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Cosmic Alignment

December 8, 2014

They say that there's a fine line between genius and insanity. There are several real life examples of this, but I've always enjoyed the exposition of a milder form of insanity in the relatively unknown Sean Connery film, "A Fine Madness."[1] In this film, Connery plays Samson Shillitoe, a mad genius of a poet plagued by writer's block. Perhaps his madness stemmed from the idea that you can make a decent living by writing poetry.

Although the cinema loves the idea of the "mad scientist," scientists are typically just compulsive, not mad. This is true, also, for mathematicians, but there's a counterexample in Kurt Gödel. Kurt Gödel is noted for his 1931 incompleteness theorems that essentially state that nothing in the world is certain. Of course, I simplify, since the theorems are about mathematics, not physical objects, but physicists always suppose a deep connection between the mathematical and the physical.

After that early success, Gödel's career was on the ascendant, and he ended up at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. After conversation with his Princeton colleague, Albert Einstein, Gödel developed a theory of a rotating universe, one consequence of which is that time looped back on itself. It was reassuring to Gödel that he would in this way be reincarnated, and he compulsively sought evidence for his theory in the possible alignment of the spin axes of galaxies.

Gödel had a fragile personality, having episodes of depression and paranoia, and he fell apart after his wife was admitted to a nursing home. He was afraid to eat, fearing his food was poisoned. When he died, on January 14, 1978, after a two week hospital stay, the cause of death was ascribed to "malnutrition and inanition caused by personality disturbance."[2, p. 66]

Kurt Godel, circa 1924-1927

Kurt Gödel (1906 - 1978)

This portrait, circa 1924-1927, is from his days at the University of Vienna.

Gödel became good friends with Albert Einstein after their meeting during his first visit to the United States in 1933.

(Via Wikimedia Commons.)

Gödel's rotating universe theory has been discredited, but there might be some unusual alignment of objects in the universe. Astronomers at the Institut d’Astrophysique et de Géophysique of the Université de Liège (Liège, Belgium) and the Argelander-Institut für Astronomie of the University of Bonn (Bonn, Germany) have found that the axes of rotation of the central supermassive black holes in a sample of quasars are parallel to each other over distances of billions of light-years.[5] Not only that, but the rotation axes of these quasars are closely aligned with the regions of the "cosmic web" where they're located.[5]

Computer simulation of the cosmic web

A computer simulation of the cosmic web in a region about 300 million light years across.

This simulation includes dark matter (blue), along with gas distribution (orange).

(Image: Illustris Collaboration.)

The cosmic web is the filamentary structure formed by the walls of galaxies that surround huge voids in the universe. I wrote about these voids and their defining walls in a previous article (Our Lumpy Universe, June 6, 2014). The observations on 93 quasars were made using the FORS instrument of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile. The quasars date from a time when the Universe was just one third of its current age.[5]

Four quasar groups and their orientations

Four quasar groups at a redshift of 1.3 and their orientations in the sky. The right ascensions and declinations are in degrees.

The 93 quasars of the study are shown as points on this graph.

(Fig. 4 of ref. 4, via arXiv.)

Says team leader of the investigation, Damien Hutsemékers of the University of Liège in Belgium,
“The first odd thing we noticed was that some of the quasars’ rotation axes were aligned with each other - despite the fact that these quasars are separated by billions of light-years."[5]

The astronomers measured the optical linear polarization of these quasars with redshift of about 1.3, and they found that 19 of the 93 are significantly polarized. The polarization vectors were either parallel or perpendicular to the filaments in which they reside. Statistically, the probability that this would randomly happen is about 1%.[4] These polarization observations, combined with other information, indicate that the quasar spin axes are parallel to the filaments.[4-5]


  1. A Fine Madness (1966, Irvin Kershner, Director) on the Internet Movie Database.
  2. Ed Regis, "Who Got Einstein's Office?" Addison-Wesley Publishing Company (New York: 1987), 336 pp. (via Amazon).
  3. Damien Hutsemékers, Lorraine Braibant, Vincent Pelgrims, Dominique Sluse, "Alignment of quasar polarizations with large-scale structures," To Appear, Astronomy & Astrophysics.
  4. Damien Hutsemékers, Lorraine Braibant, Vincent Pelgrims, Dominique Sluse, "Alignment of quasar polarizations with large-scale structures," arXiv, September 22, 2014.
  5. Spooky Alignment of Quasars Across Billions of Light-years, ESO Press Release No. eso1438, November 19, 2014.

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