With telescopes gazing into the distant reaches of the universe, astronomers can see some marvelous sights. But what might the universe look like if they were able to take a step outside of it? For years, scientists have pondered this as mounting evidence shows that even far-off galaxies could be connected by invisible strands of gravity and matter. Now, a group of researchers have devised several stunning simulations of what this “cosmic web” might look like.
The idea of the cosmic web has been floating around for nearly a decade. To put it simply, while the universe contains billions of galaxies, they only make up a fraction of the amount of matter that should exist. In 2008, researchers discovered evidence suggesting that about half of this missing matter might actually be caught up in spindly strands of gravity in the spaces between galaxies, connecting them in a web-like superstructure, Amanda Montañez reports for Scientific American.
While the concept of the cosmic web has been around for a while, it is a tricky thing to picture. Because these strands are so subtle, it is hard for astrophysicists to directly observe them. Still, scientists have pieced together enough information to develop predictive models of what the cosmic web might look like based on information like gas density, temperature, and the velocity of tens of thousands of galaxies in our universal neighborhood. Now, researchers at Northeastern University’s Center for Complex Network Research have devised an interactive tool to help visualize several 3D models of the cosmic web, David Grossman reports for Popular Mechanics.
“Before, the cosmic web was more like a metaphor,” Kim Albrecht, the tool’s designer, tells Maddie Stone for Gizmodo. “This is the first time somebody has made these calculations and thought about it as an actual network.”
The visualizations seen on the researcher group’s website are based off of three distinct mathematical algorithms that propose different ways that the cosmic web might link distant galaxies to one another. The “Fixed Length Model,” for example, posits that only galaxies within a certain distance are connected, generating a sparse, disjointed image of the universe. The second model, called the “Varying Length Model,” supposes what the web might look like if larger galaxies can create longer strands and creates an image of a much more connected cosmos. The third and final model seen in the simulation is the “Nearest Neighbors Model,” in which each galaxy can only have a certain number of links and shares those only with its closest neighbors.
All three visualizations are based on existing data and theories about how the cosmic web might connect the universe. However, according to a video produced by the researchers, the Nearest Neighbor Model provided the closest image to how astrophysicists believe the web might actually work, with evenly-distributed strands of hydrogen particles connecting far-off galaxies.
While scientists have a lot more to learn about the cosmic web, these visualizations are a beautiful means for people to explore the underlying foundations that our universe may be built on, even without an advanced physics degree.