The new sliding map of the cosmos reminds us how small we really are

When you open Johns Hopkins University professor Brice Menard’s “map of the observable universe,” you come across a geometric diagram brimming with thousands of rainbow freckles, each neatly organized by color. At the bottom of this diagram is an unnerving sentence.

“You are here.”

A negligible, barely visible dot on this graph represents our entire Milky Way galaxy — a realm with billions of stars besides our sun, and of which we occupy such a small percentage that I won’t even attempt to write it down.

With a single pixel, Ménard puts into stunning perspective the cosmic brevity of everything we have ever truly known as human beings.

“This map, which represents galaxies just as small dots, allows the viewer to fundamentally understand different scales at the same time,” Ménard said in an overview of the interactive mechanism. “Seeing the vastness of the universe — it’s quite inspiring.”

Scrolling through the 200,000 galaxies in the map, located in precise positions and relative to each other, is calming because it redefines how irrelevant the footprint we put on the universe. It’s creepy for exactly the same reason.

It draws a stark parallel to Carl Sagan’s famous quote about Voyager 1’s breathtaking 1990 Pale Blue Dot image of Earth.

“Look at that dot again. It’s here. It’s home. It’s us,” Sagan said. “On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you’ve ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of trusting religions , economic ideologies and doctrines, every hunter and gatherer, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar’, every ‘supreme ruler’, every saint and sinner in the history of our species has lived there – on a speck of dust suspended in a ray of sunshine.”

A 2020 remaster of Voyager 1’s 1990 “pale blue dot” image showing Earth as a tiny speck in space.

NASA/JPL-Caltech

However, if you’re amazed by the deceptively concise size of Ménard’s map, consider how it doesn’t even account for every galaxy in the universe. In fact, NASA estimates that there are something like a hundred billion galaxies unfolding eternity beyond our own.

We would need an unfathomable level of cartography of the observable universe to encapsulate the full breadth of the cosmos.

Slice of our universe

Together with a group of scientists, Ménard used data culled over the course of two decades from what is known as the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.

“Astrophysicists around the world have been analyzing this data for years, leading to thousands of scientific papers and discoveries,” Menard said. “But no one has taken the time to create a map that is beautiful, scientifically accurate, and accessible to people who aren’t scientists. Our goal here is to show everyone what the universe really looks like.”

After clicking “explore map” under the Milky Way galaxy label, you come to a screen that asks you to “swipe up to travel through the universe”. The fact that such a phrase exists underscores how far technology has come.

“From this speck at the bottom,” Ménard said, “we are able to map galaxies throughout the universe, and that speaks volumes about the power of science.”

Several colored dots overflow this diagram, each representing a galaxy in our universe.

A cross-section of our universe seen with the interactive map of Ménard.

Johns Hopkins University

Even more impressive is how, as you follow the prompt, a ticker in the bottom left of the screen shows you how many billion years back in time you’ve scrolled. Meanwhile, the dots transition from shades of pale blue to yellow, orange and red, then retreat to a cool midnight hue.

“Each dot is a galaxy shown in its apparent color,” the page reads. “Spiral galaxies are faint and blue. Our galaxy, the Milky Way, is a blue spiral.”

Elliptical galaxies are shown as yellowish and brighter, while red dots indicate realms that have become distant enough for the light they emanate to stretch out and appear to us on Earth as crimson blurs.

Here’s an illustration showing what redshift basically does to light from galaxies receding from Earth.

NASA/JPL-Caltech//R. Wounded (Caltech-IPAC)

Further back than 9 billion years, the map shows vivid blue dots to represent quasars rather than galaxies. These are extreme jets of light that shoot out from the bowels of black holes found at the centers of some galaxies.

Basically, it’s really hard to see the galaxies from this era of cosmic history, saved to the point of being nearly invisible, but the quasars are bright enough to act as flashlights. Their brilliance shines throughout the universe, revealing scenes otherwise shielded by darkness and softened by distance.

But even beyond those quasars is a patch of darkness, evocative of the mysteries that lurk beyond the red end of the electromagnetic spectrum. Infrared water.

“We encounter an epoch during which the universe is filled with hydrogen gas which prevents the propagation of visible light that we could observe today. This epoch is called the ‘Dark Ages’,” the page reads.

NASA’s magnificent James Webb Space Telescope is a big deal because it was built to find hidden secrets in this region invisible to human eyes. Built with an army of high-tech infrared sensors, it’s been working to detect galaxies since the beginning of time stuck in a limbo that we can’t see with our minds or machines.

With each Webb discovery, hopefully maps like this one will be populated where their empty spaces currently are.

And right at the top of the page, a marbled photo of the edge of the observable universe. The first flash of light emitted after the Big Bang nearly 14 billion years ago. The cosmic microwave background.

“We can’t see anything beyond this point,” the map concludes after you return to the beginning of existence. “The travel time of light for us is greater than the age of the universe.”

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