Visualizing The Cosmic Web That Holds The Universe Together

How is the visible universe organized? This model is helping physicists answer that long-standing question.

There’s a lot more to the universe than the stars we see in the sky. Invisible to the naked eye, the broader universe is made up of a vast cosmic web: filaments of gas which stretch between galaxies, and which we’ve only recently been able to see for the first time. Now, you can explore it for yourself.


Although the cosmic web has been proven to exist, there’s still a great deal of uncertainty about how it is formed. What determines the web’s pattern? Why do galaxies connect to some neighboring galaxies, and not others? At Northeastern University’s Barabási Lab, German designer Kim Albrecht created a gorgeous visualization of three possible models to try to understand the network principles that help shape the universe. You can navigate through the interactive’s 24,000 galaxies–and the more than 100,000 connections between them–right in your browser.

Albrecht’s Cosmic Web model visualizes three separate models by mapping those 24,000 real galaxies as single specks of light, then drawing connections between those galaxies that depend on which structural model you’re exploring. One model connects galaxies when they are within a certain radius of each other, the second connects them based upon the size of the galaxy (where the larger the galaxy, the longer the connections it is capable of making), and then the third model simply connects every galaxy to its nearest neighboring galaxy.

Even if you don’t have a background in the physics behind each model, it’s fun to travel through Albrecht’s viz. You can rotate and zoom into each galaxy, traveling millions of light years across silk strands of cosmic gas in just a few seconds, all within your browser tab. Outside of being fun, though, the bigger goal was to help physicists understand which model most closely aligns to the real universe. (Spoiler: the structure of the real cosmic web is closest to the third “neighboring galaxy” model.)

According to Albrecht, one of the most exciting aspects of his work as an in-house data-visualization expert for a group of physicists is the way it help open up science. “Usually, these sorts of theories are negotiated between a very small number of people in a very specific field, but this makes their work understandable to thousands of even millions of people,” he says. “Data viz is a big and unique way to get science out there, and while that worries some scientists, I’m excited about how it can help change the field.”

All Images: via Kim Albrecht


About the author

John Brownlee is a design writer who lives in Somerville, Massachusetts. You can email him at


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