Laniakea: the systemicity of contemporary science

A remarkable pair of videos, posted a couple months ago, describe research by R. Brent Tully and colleagues to map out our region of the universe and its change over time.

“Now we know, on the edge of a supercluster called Laniakea, in a galaxy called the Milky Way, around a star we call the Sun, there is a small blue planet, our home.”

That’s from the voice-over to the more filmic of the video pair, which has garnered 2.5 million views to date. The second, more technical video is above, and the associated paper was published in Nature. Brad Plumer reported the story on Vox.

In addition to the cosmic scales and graphic simulations, one aspect of the research and videos that caught my attention was their use of concepts familiar from the modeling of complex systems: attractors and basins of attraction.

“We call the watershed feeding our basin of attraction the Laniakea Supercluster.” In other words, within the basin of attraction that is used to describe Laniakea, galaxies flow toward a “Great Attractor” at its dense center, while in the neighboring supercluster of Perseus-Pisces, galaxies flow toward its attractor.

The use of attractor concepts in describing superclusters is another example of the trend toward systemicity across numerous fields of contemporary science.

Indeed, per a 2013 article on complex systems in The Encyclopedia of Earth: “As Science has begun to ask where the enduring features of nature come from and how they work, the answer seems to be ‘complex systems’. Every kind of thing and event seems to require them.”

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