You’re as cold as ice

Astronomers have discovered the biggest known structure in the universe, and it turns out it’s a hole.

This is surprising information to many of us who thought that a hole usually constituted a gap, with a distinct lack of any structure. But there you go.

In any case, it’s an incredibly big hole (as you might expect of the biggest known structure in the universe), even bigger than the hole in the wall between our lounge room and bedroom in our previous house, and you could put your fist right through that one.

This newly discovered hole is 1.8 billion light years across, and is “distinguished by its unusual emptiness.”

Our reporter is on the scene now, talking with the hole.

R: Wow, man, you really are LARGE. I’d even say gargantuan. I can’t see the other side of you from here. If I tried to, I’d die about a gazillion years before I got there. If you don’t mind me asking, how did you get to be so big? 

H: Hey, dude, that is a bit hurtful. You know, I don’t get to talk to many people, and I start thinking it’s because I’m lonely that I feel this unusual emptiness. Then someone like you comes along with your judgemental comments and I remember why I prefer to be alone in the first place. It’s a real bummer always being talked about in terms of your size. Lay off. I have plenty of other good qualities.

The Hole, yesterday afternoon.

The Hole, yesterday afternoon.

Pic: The Guardian/ESA and the Planck Collaboration

The existence of the large hole was discovered as a result of a targeted astronomical survey, which confirmed that around 10,000 galaxies were missing from the part of the sky where the hole is.

(I’m not a scientist, but I think it’s stating the obvious when I say that if 10,000 galaxies are missing from exactly the spot where there is a gaping big hole, clearly they’ve all fallen out and you’ve lost them all, and it’s your own fault for not sewing up the hole before it got any bigger and you lost all your galaxies.)

Questionnaires sent out to the millions of galaxies in that neighborhood had a surprisingly good response rate, but it became noticeable that none of the 10,000 galaxies within a particular radius had sent back a response. Extra time was allowed, in case they had used Australia Post.

Finally, however, the deadline was reached, and still not a single response was received from the area in question. When surveys from the other galaxies were collated and the data was analysed, scientists’ fears were confirmed: a recurring response from dwellers on nearby galaxies was, “where have the 10,000 galaxies just past the next solar system disappeared to? We just had them over for a barbecue a fortnight ago – now all I can see is a dark patch of nothing where they lived.”

Now as it happens, the scientists who sent out the survey had been hoping to come across a large void, because previous research had revealed that the sky was unusually cool in that region.

The so-called Cold Spot was discovered in the last decade. It was named when an astronaut on a passing space shuttle felt a chill run down her spine, and remarked “Wow, that is a really cold spot!” Ever since then, scientists working on modelling of the expansion of the universe have shaken their fists at that pesky Cold Spot, because it disproves current theories about how the universe has evolved following the Big Bang. The Big Bang was named when….oh, never mind.

The Cold Spot has created controversy within scientific circles. As Prof ____, a cosmologist at the University of Durham, said: “The Cold Spot raised a lot of eyebrows.”

(A note to our readers: in some parts of society, if you are upset you throw a hissy fit, trashing your dressing room and refuse to go on stage even though your promoter is begging you to. In the scientific world, they raise their eyebrows.)

Of course, the main reason so many eyebrows were being raised was because scientists had previously determined that the coldest spot in the universe was in the refrigerator section at an IGA supermarket. This has been taught in the science curriculum at secondary schools for years, which is why everyone knows to take a coat when shopping at IGA. So it was a shock to the scientific community, the wider public, and the skinnier members of the public, to discover that there was a larger, colder, (and unusually empty) cold spot somewhere else in the universe.

H: Hey, I have to admit I kinda like being called The Cold Spot. It’s better than being referred to as a Hole. From now on I’ll be know as The Cold Spot, or Mr Cold Spot.

R: OK….um…look, I’m sorry Mr Cold Spot, man. Forget I said anything about your size. What I’m more interested in is how it feels to be the coldest spot in the universe. I mean, I’ve shopped at IGA in winter time, and brrrr, that place is cold. While we’re on that topic…..I’m kinda curious as to where those other 10,000 galaxies have gone. It’s kinda fishy that they’ve all gone and disappeared, and meanwhile, you are so large…..did you eat them to keep warm?

CS: Wow, that’s really heavy, dude. You are really starting to freak me out. First I’m unusually empty, then I’m incredibly large, then I’m unusually cool, now I’m almost a cannibal. I had no idea this was what people were saying about me. If it’s cold around here, it’s probably because the Sun is a vindictive bugger and we had an argument a while back – I guess it’s payback. And to answer your other question, no, I don’t know where the galaxies have gone, and no, I didn’t eat them!  As if. I’m on the paleolithic diet.

The supervoid is not an actual vacuum, but has about 20% less stuff in it than any typical region of the universe. “Supervoids are not entirely empty, they’re under-dense,” said Prof ____, a co-author at the Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest.

CS: Is he talking about me – a Supervoid?  That sounds pretty cool, like I’m the void that saves all the other voids in the universe. From now on I think Ill be known as Supervoid.

R: Ok…..Mr….er…Supervoid…..so anyway, Hoover asked me to see if you’d be interested in some kind of advertising deal. Look, of course they know you’re not an actual vacuum because obvs you’re way too large to fit inside anyone’s broom cupboard….but they think there’s potential for some kinda cool advertising gimmick given how you suck energy out of light as it passes through you. 

S: What? Yeah, whatever…..just wait a minute…….I’m still trying to process that last information. So I’m not completely empty after all? That seems like a good thing, right? But then that dude said that I’m under-dense. What does that even mean? I must be too dense to know. Wow… I don’t know if it’s because I’m under-dense, but I can’t tell if you people are trying to bring me down, or if you’re on my side. 

Poor Mr Cold Spot. He now knows how it feels to be a victim of the paparazzi. In a matter of days, (*Earth time) he has been described in the media as everything from “The greatest supervoid ever discovered,” and “the Everest of voids” to “an empty spherical blob.” It seems that even an incredibly big hole struggles to maintain its credibility in the fickle world of scientific journalism.

We hope that this article will help to provide some balance, by giving a voice to the supervoids.

*

*We contacted IGA Supermarkets for comment. A spokesperson said that they had never set out deliberately to be the coldest spot in the universe but they just couldn’t get the hang of how to work the store thermostat. He said it was a relief to hear that a colder spot had been discovered and he wished The Cold Spot all the best.

*

This post was inspired by the words and phrases used in an article in the Guardian about the discovery of the incredibly large hole. You may be excused for thinking that the post was just me taking a flight of fantasy – ok it is, but it’s peppered with entire words/phrases/descriptions lifted from the Guardian article, possibly some that you will think I invented.

A Really Brief History of Time

7.5 billion years ago: Things are pretty quiet as far as we can see. Earth does not yet exist, which accounts for the lack of extra noise. Out in the universe, stars burn away for millions of years, and that’s about it for action, really. Occasionally they explode, which livens things up for a while. As it happens, right at the moment that we are looking back at, one such star, GRB 080319B (although, at this point in time, it went by the name of unnamed) explodes, and the light from this explosion begins to travel through space.

Star exploding

 7.5 billion years ago

6.5 billion years ago: ….oh, sorry, I’d fallen asleep. It felt like a billion years just went by. Anyway, not much has been happening, things are pretty much the same as they have been for the last billion years. Even a maths lesson on a hot stuffy afternoon would seem action packed in comparison to this. Light from the explosion of GRB 080319B  still hurtles rapidly through space, allegedly travelling at the speed of…well….light. (Eye witnesses are hard to locate.)

4.5 billion years ago: Major thrills!  Over in a galaxy  – which will later be named “The Milky Way,” after a delicious chocolate bar that does not spoil the appetite – a new planet forms. This will be designated as “Earth” by the inhabitants, but that naming ceremony is still billions of years away.

3.5 billion years ago: More excitement! Who said nothing happens around here? The first life forms appear on Earth. Later named “bacteria,” these primitive life-forms prove to be the most resilient anywhere in the universe.* Meanwhile, light from the explosion of GRB 080319B continues to zoom through space.

650 million years ago: animals with nerves and muscles, but no brains, begin to appear on Earth. They are called Jellyfish. (Some of these creatures evolve to become Rugby League players.)

250 million years ago:  dinosaurs roam Earth. Light from the explosion of GRB 080319B is still ploughing steadily on through space at a consistent speed. (if ploughs could be said to go at the speed of light.)

100 thousand years ago: Homo Sapiens first appear on Earth. Apparently one of the main things that distinguish Homo Sapiens from Neanderthals is their production of artistic objects. Thus the beginnings of the human race is marked by its need to make art, which is handy for a thematic link to my previous post.

1 thousand years ago: the real Macbeth reigns in Scotland, but not in entirely the same way as the famous fictional character did – eg, there are less witches boiling up trouble, and not so many ghosts popping up through the fruit platter at banquets. A mysterious voice proclaiming “Macbeth has murdered sleep” in the middle of the night might really have been heard, depending on just how loudly he partied at night.

500 years ago: Shakespeare writes Macbeth, basing it on the king who lived 500 years earlier. (To Shakespeare and his cronies, Macbeth’s time seems like ancient history, but they didn’t have the benefit of being able to read this handy post to put things into perspective.)

Meanwhile, throughout all of this planetary, and now human activity, light from GRB 080319B continues to whizz steadily through the universe. Remember people, it was going at the speed of light, not at the speed of a segway. Reports from this time are still sketchy, but it appeared to be heading in the direction of The Milky Way.

60 years ago: Beckett writes Waiting for Godot and makes obvious reference to Macbeth.**

13 years ago: Stephen Hawking publishes A Brief History of Time, which explains a lot of stuff about the workings of the universe but overlooked the connection between  Macbeth, Waiting for Godot, black holes, stars exploding and the endlessness of the universe. Hawking’s so-called “brief” history also takes a lot longer to read than this post, even though I’ve managed to add in the parts about Macbeth and Waiting for Godot that Hawking left out of his.

3 years ago:  the light from GRB 080319B, that has been travelling for all that time, reaches Earth’s atmosphere. The light from the explosion that happened 7.5 billion years earlier and has travelled across the universe for all that time is seen briefly by Homo sapiens, on Earth.

3 days ago: I write a post that manages to tie the explosion of a star 7.5 billion years ago to Macbeth and Waiting for Godot, and which, no doubt, astronomers, physicists, literary academics and my local postman will be quoting in the years to come.

Just now: In what is already rapidly becoming the short-term past, I hit the “publish” button on this post, written to give an overview of the history of the universe so that it was clear where Macbeth and Waiting for Godot fitted in to the grand scheme of things.

Meanwhile, out in deep space, things are going along pretty much the same as they were, billions of years ago.

*

In other relevant news, apparently Milky Way now comes in a spread.

 

Milky Way spread

Milky Way spread. Neanderthals didnt think of that one.

*With the possible exception of Daleks

* *Beckett’s reference to Macbeth seems obvious to me, but is just my opinion, and I am not an academic. Any literary scholars who would like to disagree this may send in a 500 word essay on the topic, which will be published here in serial format.

A tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing. (But it mentions stars exploding.)

In my last post I referred to the “spine-tingling” factor that happens when I contemplate the stars and universe.  As a reminder to all you regular readers out there (or should I say, “in there”, since most of you exist only in my head?  Still, thanks for reading either way) – I’m talking about how that light that we see, and call a “star,”  is the light from a massive body (that’s the star) that could have already exploded and died  – and yet that explosion won’t be seen (by the naked eye) for maybe millions of years.

Yeah, that’s right, I had to reiterate that fact, because I can’t get enough of it.

Anyway, strangely enough, when I think about this stuff, my mind often makes an association to something else that I find spine tingling – a quote from Macbeth! I say strangely, because it’s nothing to do with stars or the universe. It is the famous quote, which I have located this morning in a falling-apart copy of Macbeth (complete with scribbled notes all over it) and goes:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day

To the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

(Shakespeare, Macbeth, v.5)

Did your spine tingle? Mine did. I can’t put my finger on why it is, but I have heard that this Shakespeare dude is quite a good writer, so I reckon he knew how to make a few words have an impact.

I suspect the reason why my brain connects this text from Macbeth with stars exploding and their light travelling for thousands or millions of years and still hitting our vision thousands of years later, is that idea that human existence is so brief, such a mere blip on the radar of what Macbeth describes as dark and dusty nothingness, or in my mind, is the fathomlessness of the universe.

Of course, the play is full of foreboding, and conveys a growing sense of dread and darkness, so all of that contributes to Macbeth’s famous speech, which comes close to the end of the story, feeling so potent and causing my spine to tingle.

I reckon that Samuel Beckett’s spine felt a little tingle when he read Macbeth, too. In Waiting for Godot, Vladimir and Estragon echo some of Macbeth’s ideas.  I think the spine-tingling I experience at these passages is partly due to recognition of Macbeth’s famous speech, as well as my reaction to the similarly dark content of what they are saying. Have a look back at what Macbeth says, and then check out the similarities:

Vladimir: All evening we have struggled, unassisted. Now it’s over. It’s already tomorrow. (p77)

Vladimir: In an instant, all will vanish and we’ll be alone once more, in the midst of nothingness! (p81)

Pozzo: Have you not done tormenting me with your accursed time!….One day,  is that not enough for you, one day like any other day, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you?….They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more. (p89)

I wonder if Beckett was having a little bit of a joke, too (given the nature of his absurdist play it seems likely) as Vladimir and Estragon could very well be the “idiots” that Macbeth speaks of, telling the tale that signifies nothing. The power of their statements is achieved very differently in Waiting for Godot. This play does not develop a growing sense of dread, rather I think that, for me, the power of these deep, existential statements is probably highlighted by the contrast in the way they are delivered: amidst conversation that, on the surface, appears to be pure rambling, by bumbling, pathetic characters that we feel sorry for.

So art can make my spine tingle too, just like the idea of stars exploding, and the universe in general, can do.

I guess that what makes for a spine-tingling feeling varies for everyone, but occasionally we all feel it for some reason or other, either by staring up at the stars, listening to a beautiful piece of music, or reading Macbeth!

Star exploding

An explosion 7.5 billion years ago – visible in 2008

Photo Credit: NASA/Swift/Stefan Immler, et al.

(Click here if you want to read about this exploding star. Apparently it exploded 7.5 billion years ago – well before Shakespeare was born, or even before Macbeth, whose story took place a mere 1000 years ago.  After travelling for all that time, the light from the explosion finally arrived close enough to earth to be seen by the naked eye in 2008.)

Black holes and other things I dont know enough about

There’s a lot to wonder about out there….

The supermassive black hole at the center of our Galaxy.

What do I wish I knew more about??? Oh, there is so much that could come into that category! After all, I named my blog “It keeps me wondering” for a reason!!!

I like wondering about all sorts of stuff…admittedly sometimes in a fanciful way, but I’m actually stimulated by learning new stuff, particularly if it’s through a dialogue with someone else who is knowledgable and passionate about it. I enjoy trying to picture and understand how things work, so I can become genuinely interested in almost any topic – for example, why steam burns you twice (as a friend was explaining last night). A good example is that when listening to local community radio station 3RRR, I can find myself becoming absorbed in the discussion of topics ranging from the work of the Mirabel Foundation to a current exhibition on in Melbourne. Sadly, I don’t seem to have a good ability to retain a lot of facts about how things work, however. So I don’t seem to store those facts in a database in my head, but the upside is that, like a goldfish, my active curiosity in learning about things can be triggered by hearing the same information I’ve heard before, if it’s presented in an interesting way!

It’s hard to know where to start, but here are just a few of the things I wish I knew more about, and can always hear about with interest:

Astronomy – the stars, the galaxy, black holes! The fact that the light we see in the sky left a star anywhere from 4 years ago to 1000s of years ago (or millions of years ago if you have a telescope) – that is one of those mind blowing facts that (even though I do retain it) still causes a shiver to run down my spine when I think about it. I guess it is because that light connects us with the prehistoric past of the universe, before the earth was inhabited, so many eons of time ago that we can’t even begin to picture how much time ago we are talking about. It reminds me  that human existence on earth really is a tiny blip on the radar of the universe.

Sociology and psychology – why we crazy humans behave the way we do! For example, it’s always fascinating to read about those famous experiments that I remember from psychology, like the one where someone on top of a tall building looks like they are going to jump, and down below the crowd gradually lose their sense of individuality and concern, and all chant at him to jump! Or the one where there is an apple on a table and everyone around the table one by one has to say what the object on the table is. The first person (a stooge) says it’s a pear, and no-one queries them, so then one by one, everyone round the table says it’s a pear.* Or the one where some people were made to play prison guards and put in charge of other people, playing the role of prisoners, and during the course of the experiment, the “prison wardens” started treating the “prisoners” in cruel and inhumane ways as the power dynamic went to their head. Human behaviour is so complex, fascinating, and sometimes scary!

History – the things that humans did in the past, and why they did them! There is a story to everything, and just about anything can come under the category of “history”, and tell us a little about the society that created it. The history of Ireland. The history of grafitti art. The history of robots.

bioluminescent jellyfish

Is it a space alien? No, its a bioluminescent jellyfish!

M. Youngbluth

Biology – particularly marine life – they are so mysterious to us. Starfish – how do they eat? How do they reproduce? Those bioluminescent deep sea creatures that live down on the ocean floor, creeping about in the murky depths, generating their own light, and not even bothering to evolve, just remaining as weird and primordial as their ancestors who were creeping around in the same ocean thousands of years ago.

I guess my interest in barely evolved creatures must be part of my fascination with history and pre-history. I just think it is shiver-inducing to know that there are still little bits of ancient history around us – out in the galaxies and way down deep in the oceans.

Of course, there are plenty of other, every day things I’d like to know more about too, for example, what half the functions on my phone are for, or why Fisher and Paykel bother having a 24/7 help line, but those things are not as potentially fascinating so I can survive without knowing the answers or even wondering too much about them. There’s too much other, more interesting stuff, to wonder about!

*

* The object on the table in that experiment might not have been an apple, it could have been an orange, or for that matter, a ham sandwich. I can’t recall and didn’t feel like looking it up. So I am not succumbing to peer group pressure when I say it was an apple, I just chose apples and pears to illustrate the point.

An orange

Umm…..an apple??

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