Visualizing everything (part one)

Not “everything” as in one-at-a-time, but as in everything at once. Macro. Meta. Big.

This first picture is a visualization of the entire history of the universe, recently produced by the WMAP space probe. WMAP’s mission is to listen to the faint reverberation that is still bouncing around since the Big Bang. Analysis of the WMAP data gives us a information not only about the size of the universe, but also its size over time. Here’s what it found.

Time moves along the horizontal axis, and the size of the universe surrounds the vertical axis. It’s interesting to note that to express the size of the universe, you only need a single up-slanting line (the top edge of the cone), but in this image the line is wrapped around the horizontal axis to generate the cone structure you see. It associates the linear measurement of “size” with our idea of three-dimensional “space”. I think this visualization device works well to make the calculated size of the universe seem more tangible and real.

Now we have some idea of what the universe looks like over time. But if you disregard time and ask, what does the very largest superstructure of the visible universe look like?

Our best science says it looks like a giant morsel of luminescent bread.

It also looks strangely like a neural network, as my friend Aram pointed out. The spindles you see are billions of galaxies clumped and stretched together, called “filaments.” The dark spots are empty spaces containing nothing, called “voids,” and they have diameters of many bajillions of bajillions of whatever unit of distance you like. (Why the cube? I searched for a while and couldn’t find an explanation.)

Here’s a similar image, with map labels.

If you zoom in far enough to see (incomprehensibly giant) galaxies as single pixels, this is what you get.

How did mere humans come up with these images? They took Wittgenstein’s timeless advice: “Don’t think, look!”

Now we can visualize—we can appreciate—the magnitude of the two familiar dimensions of experience, space and time. The result is profound awe; there is really no other reaction one can have to the above images. On the other hand, these images don’t speak to the phenomenology of experience. They don’t depict the thoughts and processes that comprise our mental lives. For that we are going to need visual philosophy, which I’ll post about soon.