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There are chunks of universe everywhere

Wired recently covered a new paper by Shaun Thomas, et al., of the University College London, published in the Physical Review Letters about the distribution of matter in the universe.

I normally read the actual paper, not a popular press summary of the paper, before I present to you, the trusting audience, the results. However, I am currently at my parents' house, and my parents, unlike the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, did not pony up for  subscriptions to the major academic science journals. So I am relying on Lisa Grossman's interpretation of the interpretation of the results, a reliance which is surely warranted but should be disclosed nonetheless.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background (CMB), fluctuations which ultimately led to the development of galaxies and their constituent parts (stars, planets, people with the ability to make internet memes). That post centered on a debate about the "clumpiness" of the CMB, which can be thought of as the oldest clumpiness ever, and whether certain clumpings were anomalous or as predicted.

However, new results about the structures to which the CMB led--in this case, we're talking about galaxies and their clusters--suggest they are not quite homogeneous over large scales, a result that runs contrary to what models predict. Heidi Klum, in particular, did not suspect this at all.

Source. Every single time I see this image, it reminds me of neurons.
Just try to convince me that the universe is not a gigantic brain.
"Frankly, I thought that if we looked at the distribution of matter over significant fractions of the universe, it would not vary by more than 1%," Klum said. "But that's not what we're seeing at all. I think perhaps it is time for me to find a new field of study."

Using information about those earliest fluctuations in the universe, astronomers should be able to predict how the fluctuations would evolve and how they would look on scales from a single light-year to billions of light-years, which is the scale probed by this study. However, information plus models predict that the universe should be much more smoothed out than it appears to be.

It was the first time my mom let me cook with the stove while
she was gone. Mistakes were made. Source.
It's like the first time I tried to make condensed tomato soup into real tomato soup, and my mom told me it would be really easy and no one could mess it up, but I ended up with tomato squish-ball surprise.

Three explanations are provided (not for the soup, which remains explanation-less, but for the universe):

1. Dark energy, not spread like smooth peanut butter throughout the universe like we thought, draws matter differentially to different places.

2. Einstein's theory of general relativity, on which the models are based ("So right!" says Klum. "I have always thought of Albert as my foundation.") is incorrect for huge scales, or at least needs some tweaking.

3. The stuff we're doing is wrong, plagued by systematic error and locusts.

No matter which of these explanations is right, we are wrong about something. And that's the beauty of saying, "Model, you do not fit reality" ("You wouldn't believe how many wymyn's rights magazines have written me letters that say that," says Klum).

When we're wrong, that means there's something new and exciting that we don't yet understand about the universe, a fact that we did not know before we were wrong. So, in a way, being wrong teaches us the most important thing that a person can learn in science: That there is more to be discovered.

Thomas, S., Abdalla, F., & Lahav, O. (2011). Excess Clustering on Large Scales in the MegaZ DR7 Photometric Redshift Survey Physical Review Letters, 106 (24) DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevLett.106.241301

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Reader Comments (3)

I feel so helpless after some of the stuff you talk about! Is there anything we're doing right?

June 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBrooke N.

Tons! And we're not *completely* wrong about most things. Our ideas just need editing. It's like with writing, how the first draft of a paper or novel always sucks, and you have to keep amending it.

Don't worry. Biology will be fundamentally wrong about something significant soon.

June 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSarah Scoles

We're wrong about everything. Also I'm pretty sure that cloning & PCR are sprinkled with magic.

June 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBrooke N.

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