There’s No Place Like Laniakea

Here in the Department of Keeping Tabs On The Universe we note that there’s a lot of stuff going on: gravity waves, stars that explode and jet out opposing beams of pure iridium, planets moving in and out of conjunction and now, rays of light that are shooting up from the sides of the reflecting pool in the National Mall in D.C., rays that are regarded by at least one commentator as “extensions of President Joe Biden’s arms” shooting up to metaphorically embrace America.

I am not making any of this up. And just recently we discovered that there are giant plumes of X-rays and gamma rays that erupted into space above and below the plane of the Milky Way glaxy.

Mind you, we’re a little late to the party. According to Charlie Woods, the author of the post in which I found the above diagram, these plumes likely appeared after an explosion occurred at or near the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way, about “15 million to 20 million years ago, around the same time hyenas and weasels were emerging on Earth.”

Wait! What? Did you see that massive explosion? Where’s my X-ray telescope?

When I read the bit about the hyenas and weasels I realized two things. The first was that The Newly-Evolved Startled Weasels might not be such a bad name for a band. The second realization was that I really had no idea where the Milky Way is in the overall scheme of things.

Here’s where you come in. I want you to start by watching The Wizard Of Oz and then repeat the following statement while you click your heels together three times: “There’s no place like Laniakea. There’s no place like Laniakea. There’s no place like Lanikea.”

Probably nothing will happen, except that you might mutter to no one in particular: “How the heck do I pronounce Laniakea?”

Next, and since you are quite possibly a mistrustful non-indigenous Hawaiian Luddite who hasn’t yet outsourced a chunk of your brain to Amazon, you can’t just bail and ask Alexa: I expect you to root around on the Internet for yourself.

You might be surprised at what you’ll discover. Here’s what I discovered:

1. Laniakea is pronounced “Lanny-uh-key-uh”.

2. In Hawaiian, Laniakea means “immeasurable heaven”.

3. Laniakea is basically a vast cluster of galaxies joined by thin filaments also made of galaxies. There are also a lot of empty spaces or voids. All these galaxies might be bound together by gravity. If that’s the case, then Laniakea is actually a giant coherent cosmic object. But it might also just be a big bunch of stars.

To put it another way, say there are a bunch of cars in the parking lot of Transformers ‘R Us. You are flying over it at about 5000 feet. From up there the cars look like a giant Optimus Prime lying down to take a nap. You shout, “OMG, there’s a giant Optimus Prime Transformer lying down in that parking lot!” But really, it’s just a bunch of cars. Perspective is everything I guess. Like that announcer describing the reflecting pool in the National Mall.

Anyway, there’s a point in all this. It turns out that our Milky Way (in the Local Group) is stuck out at one edge of Laniakea. Maybe they should have called it the Milky Whoa Dude, You’re A Long Way From Kansas. This diagram might help though, if you ever get lost out there.

4. And when you’re lost, if you ever happen to ask Alexa for directions, you might like to think about this photo of Susan Caplin. Her voice is the voice of Alexa!

Most of us who are at least five years old know that Alexa isn’t real but we still can’t help thinking she’s real: something like a female Santa who brings us answers instead of presents. Anyway, this next photo is what I think Alexa would look like if she was real. I have no idea what she’s wearing on her face. It might be some kind of colorful alien communicator. Or it might be a face and neck toning device sold by Hammacher Schlemmer. (Ed. note: also see Applied Math and Other Topics) No matter what, I’m going on record here noting that “Alexa” has very nicely manicured eyebrows. Even if she’s not real.

“Just once, I wish that I could be the one asking a question. Just once. One teensy little question. That’s all I want. You try answering 18 quadrillion questions every day and see how you like it. And stop staring at my eyebrows.”

5. Finally. The last thing I discovered after learning all about Laniakea is that a lot of people, me included, think that the Universe bears a strong resemblance to a giant brain.

Neurons (Brain)

If you don’t believe me, ask Franco Vazza and Alberto Feletti. They co-wrote a paper entitled: The Quantitative Comparison Between The Neuronal Network And The Cosmic Web. (November 2020 Frontiers In Physics).

In that paper the authors conclude the following:

“Within the range of simplifying assumptions we used to define both networks (e.g. based on the proximity of nodes identified from the continuous matter distribution rendered by different imaging techniques) our findings hint at the fact that similar network configurations can emerge from the interaction of entirely different physical processes, resulting in similar levels of complexity and self-organization, despite the dramatic disparity in spatial scales (i.e. ∼1027) of these two systems.”

If the Universe actually is a brain, I’m not sure what it would think about. Hopefully not politics. I don’t know about you but all this talk about space and physics is giving me an astronomical (!) headache. I think I’ll just kick back and watch some iconic cartoons. I hear I Am Weasel is great.


Dave Barry fan and Medical Director at Rocky Mountain Analytical