The Most Amazing Map You’ll See Today (No Matter What Day It Is)

By Corey S. Powell | June 16, 2013 4:27 pm

There are many way to celebrate your 70th birthday. You could sit down in front of a cake packed tight with flaming candles. You could go bowling with your buds wearing a T-shirt that says, “Over the hill–and picking up speed.” Or you could help put together the most amazing, three-dimensional map of the universe ever created.

cosmic map

Map showing all galaxies out to 300 million light years. Colors indicate distance: blue is closest, red is farthest. The long strands are the largest structures in the universe. (Credit: Courtois, Tully, et al)

Brent Tully opted for door #3.

Tully, a cosmologist at the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy, has probably done more than any other single living scientist to help uncover what the universe looks like in three dimensions. That’s no small challenge. As anyone knows from looking up a the night sky, appearances alone tell you almost nothing about which stars are near and which are  far. The same goes for galaxies. Measuring their distances is so difficult that less than a century many astronomers doubted that other galaxies even existed. At the time, some of the leading researchers thought that what we now call galaxies were actually “spiral nebulae”–small, nearby clouds of gas that were turning into individual stars. That is the kind of challenge that Tully has taken on, with staggering results.

It is no exaggeration to say that almost everything we know about the universe today has grown out of the effort to see past the flat, 2-D appearance of the sky and discern the true depths behind it. Mapping the third dimension allowed Edwin Hubble to prove the reality of other galaxies and then to discover that the universe is expanding. In the 1930s, Fritz Zwicky used mapping to uncover the first evidence of dark matter. In the 1990s, two groups engaged in a much more elaborate type of large-scale mapping were startled to realize that the Big Bang is accelerating, apparently under the influence of dark energy.

What Tully has done is less dramatic but no less important. He has mapped the universe in detail out to a distance of about 100 million light years. To put that in more human terms: Columbus’s maps of the New World described a land 3,000 miles from home, but Tully’s map extends 6,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles out. No wonder he is often referred to as a cosmic cartographer. By filling in the details, Tully has made it possible to discern the true structure of the universe: clusters of galaxies arranged into enormous filaments, bound together by invisible strands of dark matter, and tremendous lonely voids where galaxies are sparse.

Currents of galaxies (white spheres) are drawn by gravity toward galaxy cluster and even more massive cosmic pileups like the “Great Attractor.” Red and yellow show zones of attraction; dark blue shows the voids that galaxies flow away from. (Credit: Courtois, Tully, et al.)

For Tully’s 70th birthday, a group of his friends and collaborators teamed up to throw a conference celebrating his work. At the same time, they unveiled two remarkable new cosmic maps, which he helped to create. One is the color coded one, above, which depicts the exact location of every galaxy out to a distance of 300 million light years; that covers about 30 times as much space as Tully’s earlier version. But the even more amazing advance–the one that truly made my head spin, as I hope it will do to yours–is the 3D video, which shows not only all the visible structures but also the unseen dark matter, and illustrates the dynamic behavior of the whole thing. (The French-accented narration, decidedly not by Tully, is a sweet extra touch.)

This is the structure and evolution of the cosmos laid bare, covering distances and times and velocities that are, in a fundamental way, beyond human comprehension. And yet they are not truly beyond the reach of the intellect, because Tully has brought it all into view, with a little help from his friends. Give him 17 minutes and he will give you the universe. Happy birthday to you, and to all of us.

Follow me on Twitter: @coreyspowell

Cosmography of the Local Universe (FullHD version) from Daniel Pomarède on Vimeo.

  • kombizz

    Interesting map –

  • Deborah Marie Halliwell


  • SilenceYDogood

    Surprisingly, Animaniacs had it right – in the grand scheme of things, we really are just about the size of Mickey Rooney.

    • colindenronden

      Relatively speaking I think we are slightly more significant than flea dung.

  • maxlimit
    • coreyspowell

      One of my favorites…

  • belltran23

    this narrator was a terrible choice for such wonderful vid. English isn’t everybody’s first language.

    • Clare Krishan

      Tully colaborated with Prof Courtois, head of the cosmology-Euclid group at IPNL, his associate researcher at IFA Hawaii
      he wrote up what they found together — that French voice that sounds so confidently knowledgable — that’s her, Helene Courtois from Univ of Lyon.

      Gentlemen, if the credits are to be credited aka believed, trusted (incl. blog-host Corey S. Powell) we owe the lady a a little more recognition for her contribution than “decidedly not by Tully, is a sweet extra touch” What she said is decidely by Tully … with her very own insightful narrator vocal ‘spin’, forgive the pun, on the “local void” that may be a metaphor for a certain archaic “still trapped in 1950s x-y algebra planes” male chauvinism, no?)

      • coreyspowell

        I trusted that readers would have no trouble seeing the lead credit to Dr. Courtois, both in my caption and in the first frame of the video (the one that loads before you hit play). No disrespect intended–I didn’t name any of the other collaborators either.

  • Starman_Andromeda

    Please fix your web site so that the font can be resized on iPads, and browsers!   The text is too small, so the great stories cannot be read.  (Many or us don’t hold the screen up to our eyeballs!)

    As to the map itself…

    In this day and age of 3-D graphing, this map is really a sad one!  I’m an old geezer, too, but Tully & Company clearly are still trapped in 1950s x-y algebra planes!  They should be giving us a universe to rotate, move through, with perspective, with the galaxies giving us a direct visual sense of where they are.  In the 21st century, you shouldn’t have to do flat graphing with color coding for distance!

    • coreyspowell

      I agree that a true interactive version would be much better, and I suspect such a thing is in the works. You can see a rotated, 3D version of the flat map in the video.

  • cmp9969

    The flows from the voids to the areas of attraction reminded me of a storm with the Milky Way being near the “eye”. I would like to see a more interactive map where I could recenter the map to look at the voids from other areas.

    • Isabel Herron

      just as Francisco
      replied, I am taken by surprise that some people able to earn $7708 in one month on the computer. have you seen this w­w­w.K­E­P­2.c­o­m

  • Jocelyn Durels

    Amazing. Would prefer an English accent though!

  • dridge3770

    I am unable to understand the “french accent”. Not a nice touch from my perspective. but other than that — very kuooool!

    • colindenronden

      I would have liked subtitles. Bit hard to understand if you are in a noisy environment.

  • Blue Guitar

    I love her accent. Carl Sagan would have been nice too.

  • Ian Ward

    Impressive, but likely to be as erroneous as a an early map of North America. Plus maps are never the territory itself. And when did km/sec become a unit of distance?

    • coreyspowell

      Cross-checks between several different techniques for measuring distance indicate that the locations marked in this map are accurate to within about 2%. So I would say we’re about at the level of mid-19th century maps of North America.

      The map shows km/sec as distance measurement because the distance is reckoned against the expansion rate of the universe. It’s a weird unit to the lay reader, but useful and familiar to the cosmologists who do such cosmic cartography.

  • Franco J. Torres


  • Satya Krishna

    What a video! As I am not an astronomer but a retired structural engineer and considering that I am an Indian and cannot understand the French accented English, I have to see it again. I wish Mr Tully all the best on his completing his 70th year. I am sure he must be happy with his achievements and the love shown by the people of his profession. By their action, they have also assured of his love for them. What more can one ask for in one’s professional life.


Out There

Notes from the far edge of space, astronomy, and physics.

About Corey S. Powell

Corey S. Powell is DISCOVER's Editor at Large and former Editor in Chief. Previously he has sat on the board of editors of Scientific American, taught science journalism at NYU, and been fired from NASA. Corey is the author of "20 Ways the World Could End," one of the first doomsday manuals, and "God in the Equation," an examination of the spiritual impulse in modern cosmology. He lives in Brooklyn, under nearly starless skies.


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