When you open Johns Hopkins University Professor Brice Menard’s “Map of the Observable Universe,” you get a geometric diagram overflows with thousands of rainbow freckles, each neatly arranged by color. At the bottom of this diagram is a nerve-wracking sentence.
“You are here.”
A negligible, barely visible dot on this graph represents our entire Milky Way galaxy — a realm of billions of stars adjacent to our own sun, and an area of which we occupy such a small percentage that I don’t even want to try to write it out.
With a single pixel, Ménard stunningly relativizes the cosmic brevity of everything we’ve ever really known as humans.
“This map, which depicts galaxies as tiny dots, allows the viewer to understand different scales at the same time,” Menard said in a statement. Overview of the interactive mechanism. “Seeing the vastness of the universe – it’s quite inspiring.”
Scrolling through the 200,000 galaxies on the map – placed in precise, relative positions to each other – is soothing because it reframes how unimportant the footprint we place on the universe. It’s disturbing for exactly the same reason.
“Look at that dot again. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us,” Sagan said. “On this, everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you’ve ever heard of, every human being who’s ever been, has lived their life. The whole of our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and gatherer, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and farmer, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every moral teacher, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar ‘, ‘every ‘supreme leader’, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a speck of dust floating in a sunbeam.
But if you’re amazed by the deceptively succinct size of Ménard’s map, remember that it doesn’t even account for every galaxy in the universe. In reality, NASA estimates there is such a thing as a hundred billion galaxies unfolding eons beyond ours.
We would need an unfathomable level of observable universe cartography to encapsulate the full breadth of the cosmos.
Piece of our universe
Together with a group of scientists, Ménard used data collected over two decades by 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,” said Menard. “But nobody took the time to create a map that’s beautiful, scientifically accurate, and accessible to people who aren’t scientists. Our goal here is to show everyone what the universe really looks like.”
Once you click “explore the map” under the Milky Way label, you’ll be taken to a screen asking you to “scroll up to travel the universe.” That such a phrase even exists underscores how far technology has come.
“From this speck at the bottom,” said Menard, “we can map galaxies all over the universe, and that says something about the power of science.”
Even more impressive is how, as you follow the prompt, a ticker at the bottom left of the screen shows how many billions of years you’ve scrolled back in time. Meanwhile, the dots move in gradients from light blue to yellow to orange to red, eventually retreating to a cool midnight hue.
“Each dot is a galaxy represented by 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 speckles indicate realms that have grown far enough to stretch the light they emit and appear to us on Earth as crimson blur.
Going back 9 billion years, the map shows vibrant blue spots to represent quasars instead of galaxies. These are extreme rays of light emanating from the bowels of black holes located at the center of certain galaxies.
Basically, it’s very hard to see galaxies from this era of cosmic history, colored so red they’re almost invisible, but quasars are bright enough to act as flashlights. Their brilliance shines through the universe, revealing scenes otherwise obscured by darkness and softened by distance.
But even behind those quasars lies a smudge of blackness — reminiscent of the mysteries lurking beyond the red end of the electromagnetic spectrum. Infrared waters.
“We are entering an era where the universe is filled with hydrogen gas that prevents the propagation of visible light that we could observe today. This era has been dubbed the ‘Dark Ages,'” the page reads.
NASA’s magnificent James Webb Space Telescope is such a big deal because it was built to find secrets hidden in this region invisible to the human eye. Built with an army of high-tech infrared sensors, it works to detect galaxies from near the dawn of time trapped in limbo that we can’t see with our minds or machines.
With each Webb discovery, hopefully maps like this will be filled where their empty spaces currently are.
And at the very 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 past this point,” the map concludes after you scroll back to the beginning of existence. “The time of light travel to us is greater than the age of the universe.”