Scientists Propose Looking for Big Bang Messages

This year's Nobel Prize in physics went to two men who studied the afterglow of the Big Bang. Earlier this year, two very serious and well-respected physicists suggested that the afterglow should be probed even more carefully — to see if it contains a message from a creator.

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We may find out how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. This year's Nobel Prize in physics went two men who studied the radiation afterglow of the Big Bang. Bumpiness in that radiation helps explain why our universe has structures like galaxies, stars, planets. Earlier this year, two well-respected physicists suggested that the afterglow should be probed even more carefully to see if it contains a message from a creator, should one exist. NPR's Richard Harris spoke with one of those scientists.

RICHARD HARRIS: When Anthony Zee talks about this idea, just about the first words out of his mouth are...

Professor ANTHONY ZEE (University of California, Santa Barbara): I want to emphasize, as we say in our paper, that our work does not support the intelligence design movement in any way whatsoever.

HARRIS: Zee says he's not omniscient, of course, so he has no idea whether a creator exists. He's a well-known theoretical physicist at UC Santa Barbara, on sabbatical this year at Harvard, and he says he's posing a question that can be answered scientifically - not whether a creator exists, but if one did, what kind of message could it convey to reveal its existence? First, he doubts those who say we should look for a message like that on Earth.

Prof. ZEE: They've imagined that the creator left us a message written in some rock formation - the Grand Canyon, for example. And it seems to me absurd that it would be written in a tiny, insignificant planet somewhere, in a particular country, namely the United States.

HARRIS: Instead, Zee and his colleague Steve Hsu suggest that if the creator wanted to have the message visible throughout the universe, there's really only one place to put it, in the afterglow of the Big Bang.

Prof. ZEE: It's really like a giant billboard in the sky. That's what it really amounts to if you think about it. You can see it from anywhere in the universe, so any civilization can see this message.

HARRIS: And as we look out on this faint microwave radiation today, we can see that it has some interesting features. This year's Nobel Prize winners showed that it's a bit lumpy. That's because the Big Bang wasn't a perfect bang. It generated some clumps of stuff which ultimately led to galaxies and other interesting features in our universe. If you look at a graph of this leftover radiation, Zee says you can see this as wiggles.

Prof. ZEE: There may be small fluctuations on top of these wiggles, and it's these fluctuations that one might be able to encode a message.

HARRIS: How much information could you squeeze in there?

Prof. ZEE: This is also an entirely scientific question, and so we did a calculation. We found that about 10 to the five bits of information can be encoded.

HARRIS: Ten to the five bits is 100,000 bits, enough information to encode your favorite recipes or maybe a long poem. The idea is a message from a creator would clearly be something that isn't random. Zee says one possible message could be a numerical description of some of the laws of physics, which presumably any advanced civilization would have figured out, as we did.

Prof. ZEE: If they would actually take the data and analyze it carefully and see, whoa, the fluctuations do show a pattern, that there may indeed be a message, that would be unbelievable. I mean I think that would be one of the greatest discoveries of the millennium or something. I mean it would be absolutely amazing that there is some pattern in the universe, some design in the universe.

HARRIS: Even that wouldn't prove the universe was created by a deity, though.

Prof. ZEE: One amusing scenario - I'm not saying it's true but just amusing - that it could just be some science experience by some pimply faced teenager.

HARRIS: That teenager could live in a universe that somehow connected to ours, and he got a school assignment to create a new universe.

Prof. ZEE: And he started this experiment and lost interest in it, and it's now shoved under his bed, and our universe is evolving merrily along.

HARRIS: Or it could be a more traditional kind of creator. Zee prefers not to speak of his own religious beliefs. They aren't relevant here, he says. These musings are published in the journal Modern Physics Letters, and they are fundamentally scientific, he says. It's an idea that can be tested.

The next generation of spacecraft being built to study the Big Bang's afterglow just might be precise enough to look for a coded message in the sky. Richard Harris, NPR News.

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