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What is the Great Attractor, and will it destroy us?
Our understanding of the universe has expanded tremendously in the last few decades. But there are still some mysteries out there, and the Great Attractor is one of them.
Since the Big Bang, the universe has been spreading out in every direction, and it’s picking up speed. The space between galaxies is getting larger every day. Currently, things are drifting apart at a rate of 2.2 million kilometers per hour. Now, you’d think that the galaxies to the left and the right of ours would be moving at the same velocity. You’d be wrong.
What’s slowing us down are enormous clumps of matter. Matter is attracted to matter, which is why we see galaxies form into clusters and superclusters. Even so, that’s still not enough for the calculations astronomers have been getting. Somewhere out there in the most heavily veiled area of space lies a massive gravitational irregularity that has been dubbed the Great Attractor. Over the course of billions of years, it’s been pulling us and all the galaxies near us closer to it.
The Great Attractor is thought to be at the gravitational center of the Laniakea supercluster—of which the Milky Way is but one galaxy of 100,000 others. One theory is that it’s a confluence of dark energy. Another is that it might be caused by over-density, an area of dense mass with an intense gravitational pull.
Whatever it is, it’s powerful enough to overcome normal dark energy, the force that’s believed to push galaxies on and cause them to pick up speed as they move forward. Dark energy is thought to comprise 71% of the universe. Unfortunately, scientists have no idea what it is.
How did we find the Great Attractor?
The Parkes Radio Telescope. Credit: Robert Kerton, CSIRO, Wikipedia Commons.
The phenomenon was discovered in the 1970s when astronomers first began making a detailed map of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB). This is the light residue left over from the Big Bang. It inhabits every part of the farthest reaches of our cosmos, evenly. Despite being surprising homogeneous, there is a slight temperature variation. It’s just a little warmer on one side of the Milky Way than the other, which scientists at the time couldn’t account for.
The Parkes radio telescope in New South Wales, Australia, in the ‘90s and early ‘00s, examined the sky with a sensitivity never before seen. An icon of Australian science since 1961, this radio telescope—actually a multibeam receiver, was upgraded and so, able to detect thousands of galaxies we’d otherwise be blind to. Astronomers got a good look at the galaxies close by, as well as a better sense of the makeup of the Milky Way.
Further explorations at the Parkes observatory in the mid-2000s discovered those galaxies in another area of the Milky Way, the one which contains the Great Attractor. Although previously we knew there was some anomaly out there, the lion’s share of all that data is just now being digested. As a result, the over-density’s strength and scope have only recently become apparent.
Is it really so great?
Center of the Milky Way from the New Zealand, in the southern hemisphere. Credit: Dave Young, Flickr.
Work at the Parkes observatory have reaped new discoveries of whole galaxies, galaxy clusters, and even new threads of the cosmic web. With this particular anomaly however, instead of finding out more, observations have only deepened the mystery surrounding it. The problem is, the over-density lies on the other side of the Milky Way’s disc. An enormous confluence of stars and star clusters lie between it and us, not to mention a mess of gases and space dust.
All of this obscures the light which would normally come from that direction, making us unable to observe and study it. This area has been nicknamed the Zone of Avoidance. The Great Attractor is thought to reside smack dab in the middle of it. Occasionally, something gets through. X-ray and radio astronomers are just beginning to get a look at what’s on the other side. But the picture thus far is rudimentary and murky.
Will it really destroy us?
The core of the Shapley Supercluster, the largest cosmic structure in the local Universe. (Photo: ESA & Planck Collaboration/JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images/Big Think).
What astronomers know for sure is that our galaxy and all of those in our supercluster are headed toward the Great Attractor. No one really knows what this might mean or if our planet is in any eventual danger. Astronomers say, it’ll take a few years before we know more about this anomaly. Some astronomers don’t consider it a threat, while others posit that all galaxies and clusters are clumping into greater and greater superclusters and that this may be how the universe ends, as part of what’s called the Big Crunch, which could theoretically be followed by another Big Bang.
Cheer up. Even if the Great Attractor doesn’t get us, more immediate concerns like climate change, a giant asteroid colliding with the Earth or a supervolcano erupting—causing volcanic winter, could potentially extinguish the human race. And if we survive any or all of those scenarios, there’s always the death of our sun in 7-8 billion years, the collapse of the Higgs boson field, or the eventual heat death of the universe. Still, the Great Attractor is perhaps the most mysterious apocalyptic scenario of them all.
To learn more about the Great Attractor, click here:
Scientists use new methods to discover what's inside drug containers used by ancient Mayan people.
- Archaeologists used new methods to identify contents of Mayan drug containers.
- They were able to discover a non-tobacco plant that was mixed in by the smoking Mayans.
- The approach promises to open up new frontiers in the knowledge of substances ancient people consumed.
PARME staff archaeologists excavating a burial site at the Tamanache site, Mérida, Yucatan.
While not the first such minister, the loneliness epidemic in Japan will make this one the hardest working.
- The Japanese government has appointed a Minister of Loneliness to implement policies designed to fight isolation and lower suicide rates.
- They are the second country, after the U.K., to dedicate a cabinet member to the task.
- While Japan is famous for how its loneliness epidemic manifests, it isn't alone in having one.
The Ministry of Loneliness<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/I5FIohjZT8o" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p><a href="https://www.jimin.jp/english/profile/members/114749.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Tetsushi Sakamoto</a>, already in the government as the minister in charge of raising Japan's low birthrate and revitalizing regional economies, was appointed this <a href="https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/21/national/japan-tackles-loneliness/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">month</a> to the additional role. He has already announced plans for an emergency national forum to discuss the issue and share the testimony of lonely <a href="https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/12/national/loneliness-isolation-minister/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">individuals</a>.</p><p>Given the complexity of the problem, the minister will primarily oversee the coordination of efforts between different <a href="https://www.insider.com/japan-minister-of-loneliness-suicides-rise-pandemic-2021-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ministries</a> that hope to address the issue alongside a task <a href="https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/21/national/japan-tackles-loneliness/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">force</a>. He steps into his role not a moment too soon. The loneliness epidemic in Japan is uniquely well known around the world.</p><p><a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hikikomori" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Hikikomori</em></a><em>,</em> often translated as "acute social withdrawal," is the phenomenon of people completely withdrawing from society for months or years at a time and living as modern-day hermits. While cases exist in many <a href="https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00247/full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">countries</a>, the problem is better known and more prevalent in Japan. Estimates vary, but some suggest that one million Japanese live like this and that 1.5 million more are at <a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.com/photography/article/japan-hikikomori-isolation-society" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">risk</a> of developing the condition. Individuals practicing this hermitage often express contentment with their isolation at first before encountering severe symptoms of loneliness and <a href="https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/01/200110155241.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">distress</a>.</p><p><a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kodokushi" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Kodokushi</em></a>, the phenomenon of the elderly dying alone and remaining undiscovered for some time due to their isolation, is also a widespread issue in Japan that has attracted national attention for decades.</p><p>These are just the most shocking elements of the loneliness crisis. As we've discussed before, loneliness can cause health issues akin to <a href="https://www.inc.com/amy-morin/americas-loneliness-epidemic-is-more-lethal-than-smoking-heres-what-you-can-do-to-combat-isolation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">smoking</a>. A lack of interaction within a community can cause social <a href="https://bigthink.com/in-their-own-words/how-religious-neighbors-are-better-neighbors" target="_self">problems</a>. It is even associated with changes in the <a href="https://bigthink.com/mind-brain/loneliness-brain" target="_self">brain</a>. While there is nothing wrong with wanting a little time to yourself, the inability to get the socialization that many people need is a real problem with real <a href="https://bigthink.com/mind-brain/brain-loneliness-hunger" target="_self">consequences</a>.</p>
The virus that broke the camel's back<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/Hp-L844-5k8" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p> A global loneliness pandemic existed before COVID-19, and the two working in tandem has been catastrophic. </p><p>Japanese society has always placed a value on solitude, often associating it with self-reliance, which makes dealing with the problem of excessive solitude more difficult. Before the pandemic, 16.1 percent of Japanese seniors reported having nobody to turn to in a time of need, the highest rate of any nation <a href="https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/21/national/japan-tackles-loneliness/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">considered</a>. Seventeen percent of Japanese men surveyed in 2005 said that they "rarely or never spend time with friends, colleagues, or others in social groups." This was three times the average rate of other <a href="http://www.oecd.org/sdd/37964677.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">countries</a>. </p><p>American individualism also creates a fertile environment for isolation to grow. About a month before the pandemic started, nearly<a href="https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2020/01/23/798676465/most-americans-are-lonely-and-our-workplace-culture-may-not-be-helping" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"> 3 in 5</a> Americans reported being lonely in a <a href="https://www.cigna.com/about-us/newsroom/studies-and-reports/combatting-loneliness/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">report</a> issued by Cigna. This is a slight increase over previous studies, which had been pointing in the same direction for years. </p><p>In the United Kingdom, the problem prompted the creation of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness. The commission's <a href="https://www.ageuk.org.uk/globalassets/age-uk/documents/reports-and-publications/reports-and-briefings/active-communities/rb_dec17_jocox_commission_finalreport.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">final report </a>paints a stark picture of the U.K.'s situation in 2017, with millions of people from all parts of British society reporting feeling regular loneliness at a tremendous cost to personal health, society, and the economy.</p><p>The report called for a lead minister to address the problem at the national level, incorporating government action with the insights provided by volunteer organizations, businesses, the NHS, and other organizations on the crisis's front lines. Her Majesty's Government acted on the report and appointed the first Minister for Loneliness in <a href="https://time.com/5248016/tracey-crouch-uk-loneliness-minister/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2018</a>, <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tracey_Crouch" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Tracey Crouch</a>, and dedicated millions of pounds to battling the problem. </p><p>The distancing procedures necessitated by the COVID-19 epidemic saved many lives but exacerbated an existing problem of loneliness in many parts of the world. While the issue had received attention before, Japan's steps to address the situation suggest that people are now willing to treat it with the seriousness it deserves.</p><p>--</p><p><em>If you or a loved one are having suicidal thoughts, help is available. The suicide prevention hotline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255.</em></p>
MIT professor Azra Akšamija creates works of cultural resilience in the face of social conflict.