I’m From Laniakea, and So Are You

Every one of us lives in this vast Universe dwarfed by an infinitude of knowledge and mystery. There is so much we don’t know, and so much we don’t understand. Alexander the Great supposedly wept because there were no more worlds left for him to conquer. We weep because the world is not conquerable – there is too much we will never know.

We are finite and small and limited. Einstein redefined time and space and gravity, but give him two knitting needles and some yarn, and he’s helpless. Give Joe Lovano a tenor sax, and he will shock you with his dynamic virtuosity. Ask him to define an aggadic Midrash, and he will ask you to hum a few bars…

In other words, we know only the most infinitesimal bit about the world. When I do the New York Times Saturday crossword – which I can NEVER complete without my wife – I am acutely aware of this truism. No matter how many things I Google, there are a thousand more unknowns that fly past me at the speed of light, and all I can do is bravely smile and wonder how I didn’t know what just blew by me.

From time to time I learn something that I didn’t even know I didn’t know, something really big and life altering. For instance, I recently learned that there were no standardized times or time zones anywhere in the world until the late 1800s. The increasingly large, complex and rich railroads demanded some sort of synchronization so that when it was 10 am at Penn Station, it was 10 am at South Station.

My understanding of time dramatically changed when I learned about the establishment of time zones. A few new facts and the world looks different. Amazing…

Below is a piece from an article in last December’s Scientific American. I reprint it here for you to read because it is so mind-blowing. Once you read it, you’ll never be the same…

Imagine visiting a far distant galaxy and addressing a postcard to your loved ones back home. You might begin with your house on your street in your hometown, somewhere on Earth, the third planet from our sun. From there the address could list the sun’s location in the Orion Spur, a segment of a spiral arm in the Milky Way’s suburbs, followed by the Milky Way’s residence in the Local Group, a gathering of more than 50 nearby galaxies spanning some seven million light-years of space. The Local Group, in turn, exists at the outskirts of the Virgo Cluster, a 50-million-light-year-distant cluster of more than 1,000 galaxies that is itself a small part of the Local Supercluster, a collection of hundreds of galaxy groups sprawled across more than 100 million light-years. Such superclusters are believed to be the biggest components of the universe’s largest-scale structures, forming great filaments and sheets of galaxies surrounding voids where scarcely any galaxies exist at all.

Until recently, the Local Supercluster would have marked the end of your cosmic address. Beyond this scale, it was thought, further directions would become meaningless as the boundary between the crisp, supercluster-laced structure of galactic sheets and voids gave way to a homogeneous realm of the universe with no larger discernible features. But in 2014 one of us (Tully) led a team that discovered we are part of a structure so immense that it shattered this view. The Local Supercluster, it turns out, is but one lobe of a much larger supercluster, a collection of 100,000 large galaxies stretching across 400 million light-years. The team that discovered this gargantuan supercluster named it Laniakea-Hawaiian for “immeasurable heaven”-in honor of the early Polynesians who navigated the great expanse of the Pacific Ocean by the stars. The Milky Way sits far from Laniakea’s center, in its outermost hinterlands.

Laniakea is more than just a new line on our cosmic address. By studying the architecture and dynamics of this immense structure, we can learn more about the universe’s past and future. Charting its constituent galaxies and how they behave can help us better understand how galaxies form and grow while telling us more about the nature of dark matter-the invisible substance that astronomers believe accounts for about 80 percent of the stuff in the universe.

Does this blow your mind?? Read the phrases like “galactic sheets,” or “great filaments,” or read that the Universe is 80 percent dark matter. What? Laniakea? A collection of 100,000 galaxies “stretching across 400 million light years”?

Why do I get so excited about this stuff? It illustrates that we live in an extraordinary place. The sheer size of Laniakea dwarfs anything I can imagine. That we can find ourselves even in the middle of this gigantic system is remarkable.

We are a part of something so vast, so beyond comprehension. And we didn’t even know it! I am so thankful to have learned this, to have my home recontextualized to include the utter vastness of space.

In an uneasy time of constriction and anxiety, I hope this story will provide you with some spiritually uplifting language and images. It’s thrilling to still feel awe and wonder.


Shabbat Shalom.











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