Astronomers use slime mold model to reveal dark threads of the cosmic web

A computational approach inspired by the growth patterns of a bright yellow slime mold has enabled a team of astronomers and computer scientists at UC Santa Cruz to trace the filaments of the cosmic web that connects galaxies throughout the universe.

Their results, published March 10 in Astrophysical Journal Letters, provide the first conclusive association between the diffuse gas in the space between galaxies and the large-scale structure of the cosmic web predicted by cosmological theory.

According to the prevailing theory, as the universe evolved after the big bang, matter became distributed in a web-like network of interconnected filaments separated by huge voids. Luminous galaxies full of stars and planets formed at the intersections and densest regions of the filaments where matter is most concentrated. The filaments of diffuse hydrogen gas extending between the galaxies are largely invisible, although astronomers have managed to glimpse parts of them.

None of which seems to have anything to do with a lowly slime mold called Physarum polycephalum, typically found growing on decaying logs and leaf litter on the forest floor and sometimes forming spongy yellow masses on lawns. But Physarum has a long history of surprising scientists with its ability to create optimal distribution networks and solve computationally difficult spatial organization problems. In one famous experiment, a slime mold replicated the layout of Japan’s rail system by connecting food sources arranged to represent the cities around Tokyo.

Joe Burchett, a postdoctoral researcher in astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz, had been looking for a way to visualize the cosmic web on a large scale, but he was skeptical when Oskar Elek, a postdoctoral researcher in computational media, suggested using a Physarum-based algorithm. After all, completely different forces shape the cosmic web and the growth of a slime mold.

But Elek, who has always been fascinated by patterns in nature, had been impressed by the Physarum “biofabrications” of Berlin-based artist Sage Jenson. Starting with the 2-dimensional Physarum model Jenson used (originally developed in 2010 by Jeff Jones), Elek and a friend (programmer Jan Ivanecky) extended it to three dimensions and made additional modifications to create a new algorithm they called the Monte Carlo Physarum Machine.

Burchett gave Elek a dataset of 37,000 galaxies from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS), and when they applied the new algorithm to it, the result was a pretty convincing representation of the cosmic web.

“That was kind of a Eureka moment, and I became convinced that the slime mold model was the way forward for us,” Burchett said. “It’s somewhat coincidental that it works, but not entirely. A slime mold creates an optimized transport network, finding the most efficient pathways to connect food sources. In the cosmic web, the growth of structure produces networks that are also, in a sense, optimal. The underlying processes are different, but they produce mathematical structures that are analogous.”

Source: “Astronomers use slime mold model to reveal dark threads of the cosmic web” PhysOrg, 10 March 2020.<https://phys.org/news/2020-03-astronomers-slime-mold-reveal-dark.html>

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