The (really) big picture
Taking Neil’s exhortation to “walk like a giant on the land” to heart, here’s the latest entry in astro-dazzle sweepstakes: the Sloan Digital Sky Survey has turned their early data into a three-dimensional map, and further proceeded to create a video fly-through for our mind-blowing pleasure.
The SDSS has so far covered just a third of the sky, and this is just the first batch of 3D data to be released from that. And oh, they’re not looking at stars. That’s so yesterday. This here is but a fragment of the physical structure of the universe, as revealed in these clusters and filaments of galaxies upon galaxies upon (repeat ad infinitum…):
The cosmologists and astrophysicists say that this new 3D data about these large-scale structures will help unravel the mysteries of dark matter (which seems to account for about 25% of the universe’s mass) and dark energy (which exerts enough influence on matter that scientists say it accounts for 70% of the universe). So, yup, all those bright shiny galaxies in the video: less than 5% of the universe.
At the risk of blowing my scientific front here: I can’t help but think that such framing (especially of “dark energy”) is simply a fancy way of saying “we have no idea” what underlies the structure of the universe and the wonder of creation. Is it so hard to posit that this mysterious integrative energy – the fundamental driver and shaper of the formation of all galaxies, stars, planets, forests, and diatoms – is something more like “spirit” or “life force” than what we normally think of as “matter” and “energy”?
Perhaps the equations and theories that are brewing around all this will turn out to be valuable, though if so, I’d bet it’d be in revealing totally unexpected and even more mysterious causal complexities (ala the ways that “sequencing the genetic code” has revealed a dynamic ecosystem of interactions that’s more like a mysterious dance than the workings of a causal machine); or maybe this inquiry is taking place in a deep lost corner of the mechanistic rabbit hole, trying to fit the ineffable into a nice square hole.
I say go for it, academicians, see what sense you can make of this, our biggest picture of life. But meanwhile, I’ll content myself to marvel at the beauty of it all and rest in the ease of simpler explanations, ones that are content to flow from an omnipresent ground of mystery.