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Mapping The Universe

A new map of our complex universe is out. We’ll look at our “chunky” cosmos.

We look up at the night sky and marvel at its depth and beauty. Its constellations and its stupendous scale.

And then on a curious night we wonder, what is all that? What shape, what age, what stuff? And where are we in it?

It turns out this is a very good moment to ask. Last month, the European Space Agency’s Planck satellite mission unveiled the results of scan after scan of radio and microwaves pouring out of the universe. Cosmic baby pictures from the dawn of time.

We know more than we have ever known. We know a lot. Up next On Point: Knowing the universe.

–Tom Ashbrook


Charles Lawrence, lead U.S. scientist for Planck mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and co-chair of the Planck editorial board

Sean Carroll, theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology, writer for Discover’s Cosmic Variance blog, and author of “The Particle at the End of the Universe: How the Higgs Boson Leads Us to the Edge of the World(@seanmcarroll)

Collected Show Highlights

You can listen to all the clips here, or see them individually further below:

Individual Show Highlights

Carroll and Lawrence mused about big question of whether the universe is finite or infinite. Carroll admitted that’s not so easy to determine:

Well, I think both this question “Is the universe finite or infinite?” and this question “Why did the universe come into existence in the first place?” have the same answer — namely, we don’t know! And that’s okay to admit that we don’t know. We don’t see any edge or any finitude to the universe, but because we only see part of it, it might be finite or it might not be. It might have come into existence for a reason or it might be random. This is not something we’re allowed to impose on the universe. We have to look at it and keep an open mind and wait until we figure out what those answers are.

And Lawrence agreed, adding that it really doesn’t matter if the universe is finite or infinite:

I don’t distinguish between those. It’s so big compared to the Earth. It’s so big compared to the solar system. It’s so big compared to the Milky Way. And so big compared to the part that we can observe — that light has had time to get to us from — that for practical purposes it might as well be infinite. But there is a difference, I agree, and Sean [Carroll] has fun thinking about that difference in his professional life.

What is dark matter anyway? How different is it from normal matter? Lawrence explained:

We have normal matter — the kind of stuff that we’re made out of: electrons, protons. And then we have something called dark matter. We call it dark matter because it doesn’t interact with light. It doesn’t emit light; it doesn’t absorb light. In fact, if we had a blob of it in front of us, we couldn’t see that it was there at all. Light would just be going through it, wouldn’t make any difference. But it has gravity. And so here we have two kinds of matter. One that has gravity and is affected by light (normal matter) and we got another kind (dark matter) that has gravity and isn’t affected by light.

Carroll said dark matter is all around us, even in us:

Most of our theories right now say that dark matter is not only in your front yard but in your body right now. There are dark matter particles passing through, but because they’re dark — which is a fancy physicist way of saying they don’t interact very noticeably with the particles that we’re made of — you don’t know. They just go right through us, they go right through the Earth, we’re passing through a wind of dark matter. And physicists are working very hard to build very sensitive experiments deep underground, shielded from radiation and noise and so forth that will detect the occasional, very rare dark matter particle bumping into them. So we think that we are swimming in a sea of dark matter. It’s not perfectly smooth — there’s more of it in the middle of the galaxy than in the outskirts — but it’s definitely all around us.

Ever wonder about parallel universes? Or multiverses? Carroll offered up some answers:

So there’s many different kinds of multiverse scenarios. And there some that are multiverses of possibility, suggested by quantum mechanics, or multiverses that are literally parallel and the next universe is less than a millimeter away from you but in a direction in which you can’t move. But there’s also the idea that there is a multiverse in a sense of just different regions of space where conditions are very very very different. Then it’s really just like a map of the Earth where you have oceans some places, plains other places, mountains other places and we’re looking at one square acre in the middle of Nebraska and it looks pretty normal and uniform to us, but far away things could look dramatically different.

Galaxies are like teenagers, they stick together in groups but move apart from other groups. Lawrence explained further:

The Andromeda galaxy and the Milky Way are part of a gravitationally bound system and we see many examples of this — clusters of galaxies could be hundreds, even thousands, of galaxies that are gravitationally bound. They’re not moving away from each other, and they won’t. Gravity is holding them together. But on the large scale, from one cluster of galaxies to another cluster of galaxies far away, from one galaxy to another galaxy far away, they are moving away from each other in the general expansion of the universe. But where gravity controls, where you have enough concentration of mass to hold things together doesn’t move apart.

Here’s an image of the mapped universe, and Lawrence guided us through how to interpret it:

Two Cosmic Microwave Background anomalous features hinted at by Planck's predecessor, NASA's Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP), are confirmed in the new high precision data from Planck. (ESA and the Planck Collaboration, March 21 2013)

Two Cosmic Microwave Background anomalous features hinted at by Planck’s predecessor, NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP), are confirmed in the new high precision data from Planck. (ESA and the Planck Collaboration, March 21 2013)

If you take a look at that image, the upper left part and the lower right part are the ones that are different. If you draw not a straight line, but divide the sphere in half with a line that cuts diagonally from upper right to lower left, the large-scale variations in the upper left part are smaller than the large-scale variations in the lower right part. If you’re looking at that now, you can kinda see that. But the difference is small.

Carroll explained how the big bang may — or may not — explain the lopsidedness of our universe:

It’s really hard to come up with a good theory that accounts for this kind of lopsidedness. It might be something absolutely world changing. It might be a hint as to what happened before the big bang. It might be something absolutely boring, just a statistical fluctuation. So that’s what we need to figure out. We cosmologists, my colleagues and I, will sometimes tell you that nothing happened before the big bang. But the truth is that we don’t know. The big bang is not the beginning of the universe; it’s the end of our understanding of the universe. It might have been the very very beginning. It might have been just a phase the universe went through. So if there was something that came before the big bang and that something had some asymmetry, some difference from one part to another, then that might be reflected in the way that our universe came into being. So, like I said, it could be really tremendously big news — or it could just be, “Eh, we could lucky.”

Tweets From During The Show

From Tom’s Reading List

Slate: The Universe Is 13.82 Billion Years Old “Some of this light comes from stars, some from cold clumps of dust, some from exploding stars and galaxies. But a portion of it comes from farther away…much farther away. Billions of light years, in fact, all the way from the edge of the observable Universe. This light was first emitted when the Universe was very young, about 380,000 years old. It was blindingly bright, but in its eons-long travel to us has dimmed and reddened. Fighting the expansion of the Universe itself, the light has had its wavelength stretched out until it gets to us in the form of microwaves.”

Science: Best Image of Big Bang Afterglow Ever Confirms Standard Cosmology “If the universe were ice cream, it would be vanilla. That’s the take-home message from researchers working with the European Space Agency’s orbiting Planck observatory, who today released the most precise measurements yet of the afterglow of the big bang—the so-called cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation. The new data from Planck confirm cosmologists’ standard model of how the universe sprang into existence and what it’s made of. That may disappoint scientists who were hoping for new puzzles that would lead to a deeper understanding.”

New York Times: Universe As An Infant: Fatter Than Expected And Kind Of Lumpy “Astronomers released the latest and most exquisite baby picture yet of the universe on Thursday, one that showed it to be 80 million to 100 million years older and a little fatter than previously thought, with more matter in it and perhaps ever so slightly lopsided.”


You can listen to these songs and more on the Ultimate On Point Playlist on Spotify.

  • “The Big Bang Theme Song” (2007) by The Barenaked Ladies
  • “The Galaxy Song” (1983) by Monty Python
Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • Jasoturner

    How anyone can read about fantastic science like this and then  believe that some god created the earth in seven days just mystifies me.  This is more incredible, and more exciting, than any religious text I can think of.  By existing, by having consciousness, every one of us alive has won the galactic lottery.  How fortunate we are to be here, and to be aware.  How infrequently we appreciate our good fortune.

    • MadMarkTheCodeWarrior

      Indeed we are fortunate and should relish every moment we have in that light.

    • Coastghost

      Oh I don’t know: Theodore Sturgeon’s “Microcosmic God” has never diminished the attraction of a God hypothesis or theory. The fact that we remain unable to see or say exactly “how small large is” does not diminish the viability or the explanatory power of some notion of “God”. Also, the Fermi paradox continues to feed speculations all by itself. Are you sure you’re not captive of latter-day positivist thinking? Physicists and cosmologists are so far ahead of evolutionary biologists these days . . . . 
      As to the Planck data: I’m waiting for Dr. A. Kashlinsky, et al.’s analysis to hear their telling of what the data hold for their “dark flow” hypothesis (whether we and the Local Group and everything for billions of light years in every direction are headed into the maw of “the Alpha Concentration”, which may yet consist of the Norma Cluster, the unseen Great Attractor, and the highly visible and extremely dense Shapley Supercluster), also interested to hear what Dr. L. Mersini-Houghton makes of the “cold spot” anomaly data associated with the Eridanus supervoid. 
      Time, as we say, shall tell.

      • MadMarkTheCodeWarrior

        I personally don’t believe in the god of microwave ovens (the god envisioned by biblical literalists)… I can’t imagine how such an impatient god would have created the universe in 7 days and tolerated the human race for 7000 years… Such mythologies (or theories, to be kind) make no sense to me, especially given that God has limitless time on his or her hands so to speak.

        I’m betting on a more patient, complex and surprising story behind ‘Life, the universe and everything’. Maybe I will be pleasantly surprised by a visage doing an imitation of George Burns!

        • http://www.facebook.com/mark.rutledge.56 Mark Rutledge

          I too find the positivist explanations undergirding current thinking around evolution mystifying. Another mythology at work (or theory to be kind.) 

        • sickofthechit

          “…I can’t imagine how such an impatient god would have created the
          universe in 7 days and tolerated the human race for 7000 years…”

          Thank you Mark for the belly laughs that followed my reading of your words.
          Charles A. Bowsher

    • Satwa

       According to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, and Shrodinger’s cat analogy, YOUR mind creates the universe, and this is in line with the ancient Vedic texts (which also put the universe at an older age than modern science – about 20 billion years, a concept that no other culture at the time could even begin to contemplate)
      So there is a God according to physics (and ancient insight) — It is YOU !

      • sickofthechit

         Infinity is my God!

    • ToyYoda

      I don’t understand what mystifies you.  That god created earth?  Or that he did it in seven days?  Or that there is a God at all after reading fantastic science?

      I would think that the more fantastic the science the greater belief in God.

      • Jasoturner

        I recommend “The Varieties of Scientific Experience” by Carl Sagan to describe very well what mystifies me.  But in a nutshell, the inadequacy of religious texts in describing the universe as we are coming to understand it argues against there being anything divine in the clockwork.

  • MadMarkTheCodeWarrior

    Every time I consider great work that pulls back the veil ever so slightly I stand humbled. In the words of Shakespeare:

    There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
    Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. – Hamlet

    That said, many religious leaders believe such knowledge impeaches the existence of God. To that I would say such knowledge only indicts their limited understanding and belief system which they impose upon the infinite and to this audience was not Shakespeare speaking?

    I cannot imagine what I cannot imagine.
    The universe keeps surprising me and in that I find great comfort.

  • Coastghost

    Tom Tom Tom: we begin to know just how little we know: baryonic matter we now know constitutes ONLY 5% of what is visible. Perspective!

  • Ray in VT

    I found it very comforting and calming last night to take a moment when I got home to just lean back, relax and take a good, long look up at everything that I could see up there.

    • DrewInGeorgia

      I posted a similar comment but it’s not showing up on the board. Wonder if I’m on probation or something…

      I hope they put the podcast up sometime today, I was really looking forward to listening to this show.

      • Ray in VT

        Maybe you have run afowl of the almighty Disqus.  I haven’t had that happen to me in a while.

        Agreed with the second part, Drew.  I like me some good science news/reporting.  There was some very interesting stuff on the radio as I was headed home last night regarding changes in knowledge of some of the forces in the universe:


        Maybe this was part of what made me take an extra long look at the sky.

        • DrewInGeorgia

          I stay afoul of Disqus. I don’t like the D and the D doesn’t like me. It’s okay though, I appreciate being able to speak my mind even if the mic short-circuits sometimes.
          Thanks so much for the link Ray, I missed that. I’m going to give it a listen in a few.

  • DrewInGeorgia

    Dark Energy and dark matter comprise the majority of reality, yet many of us just know that we know what is real. I look up every night for my daily reminder that I’m not even a grain of sand on the vast beach of existence. Do you?

    The more we learn the less we know.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ayn.marx Ayn Marx

    What degree of initial fluctuation at (say) ten Planck times in would produced the observed inhomogeneity, and what are the strongest candidates therefor (e.g., metric perturbations, some notional scalar filed)?  Say ‘Hi,’ to Kip for me….

  • Coastghost

    Nota bene: even physicists exclaim about “holy crap”.

    What do the Planck data begin to say in reply to the Fermi paradox? What of the Eridanus Supervoid? What of the “dark flow” hypothesis (since gravitational anomalies may be more generally distributed than we remain actually aware)?

    (Thank you, Tom, for fielding my queries. Kind regards and all good wishes to you, WBUR [even WGBH], and Boston.)

  • Coastghost

    Another point: what is the nature of correlation between gravitational anomalies and temporal anomalies? Or is any correlation discerned?

    Any room in theoretical physics (going forward) for “chronons” (particles of temporality, “so-called”)?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=596011862 Tristan Bruce Kirkman

    Is it possible that Dark Matter is capable of forming complex structure beyond gravitational clusters? How does the evidence from events such as the Bullet-Cluster collision play into the possibilities of structure?

    -Tristan in Harrisonburg, VA

  • Satwa


  • Satwa

    I read that the particles — quarks, leptons, atoms — were a lot smaller at the early stages after the Big Bang. Is that true, and does this mean that time may have been relative to the size as well, or rather, was time the same or slower, relative to the smaller size of particles and the Universe?
    So in other words, was it all there, but smaller if a person could be “in it”… was it slower (i.e: not fast as we see it from our perspective?)

  • Trond33

    The whole question about life on other planets in interesting.  We can more-or-less take it for granted that there are lots of planets with simple lifeforms.  Some plants with complex lifeforms, maybe a planet with oceans full of whales.  Of course, there will be even fewer planets with intelligent lifeforms.  

    It is simple to assume that there are 100 billion galaxies with 100 billion stars in each galaxy, so there has to be intelligent life out there.  Yes, reason dictates this.  

    Although, the other side of the coin are two facts – that the Universe is immensely big and immensely old.  

    As a species, humans have evolved in less than a blink of an eye in cosmic terms.  We could simply be missing the advent and exit of other intelligent life.  Or, such life is thriving, just 50 million lightyears away – which might be akin to identifying an ant crossing a window plane in Los Angeles, while sitting in New York. Or maybe most intelligent lifeforms manage to destroy their home planets before they develop the technology to travel the stars – as we are rapidly doing.  Or, maybe by the measure of “intelligent” we are still living in the caves, that there is intelligent life around us, we just can’t see it.  Maybe there is an evolutionary leap that transcends physical spaceships.

    Who knows, but it is a rather interesting topic of discussion. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001708537001 Joshua Evans

    I just read a story suggesting that scientists have found what might be evidence of Dark Matter!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jeff-Spangler/684037324 Jeff Spangler

    I recall hearing a cosmological principle that
    the universe is “infinite but bounded”. Is that true anymore and can
    you explain it? Thanks.

    • ToyYoda

      The simplest example is to consider a the number line between the intervals 0 and 1.  We can look at all the points greater than equal to 0 and less than 1.  The “less than” is key here.  Whatever point we take close to 1, there will always be a point even closer.  In this sense, the interval of points greater than 0 and less than 1 is bounded, but infinite.

      Now take the interval just described, and sweep it out so now we have a disk of points that is “bounded” by the radius less than 1.  So, now again, we can find a point on that disk close to the boundary, but there will always be a point even closer.  And we can keep extending this into higher dimensions of space.

      Now, let’s do a thought experiment attributed to Henri Poincare.  Poincare is a French mathematician who did a little dabbling in physics and is the co-discoverer of special relativity and through his papers and writings, gave much inspiration to young Einstein.

      Poincare imagined a universe where everything instantly doubled in size.  If we focus on appearance alone (ignoring physics), how would we know that things just suddenly doubled?  Remember, everything doubles in size, so that means our rulers doubled in size, and so did the photons we use to read those rulers.  Poincare says that we can’t.

      Poincare then came up with the following.  Imagine a disk and we have being that live in this disk.  The disk has a finite radius.  Let’s make it radius 1.  Now, as we move from the center of the disk, towards the boundary, everything inside the disk shrinks.  So our ruler shrink and so do we.  The closer we get to boundary of radius 1, the smaller we and everything around us get and at the radiuse we shrink to zero.  So, at that point, inside this disk, we will never get to the radius and we won’t ever know we shrunk.  Inside beings will think that that their disk-universe is infinite, and scientifically they are correct because all their measuring equipment says so.  Yet, the entire disk universe is contained in radius less than 1.

      And this is the intuitive idea behind space being infinite, but bounded.

      Now let me give you a curve ball which is just awesome.  We all know about relativism where Einstein describes how “bendy” space is.  Well, Poincare was aware of space relationalism (instead of relativism).  Others who were aware were Leibniz and Whithead.  (Whithead and Leibniz were mathamaticians.  Leibniz was a contemporary of Newton and co-discoverer of calculus.)  Poincare suggest that space may not be anything we think it is.  Space may not exist ontologically prior to objects.  That space is not real.  What that means is that without objects there isn’t space; that space is merely a description of how multiple objects are arranged but *presented* in a manner that’s convenient to our minds.

      By the way Newton thought space was “real” (whether relative or not).

    • ToyYoda

      (splitting my reply into two, since it’s long.)

      Now let me give you a curve ball which is just awesome.  We all know about relativism where Einstein describes how “bendy” space is.  Well, Poincare was aware of space relationalism (instead of relativism).  Others who were aware were Leibniz and Whithead.  (Whithead and Leibniz were mathamaticians.  Leibniz was a contemporary of Newton and co-discoverer of calculus.)  

      Poincare suggest that space may not be anything we think it is.  Space may not exist ontologically prior to objects.  That space is not real.  What that means is that without objects there isn’t space; that space is merely a description of how multiple objects are arranged but *presented* in a manner that’s convenient to our minds.By the way Newton thought space was “real” (whether relative or not).

  • Regular_Listener

    I loved the sound of the Big Bang!  Whoa-wee!

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