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The biggest discovery yet?

A doctoral candidate may have identified the largest structure in the universe


A cluster in the Boötes constellation Wikimedia Commons/en:NASA, en:STScI, en:WikiSky, Public domain

The biggest discovery yet?

A graduate student is challenging one of astronomy’s most foundational principles. Alexia Lopez, a doctoral candidate at the United Kingdom’s University of Central Lancaster, was working through maps generated by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey when she noticed something unusual. “It was sort of a hint of a big arc,” she told LiveScience.

There on the maps, Lopez saw what could be the largest object in the universe. Lopez told the American Astronomical Society that she and her doctoral adviser, noted astrophysicist Roger Clowes, are more than 99 percent certain the Giant Arc is real and measures  3.3 billion light-years in length. If corroborated, the discovery could have massive ramifications for astrophysics’ prediction that matter will be relatively evenly distributed across the universe.

Just like solar systems clump together to form galaxies, galaxies and galaxy structures can clump tightly together into neighborhoods that scientists call large-scale structures. Examples include the Sloan Great Wall that scientists discovered in 2003 and the South Pole Wall, discovered last year. Their discoverers say the large-scale structures are collections of galaxies and dust that span more than 1 billion light-years.

The Giant Arc dwarfs even those objects. According to Lopez and Clowes’ calculations, the crescent of galaxies spans a distance of 3.3 billion light-years and sits 9.2 billion light years away from Earth. Fifteen Giant Arcs stacked end-on-end would reach from Earth to the edge of the observable universe, Lopez said. It is too dim and distant to see with the naked eye, but it would appear behind the Boötes, or Herdsman, constellation and cover 10 degrees of the night sky—as wide as 20 full moons, she said.

The sheer size of the Giant Arc challenges one of astrophysics’ most-foundational assumptions. Astronomers who advocate a Big Bang hypothesis theorize that matter must, generally speaking, be evenly distributed around the universe. In other words, according to what’s known as the cosmological principle, the Big Bang rendered the universe homogenous, at least at a large enough scale.

Astrophysicists predict that, according to the principle, any cube of the universe spanning 1.2 billion light-years ought to have the same density as any other similar cube. Large-scale structures like the Sloan Great Wall and the South Pole Wall challenged that theory, since their discoverers say they hit that 1.2-billion-light-year threshold.

But the Giant Arc blows right through it. The cosmological principle wouldn’t predict a structure nearly three times larger than the expected 1.2 billion-light-year threshold. If the Giant Arc is real, matter in the universe may not be as evenly distributed as previously thought. “There have been a number of large-scale structures discovered over the years,” Clowes told Live Science. “They’re so large, you wonder if they’re compatible with the cosmological principle.”

Scientists around the world will begin testing Lopez and Clowes’ work to see if the Giant Arc actually exists, or just looks that way from Earth’s vantage point. Until then, one of astrophysics’ core principles hangs in the balance. “It would overturn cosmology as we know it,” Lopez said at a news conference for the virtual American Astronomical Society meeting. “Our standard model, not to put it too heavily, kind of falls through.”


John Dawson

John is a correspondent for WORLD. He is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute, the University of Texas at Austin, and previously wrote for The Birmingham News. John resides in Dallas, Texas.

@talkdawson

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not silent

Again, I'm having tons of technical issues with commenting. For Salty: of course, words matter; but that does not mean everyone will understand them or agree about them. I'm sure the term "Messiah" meant a great deal to first century Jewish people in Palestine, but most did not understand what Messiah would do.

Re the word "Day": every word in Scripture matters, Salty; but, as you acknowledged, it's unclear if that particular word means a literal 24 hours or some other period of time. The main thing is to point to GOD.
What we DO know is that GOD created the universe, and it didn't happen by chance. And it used to blow the minds of atheists when I pointed out that the Bible was much more "scientific" than other "creation myths" because it acknowledged that the sun, stars, and heavenly bodies were matter and not gods!

not silent

For Salty, you are absolutely right about one goal of militant atheists. They may deny it in debates, but it's spelled out openly on their websites!

I usually avoid debates about the age of the earth. For one thing, I don't think the exact timing is clear in the first few chapters of Genesis. The intent of the Bible is to tell God's story, not to teach science. Of course, the information is not inaccurate; but it had to be written in a way that could be understood by people from many generations. (I used comment about how long Genesis would have had to be if God had provided a detailed explanation of cosmology and particle physics!)

Proverbs 25:2 says, "It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search them out." I love reading what scientists have discovered about our amazing world and universe, but our knowledge will always be incomplete; and that's okay.

Salty1not silent

Hi Not Silent. Yes, I don’t believe the age of the earth is most critical, but one has to be very careful not to undermine the Word of God. Do we agree with uniformitarianism within geology? Doesn’t a global flood throw this on it’s head? Or was this flood a regional one when the Bible clearly calls it global? Do you see how this does harm to the inerrancy of scripture? The same I would say of theistic evolution. Now we have strong evidence that rapid geological deposits are possible such as Mount Saint Helens, which should bring uniformitarianism into question. This is one of the main obstacles to a young earth, so we should see YEC is not as “unscientific” as many atheists claim, and we should keep it as an option. I would highlight too, that the original article is evidence that the Big Bang theory with the associated cosmological model may be grossly in error bringing into question yet another obstacle to YEC.

The real theological question is what does “day” mean in scripture. Is it a literal 24 hour day or is it a symbolic time period. Should we let science help inform us on this if it really does point to an old earth? I would say so but my question is with what science says, probably more so than the theological implications. But if God did not use natural means to create the world then relying on naturalistic science would be pointless. So we have to be real careful in treating YEC as outside the realm of the possible - as many Christians and non-Christians have been lead to believe.

“The intent of the Bible is to tell God's story, not to teach science.”

But words do have meaning so we should be very careful in automatically treating the words, such as “day”, as trivial. What would the gospel mean if the words were treated as symbolic? We would essentially take the “Christ” out of Christian.

I am open to the notion of an old earth if the science really points in that direction, but at present I don’t see good reason to discard YEC.

Salty1

I don’t think the age of the earth is most critical, though I agree with Ken Ham that it can definitely shade our view of the inerrancy of scripture if we are not very careful in how we interpret it. This is one of the reasons that the youth are abandoning the church, for the atheists and others continually attack our foundations, such as the creation and the inerrancy of scripture. The atheists make no bones about it: there goal is to turn our children away from the faith and they don’t mind twisting science to do this.
Concerning the age of the earth, I say follow the real science and don’t let the hatred of YECs by the ungodly and bombastic propagandists of a naturalistic science dissuade us from really vetting the possibilities of a young earth - and there is evidence that points to a young earth: e.g. rapid flood geology and Mount St Helens; soft dinosaur tissue with cells, fragile structures, and DNA).
The cosmological model already has a major problem. They have to put in a major fudge factor to get the model to work. A massive amount of dark energy and dark matter has to be theorized to get it to work so that what is “visible” is less than 5% that exists. Now maybe down the road they may find a particle or something that can account for this, but at present we don’t see it.
Now this new revolution of massive structures in the universe threatens to undo a foundational principle of the cosmological model - the cosmological principle which assumes the universe is homogeneous at least at the large scale. Is the Big Bang theory wrong and in need of revision? Is there a YEC or OEC model that could do better - assuming God used purely natural processes? Or will science never be able to answer this because God created using non-natural processes? All these questions need to be addressed and it sure would be great if some Christian young people could go into these fields and study this.

not silent

As someone who grew up in a family that loved a good debate and who debated atheists online for several years, I LOVE articles like this. For what it's worth, most of the atheists I debated did not care for the Big Bang Theory. I think the reason was that it is too close to the creation story: in the beginning there was nothing; there was a huge explosion of light; and now we have an awesome and complex universe! Or, as I once read on a bumper sticker, "I believe in the Big Bang: God spoke, and BANG! It happened."

Most of our debates involved the multiverse and/or Bubble Universe Theory. (I had never heard of either at first and had to Google them!) God gets all the credit for showing me that I could respond to atheists who demanded I prove the existence of God: "How do you know I and other humans have not encountered a powerful and intelligent extra terrestrial being that can exist in more than one dimension and/or universe, that can manipulate particle physics (i.e., create), and that can travel through space and time?" If I REALLY wanted to blow their minds, I would add, "If there is an infinite number of universes representing all statistical possibilities, then there must be a perfect one (i.e,. heaven) and a terrible one (i.e., hell)." Again, I give God all credit for showing me those things.

All that to say: the universe, science, and history all point TOWARDS God-not away from him. It's not the evidence that keeps people from believing-it's usually something more personal like past trauma, unanswered prayer, pride, etc.

FIMIKI

The big bang theory explains a couple of things pretty well, and has a terrible time accounting for a whole host of other phenomenon. It seems like every year a new finding emerges that should kill it off, but there's no other naturalistic theory for the origins of the universe, so it totters on, ever more creaky and unwieldy.

Barry

Hummm.... I wonder whether there's any other possible cause for the universe than a big bang that would scatter matter evenly throughout the universe....