The so-called End of Greatness is where you give up trying to find more superlatives to describe large scale objects in the universe. Currently the Sloan Great Wall – a roughly organised collection of galactic superclusters partitioning one great void from another great void – is about where most cosmologists draw the line.
Beyond the End of Greatness, it’s best just to consider the universe as a holistic entity – and at this scale we consider it isotropic and homogenous, which we need to do to make our current cosmology math work. But at the very edge of greatness, we find the cosmic web.
The cosmic web is not a thing we can directly observe since its 3d structure is derived from red shift data to indicate the relative distance of galaxies, as well as their apparent position in the sky. When you pull all this together, the resulting 3d structure seems like a complex web of galactic cluster filaments interconnecting at supercluster nodes and interspersed by huge voids. These voids are bubble-like – so that we talk about structures like the Sloan Great Wall, as being the outer surface of such a bubble. And we also talk about the whole cosmic web being ‘foamy’.
It is speculated that the great voids or bubbles, around which the cosmic web seems to be organised, formed out of tiny dips in the primordial energy density (which can be seen in the cosmic microwave background), although a convincing correlation remains to be demonstrated.
As is well recorded, the Andromeda Galaxy is probably on a collision course with the Milky Way and they may collide in about 4.5 billion years. So, not every galaxy in the universe is rushing away from every other galaxy in the universe – it’s just a general tendency. Each galaxy has its own proper motion in space-time, which it is likely to continue to follow despite the underlying expansion of the universe.
It may be that much of the growing separation between galaxies is a result of expansion of the void bubbles, rather than equal expansion everywhere. It’s as though once gravity loses its grip between distant structures – expansion (or dark energy, if you like) takes over and that gap begins to expand unchecked – while elsewhere, clusters and superclusters of galaxies still manage to hold together. This scenario remains consistent with Edwin Hubble’s finding that the large majority of galaxies are rushing away from us, even if they are not all equally rushing away from each other.
van de Weygaert et al are investigating the cosmic web from the perspective of topology – a branch of geometry which looks at spatial properties which are preserved in objects undergoing deformation. This approach seems ideal to model the evolving large scale structure of an expanding universe.
The paper below represents an early step in this work, but shows that a cosmic web structure can be loosely modelled by assuming that all data points (i.e. galaxies) move outwards from the central point of the void they lie most proximal to. This rule creates alpha shapes, which are generalised surfaces that can be built over data points – and the outcome is a mathematically modelled foamy-looking cosmic web.
Further reading: van de Weygaert et al. Alpha Shape Topology of the Cosmic Web.