Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

The cosmic whirligig

It seems like whenever I look at the realm of the very large or the very small, I quickly get overwhelmed by scale.

I remember, for example, when a teacher in high school was trying to impress upon us kids how small atoms were, and asked us the following question: if you counted up the number of atoms in a typical raindrop, then someone gave you that many grains of sand, how much sand would you have?

A bucket?  A swimming pool full?  A whole beach full?  All of those, it would seem, constitute a crapload of sand grains.  Surely there can't be more atoms in a raindrop than there are sand grains on a typical beach.

But there are.  By several orders of magnitude.  Her answer was that you'd have enough sand to fill a trench a meter deep and a kilometer across, stretching from New York to San Francisco.  (I've never checked her math, but from other similar analogies, it seems pretty spot-on.)

The same happens when I'm considering things that are very large; as much as I've studied astronomy, I never fail to be blown away simply by how enormous the universe is.  In fact, this is why the topic comes up -- a paper in Nature Astronomy last week by astrophysicists Peng Wang and Noam Liebeskind (of the University of Potsdam), Elmo Tempel (of the University of Tartu, Estonia), Xi Kang (of Zhejiang University, and Quan Guo (of Shanghai Astronomical Observatory) has demonstrated that there are filaments spanning entire galactic superclusters, and possibly longer than that.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons The cosmic web, CC BY-SA 4.0]

The presence of these filaments, which seem to be composed largely of dark matter, comes from their effects on the galaxies they pass near.  As if they were the axle of an enormous whirligig, the filaments cause the galaxies to circle around them, drawn in by the gravitational pull.  The existence of the filaments was demonstrated by the fact that the galaxies on one side exhibit a lower than expected red shift and the ones on the other side a higher than expected red shift, meaning one side is moving away from us and the other side toward us -- just as you'd expect if the galaxies were circling some invisible center of gravity.

As with any groundbreaking discovery, it's opened up as many questions as it's answered.  "It's a major finding,” said study co-author Noam Libeskind, in an interview with Vice.  "It's a pretty big deal that we've discovered angular momentum, or vorticity, on such a huge scale.  I think it will help people understand cosmic flows and how galaxies are moving throughout the cosmic web and through the universe... [and] to understand the important scales for galaxy formation and ultimately, why everything in the universe is spinning and how spin is generated.  That is a really, really hard question to solve.  It's an unsolved question in cosmology."

That was my first reaction; what on earth (or off it, in this case) could generate that kind of angular momentum?  Think of the mass of a typical galaxy, and imaging that you tie that amount of mass at the end of a long rope and try to swing it in circles.

That's the quantity of energy we're talking about, here.  Multiplied by the number of galaxies in the universe.

But the upshot is that the universe on the largest scales seems to have an intrinsic spin, and no one knows why.  All I know is that it makes me feel very, very small.

Of course, I'm way larger than the atoms in a raindrop.  So there's that.  Now that my mind is sufficiently blown, I think I need to go huddle under my blanket for a while, because the universe is sometimes a really overwhelming place to live.


One of the most devastating psychological diagnoses is schizophrenia.  United by the common characteristic of "loss of touch with reality," this phrase belies how horrible the various kinds of schizophrenia are, both for the sufferers and their families.  Immersed in a pseudo-reality where the voices, hallucinations, and perceptions created by their minds seem as vivid as the actual reality around them, schizophrenics live in a terrifying world where they literally can't tell their own imaginings from what they're really seeing and hearing.

The origins of schizophrenia are still poorly understood, and largely because of a lack of knowledge of its causes, treatment and prognosis are iffy at best.  But much of what we know about this horrible disorder comes from families where it seems to be common -- where, apparently, there is a genetic predisposition for the psychosis that is schizophrenia's most frightening characteristic.

One of the first studies of this kind was of the Galvin family of Colorado, who had ten children born between 1945 and 1965 of whom six eventually were diagnosed as schizophrenic.  This tragic situation is the subject of the riveting book Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family, by Robert Kolker.  Kolker looks at the study done by the National Institute of Health of the Galvin family, which provided the first insight into the genetic basis of schizophrenia, but along the way gives us a touching and compassionate view of a family devastated by this mysterious disease.  It's brilliant reading, and leaves you with a greater understanding of the impact of psychiatric illness -- and hope for a future where this diagnosis has better options for treatment.

[Note: if you purchase this book from the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]


No comments:

Post a Comment