Hold the universe in your hands with this 3D-printed model of the CMB

You can now hold the universe in your hand with a 3D-printed model of the cosmic microwave background (CMB), the oldest light in the universe.

Like a time capsule sent from soon after the Big Bang, the CMB depicts the universe when it was first forming at the tender age of about 380,000.

For years, ESA’s Planck satellite has been mapping this great cosmic glow but 2D images fail to really capture its features. A team of physicists from the Imperial College London converted the Planck data into free 3D-printable files to represent the CMB faithfully, with all its bumps and lumps.

“Fingers and thumbs can perceive things that are not readily visible.”

“Whenever you display a 3D object — like a sphere — in a 2D form you get distortions,” lead researcher Dr. Dave Clements tells Digital Trends. “You can see this in a map of the world where, depending on the project used, you get the impression that Greenland is enormous and Africa is smaller than it really is. The same goes for the standard 2D maps of the CMB — the regions near the edges and poles are the most distorted.”

By depicting these structures in 3D the model comes to life. Clusters pop from the surface and features form under your fingers.

“There’s also another aspect to this,” Clements adds. “Astronomy is often a very visual field, so those with seeing problems are often left out. By rendering astrophysical objects — whether planet surfaces, interacting galaxies or, as in this case, the early universe — as a 3D object that can be touched, felt, examined with your fingers rather than your eyes, we are making the results of astronomy accessible to many people who would otherwise have no route to perceiving the data we’re producing.”

Vision-impaired people might hear about the clusters left over from the Big Bang. They might understand the data behind it. But they’re often unable to visualize the details. “With this 3D model they can actually perceive those structures themselves,” Clements says.

Clements’ goal was to give lay people the chance to literally feel where we came from. Along the way he discovered the strength of his own senses.

“It’s shown me that fingers and thumbs can perceive things that are not readily visible in the data when you see it on screen,” Clements says. “There are a few places in the model where you can feel that there is a grouping of dips or lumps that’s different to the others.” These features appear in regions where Clements says image processing may not have detected as easily as his fingers did.

These new sensations have inspired Clements and his team to create more 3D-printed models, such as of the surfaces of the planets in our solar system. They published their work today in the European Journal of Physics.


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