Self-Motivation
David Goggins
Former Navy Seal
Career Development
Bryan Cranston
Actor
Critical Thinking
Liv Boeree
International Poker Champion
Emotional Intelligence
Amaryllis Fox
Former CIA Clandestine Operative
Management
Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
Learn
from the world's big
thinkers
Start Learning

What is the cosmic web?

When you zoom far enough out, our universe has a very unusual structure.

Wikimedia Commons
  • Composed of massive filaments of galaxies separated by giant voids, the cosmic web is the name astronomers give to the structure of our universe.
  • Why does our universe have this peculiar, web-like structure?
  • The answer lies in processes that took place in the first few hundred thousands years after the Big Bang.


Looking up at the night sky, it seems as though the stars and galaxies are spread out in a more or less random fashion. This, however, isn't really the case. The universe isn't a random jumble of objects; it has a structure composed of galaxies and gas. Cosmologists call this structure the cosmic web.

The cosmic web is composed of interconnecting filaments of clustered galaxies and gases stretched out across the universe and separated by giant voids. The largest of these filaments that we have found to date is the Hercules–Corona Borealis Great Wall, which is a staggering 10 billion light years long and contains several billion galaxies. As for the voids, the largest is the Keenan, Barger, and Cowie (KBC) void, which has a diameter of 2 billion light years. Within a segment of the spherical KBC void lies the Milky Way galaxy and our planet.

Altogether, these features give the universe a foamy appearance. However, once you zoom out far enough, this pattern disappears, and the universe appears to be a homogeneous chunk of galaxies. Astronomers have a delightful name for this sudden homogeneity — the End of Greatness. At smaller scales, however, we can see that the universe does indeed have a rather magnificent structure. This begs the question: How did this structure come to be?

It starts with a bang

Space itself has fluctuating energy levels. Incredibly small pairs of particles and anti-particles are spontaneously coming into existence and annihilating each other. This "boiling" of space was happening in the early universe as well. Normally, these particle pairs destroy each other, but the rapid expansion of the early universe prevented that from happening. As space expanded, so too did these fluctuations, causing discrepancies in the density of the universe.

A visualization of quantum fluctuations.

Wikimedia Commons

Because matter attracts matter through gravity, these discrepancies explain why matter clumped together in some places and not others. But this doesn't fully explain the structure of the cosmic web. After the inflationary period (roughly, 10-32 seconds after the Big Bang), the universe was full of primordial plasma clumping together due to the aforementioned discrepancies. As this matter clumped together, it created pressure that counteracted gravity, creating ripples akin to a sound wave in the matter of the universe. Physicists call these ripples baryon acoustic oscillations.

Simply put, these ripples are the product of regular matter and dark matter. Dark matter only interacts with other things through gravity, so the pressure that causes these ripples doesn't affect it — it stays at the center of ripple, not moving. Regular matter, however, is pushed out. A little under 400,000 years after the Big Bang, the universe has cooled enough such that the pressure pushing the matter out is released through a process called photon decoupling.

An artist's illustration of the rings formed by baryon acoustic oscillations.

Zosia Rostomian, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

As a result, the matter is locked into place. Some regular matter finds its way back to the center of the ripple due to the gravitational attraction of the dark matter. The result is a bullseye: Matter in the middle and matter in a ring around the middle. Because of this, physicists know that you're more likely to find a galaxy 500 million light years away from another galaxy than you are to find one 400 or 600 million light years away. Simply put, galaxies tend to be found at the outer rings of these cosmic bullseyes.

Altogether, these processes produced the gigantic web of stuff that compose our universe. Of course, there are many other processes that go into producing the cosmic web, but these fall outside the scope of this article. For those of you interested in observing what this structure would look like, you're in luck: astronomer Bruno Coutinho and colleagues developed an interactive, 3D visualization of the universe's structure, which you can access here.

The Cosmic Web, or: What does the universe look like at a VERY large scale?

The Millennium Simulation featured in this clip was run in 2005 by the Virgo Consortium, an international group of astrophysicists from Germany, the United K...

Hulu's original movie "Palm Springs" is the comedy we needed this summer

Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.

Gear
  • Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
  • As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
  • The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.
Keep reading Show less

Two MIT students just solved Richard Feynman’s famed physics puzzle

Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.

Surprising Science

Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.

Keep reading Show less

Our ‘little brain’ turns out to be pretty big

The multifaceted cerebellum is large — it's just tightly folded.

Image source: Sereno, et al
Mind & Brain
  • A powerful MRI combined with modeling software results in a totally new view of the human cerebellum.
  • The so-called 'little brain' is nearly 80% the size of the cerebral cortex when it's unfolded.
  • This part of the brain is associated with a lot of things, and a new virtual map is suitably chaotic and complex.

Just under our brain's cortex and close to our brain stem sits the cerebellum, also known as the "little brain." It's an organ many animals have, and we're still learning what it does in humans. It's long been thought to be involved in sensory input and motor control, but recent studies suggests it also plays a role in a lot of other things, including emotion, thought, and pain. After all, about half of the brain's neurons reside there. But it's so small. Except it's not, according to a new study from San Diego State University (SDSU) published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

A neural crêpe

A new imaging study led by psychology professor and cognitive neuroscientist Martin Sereno of the SDSU MRI Imaging Center reveals that the cerebellum is actually an intricately folded organ that has a surface area equal in size to 78 percent of the cerebral cortex. Sereno, a pioneer in MRI brain imaging, collaborated with other experts from the U.K., Canada, and the Netherlands.

So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.

The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."

Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum

Image source: Sereno, et al.

A complicated map

Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."

That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.

It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."

This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."

Bigger and bigger

The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.

"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."

As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."

Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."

Economists show how welfare programs can turn a "profit"

What happens if we consider welfare programs as investments?

A homeless man faces Wall Street

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • A recently published study suggests that some welfare programs more than pay for themselves.
  • It is one of the first major reviews of welfare programs to measure so many by a single metric.
  • The findings will likely inform future welfare reform and encourage debate on how to grade success.
Keep reading Show less
Videos

Unhappy at work? How to find meaning and maintain your mental health

Finding a balance between job satisfaction, money, and lifestyle is not easy.

Scroll down to load more…
Quantcast