U astronomers discover nothing and make global headlines

The large area of “dark matter” contains no galaxies and is one billion light-years across.

Danielle Nordine

University researchers have discovered a “giant void” in the universe that has captured the interest of astronomy communities around the world.

Surprisingly, it all happened by accident.

Astronomy professor Larry Rudnick said it was out of frustration with another research project that caused him to look in the vicinity of the universe known as the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe Cold Spot.

He said he realized this area of the universe contained fewer radio galaxies – regions of space that emit luminous radio wavelengths. He concluded there must be a connection between the cold spot and the lack of radio galaxies.

Graduate student Shea Brown, who had been working with Rudnick for about two years on a separate project, suggested the connection could be due to the integrated Sachs-Wolfe effect, which concerns the gravitational reshifting of matter that could cause a void.

Rudnick then consulted astronomy professor Liliya Williams for help on calculating the size of the void and determined it to be almost a billion light-years across, he said on his Web site.

“We never expected to come across a hole that big,” Rudnick said.

What’s special about this void is that unlike a black hole that contains “dark matter,” this void has “little or nothing in it at all,” Rudnick said.

Many believe the discovery of this void is important to the field of astronomy because it challenges much of what we know about the formation and activities of the universe.

“The history of the universe is part of the knowledge of ourselves,” explained Rudnick.

“This discovery won’t affect global warming, and it won’t affect terrorism, but it will affect how we think about ourselves,” he said.

Their research indicates this void is much larger than normal, causing some critics to wonder if the statistics are correct. But Rudnick said he stands by their discovery.

on the web

You can find out more about the void and see frequently asked questions on professor Rudnick’s Web site: http://webusers.astro.umn.edu/~larry/

“This is our interpretation of the data for which there might be alternative interpretations,” he said, but “ours is the simplest and best explanation of the data that exists.”

The team’s discovery has appeared on national news networks, in National Geographic and in newspapers as far away as Japan. In addition, an article about the find will appear in the Astrophysical Journal in December.

The researchers said they are shocked by the media response.

“This seems to have caught the public’s imagination,”

Rudnick said. “We were completely surprised by the reaction.”

Still studying at the University, Brown said this experience has been “surreal” for him.

“It’s not the normal amount of publicity an average grad student would get, or even a professor,” Brown said. “It’s been an exciting experience while it’s lasted.”