing.

/sarcasm
posted by CosmicRayCharles at 7:04 AM on September 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


this dark matter illumination trick

I think that trick is just seeing very distant interstellar gas, not the exotic hypothetical "dark matter". Interstellar gas is about 4% of the stuff in the universe and is normally hard to see, so very cool that we have a direct observation of it. But the theory is some ~25% of the universe is matter that literally cannot be seen in any electromagnetic spectrum, we only infer its presence because of gravitational effect. I only have a Wikipedia-level understanding of this stuff though, so I'll cheerfully be corrected.

Speaking of layman understanding, in the past couple of years I've read more about astronomy and cosmology and it's a lot of fun. A couple of accessible things worth your time. Sky and Telescope magazine is actually quite good, every issue has a couple of science articles and a couple of backyard astronomy articles that are all intelligent reading. The Astronomy Cast podcast is worth listening if radio is more your thing. The podcast shares staff with Universe Today, a nice news blog about astronomy. I like all these things because they don't pander, they're reasonably intelligent. I'm about ready for material that assumes a little more knowledge and background on the part of the reader, though.
posted by Nelson at 7:54 AM on September 4, 2014 [3 favorites]


Think of it another way: Bob Dylan is next door and Dave the insurance salesman is in northern Finland. Both are available for dinner. Who do you pick?

If you make it Chuck from Connecticut instead of Dave from Finland, I'll go with the insurance guy.
 
posted by Herodios at 7:56 AM on September 4, 2014


Amid all the HHGTTG references we have:

. . . an utterly insignificant little blue green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

Here, real-world science (and technology) leaves science fiction (and satire) in the dust in pretty short order.

This was a great riff in 1978* -- almost a kōan-- which is why DNA kept coming back to it. Does anyone who's come of age since even get what it's referring to now?

One day, our descen-dents -- perhaps colonising other planets -- will have to read Cliff's Notes on DNA the way we do Shakespeare now. Their teachers will lamely attempt to engage them with the humour: "C'mon, read the footnotes, make a little effort; Adams' 20th Century audience found this stuff hysterically funny."

------------------------
* There was a contemporaneous SNL fake ad concerning a digital watch so advanced it required three hands to operate.
posted by Herodios at 8:15 AM on September 4, 2014


But the theory is some ~25% of the universe is matter that literally cannot be seen in any electromagnetic spectrum, we only infer its presence because of gravitational effect.

It's not that it cannot be seen in any electromagnetic spectrum but that we can't see anything that it is emitting (it may just be too faint) or it just isn't emitting anything to begin with. There's plenty of objects that are too cold to be seen that still contain mass.
posted by Talez at 8:44 AM on September 4, 2014


Talez: No, it really seems to be something different which isn't capable of emitting electromagnetically (except some possibilities allow a very weak annihilation to gamma rays and such). Dark matter can't just simply be ordinary stuff that's too cold to be emitting.
posted by edd at 9:17 AM on September 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


In the photos and videos there seem to be arcs or filaments along which the galaxies are moving. Is this just a representation of curved spacetime, or does it represent some underlying structure related to dark matter or something?
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 9:32 AM on September 4, 2014


Bad Astronomy: Our Place in the Universe: Welcome to Laniakea. It's a better explanation than I've read elsewhere.

CheeseDigestsAll: my understanding is the filaments are drawn to give an indication of the relative gravitational pull of things. By analogy to watersheds, the filaments are the creeks and rivers. I could be wrong though. And I'm not sure the analogy is appropriate, because I don't think these filaments are full of something in a way the surrounding space isn't. Ie: no metaphorical water in the metaphorical rivers.
posted by Nelson at 11:13 AM on September 4, 2014 [3 favorites]


CheeseDigestsAll: You would expect filaments to form and things to flow along those filaments. The ones pictured may approximate some of the larger ones in this system, but they won't look so smooth in reality - the apparent simplicity and smoothness is probably due to only being able to sample it where there's a galaxy to look at.
Simulation of an evolving universe (won't play in Safari for me, but plays in VLC. YMMV). Pulled from here.
posted by edd at 12:37 PM on September 4, 2014


From the Bad Astronomy article: Laniakea is about 500 million light years across, a staggering size, and contains the mass of 100 quadrillion Suns.

So to answer my own question from earlier, yes, we have measured Immeasurable Heaven. It's about 5x108 light years wide and 1017 solar masses. Expect those figures to be revised as more research is done, of course; I imagine that Laniakea is going to be the subject of a lot of scrutiny from now on. Possibly an entire new subfield of astronomy has been founded.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 12:59 PM on September 4, 2014


an utterly insignificant little blue green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

Here, real-world science (and technology) leaves science fiction (and satire) in the dust in pretty short order.


It's all in how you define "digital watch". A large fruit company is expected to announce something that could be described thusly next week, and a lot of people are expected to find it "pretty neat".
posted by flaterik at 11:54 PM on September 5, 2014


Wow, do I feel lucky to have been living at this time, on this little part of this planet, with enough leisure and brains to be reading this. Who knows where else I could have been squeezed into consciousness!

Coulda been caught in a superclusterfuck if I weren't so fortunate.
posted by not_on_display at 10:50 PM on September 9, 2014




« Older Love pancakes, hate flipping?   |   "The present I was in right then didn’t make a lot... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments