Message in the Sky

/ by Adnaan Wasey /

Cosmic background radiation in our universe could hide a code from a higher power

messageweb.jpg Doctored Image. Original:Gemini Observatory, GMOS Team

If you could make a universe, would you leave a message for its inhabitants to find?  Putting the fight between evolution and creationism aside for a moment, a pair of theoretical physicists says it might be worth looking for such a transmission in our universe.

“It’s a crazy assumption that there’s a supreme being that wants to send us a message,” said Steve Hsu, an associate professor at the University of Oregon, admitting that believing in a message involves a leap of faith. “But, if you could create a universe in your laboratory, wouldn’t you want to leave a message inside?”

A recent paper that Hsu coauthored suggested that fluctuations in cosmic microwave background radiation found throughout the universe could house a communiqué from our universe’s creator. The microwave background is a relic of the Big Bang forged during “decoupling,” the early point in the universe’s history when matter and energy became distinct.

The paper’s other author, Tony Zee, a physics professor at the University of California Santa Barbara, said that variations in the cosmic background would have been set before the decoupling. “That’s most appealing to physicists,” said Zee, “because we physicists obviously do not want to have divine intervention after the universe got going.”

This idea, which was posted to the non-peer-reviewed site, would not be so alluring if its two authors weren’t so respected in their field. Hsu is the author of over 70 peer-reviewed journal articles; Zee has authored over 200.  Zee is also a Pulitzer Prize-nominated author of popular science books.

The esteemed physicists have not only proposed this hypothesis—they’ve also described methods to decode the statement.

By creating a map of temperature differences in the cosmic radiation, it would be possible to obtain a message in a string of bits, zeros and ones. As many as 100,000 of these binary bits could be read, but Hsu said it would require another generation of satellites and another 15 years to achieve the resolution to perceive it, but it would be a message that could be read by all inhabitants of the universe.

And what do Hsu and Zee expect it to say?

The researchers are hoping for an informative nugget, one that describes the fundamental forces of physics. Hsu said that once scientists find a key to the message, a sort of cosmic decoder ring, they could stumble upon answers to the biggest questions in physics, for example, the elusive theory of everything.

Searching for evidence of a creator using physics seems less like science fiction when you consider that scientists are already implementing eccentric models and approaches to solving other problems: The anthropic principle is being employed to describe string theory, arbitrary numbers are being inserted into Drake’s equation to determine the probability that we are not alone in the universe and radio wave data is being parsed in order to search for alien life using screensavers like SETI@home.

“I think the payoff is higher than SETI,” Hsu said about the search for a lingering message.

Comparing his new crusade to the search for extraterrestrials, Hsu added, “In terms of more philosophical consequences, I would be even more interested to know whether some higher entity was influencing this universe at its very creation.”

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Originally published November 8, 2005

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