The Best Toys in the Universe!

“The laws in this city are clearly racist. All laws are racist. The law of gravity is racist.” –Marion Barry

The law of gravity, contrary to what Marion Barry says, is — perhaps — the most indiscriminate of all the laws of nature.

What do I mean? Well, you get a large collection of matter and energy together, like in a galaxy, and what does it do? It pulls — with the entirety of the irresistible force of gravity — on everything. Give the most massive collections of matter enough time, and they’ll pull in everything around them for tens of millions of light years.

And when you do, you’ll end up with huge, gigantic clusters and superclusters of galaxies, containing hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of giant, Milky Way-sized (or larger) galaxies.

This teaches us something wonderful, crazy, and fascinating about the Universe.

The Universe is like two of the best toys — ever — from my childhood: Devastator and Voltron (above). Devastator was six separate action figures, where each figure could be a construction vehicle (like a dump truck), a robot, or could be one component of the giant robot, Devastator. Voltron, similarly, was five separate lions, where each lion could transform to form an arm, leg, or the body/head of Voltron.

But you needed to collect all of them to make the larger, more powerful, and all-around more awesome toy. In 1986, owning all the pieces of Devastator of Voltron made you a total badass.

The Universe is a lot like this. In the early stages, the Universe was filled with an incredibly large number of small galaxies and clusters, where a typical one contained maybe only a few million times the mass of our Sun. In other words, the vast majority of these baby galaxies were less than 0.1% the mass of our Milky Way!

But our Universe today has a huge population of heavyweights. In other words, where have the lions and dump trucks gone? Why are there so few left? And why are there so many Voltrons and Devastators out there?

The simple answer is mergers. Over time, the gravitational forces between neighboring galaxies pulls them towards each other, and galaxies merge to form larger, more massive galaxies. This is in our future, by the way, as in a few billion years we will merge with the other large galaxy in our part of the Universe: Andromeda.

But why settle for a Universe full of giant galaxies? If we want to know what the building blocks of the modern-day giants we have are, all we have to do is look far away!

Remember, the Universe is “only” 13.7 billion years old, or about three times as old as the Earth is. We can look at objects that are millions or billions of light years away, and see them not as they are today, but as they were millions or billions of years ago! This is because it takes the light millions or billions of years to reach us!

It takes an amazing piece of technology to image something so faint and far away, but the Hubble Space Telescope is up to the challenge! Take a look at this masterpiece.

There are thousands of galaxies in this image. The closest ones to us have taken only a few hundred million years to send their light to us, but the farthest? In the upper left corner of the image, there’s a galaxy so distant that it merely appears as a dot.

But, after 13.1 billion years, the light has finally reached us! The 600-million-year-old baby galaxy is so distant that the Universe isn’t even 100% transparent to light yet, so it’s really at the limit of what we can see!

But this is what we get as our reward: a glimpse of the most distant galaxy ever detected!

Is it real, you may wonder? Or is this an artifact that will turn out to be some sort of mistake? To find out, we need a follow up observation.

Well, after 16 hours of observing at the Very Large Telescope in Chile, it’s been confirmed! Now, of course we’re only seeing the very brightest objects this far away and this old, but this is the frontier of science right now.

We’re finding the first infant galaxies, and this one likely no longer exists, having probably merged many times since the light that reaches us now was first emitted. For those of you who like redshifts, this record-breaker is at a redshift of 8.6, which beats the old record, held by IOK-1, of only 6.96. Don’t be surprised if it turns out to be atypical: relatively large, active and forming stars. Why? Because that’s what the brightest galaxies do, and the extraordinarily bright ones at this distance are going to be the only ones we can see.

So enjoy this record-setting day for astronomy, where we’re discovering the ancient building blocks of the modern behemoths of the Universe!


  1. #1 feralboy12
    October 20, 2010

    Of course the law of gravity is racist. If it was fair, white men would be able to jump.

  2. #2 David
    October 20, 2010

    Gravity pulls on dark matter the same as every other kind. But only non-dark matter gets to interact with electromagnetism. That’s a racist law, right there. They’ve even got a special law for blackbody radiation. If only we could keep the opposite charges apart…

  3. #3 film
    October 20, 2010

    Oyuncular: Su-yeon Cha (Na-ni), Daniel Choi, Ha-Na Hwang (Oh Eun-sil), Seung-eon Hwang (Bo-ra), In-gi Jeong (Kang Hee – joong), Yoo Jin (Hyo-jeong), Eun-ji Jo (In-soon), Hye-na Kim (Yoo-kyeong), Hye-sang Lee (Kan Mi – hee), Young-jin Lee (Seon-hwa), Han-byeol Park (Yeon-joo)
    Konu: Arzulu ve kendineden emin olan bir kadın Hyo-jung kendinden köklü değişim geçiren arkadaşının önerisi üzerine gizemli bir yoga merkezine gider.
    Bu kursta 5 kural vardırBir haftalık kurs süresince uymaları gereken beş kural vardır;

  4. #4 crd2
    October 20, 2010

    In your last post, How Far Away Are You?, you explained just how far off are our more distant measurements are. Here you say this galaxy is estimated to be 600 million years old. You also say that the universe at that time was not 100% transparent to light; so I’m assuming we can say that it can’t be much older than that. However, it seems to reason that it could be much younger than we estimate since we are unable to use a parallax to get a more accurate measurement. So, what is the uncertainty range of this particular galaxy?

  5. #5 BCM
    October 21, 2010

    And I’ll form – THE HEAD!!!

    Thanks for the great article and pictures. I’ll never tire of looking at that Hubble Deep Field (or is it the Ultra Deep field) picture.

  6. #6 David L
    October 21, 2010

    CRD2, you may be misunderstanding. The 600 million years is the maximum age of an object appearing to be (as measured by its red shift) 13.1 billion light years away in a 13.7 billion year old universe.

  7. #7 Susan N
    October 21, 2010

    Aaaawww…the 1986 Voltron is my daughter’s favorite toy too…took me months on the internet to find it, the figurines, a couple of the bad boy’s ships and the Castle to defend. It is an awesome rocking toy.

    Nice article…but I guess it means that all the maps are out of date.

  8. #8 OKThen
    October 21, 2010

    First you conclude:
    “the vast majority of these baby galaxies were less than 0.1% the mass of our Milky Way!”

    Then you predict:
    “Don’t be surprised if it turns out to be atypical: relatively large, active and forming stars. Why? Because that’s what the brightest galaxies do, and the extraordinarily bright ones at this distance are going to be the only ones we can see.” Yes of course, but this rational is not sufficient.

    Because the size distribution of nearby galaxies (z = 1 to z = 2) could in principle be compared to the size distribution of farther galaxies (z = 4 to z = 5). Of course the greater truncation of the smaller galaxies from the size distribution data (due to invisibility of small galaxies) would be apparent in the farthest galaxies data. Yes?

    Thus the conclusion that “the vast majority of these baby galaxies were less than 0.1% the mass of our Milky Way!” could, in principle, be proved or disproved based on observation data; and not just stated as a theoretical conclusion. Yes, yes?

    I grant that the observational data to prove or disprove this theoretical conclusion will be very difficult to acquire. But with automated telescopes and computers, I assume such data could be assemble in maybe 10 or 50 years. Hopefully??

    I patiently await observational data; before accepting that such an important theoretical conclusion is supported.

  9. #9 Ethan Siegel
    October 21, 2010


    You are talking about the entire field of galaxy evolution. Believe it or not, the vast majority of bound structures in the Universe, in terms of pure number counts, are globular clusters and dwarf galaxies, not galaxies like us.

    As we look in the nearby Universe, we find roughly the same thing.

    As we look farther away, we are unable to see globular clusters or dwarf galaxies, except when the dwarf galaxies are starbursting (forming stars), due to their low surface brightnesses.

    As better data has come in over the last 20 years, the picture I’ve described has become more and more favored, as the evidence has built up in favor of it. However, I freely admit that my theoretical conclusion hasn’t been demonstrated to be true, yet, but there are hardly any astrophysicists who aren’t convinced that this is the way the Universe is working.

  10. #10 Sphere Coupler
    October 21, 2010

    If we could board a ship moving away from earth at the speed of light, our scenery would drastically change right before our very eyes,for a while we would see Universal evolution unfold in a blink of an eye, yet at some point we could no longer see this, our travel speed view would equalize (or be lesser)with the expansion(of space) and we would be stuck in the proverbial lack of(photon) mud. So no matter if we stay or if we go,our view will deplete in staggered pieces, we will inevitably lose our sight of the greater Universe. By leaving now we would just prolong the inevitable.
    So by this analogy and the fact that our technology ever enables us to see further…Dots will increase for a while, then fade to black.
    In conclusion if we traveled X amount of time/distance we would reach a point of no return due to expansion.(given we have a finite life span)

    Is this our accepted science of today?

  11. #11 OKThen
    October 22, 2010

    I’ve wiki’d globular clusters and dwarf galaxies to be sure I understood your meaning. Nice, I did not fully understand. Thank you. As always I learn much from you.

    Yes, we are talking about the evolution of galaxies; but within the context of the big bang theory of how the universe works.

    The big bang is the best fit to volumes of undisputed data. But I do not accept the big bang theory; because of certain necessary unverified non-trivial assertions.

    My ONLY question to a theory of galaxy evolution: Is the population of farther galaxies observed to be less complex and evolved than the populations of nearby galaxies.

    Such an assertion regarding nearby versus farther galaxies is not trivial; thus (however necessary for the big bang) it still is a speculative scientific conclusion. (ditto, baryon asymmetry). Thus my comment of yesterday.

    Thank you again for your excellent blog.

  12. #12 Danny
    October 23, 2010

    This is an extremely interesting article. I’ve never actually taken the time to compare galaxies to toys, so I like this uniqueness. Also, I really like how you give all sorts of scientific evidence and examples, which I believe add to the whole post. The only question I have is, will there be any way to determine exactly how long it is before the Milky Way collides with Andromeda? It would be very interesting to learn.

  13. #13 Ramanan
    October 24, 2010

    Truth always seems to be self contradictory and indiscriminate.Human mind can not accept self contradictions, but it is the way things are.

  14. #14 Joon Ha
    October 28, 2010

    I’m highly intrigued by this post because I find it very interesting. I find the topic rather exciting to learn about and maybe have some insight of knowing more about it. I also like how you talked about two very different things and made a precise connection between them.
    Reading this article makes me want to be an astronomer when I grow up so that I’m able to learn more about galaxies and the truth about our universe’s past. Maybe one day I hope to find some time so that I can research this and go more into depth about it.

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