Visualization of the largest structures in the universe from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Credit- NASA:University of Chicago and Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum.

Unveiling the Universe’s Structure: Innovative Simulations Offer Fresh Insights into Cosmic Order and Disorder

By combining sophisticated mathematical approaches with innovative computational techniques, scientists have uncovered unprecedented insights into the balance between cosmic order and disorder. In this article, we'll delve into the details of this groundbreaking study, shedding light on how it reshapes our understanding of the cosmos and reveals the intricate interplay between order and chaos in the vast expanse of the universe.


New Techniques in Materials Science Uncover Insights into the Order and Disorder of the Universe

The universe is a vast expanse filled with galaxies that, on large scales, display a filamentary pattern known as the cosmic web. This uneven distribution of cosmic material can be likened to blueberries in a muffin, with certain areas exhibiting a higher concentration of material than others.

Applying Materials Science to the Cosmic Structure

Researchers have recently begun investigating the universe’s heterogeneous structure by treating galaxy distributions as a collection of points, similar to individual matter particles within a material, instead of as a continuous distribution. This innovative approach has allowed the application of mathematical techniques from materials science to quantify the relative disorder of the universe, ultimately leading to a deeper understanding of its fundamental structure.

According to Oliver Philcox, a co-author of the study, “the distribution of galaxies in the universe is quite different from the physical properties of conventional materials, having its own unique signature.” The study has been published in Physical Review X.

Analyzing Public Simulation Data

The study, led by Salvatore Torquato, a recurring Member and Visitor at the Institute for Advanced Study, and Oliver Philcox, a visiting Ph.D. student at the Institute, examined public simulation data produced by Princeton University and the Flatiron Institute. In each of the 1,000 simulations, a billion dark matter “particles” were clustered, acting as a stand-in for galaxies formed through the process of gravitational evolution.


Examining Order and Disorder in the Universe

A key discovery of the study involves the relationships between galaxy pairs that are topologically linked through the pair-connectedness function. The researchers showed that at the grandest scales (spanning several hundred megaparsecs), the universe tends towards hyperuniformity. Conversely, on smaller scales (up to 10 megaparsecs), it exhibits near-antihyperuniformity and significant inhomogeneity.

As Torquato explains, “the perceived shift between order and disorder depends largely on scale.” A similar effect can be observed in Georges Seurat’s pointillist painting, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, where the work appears disordered up-close but highly ordered from a distance.

Statistical Tools and Future Implications

By employing statistical methods like nearest-neighbor distributions, clustering diagnostics, Poisson distributions, percolation thresholds, and the pair-connectedness function, the researchers established a coherent and unbiased framework to assess order. The results of this study hold significance not only in the realm of cosmology but also for various other dynamic physical systems.

This interdisciplinary work, which combines the techniques of cosmology and condensed matter physics, has the potential to impact both fields. With these tools, scientists can explore various features of the universe, including cosmic voids and ionized hydrogen bubbles that formed during the universe’s reionization phase. Additionally, the unique phenomena discovered in the universe may offer insights into different material systems on Earth.


Although more work is needed before these techniques can be applied to real data, this study serves as a compelling proof-of-concept with considerable potential.

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Written by Justin Gurkinic

Hey, my name is Justin, and my friends call me Gurk. Why? Becuase of my last name. It sounds like a vegetable. Kind of. I love sleeping and writing. History is my thing.

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