Category: large-scale structure

Did Our Universe’s Structure Grow From The Top-Down Or From The Bottom-Up?

“A century ago, we didn’t even know what our Universe looked like. We didn’t know where it came from, whether or when it began, how old it was, what it was made out of, whether it was expanding, what was present within it. Today, we have scientific answers to all of these questions to within about 1% accuracy, plus a whole lot more.

The Universe was born almost perfectly uniform, with 1-part-in-30,000 imperfections present on practically all scales. The largest cosmic scales have slightly larger imperfections than the smaller ones, but the smaller ones are also substantial and collapse first. We likely formed the first stars just 50-to-200 million years after the Big Bang; the first galaxies arose 200-to-550 million years after the Big Bang; the largest galaxy clusters took billions of years to get there.

The Universe is neither top-down nor bottom-up, but a combination of both that implies it was born with an almost scale-invariant spectrum. With future survey telescopes such as LSST, WFIRST, and the next-generation of 30-meter-class ground-based telescopes, we’re poised to measure galaxy clustering as never before. After a lifetime of uncertainty, we can finally give a scientific answer to understanding how our Universe’s large-scale structure came to be.”

In a top-down scenario, the Universe would form structures on large scales first, then fragment to form individual galaxies. In a bottom-up scenario, the Universe forms tiny structures first, which then collect and clump under their own gravity to bring about a Universe rich in large-scale structure. So, which one is the Universe we have? 

As is often the case, the answer is much more complex than just one of these two possibilities. Come get the full story today.

What Was It Like When The Cosmic Web Took Shape?

“Although the seeds necessary for cosmic structure were planted in the very earliest stages of the Universe, it takes time and the right resources for those seeds to grow to fruition. The seeds for small-scale structure germinate first, as the gravitational force propagates at the speed of light, growing overdense regions into the earliest star clusters after only a few tens of millions of years. As time goes on, the seeds for galaxy-scale structure grow too, taking hundreds of millions of years to bring about galaxies within the Universe.

But galaxy clusters, growing from the same magnitude seeds on larger distance scales, take billions of years. By time the Universe is 7.8 billion years old, the accelerated expansion has taken over, explaining why there are no larger bound structures than galaxy clusters. The cosmic web is no longer growing as it once was, but is primarily being torn apart by dark energy. Enjoy what we have while we have it; the Universe will never be this structured again!”

When we look out at the Universe today, we find stars bound together in enormous collections known as galaxies, and galaxies clumped together into groups and clusters, which themselves appear to be connected by filaments of matter. This cosmic web took many billions of years to form, though, and the smaller-scale structure formed far earlier in the Universe than the large-scale structure. While it took only tens of millions of years for stars and hundreds of millions for galaxies, it took billions of years for galaxy clusters, and anything you’ve heard about ‘superclusters’ is a mere phantasm.

Come learn what it was like when the cosmic web took shape, and how the Universe came to appear the way it is today!

What Was It Like When The Universe Made The Very First Galaxies?

“The first galaxies required a large number of steps to happen first: they needed stars and star clusters to form, and they needed for gravity to bring these star clusters together into larger clumps. But once you make them, they are now the largest structures, and can continue to grow, attracting not only star clusters and gas, but additional small galaxies. The cosmic web has taken its first major step up, and will continue to grow further, and more complex, over the hundreds of millions and billions of years to follow.”

For millions upon millions of years, there were no stars in the Universe. As the first one finally formed, the star clusters that birthed them became the largest structures in the Universe. Yet these were too small and limited to be considered galaxies. For that, we need more than one massive star cluster in the same place. We need for them to merge, triggering a starburst and creating a larger, more luminous object. It takes much longer for that to happen than to merely form stars, and the Universe was a very different place by then. The Big Bang may have started everything off uniformly and without anything more than the seeds of structure, but gravity, and time, are awfully powerful tools.

Come learn what the Universe was like when we made the very first galaxies. It’s a story you won’t soon forget!

Why Isn’t Our Universe Perfectly Smooth?

“This seems, at first glance, to pose a tremendous problem. If inflation stretches space to be flat, uniform, and smooth, indistinguishably so from perfection, then how did we arrive at a clumpy Universe today? Both Newton’s and Einstein’s theories of gravity are unstable against imperfections, meaning that if you start with an almost-but-not-quite perfectly smooth Universe, over time, the imperfections will grow and you’ll wind up with structure. But if you start with perfect smoothness, with literally no imperfections, you’re going to remain smooth forever. Yet this doesn’t jibe with the Universe we observe at all; it had to have been born with imperfections in its matter density.”

One of the great successes of cosmic inflation is to set up the initial conditions for the Big Bang that we knew we needed, including giving us a Universe that had the same temperature and density everywhere. But this couldn’t have been a perfect smoothness, otherwise we’d never have formed stars, galaxies, and the cosmic large-scale structure we observe today in the space we inhabit. So how did we come to be clumpy? The Universe must have been born with initial imperfections in them. If you treat inflation as a classical field, you’ll never get them that way, but if you recognize that it’s a quantum field, with the associated quantum fluctuations that we know must be there, the whole story changes. Not only does inflation give you these cosmic imperfections, but it gives you the full spectrum of them that you can then go check against observations.

These predictions were made in the early 1980s, and were verified decades later by COBE, WMAP, and Planck. It’s a huge victory for a great scientific theory!