Friday, 18 December 2020

Science Has Confirmed a Theory Explaining the Large-Scale Structure of the Universe

Optical image of the Abell 3391/95 system

© Reiprich et al., Astronomy & Astrophysics
Longest intergalactic gas filament discovered — Universität Bonn

I don't normally write about cosmology and astro-physics because they are not subjects in which I have any particular expertise but the findings of a team of researchers from Bonn, Germany, are interesting from a general science point of view in that they confirm our ideas about the early formation of the Universe are correct. It's also good to have a theory I described in What Makes You So Special? From the Big Bang To You confirmed by science.

In particular, the scientists confirm models which explain why the Universe is grainy, with stars, galaxies and super-clusters, and not smooth and amorphous as a simple understanding of mathematics that ignore quantum fluctuations seems to predict.

In this simplistic model, atoms should be evenly distributed so there would be no reason for gravity to pull it into clumps to form denser regions. However, small differences produced by quantum fluctuations should produce small areas of increased density where gravity was higher than the surrounding space, so nearby matter would tend to move towards these centres.

Computer simulations predict that this would leave the Universe looking somthing like a sponge with large 'empty' spaces connected by thin filaments of rarified gas forming a basic matrix, and this is exactly what the researchers have found.

As the University of Bonn press release explains:
Still image from a simulation showing the distribution of hot gas (left), compared with the eROSITA X-ray image of the Abell 3391/95 system (right)

© Reiprich et al., Astronomy & Astrophysics

In this view of the eROSITA image (right; left again a simulation for comparison) the very faint areas of thin gas are also visible.

© left: Reiprich et al., Space Science Reviews, 177, 195; right: Reiprich et al., Astronomy & Astrophysics

Optical image of the Abell 3391/95 system taken with the DECam camera. Superimposed are the eROSITA image (darker = higher gas density) and radio contours (yellow) of the ASKAP telescope.

© Reiprich et al., Astronomy & Astrophysics

More than half of the matter in our universe has so far remained hidden from us. However, astrophysicists had a hunch where it might be: In so-called filaments, unfathomably large thread-like structures of hot gas that surround and connect galaxies and galaxy clusters. A team led by the University of Bonn has now for the first time observed a gas filament with a length of 50 million light years. Its structure is strikingly similar to the predictions of computer simulations. The observation therefore also confirms our ideas about the origin and evolution of our universe. The results are published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.

We owe our existence to a tiny aberration. Pretty much exactly 13.8 billion years ago, the Big Bang occurred. It is the beginning of space and time, but also of all matter that makes up our universe today. Although it was initially concentrated at one point, it expanded at breakneck speed - a gigantic gas cloud in which matter was almost uniformly distributed.

Almost, but not completely: In some parts the cloud was a bit denser than in others. And for this reason alone there are planets, stars and galaxies today. This is because the denser areas exerted slightly higher gravitational forces, which drew the gas from their surroundings towards them. More and more matter therefore concentrated at these regions over time. The space between them, however, became emptier and emptier. Over the course of a good 13 billion years, a kind of sponge structure developed: large "holes" without any matter, with areas in between where thousands of galaxies are gathered in a small space, so-called galaxy clusters.

Fine web of gas threads

If it really happened that way, the galaxies and clusters should still be connected by remnants of this gas, like the gossamer-thin threads of a spider web. "According to calculations, more than half of all baryonic matter in our universe is contained in these filaments - this is the form of matter of which stars and planets are composed, as are we ourselves," explains Prof. Dr. Thomas Reiprich from the Argelander Institute for Astronomy at the University of Bonn. Yet it has so far escaped our gaze: Due to the enormous expansion of the filaments, the matter in them is extremely diluted: It contains just ten particles per cubic meter, which is much less than the best vacuum we can create on Earth.

However, with a new measuring instrument, the eROSITA space telescope, Reiprich and his colleagues were now able to make the gas fully visible for the first time. "eROSITA has very sensitive detectors for the type of X-ray radiation that emanates from the gas in filaments," explains Reiprich. "It also has a large field of view - like a wide-angle lens, it captures a relatively large part of the sky in a single measurement, and at a very high resolution." This allows detailed images of such huge objects as filaments to be taken in a comparatively short time.

Confirmation of the standard model

In their study, the researchers examined a celestial object called Abell 3391/95. This is a system of three galaxy clusters, which is about 700 million light years away from us. The eROSITA images show not only the clusters and numerous individual galaxies, but also the gas filaments connecting these structures. The entire filament is 50 million light years long. But it may be even more enormous: The scientists assume that the images only show a section.

"We compared our observations with the results of a simulation that reconstructs the evolution of the universe," explains Reiprich. "The eROSITA images are strikingly similar to computer-generated graphics. This suggests that the widely accepted standard model for the evolution of the universe is correct." Most importantly, the data show that the missing matter is probably actually hidden in the filaments.
So, in the best traditions of science, the theory was used to make a prediction and the prediction was confirmed by observation, so confirming that the theory was correct, and the operation of quantum fluctuations in the large-scale structure of the Universe, as I described in the early chapters of What Makes You So Special? From the Big Bang To You, is also confirmed.

Creationists can no longer get away with arguing that the Big Bang models of the origins of the Universe are wrong because it predicts a smooth, amorphous universe with no large-scale structure and therefor the origins of suns and planetary systems can't be explained by science. Not for the first time, Creationists now need to ignore observable reality to avoid the cognitive dissonance of their superstition being at odds with obsevable reality.

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