When you open the Johns Hopkins professor’s “map of the visible universe,” you’re met with a geometric outline overflowing with thousands of rainbow freckles, each neatly organized by color. At the bottom of this graph is a troubling statement.
“you are here.”
One barely visible blob on this graph represents our entire Milky Way galaxy—a world with billions of stars besides our Sun, occupying such a small percentage that I don’t even want to try to write it down.
With a single pixel, Maynard puts into perspective the cosmic brevity of everything we have truly known as human beings.
“This map, which represents galaxies as tiny dots, allows the viewer to understand different scales at the same time,” said Maynard at an overview of the interactive mechanism. “Seeing the vastness of the universe – it’s so inspiring.”
Scrolling around the map’s 200,000 galaxies—placed at exact positions and relative to one another—is calming as it paraphrases just how insignificant the footprint we make in the universe. It’s annoying for exactly the same reason.
It draws a striking parallel to Carl Sagan’s famous quote about Voyager 1’s stunning image of Earth from 1990, “pale blue dot.”
“Look back at that point,” Sagan said. “It’s here. This house. This is us.” On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being that ever lived, lived out their lives. The sum of our joys and sufferings, the thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization. Every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, child optimist, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morality, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every ‘commander in chief’, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on A speck of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
Although if you were struck by the deceptively short size of the Menard Map, consider how it doesn’t even represent every galaxy in the universe. In fact, NASA estimates that there are nearly a hundred billion galaxies unfolding beyond eternity.
We would need an unfathomable level of observable universe mapping to summarize the full width of the universe.
piece of our universe
Together with a cadre of scientists, Menard used data extracted over two decades by what is known as the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.
“Astrophysicists around the world have been analyzing this data for years, resulting in thousands of scientific papers and discoveries,” said Menard. “But no one has taken the time to create a map that’s beautiful, scientifically accurate, and accessible to people who aren’t scientists. Our goal here is to show everyone what the universe really looks like.”
Once you click “Explore Map” below the Milky Way galaxy label, you reach a screen that prompts you to “swipe up to travel through the universe.” The existence of such a sentence underscores how advanced the technology is.
“From this bottom spot,” Maynard said, “we’re able to map galaxies across the entire universe, and that says something about the power of science.”
Even more impressive is how, as you follow the prompt, a bar at the bottom left of the screen shows you how many billions of years you’ve passed by the time you’ve passed. Meanwhile, the dots transition from hues of pale blue to yellow to orange to red, eventually easing into a cool midnight hue.
“Each point is a galaxy shown by its apparent color,” the page reads. “Spiral galaxies are faint and blue. Our Milky Way is a blue spiral.”
Elliptical galaxies appear brighter and yellower, while red spots indicate worlds that have grown far enough to stretch the emitted light to appear to us on Earth as a crimson haze.
Going back 9 billion years, the map displays bright blue blotches to represent quasars rather than galaxies. These are the intense jets of light emanating from the bowels of black holes at the center of certain galaxies.
Basically, galaxies from this era of cosmic history are really hard to see, reddish to a near-invisible degree, but quasars are bright enough to act like flashlights. Their brilliance streaks across the cosmos, revealing scenes sheltered from darkness and softened with distance.
But beyond those quasars lurks a speck of blackness – conjuring mysteries beyond the red end of the electromagnetic spectrum. infrared water.
The page says: “We are facing an era during which the universe is filled with hydrogen gas that prevents the propagation of visible light that we can observe today. This era is called the Dark Ages.”
NASA’s remarkable James Webb Space Telescope is a big deal because it is designed to find secrets hidden in this region that are invisible to the human eye. Created with an army of high-tech infrared sensors, it works to detect galaxies from almost the beginning of time stuck in limbo that we can’t see with our minds or machines.
With every Webb discovery, we hope that maps like this will become populated where their empty spaces currently are.
And at the top of the page, a marble image of the edge of the visible universe. The first flash of light was emitted after the Big Bang, roughly 14 billion years ago. Cosmic waves background.
“We can’t see anything beyond this point,” Map concludes after returning to the beginning of existence. “The time of light travel for us is greater than the age of the universe.”
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