Back to the grind after an enjoyable week in Estonia I find myself with little time to blog, so here’s a cute graphic by way of a postscript to the IAU Symposium on The Zel’dovich Universe. I’ve heard many times about this way of visualizing the Zel’dovich Approximation (published in Zeldovich, Ya.B. 1970, A&A, 5, 84) but this is by far the best graphical realization I have seen. Here’s the first page of the original paper:

In a nutshell, this daringly simple approximation considers the evolution of particles in an expanding Universe from an early near-uniform state into the non-linear regime as a sort of ballistic, or kinematic, process. Imagine the matter particles are initial placed on a uniform grid, where they are labelled by Lagrangian coordinates . Their (Eulerian) positions at some later time are taken to be

Here the coordinates are *comoving*, i.e. scaled with the expansion of the Universe using the scale factor . The displacement between initial and final positions in comoving coordinates is taken to have the form

where is a kind of velocity potential (which is also in linear Newtonian theory proportional to the gravitational potential).If we’ve got the theory right then the gravitational potential field defined over the initial positions is a Gaussian random field. The function is the growing mode of density perturbations in the linear theory of gravitational instability.

This all means that the particles just get a small initial kick from the uniform Lagrangian grid and their subsequent motion carries on in the same direction. The approximation predicts the formation of *caustics* in the final density field when particles from two or more different initial locations arrive at the same final location, a condition known as shell-crossing. The caustics are identified with the walls and filaments we find in large-scale structure.

Despite its simplicity this approximation is known to perform extremely well at reproducing the morphology of the cosmic web, although it breaks down after shell-crossing has occurred. In reality, bound structures are formed whereas the Zel’dovich approximation simply predicts that particles sail straight through the caustic which consequently evaporates.

Anyway the mapping described above can also be given an interpretation in terms of optics. Imagine a uniform illumination field (the initial particle distribution) incident upon a non-uniform surface (e.g. the surface of the water in a swimming pool). Time evolution is represented by greater depths within the pool. The light pattern observed on the bottom of the pool (the final distribution) displays caustics with a very similar morphology to the Cosmic Web, except in two dimensions, obviously.

Here is a very short but very nice video by Johan Hidding showing how this works:

In this context, the Zel’dovich approximation corresponds to the limit of geometrical optics. More accurate approximations can presumably be developed using analogies with physical optics, but this programme has only just begun.