One of These Pictures Is the Brain, the Other is the Universe. Can You Tell Which is Which?

“Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual.” – Carl Sagan “The Demon-Haunted World.”

Learning about the Universe, I’ve felt spiritual moments, as Sagan describes them, as I better understand my connection to the wider everything. Like when I first learned that I was literally made of the ashes of the stars – the atoms in my body spread into the eternal ether by supernovae. Another spiritual moment was seeing this image for the first time:

Hippocampal mouse neuron studded with synaptic connections (yellow), courtesy Lisa Boulanger, from https://www.eurekalert.org/multimedia/pub/81261.php. The green central cell body is ? 10µm in diameter. B. Cosmic web (Springel et al., 2005). Scale bar = 31.25 Mpc/h, or 1.4 × 1024 m. Juxtaposition inspired by Lima (2009).
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New Horizons Saw the Universe With Even Less Light Pollution than Hubble’s View

In July of 2015, NASA’s New Horizons probe made history when it became the first mission ever to conduct a close flyby of Pluto. This was followed by the spacecraft making the first-ever encounter with a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) – known as Arrokoth (aka. 2014 MU69) – on Dec.31st, 2018. In addition, its unique position in the outer Solar System has allowed astronomers to conduct rare and lucrative science operations.

This has included parallax measurements of Proxima Centauri and Wolf 359, the two closest stars to the Solar System. In addition, a team of astronomers led by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) and Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) used archival data from the probe’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) to conduct measurements of the Cosmic Optical Background (COB).

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The Average Temperature of the Universe has Been Getting Hotter and Hotter

For almost a century, astronomers have understood that the Universe is in a state of expansion. Since the 1990s, they have come to understand that as of four billion years ago, the rate of expansion has been speeding up. As this progresses, and the galaxy clusters and filaments of the Universe move farther apart, scientists theorize that the mean temperature of the Universe will gradually decline.

But according to new research led by the Center for Cosmology and AstroParticle Physics (CCAPP) at Ohio State University, it appears that the Universe is actually getting hotter as time goes on. After probing the thermal history of the Universe over the last 10 billion years, the team concluded that the mean temperature of cosmic gas has increased more than 10 times and reached about 2.2 million K (~2.2 °C; 4 million °F) today.

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An Extreme Simulation of the Universe’s First Stars

For astronomers, astrophysicists, and cosmologists, the ability to spot the first stars that formed in our Universe has always been just beyond reach. On the one hand, there are the limits of our current telescopes and observatories, which can only see so far. The farthest object ever observed was MACS 1149-JD, a galaxy located 13.2 billion light-years from Earth that was spotted in the Hubble eXtreme Deep Field (XDF) image.

On the other, up until about 1 billion years after the Big Bang, the Universe was experiencing what cosmologists refer to as the “Dark Ages” when the Universe was filled with gas clouds that obscured visible and infrared light. Luckily, a team of researchers from Georgia Tech’s Center for Relativistic Astrophysics recently conducted simulations that show what the formation of the first stars looked like.

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The Universe is the Same, Everywhere We Look. Even More than Cosmologists Predicted

Several superclusters revealed by the 2dF Galaxy Redshift Survey.

No matter which direction you look in the Universe, the view is basically the same if you look far enough. Our local neighborhood is populated with bright nebulae, star clusters, and dark clouds of gas and dust. There are more stars toward the center of the Milky Way than there are in other directions. But across millions, and billions, of light-years, galaxies cluster evenly in all directions, and everything starts to look the same. In astronomy, we say the Universe is homogeneous and isotropic. Put another way, the Universe is smooth.

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How Loop Quantum Gravity Could Match Anomalies in the CMB with Large Structures in the Modern Universe

Our universe is best described by the LCDM model. That is an expanding universe filled with dark energy (Lambda), and dense clumps of cold dark matter (CDM). It is also sprinkled with regular matter that makes up planets, stars, and us, but that only makes up about 4% of the cosmos. While we don’t know what dark matter and dark energy are, we know how they behave, so the ?CDM model works exceptionally well. There’s just one small problem.

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According to Globular Clusters, the Universe is 13.35 Billion Years Old

It is a widely-accepted theory today that when the first stars formed in our Universe (ca. over 13 billion years ago), they quickly came together to form globular clusters. These clusters then coalesced to others to form the first galaxies, which have been growing through mergers and evolving ever since. For this reason, astronomers have long-suspected that the oldest stars in the Universe are to be found in globular clusters.

The study of stars in these clusters is therefore a means of determining the age of the Universe, which is still subject to some guesswork. In this vein, an international team of astronomers and cosmologists recently conducted a study of globular clusters in order to infer the age of the Universe. Their results indicate that the Universe is about 13.35 billion years old, a result that could help astronomers learn more about the expansion of the cosmos.

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Take a Flight Through the Most Detailed 3D Map of the Universe Ever Made

Once I accidentally took a photo of one of the most important stars in the Universe…

Andromeda Galaxy imaged at the SFU Trotter Observatory processed by Matthew Cimone

That star highlighted in the photo is called M31_V1 and resides in the Andromeda Galaxy. The Andromeda – AKA M31- is the closest galaxy to our own Milky Way. But before it was known as a galaxy, it was called the Andromeda Nebula. Before this particular star in Andromeda was studied by Edwin Hubble, namesake of the Hubble Space Telescope, we didn’t actually know if other galaxies even existed. Think about that! As recently as a hundred years ago, we thought the Milky Way might be the ENTIRE Universe. Even then…that’s pretty big. The Milky Way is on the order of 150,000 light years across. A light year is about 10 TRILLION kilometers so even at the speed of light it would take nearly the same length of time to cross the Milky Way as humans have existed on planet Earth.  M31_V1 changed all that.

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