## Watch “Why the Universe is quite disappointing really – Episode 5” on YouTube

Posted in The Universe and Stuff, YouTube with tags , , , on May 21, 2020 by telescoper

Episode 5, in which I explain using a golf ball just how empty the Universe is. It is so empty, in fact, that even the crowded places are very empty. And as for the empty places, they’re practically nothing.

## Watch “Why the Universe is quite disappointing, really – Episode 4” on YouTube

Posted in The Universe and Stuff, YouTube with tags , , , , on May 19, 2020 by telescoper

Episode 4, in which I show that spiral galaxies are very grubby – they contain huge amounts of dust. And not only galaxies – astronomical dust is everywhere we look. The Universe may be big, but it sure is dirty..

## The Largest Known Spiral Galaxy – UGC 2885

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on January 6, 2020 by telescoper

So here I am, Christmas break over, waiting in Cardiff Airport for my flight back to civilization. I thought I’d take the opportunity to share this wonderful picture, courtesy of the Hubble Space Telescope, of the galaxy UGC 2885 – the largest known spiral galaxy. You can click on the picture to make it bigger or if you really are a size queen you can download an ultra-high=resolution version here.

UGC 2885 is located about 71 Mpc (232 million light-years) from us, in the direction of the constellation Perseus. The galaxy is 2.5 times wider than our own Milky Way and contains approximately 10 times as many stars. A number of foreground stars (in our Galaxy), identified by the diffraction crosses produced by unresolved point sources, can be seen in the image, including one superimposed on the disk of the galaxy, to the left of its centre. The galaxy UGC 2885 has been nicknamed “Rubin’s galaxy” after Vera Rubin, the astronomer who studied the rotation of the galaxy and found evidence for dark matter therein.

There is a very interesting and informative thread on Twitter by Benne Holwerda covering the background to this latest image of the galaxy:

If you click on the above it will take you to Twitter where you can read the series of linked tweets on this subject by clicking on show this thread’.

## That was the Science Week that was..

Posted in Books, Talks and Reviews, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on November 15, 2019 by telescoper

So, as advertised, this morning I gave a talk mainly to school students as part of Science Week Ireland on the subject of the cosmic web. This was a similar talk to the one I gave at DIAS a couple of weeks ago.

There was a slight confusion about rooms but we did eventually get everyone into the right lecture theatre and weren’t too late getting started. The audience was about 140, so the room was very full and most of them didn’t fall asleep. I had a nice chat afterwards with a group of them and they seemed to have enjoyed it. Anyway, in case anyone is interested here are my slides. Most of them are recycled from previous versions of this talk.

Following this morning’s exertions we had lovely seminar after lunch by Wyn Evans of Cambridge about the stellar dynamics of the Milky Way and the wonders of Gaia and soon will be going to dinner.

## Gas Filaments in the Cosmic Web

Posted in Astrohype, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on October 4, 2019 by telescoper

I saw that there’s a new paper that has just been published in the journal Science by Umehata et al with the title Gas filaments of the cosmic web located around active galaxies in a protocluster. In case you run into a paywall at Science, you may of course, find the paper on the arXiv here.

The abstract reads:

Cosmological simulations predict the Universe contains a network of intergalactic gas filaments, within which galaxies form and evolve. However, the faintness of any emission from these filaments has limited tests of this prediction. We report the detection of rest-frame ultraviolet Lyman-alpha radiation from multiple filaments extending more than one megaparsec between galaxies within the SSA 22 proto-cluster at a redshift of 3.1. Intense star formation and supermassive black-hole activity is occurring within the galaxies embedded in these structures, which are the likely sources of the elevated ionizing radiation powering the observed Lyman-alpha emission. Our observations map the gas in filamentary structures of the type thought to fuel the growth of galaxies and black holes in massive proto-clusters.

The existence of a complex cosmic web of filaments and voids has been known about for some time as it is revealed on large scales by the distribution of galaxies through redshift surveys:

You can see all my posts agged with Cosmic Web’ here. There are also good theoretical reasons (besides numerical simulations) for believing this is what the large-scale distribution of matter should look like. Roughly speaking, dense knots of matter lie at the vertices of a three-dimensional pattern traced out by one-dimensional structures.

We have also known for some time, however, that there is more going on in cosmic structure than is revealed by light from stars in galaxies. In particular the way gas flows along the filaments into the knots plays an important role in galaxy and cluster formation. This paper reveals the distribution of gas around a giant cluster that has formed at such a node using observations made using the European Southern Observatory’s MUSE instrument.

Here’s a pretty picture:

I found out about this paper from a news piece in the Guardian with the title Scientists observe mysterious cosmic web directly for first time. That’s sufficiently misleading for me to cross-file the paper under Astrohype’ because, as I explained above, we have been observing the cosmic web for decades. It is however only just becoming possible to observe the diffuse gas rather than having to join the dots between the galaxies so it is an exciting result. My complaint, I suppose, is that the word directly’ is doing a lot of heavy lifting in the title!

## 50 Years of the Cosmic Web

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on November 21, 2018 by telescoper

I’ve just given a lecture on cosmology during which I showed a version of this amazing image:

The picture was created in 1977 by Seldner et al. based on the galaxy counts prepared by Charles Donald Shane and Carl Alvar Wirtanen and published in 1967 (Publ. Lick. Observatory 22, Part 1). There are no stars in the picture: it shows the  distribution of galaxies in the Northern Galactic sky. The very dense knot of galaxies seen in the centre of the image is the Coma Cluster, which lies very close to the Galactic North pole.The overall impression  is of a frothy pattern, which we now know as the Cosmic Web. I don’t think it is an unreasonable claim that the Lick galaxy catalogue provided the first convincing evidence of the form of the morphology of the large-scale structure of the Universe.

The original Shane-Wirtanen Lick galaxy catalogue lists counts of galaxies in 1 by 1 deg of arc blocks, but the actual counts were made in 10 by 10 arcmin cells. The later visualization is based on a reduction of the raw counts to obtain a catalogue with the original 10 by 10 arcmin resolution. The map above based on the corrected counts  shows the angular distribution of over 800,000 galaxies brighter than a B magnitude of approximately 19.

The distribution of galaxies is shown only in projection on the sky, and we are now able to probe the distribution in the radial direction with large-scale galaxy redshift surveys in order to obtain three-dimensional maps, but counting so many galaxy images by eye on photographic plates was a Herculean task that took many years to complete. Without such heroic endeavours in the past, our field would not have progressed anything like as quickly as it has.

I’m sorry I missed the 50th anniversary of the publication of the Lick catalogue, and Messrs Shane and Wirtanen both passed away some years ago, but at last I can doff my cap in their direction and acknowledge their immense contribution to cosmological research!

UPDATE: In response to the comments below, I have updated this scan of the original rendition of the Lick counts:

## Why the Universe is extremely overrated.

Posted in Television, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on June 19, 2018 by telescoper

A few weeks I read an article in Physics Today which prompted me to revise and resubmit an old post I cobbled together in response to the BBC television series Wonders of the Universe in which I argued that the title of that programme suggests that the Universe is wonder-ful, or even, in a word which has cropped up in the series a few times, awesome’.  When you think about it the Universe is not really awesome at all’. In fact it’s extremely overrated.

Take this thing, for example:

This is an example of a galaxy (the Andromeda Nebula, M31, to be precise). We live in a similar object. Of course it looks quite pretty on the surface but, when you look at it with a physicist’s eye, such a galaxy is really not as great as it’s cracked up to be, as I shall now explain.

We live in a relatively crowded part of our galaxy on a small planet orbiting a fairly insignificant star called the Sun. Now you’ve got me started on the Sun. I know it supplies the Earth with all its energy, but it does the job pretty badly, all things considered because the Sun only radiates a fraction of a milliwatt per kilogram. By comparison a human being radiates more than one watt per kilogram. Pound for pound, that’s more than a thousand times as much energy as a star.

So,  in reality, stars are bloated, wasteful, inefficient and not even slightly awesome. They’re only noticeable because they’re big. And we all know that size shouldn’t really matter. In short, stars are extremely overrated.

But even in what purports to be an interesting neighbourhood of our Galaxy, the nearest star is 4.5 light years from the Sun. To get that in perspective, imagine the Sun is the size of a golfball. On the same scale, where is the nearest star?

The answer to that will probably surprise you, as it does my students when I give this example in lectures. The answer is, in fact, on the order of a thousand kilometres away. That’s the distance from Cardiff to, say, Munich. What a dull landscape our Galaxy possesses. In between one little golf ball in Wales and another one in Germany there’s nothing of any interest at all, just a featureless incomprehensible void not worthy of the most perfunctory second thought.

So galaxies aren’t dazzlingly beautiful jewels of the heavens. They’re flimsy, insubstantial things more like the cheap tat you can find on QVC. What’s worse is that they’re also full of a grubby mixture of soot and dust. Indeed, some are so filthy that you can hardly see any stars at all. Somebody needs to give the Universe a good clean. I suppose you just can’t get the help these days.

And then to the Physics Today piece I mentioned at the start of this article. I quote:

Star formation is stupendously inefficient. Take the Milky Way. Our galaxy contains about a billion solar masses of fresh gas available to form stars—and yet it produces only one solar mass of new stars a year.

Hopeless! What a waste of space a galaxy is! As well as being oversized, vacuous and rather dirty, one is also pretty useless at making the very things it is supposed to be good at! What galaxies clearly need is some sort of a productivity drive or perhaps a complete redesign using more efficient technology.

So stars are overrated and galaxies are overrated, but surely the Universe as a whole is impressive?

No. Think about the Big Bang. Well, I don’t need to go on about that because I’ve already posted about it. Suffice to say that the Big Bang wasn’t anywhere near as Big as you’ve been led to believe: the volume was between about 115 and 120 decibels. Quite loud, to be sure, but many rock concerts are louder. To be honest it’s a bit of an anti-climax. If I’d been in charge (and given sufficient funding) I would have put on something much more spectacular.

In any case the Big Bang happened a very long time ago. Since then the Universe has been expanding, the space between galaxies getting emptier and emptier so there’s now less than one atom per cubic metre, and cooling down to the point where its temperature is lower than three degrees above absolute zero.

The Universe is a cold, desolate and very empty place, lit by a few feeble stars and warmed only by the fading glow of the heat left over from when it was all so much younger and more exciting. Here and there amid the cosmic void a few galaxies are dotted about, like cheap and rather tatty ornaments. It’s as if we inhabit a shabby downmarket retirement home, warmed only by the feeble radiation given off by a puny electric fire as we occupy ourselves as best we can until Armageddon comes.

In my opinion the Universe would have worked out better had it been entirely empty, instead of being contaminated with such detritus. I agree with Tennessee Williams:

BRICK: “Well, they say nature hates a vacuum, Big Daddy.
BIG DADDY: “That’s what they say, but sometimes I think that a vacuum is a hell of a lot better than some of the stuff that nature replaces it with.”

So no, the Universe isn’t wonderful. Not at all. In fact, it’s basically a bit rubbish. Again, it’s only superficially impressive because it’s quite large, and it doesn’t do to be impressed by things just because they are large. That would be vulgar.

Digression: I just remembered a story about a loudmouthed Texan who owned a big ranch and who was visiting the English countryside on holiday. Chatting to locals in the village pub he boasted that it took him several days to drive around his ranch. A farmer replied “Yes. I used to have a car like that.”

Ultimately, however, the fact is that whatever we think about the Universe and how badly constructed it it, we’re stuck with it. Just like the trains, the government and the weather. There’s nothing we can do about it, so we might as grin and bear it.

It’s being so cheerful that helps keep me going.

## The Dipole Repeller

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on February 2, 2017 by telescoper

An interesting bit of local cosmology news has been hitting the headlines over the last few days. The story relates to a paper by Yehuda Hoffman et al. published in Nature Astronomy on 30th January. The abstract reads:

Our Local Group of galaxies is moving with respect to the cosmic microwave background (CMB) with a velocity 1 of VCMB = 631 ± 20 km s−1and participates in a bulk flow that extends out to distances of ~20,000 km s−1 or more 2,3,4 . There has been an implicit assumption that overabundances of galaxies induce the Local Group motion 5,6,7 . Yet underdense regions push as much as overdensities attract 8 , but they are deficient in light and consequently difficult to chart. It was suggested a decade ago that an underdensity in the northern hemisphere roughly 15,000 km s−1 away contributes significantly to the observed flow 9 . We show here that repulsion from an underdensity is important and that the dominant influences causing the observed flow are a single attractor — associated with the Shapley concentration — and a single previously unidentified repeller, which contribute roughly equally to the CMB dipole. The bulk flow is closely anti-aligned with the repeller out to 16,000 ± 4,500 km s−1. This ‘dipole repeller’ is predicted to be associated with a void in the distribution of galaxies.

The effect of this “void in the distribution of galaxies” has been described in rather lurid terms as “Milky Way being pushed through space by cosmic dead zone” in a Guardian piece on this research.

If you’re confused by this into thinking that some sort of anti-gravity is at play, then it isn’t really anything so exotic. If the Universe were completely homogeneous and isotropic – as our simplest models assume – then it would be expanding at the same rate in all directions.  This would be a pure “Hubble flow“, with galaxies appearing to recede from an observer with a speed proportional to their distance:

But the Universe isn’t exactly smooth. As well as the galaxies themselves, there are clusters, filaments and sheets of galaxies and a corresponding collection of void regions, together forming a huge and complex “cosmic web” of large-scale structure. This distorts the Hubble flow by inducing peculiar motions (i.e. departures from the pure expansion). A part of the Universe which is denser than average (e.g. a cluster or supercluster) expands less  quickly than average, a part which is less dense (i.e. a void) expands more quickly than average. Relative to the global expansion rate, clusters represent a “pull” and voids represent a “push”. That’s really all there is to it.

The difficult part about this kind of study is measuring a sufficient number of peculiar motions of galaxies around our own to make a detailed map of what’s going on in the local velocity field. That’s particularly hard for galaxies near the plane of the Milky Way disk as they tend to be obscured by dust. Nevertheless, after plugging away at this for many years, the authors of the Nature paper have generated some fascinating results. It seems that our Galaxy and other members of the Local Group lie between a dense supercluster (often called the Shapley concentration) and an underdense region, so the peculiar velocity field around us has an approximately dipole structure.

They’ve even made a nice video to show you what’s going on, so I don’t have to explain any further!

## A Universe of Two Trillion Galaxies

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on October 13, 2016 by telescoper

I just saw a press-release that describes a paper, just out, authored by Chris Conselice et al from the University of Nottingham (in the Midlands), with this here abstract:

The key conclusion of this paper is that when the universe was only a few billion years old there were about ten times as many galaxies in a given volume of space as there are within a similar volume today, but most of these galaxies were much lower mass systems than, e.g., the Milky Way. In fact their masses are similar to those of the satellite galaxies surrounding the Milky Way. These objects are numerous but so faint that even in very deep surveys with very big telescopes they are very easy to miss.

Here’s an image from a deep survey: this is from the Hubble Space Telescoper Great Observatories Deep Survey (HST-GOODS).

You can click on this to make it larger if you wish. This is typical of a “pencil beam” survey. It opens a very small window on the heavens – about a millionth of its total area of the sky – in a direction chosen to avoid having too many bright stars from our own Galaxy getting in the way. When you look at such a patch with a big telescope for a long time, what you see is basically all galaxies. The few stars in the above image can be identified by the diffraction patterns they produce, but almost every fuzzy blob in the picture is a galaxy. It looks like there are a lot of galaxies in this image, but the real number seems to be substantially higher than we thought.

When I’ve given popular talks about this kind of thing I’ve always said something like “There are at least as many galaxies in the observable Universe as there are stars in our own Galaxy”. It turns out that I was wise to include the “at least as”. There are about 100 billion (1011) stars in the Milky Way, but the latest estimate is now that there are two trillion (2 ×1012) galaxies in the observable Universe. I quote Douglas Adams:

“The Universe, as has been observed before, is an unsettlingly big place, a fact which for the sake of a quiet life most people tend to ignore. Many would happily move to somewhere rather smaller of their own devising, and this is what most beings in fact do.

I believe this explains a lot about modern politics.

## The Importance of Being Homogeneous

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , on August 29, 2012 by telescoper

A recent article in New Scientist reminded me that I never completed the story I started with a couple of earlier posts (here and there), so while I wait for the rain to stop I thought I’d make myself useful by posting something now. It’s all about a paper available on the arXiv by Scrimgeour et al. concerning the transition to homogeneity of galaxy clustering in the WiggleZ galaxy survey, the abstract of which reads:

We have made the largest-volume measurement to date of the transition to large-scale homogeneity in the distribution of galaxies. We use the WiggleZ survey, a spectroscopic survey of over 200,000 blue galaxies in a cosmic volume of ~1 (Gpc/h)^3. A new method of defining the ‘homogeneity scale’ is presented, which is more robust than methods previously used in the literature, and which can be easily compared between different surveys. Due to the large cosmic depth of WiggleZ (up to z=1) we are able to make the first measurement of the transition to homogeneity over a range of cosmic epochs. The mean number of galaxies N(<r) in spheres of comoving radius r is proportional to r^3 within 1%, or equivalently the fractal dimension of the sample is within 1% of D_2=3, at radii larger than 71 \pm 8 Mpc/h at z~0.2, 70 \pm 5 Mpc/h at z~0.4, 81 \pm 5 Mpc/h at z~0.6, and 75 \pm 4 Mpc/h at z~0.8. We demonstrate the robustness of our results against selection function effects, using a LCDM N-body simulation and a suite of inhomogeneous fractal distributions. The results are in excellent agreement with both the LCDM N-body simulation and an analytical LCDM prediction. We can exclude a fractal distribution with fractal dimension below D_2=2.97 on scales from ~80 Mpc/h up to the largest scales probed by our measurement, ~300 Mpc/h, at 99.99% confidence.

To paraphrase, the conclusion of this study is that while galaxies are strongly clustered on small scales – in a complex `cosmic web’ of clumps, knots, sheets and filaments –  on sufficiently large scales, the Universe appears to be smooth. This is much like a bowl of porridge which contains many lumps, but (usually) none as large as the bowl it’s put in.

Our standard cosmological model is based on the Cosmological Principle, which asserts that the Universe is, in a broad-brush sense, homogeneous (is the same in every place) and isotropic (looks the same in all directions). But the question that has troubled cosmologists for many years is what is meant by large scales? How broad does the broad brush have to be?

I blogged some time ago about that the idea that the  Universe might have structure on all scales, as would be the case if it were described in terms of a fractal set characterized by a fractal dimension $D$. In a fractal set, the mean number of neighbours of a given galaxy within a spherical volume of radius $R$ is proportional to $R^D$. If galaxies are distributed uniformly (homogeneously) then $D = 3$, as the number of neighbours simply depends on the volume of the sphere, i.e. as $R^3$, and the average number-density of galaxies. A value of $D < 3$ indicates that the galaxies do not fill space in a homogeneous fashion: $D = 1$, for example, would indicate that galaxies were distributed in roughly linear structures (filaments); the mass of material distributed along a filament enclosed within a sphere grows linear with the radius of the sphere, i.e. as $R^1$, not as its volume; galaxies distributed in sheets would have $D=2$, and so on.

We know that $D \simeq 1.2$ on small scales (in cosmological terms, still several Megaparsecs), but the evidence for a turnover to $D=3$ has not been so strong, at least not until recently. It’s just just that measuring $D$ from a survey is actually rather tricky, but also that when we cosmologists adopt the Cosmological Principle we apply it not to the distribution of galaxies in space, but to space itself. We assume that space is homogeneous so that its geometry can be described by the Friedmann-Lemaitre-Robertson-Walker metric.

According to Einstein’s  theory of general relativity, clumps in the matter distribution would cause distortions in the metric which are roughly related to fluctuations in the Newtonian gravitational potential $\delta\Phi$ by $\delta\Phi/c^2 \sim \left(\lambda/ct \right)^{2} \left(\delta \rho/\rho\right)$, give or take a factor of a few, so that a large fluctuation in the density of matter wouldn’t necessarily cause a large fluctuation of the metric unless it were on a scale $\lambda$ reasonably large relative to the cosmological horizon $\sim ct$. Galaxies correspond to a large $\delta \rho/\rho \sim 10^6$ but don’t violate the Cosmological Principle because they are too small in scale $\lambda$ to perturb the background metric significantly.

The discussion of a fractal universe is one I’m overdue to return to. In my previous post  I left the story as it stood about 15 years ago, and there have been numerous developments since then, not all of them consistent with each other. I will do a full “Part 2” to that post eventually, but in the mean time I’ll just comment that this particularly one does seem to be consistent with a Universe that possesses the property of large-scale homogeneity. If that conclusion survives the next generation of even larger galaxy redshift surveys then it will come as an immense relief to cosmologists.

The reason for that is that the equations of general relativity are very hard to solve in cases where there isn’t a lot of symmetry; there are just too many equations to solve for a general solution to be obtained.  If the cosmological principle applies, however, the equations simplify enormously (both in number and form) and we can get results we can work with on the back of an envelope. Small fluctuations about the smooth background solution can be handled (approximately but robustly) using a technique called perturbation theory. If the fluctuations are large, however, these methods don’t work. What we need to do instead is construct exact inhomogeneous model, and that is very very hard. It’s of course a different question as to why the Universe is so smooth on large scales, but as a working cosmologist the real importance of it being that way is that it makes our job so much easier than it would otherwise be.

P.S. And I might add that the importance of the Scrimgeour et al paper to me personally is greatly amplified by the fact that it cites a number of my own articles on this theme!