Slime Mold can map the known Universe

by | Mar 19, 2020 | Galaxies, Science | 0 comments

Astronomers have designed a computer algorithm, inspired by slime mold behavior, and tested it against a computer simulation of the growth of dark matter filaments in the Universe. The researchers then applied the slime mold algorithm to data containing the locations of over 37 000 galaxies mapped by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. The algorithm produced a three-dimensional map of the underlying cosmic web structure.
They then analysed the light from 350 faraway quasars cataloged in the Hubble Spectroscopic Legacy Archive. These distant cosmic flashlights are the brilliant black-hole-powered cores of active galaxies, whose light shines across space and through the foreground cosmic web.
CREDIT: NASA, ESA, and J. Burchett and O. Elek (UC Santa Cruz)

Over the past decade or so, researchers have been realizing that slime molds are better at optimizing travel paths than anything else. Build a tiny city with slime mold food at building locations, and they will optimize delivery routes. Layout a nation of cities, they’ll optimize the highways. Slime molds… they work together to get that mapping done. No, I don’t know how single celled organisms do this, I just know they do. Computer science researchers have been trying to learn from the mold, and have created algorithms based on how the molds seem to decide their paths. These algorithms are able to produce the same kinds of dendritic looking paths that we’re used to seeing in, well, trees… And the large scale structure of the universe. 

As our universe formed, it gravitationally collapsed from a mostly smooth cloud of material into clusters and walls of galaxies. Because this is all driven by gravity, you end up with these cool gravitational potentials that map to the shortest paths between the biggest clusters. Knowing that is awesome. Mapping that is hard.

This is where the slime mold comes in. Slime has our back on the mapping.

To be clear, much to my disappointment, scientists did not create a physical map of galaxies and let the slime mold connect the model galaxies. When I read the headline “Astronomers Use Slime Mould to Map the Universe’s Largest Structures” I had so much hope that actual slime mould would be involved… no – slime mold computer algorithms were involved – NOT actual slime mold. Using these algorithms and data from the Digital Sky Survey that provided positions of galaxies, the team had the slime mold algorithm map where the LSS should be, and then they used archival data from the Hubble Space Telescope to go looking to see if they could confirm the slime mold algorithms results. 

And they could! In the light of 350 distant quasars they could trace out the hydrogen gas that stretches between the galaxies. The cool thing about using the algorithm instead of actual slime mold is the algorithms work in 3 dimensions, just like our universe. That said, I’m hoping that some bored research team recreates this work with actual mold. We have links to this research on our website, DailySpace.org. This research is published by J Burchett and company in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

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