As humans have explored new horizons, we’ve continuously learned that the world we inhabit is much bigger than it might have initially appeared.
Continents make up our planet, which is one of many bodies in the solar system, which in turn is one of many star systems in our galaxy, the Milky Way, which belongs to an even bigger supercluster of galaxies. Now, scientists are mapping out the largest structures ever observed, which extend over hundreds of millions of light years as a vast network of filaments and knots known as the cosmic web.
This enormous structure, which is made of a mysterious hypothetical entity called dark matter, formed from fluctuations of matter in the early universe and now links galaxy clusters across huge cosmic distances.
“There are multitudes of galaxies in the walls of any piece of the web, but they are finite in scale, because the universe has ‘only’ had 13 and a half billion years for things to collapse into this structure,” said Mordecai-Mark Mac Low, an astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), in an episode of Motherboard’s “Space Show” that posted on Wednesday.
Carter Emmart, director of astrovisualization at the AMNH, recently brought this esoteric emerging research about the cosmic web to life in the show “Dark Universe” which ran at the museum’s Hayden Planetarium until 2020.
“A galaxy typically has a couple hundred billion stars, perhaps trillions of planets, and dark matter components,” Emmart said in the new episode. “Yet these galaxies, when we back up and show them, are really these tiny little points.”
The ultimate effect is “like looking at a city from space with just lights that map out where the action is,” he added. “In this way, we can really see this large scale structure, and we can actually explore it, walk through it, and talk about it.”
There are still many mysteries to be resolved about the nature and dynamics of this immense web, including its ability to synchronize the movements of galaxies across enormous stretches of space. Check out the new episode for more insights about the past and future of the cosmic web, the challenges of visualizing it for an audience, and the eerie similarity of these structures to living entities such as neural pathways and fungal networks.