The average American home contains more than 300,000 items, according to bloggers who write about that kind of thing. Amid all this excess, tidying up has been elevated from a chore to an aspirational lifestyle. And as we all scour our collective junk drawers, one question drones on: Where did all this stuff come from?
Somehow, it's much easier to see the beauty in nature's disorder than in our own. The illuminated wisps of a nebula, the lopsided dance of galaxies in collision, and the spray of stars across the night sky are all glorious in their untidiness. And yet they do follow a kind of order, one that invites us to ask the very same question: Where did all this stuff come from?
The leading idea goes roughly like this. After the Big Bang, the universe was almost but not totally featureless. Over time, the universe organized itself, bottom-up, into the complex latticework of galaxies, galaxy clusters and starless voids that we know today. The first galaxies started out small — the mass of only a million Suns or so, dark matter included — and, through a progression of collisions, grew up into modern galaxies, containing as much mass as hundreds of billions of Suns. At the center of almost every one of these galaxies lives a massive black hole, growing right along with its parent galaxy.
Now, you might expect that the first generation of these central black holes was correspondingly mini-sized. But when astrophysicists look far out into the cosmos, about 12 billion years back in time, they see some that contain billions of Suns' worth of stuff. (To be more precise, astronomers see light from the hot disk of stuff swirling around the black hole, not the interior of the black hole itself.) So how did these black holes get so big so quickly?
Theorists have toyed with a variety of different explanations. Maybe the giant black holes were born from giant stars that dotted early galaxies. Or maybe whole nascent galaxies collapsed down into supermassive stars, which then caved into black holes. Or perhaps some early galaxies were so volatile that stars piled up in their centers, crashing into each other to create giant, meta-stars that later collapsed into black holes.
Researchers can't watch the process unfold directly, but they can build computer simulations that suggest likely replays. Poring through data from one such simulation, a group of researchers zeroed in on a group of "dark matter halos" — that is, areas thick with dark matter — that contained dense gas but no stars. These are exactly the kind of places you would expect black holes to form.
The researchers zoomed in on two of the halos and re-ran the simulations to see how they evolved. They discovered that violently colliding gas clouds within the halos kept normal stars from coalescing, creating a fertile environment for a small number of supermassive stars to develop. These live-fast-die-young behemoths could quickly go supernova and turn into black holes. In short, cosmic pandemonium helped create objects so bright that we can still see them shining from the cusp of the Big Bang.
Maybe, if we could see our own messes with this kind of perspective, we would find some beauty in them, too. But if I step on another Lego while I'm trying to make breakfast — well, into the black hole it goes.
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