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Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
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Is the universe controlled by gigantic structures?

The idea that celestial objects exist within utterly immense cosmic structures is becoming inescapable.

Image source: Mike Rosecope/procy/Shutterstock/Big Think
  • New findings in astronomy are making some astronomers doubt our basic model of the universe.
  • Alignments of celestial objects suggest that they may be embedded in large-scale structures.
  • Galaxies too far apart to be influencing each other are moving through space together.

Solidity is a function of magnification. We know that anything we experience as solid is actually a structure of atoms packed closely enough that to our eyes they appear to be a single solid thing. If we were small enough, we'd see the spaces between them; if we were even smaller, those spaces might seem vast. Likewise, in 1989 Margaret Geller and John Huchra, analyzing redraft survey data, discovered the immense "Great Wall," a "sheet" formed from galaxies many light years apart. That first large-scale structure is 500 million light-years long, 200 million light years wide, and with a thickness of 15 million light years.

Other gigantic large-scale structures been discovered since — sheets, filaments, and knots, with bubble-like voids intersperse among them. They appear to be connected by clouds and filaments of hydrogen gas and dark matter. Though the bodies that comprise the structures are not gravitationally bound to each other — the distances between them are too great — evidence is piling up that they are linked by something.

Recent observations indicate that galaxies far, far apart are somehow synchronously moving. Something appears to be binding large-scale structures, many light years apart, together after all. Is the currently accepted view of the universe as various clumps of material simply expanding outward from the Big Bang and gravitationally pulling on each other wrong?

Large-scale structures

The existence and mechanics of large-scale structures are a tantalizing puzzle with obviously major implications for our understanding of the universe. As Noam Libeskind, of the Leibniz-Institut for Astrophysics (AIP) in Germany tells VICE, "That's actually the reason why everybody is always studying these large-scale structures. It's a way of probing and constraining the laws of gravity and the nature of matter, dark matter, dark energy, and the universe."

The identification and study of large-scale structures is a product of analyzing and modeling simulations of redshift survey for specific regions of the sky that visually reveal these immense structures.

The large-scale structures revealed in one segment of sky

Image source: National Center for Supercomputer Applications by Andrey Kravtsov (The University of Chicago) and Anatoly Klypin (New Mexico State University). Visualizations by Andrey Kravtsov.

Billions of light years apart

Several pieces of research are causing interest in these large-scale structures to heat up. The most mind-blowingly distant synchronized motion was reported in 2014, when the rotation axes of 19 super-massive black holes at the centers of quasars — out of 100 quasars studied — were found to be in alignment, billions of light years apart. According to the study's lead author, astronomer Damien Hutsemékers of the University of Liège in Belgium, "Galaxy spin axes are known to align with large-scale structures such as cosmic filaments but this occurs on smaller scales. However, there is currently no explanation why the axes of quasars are aligned with the axis of the large group in which they are embedded."

The first word of the research paper's title, "Spooky Alignment of Quasars Across Billions of Light-years," invokes cosmic-scale quantum entanglement as a possible explanation.

Image source: orin/Shutterstock/Big Think

Galaxies of a feather

Astronomer Joon Hyeop Lee of the Korea Astronomy and Space Institute is the lead author of "Mysterious Coherence in Several-megaparsec Scales between Galaxy Rotation and Neighbor Motion," published in October of this year in Astrophysical Journal. Comparing data from two catalogs of redshift survey data — the Calar Alto Legacy Integral Field Area (CALIFA) and NASA-Sloan Atlas (NSA) catalogs — the researchers' analysis of 445 galaxies revealed, surprisingly, that galaxies six meparsecs, or 20 million light years, apart were moving in the same way. Those observed, for example, a galaxy moving toward the Earth was mirrored by other distant galaxies moving in the same direction.

"This discovery is quite new and unexpected," according to Lee, "I have never seen any previous report of observations or any prediction from numerical simulations, exactly related to this phenomenon."

Since the galaxies are too distant for their gravitational fields to be influencing each other, Lee poses another explanation: That the linked galaxies are both embedded within the same, large-scale structure.

Image source: sripfoto/Shutterstock/Big Think


Another puzzle suggesting the influence of large-scale structures has become clear over recent years. It's been observed that galaxies surrounding our own Milky Way are weirdly arranged in a single, flat plane. Big-Bang thinking would suggest that they should be circling us at all different sorts of angles. Obviously, for adherents of that way of viewing the galaxy — known as the ΛCDM model — this at the very least a troubling anomaly.

The hope that it was an anomaly weakened with the discovery of the same thing occurring around the Andromeda galaxy, and then again around Centaurus A in 2015. By the time "A whirling plane of satellite galaxies around Centaurus A challenges cold dark matter cosmology" was published in 2018, the phenomenon was starting to seem quite common, and possibly universal. The idea that the satellite galaxies might part of a large-scale structure had become even worthier of serious consideration.

Just the beginning

As more astronomers embrace the notion of large-scale structures and related research accelerates, we can only hope that these perplexingly oddball movements and associations are eventually made clear. Certainly, imagining a vast arrangement of utterly gigantic structures in which galaxies are embedded paints a very different picture of the universe, and one that makes one wonder if these structures are themselves embedded in something even larger. In this mid-boggling case, we are indeed small enough to see only the space between objects — in this case galaxies. We've been no more aware of them than whatever it is that may be living between our own atoms.

Neom, Saudi Arabia's $500 billion megacity, reaches its next phase

Construction of the $500 billion dollar tech city-state of the future is moving ahead.

Credit: Neom
Technology & Innovation
  • The futuristic megacity Neom is being built in Saudi Arabia.
  • The city will be fully automated, leading in health, education and quality of life.
  • It will feature an artificial moon, cloud seeding, robotic gladiators and flying taxis.
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Human brains remember certain words more easily than others

A study of the manner in which memory works turns up a surprising thing.

Image Point Fr / Shutterstock
Mind & Brain
  • Researchers have found that some basic words appear to be more memorable than others.
  • Some faces are also easier to commit to memory.
  • Scientists suggest that these words serve as semantic bridges when the brain is searching for a memory.

Cognitive psychologist Weizhen Xie (Zane) of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) works with people who have intractable epilepsy, a form of the disorder that can't be controlled with medications. During research into the brain activity of patients, he and his colleagues discovered something odd about human memory: It appears that certain basic words are consistently more memorable than other basic words.

The research is published in Nature Human Behaviour.

An odd find

Image source: Tsekhmister/Shutterstock

Xie's team was re-analyzing memory tests of 30 epilepsy patients undertaken by Kareem Zaghloul of NINDS.

"Our goal is to find and eliminate the source of these harmful and debilitating seizures," Zaghloul said. "The monitoring period also provides a rare opportunity to record the neural activity that controls other parts of our lives. With the help of these patient volunteers we have been able to uncover some of the blueprints behind our memories."

Specifically, the participants were shown word pairs, such as "hand" and "apple." To better understand how the brain might remember such pairings, after a brief interval, participants were supplied one of the two words and asked to recall the other. Of the 300 words used in the tests, five of them proved to be five times more likely to be recalled: pig, tank, doll, pond, and door.

The scientists were perplexed that these words were so much more memorable than words like "cat," "street," "stair," "couch," and "cloud."

Intrigued, the researchers looked at a second data source from a word test taken by 2,623 healthy individuals via Amazon's Mechanical Turk and found essentially the same thing.

"We saw that some things — in this case, words — may be inherently easier for our brains to recall than others," Zaghloul said. That the Mechanical Turk results were so similar may "provide the strongest evidence to date that what we discovered about how the brain controls memory in this set of patients may also be true for people outside of the study."

Why understanding memory matters

person holding missing piece from human head puzzle

Image source: Orawan Pattarawimonchai/Shutterstock

"Our memories play a fundamental role in who we are and how our brains work," Xie said. "However, one of the biggest challenges of studying memory is that people often remember the same things in different ways, making it difficult for researchers to compare people's performances on memory tests." He added that the search for some kind of unified theory of memory has been going on for over a century.

If a comprehensive understanding of the way memory works can be developed, the researchers say that "we can predict what people should remember in advance and understand how our brains do this, then we might be able to develop better ways to evaluate someone's overall brain health."

Party chat

Image source: joob_in/Shutterstock

Xie's interest in this was piqued during a conversation with Wilma Bainbridge of University of Chicago at a Christmas party a couple of years ago. Bainbridge was, at the time, wrapping up a study of 1,000 volunteers that suggested certain faces are universally more memorable than others.

Bainbridge recalls, "Our exciting finding is that there are some images of people or places that are inherently memorable for all people, even though we have each seen different things in our lives. And if image memorability is so powerful, this means we can know in advance what people are likely to remember or forget."

spinning 3D model of a brain

Temporal lobes

Image source: Anatomography/Wikimedia

At first, the scientists suspected that the memorable words and faces were simply recalled more frequently and were thus easier to recall. They envisioned them as being akin to "highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words." They developed a modeling program based on word frequencies found in books, new articles, and Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, the model was unable to predict or duplicate the results they saw in their clinical experiments.

Eventually, the researchers came to suspect that the memorability of certain words was linked to the frequency with which the brain used them as semantic links between other memories, making them often-visited hubs in individuals's memory networks, and therefore places the brain jumped to early and often when retrieving memories. This idea was supported by observed activity in participants' anterior temporal lobe, a language center.

In epilepsy patients, these words were so frequently recalled that subjects often shouted them out even when they were incorrect responses to word-pair inquiries.

Seek, find

Modern search engines no longer simply look for raw words when resolving an inquiry: They also look for semantic — contextual and meaning — connections so that the results they present may better anticipate what it is you're looking for. Xie suggests something similar may be happening in the brain: "You know when you type words into a search engine, and it shows you a list of highly relevant guesses? It feels like the search engine is reading your mind. Well, our results suggest that the brains of the subjects in this study did something similar when they tried to recall a paired word, and we think that this may happen when we remember many of our past experiences."

He also notes that it may one day be possible to leverage individuals' apparently wired-in knowledge of their language as a fixed point against which to assess the health of their memory and brain.

Does conscious AI deserve rights?

If machines develop consciousness, or if we manage to give it to them, the human-robot dynamic will forever be different.

  • Does AI—and, more specifically, conscious AI—deserve moral rights? In this thought exploration, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, ethics and tech professor Joanna Bryson, philosopher and cognitive scientist Susan Schneider, physicist Max Tegmark, philosopher Peter Singer, and bioethicist Glenn Cohen all weigh in on the question of AI rights.
  • Given the grave tragedy of slavery throughout human history, philosophers and technologists must answer this question ahead of technological development to avoid humanity creating a slave class of conscious beings.
  • One potential safeguard against that? Regulation. Once we define the context in which AI requires rights, the simplest solution may be to not build that thing.

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