I am busy in PhD land. The first issue of the magazine seems to have been well-received, and the reading period for the next one won’t start until the New Year. So I am using my ‘free’ time to sort out my art, prepare for my upcoming residency, design a website for the LOFAR surveys group and get to grips with hydrodynamic modelling. No pressure, right?
Right now I’m pausing from all of that to think about something that’s been bothering me a lot, and that’s the issue of scientific literacy. We’re living in a world of Photoshop, of fake news, political biases, and the endless echo chamber of social media. Computer-generated footage has become so realistic that there is a small, but increasingly vocal, number of people who believe every image of space is a lie, and believe the world is flat. Whilst more people than ever have access to information through the internet, there is more access to misinformation and pseudoscience too.
The role of education is to teach people the fundamentals of the world we live in, and to allow us to solve problems and sort through facts. Unfortunately, access to education is not equal, and there are plenty of reasons why people reject, or do not thrive in, academic settings. I don’t support shaming those who don’t understand science.
Unfortunately, the lack of scientific literacy makes us vulnerable. Look at the following meme: how does it make you feel? Scared? Awed? Whilst this meme has been around for years, I came across it again on social media today, and there is so much wrong with it that I really wanted to dissect it, for the sake of people who don’t know.
First of all, the background image is not of the Boötes Void. The image is actually of Barnard 68, a large molecular cloud in our own galaxy, the Milky Way. It’s about 500 light years away and 0.25 light years across, and appears dark in this image because it is made of dust and gas that doesn’t emit visible light. In fact, clouds like B68 are the kinds of places where new stars are born, and if you look at the cloud in different wavelengths, you can see all the stars behind it.
But that isn’t even about the real subject of the meme, just the unrelated background image someone stuck to it.
Let’s talk about the real Boötes Void. Sounds a bit scary, right? A void in space? Sounds a bit Dr. Who… Whilst scientists have been trying to explain this for a few years now, this meme is still being widely shared on social media with phrases like “the gateway to hell,” “evidence of an alien civilisation,” the “birthplace of the Big Bang,” or “proof of multiple universes.”
Fortunately (or, perhaps unfortunately, for those who are easily bored) the reality isn’t nearly so dramatic, but personally, I think the truth is more interesting.
The actual Boötes Void isn’t empty: it’s just a region of space which has far fewer galaxies than the surrounding areas. I’ll explain why in a moment, but they are not uncommon: just have a look at the following images, and you will see that there are plenty of these gaps in space all around us, and this is just within our local environment.
You see, there is a reason that these “voids” are so common, and it’s got nothing to do with them being creepy, despite the slightly creepy name. Since the time of the Big Bang, our universe has been evolving, and the matter within it — including galaxies like the Milky Way, and all the dust and gas and stars within it — is held together by something called the Cosmic Web. There is a rather beautiful website that explains more about it here, but the short version is that everything in our universe falls into either “voids” or “filaments.” Take a look at the following image:
This shows the evolution of the cosmic web through time. As you can see, there are increasing filaments of matter with gaps between them. These is what is called the “Lambda CDM”, or Cold Dark Matter, model of the universe.
Despite the rather evocative names that scientists pick for these things — because we’re all a bunch of geeks, really — there is nothing scary, spooky or unnatural about any of the places between the filaments. They aren’t actually empty: the Boötes Void alone contains at least 60 known galaxies. In contrast, the supercluster that contains our galaxy, the Milky Way, contains around 100,000 galaxies. So we’d be rather lonely if we lived in a void, but it wouldn’t be completely empty.
Not caused by the Daleks, not the entrance to Hell, and certainly not the birthplace of the universe (spoiler alert: there wasn’t one. Perhaps more about that later). Just a beautiful natural phenomenon that is amazing in its own right.