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The universe might not be a fair place

by Sarah Scoles

Large Quasar Groups -- also known as LQGs, also known as large groups of quasars, also known as quasars in large groups -- are clottings of active, far-away supermassive black holes (presumed to be in the centers of host galaxies). And on January 11, scientists announced that they'd found the largest one yet.

And it is large.

From the author's paper about the benefits of bubble tea, here is a diagram of the 73 quasars in the HugeLGC, as well as the galaxies in the smaller CCLQG. The axes are in Megaparsecs.U1.27 is 4 billion by 2 billion by 1 billion light-years. Its largest dimension spans nearly 30% of the observable universe. It is made up of 73 quasars that, combined, total 8.8 million times the mass of the Milky Way. That means each quasar has about 120,000 times the mass of the galaxy in which we live.

But let's go back to the idea that this structure runs across 4 billion light-years.

Rules of the universe

The universe appears to have small structures that are grouped into large structures that are grouped into larger structures, etc. Similarly, on Earth, most people have houses, and those houses are arranged into towns, and large groups of towns are counties, and onward and upward to continents. These, however, get a little arbitrary. What, truly, defines a county? Physical laws and the invisible presence of dark matter determine how the universe arranges itself, whereas in 1889 the California Legislature just decided to split Laguna and Orange Counties.

Solar systems are arranged into galaxies; galaxies live in groups; groups reside in clusters; clusters clump into superclusters; superclusters are part of supercluster complexes. A place for everything and everything in its place. For a very cool graphic showing our particular place in that, make this image a lot bigger.

In the paper describing the newest, biggest LQG -- which the authors refer to as the HugeLQG -- the scientists posit that LQGs are the ancestors of supercluster complexes. Until LQGs, supercluster complexes were the largest things we knew of, period. The CfA2 Great Wall was thought to be a whopper 300 million light-years across, and the Sloan Great Wall wowed everybody with its 1.5 billion light-year length ... until this rave-party (also known as "rave") of quasars showed up.

Who sees that little man in the bottom center? (Credit: Gott and Juric).

But an idea called the Cosmological Principle says structures as big as the HugeLQG should not exist.

Which is why the HugeLQG is interesting. If it were merely big, we'd say, "Eh." Because pretty much everything is bigger than we are, and a bunch of densely strung-out galaxies a billion light-years away doesn't really "feel" that much bigger than a supercluster complex.

But the thing is, this violates the universe's sense of fairness. The Cosmological Principle states that the properties of the universe should look the same in all directions no matter where you're viewing from. A hovel in Brooklyn or a skyscraper in Tokyo or a planet in a galaxy far, far away.

In other words, the universe is supposed to be homogeneous if you zoom out enough. But something like the HugeLQG is so big that even if you zoomed way, way out, you would still be able to say, "Hey, what's that huge thing?"

Anything bigger than 1.2 billion light-years is "too big" for the Cosmological Principle's liking, according to the Yadav 2010 model.

The HugeLQG is not the first to violate the CP.

The Sloan Great Wall might have done it. Big empty voids might do it. Large-scale features in the cosmic microwave background might do it.

In short, everybody might be doing it.

When everybody starts violating a principle, maybe it's time to take a look at that principle (works as an argument for all speed limits being 5 mph higher, too). And scientists are doing that, and they're looking at different estimations of "what's too big to be smoothed into homogeneity."


But if homogeneity is not real, and there is more dark matter in some directions than others, and the density of galaxies is higher in one direction than other, then we live in a very different universe than we first thought. If the universe is not homogeneous, then what we see is not necessarily a fair representation. Our view -- all views -- would be biased by the location of the viewer, and so the conclusions we made about the universe would be biased by our location. The effects of this bias could be small, or they could be more akin to basing a multinational marketing strategy on a single survey of 150 three-year-old blonde boys. 


Yeah, the target market hates it when you directly compare your brand to other brands. Your landing page should be all about your brand image and its unique selling proposition's own merits (Credit: theykid.com)


Clowes, R., Harris, K., Raghunathan, S., Campusano, L., Sochting, I., & Graham, M. (2013). A structure in the early Universe at z 1.3 that exceeds the homogeneity scale of the R-W concordance cosmology Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society DOI: 10.1093/mnras/sts497

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Reader Comments (4)

So... what does this do to the Big Bang theory? I've read some blogposts recently which argue that this is the final nail in the coffin for the BBT, and I just don't have the background to sort it all out.

February 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDavid E.
January 27, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDhaval

I have read your articles. You are providing very useful information.
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