This strange-looking image, just released by researchers at the California Institute of Technology and the University of Rome, is the latest scan of the "cosmic background radiation" that appears to permeate the universe. Taken from a telescope suspended from a balloon 120,000 feet above the Antarctic, the image is the most detailed yet of that background radiation, which scientists have been studying with increasing interest since it was discovered in 1965. Why? The background radiation is the oldest observable feature of the universe--a remnant of what existed only a short time after the heavens were born.

What this image depicts is distribution of very faint photons, the electromagnetic units that carry light, from the very first light to have shone in the universe. These photons are believed to date to when creation was about 300,000 years old--roughly 50,000 times younger than today. (Most astronomers believe the universe is 12 billion to 15 billion years old, though the number is hotly debated.)

Current theory of the Big Bang holds that when the universe first came into existence, all matter and energy were merged in a blazing hot plasma state, which can be imagined as a stream of substance lacking definition. Individual elements did not yet exist, nor did light. The firmament was hot, thick, and rushing outward, but opaque. Astronomers call this initial condition the Dark Age.

Roughly 300,000 years after creation (we'll skip the techno-reasoning for that dating, which of course is speculative), the initial substance had spread out and cooled down enough to "decouple" from its blur-like state, allowing atoms, radiation, and light to come into existence. At that moment, dazzling radiance filled the cosmos--a pure light of creation, in a place that had never known illumination. If God was a witness, the vista must have been breathtaking. Today's "background radiation," which appears to be everywhere in space, can be understood as the faint reflection of that first light. (That definition will dissatisfy specialists but gets you pretty close without requiring enrollment in a graduate-level science course.)

This latest view of the background radiation is of special interest to physicists because the distribution of photons recorded in the new images provides support for the theory that our universe will always be "flat" or geometrically stable. Which is good news. Some theories of the Big Bang call for the expansion of the universe to reverse, all matter collapsing back into a cataclysm; other theories call for the universe to expand so far and so fast that eventually everything becomes, essentially, mist. Again, we'll skip the techno-reasons, but details of the volume and content of this background-radiation image suggest that the very young cosmos contained precisely the correct amount of material for creation to remain flat and stable for an extremely long period, if not eternity.

This new finding will cheer theorists who have supported flat Big Bang hypotheses. The discovery begs the question, however, of why the universe contains precisely the correct amount of material to be "flat." Physicist Alan Guth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the leading academic proponent of the flat Big Bang theory (called "inflation theory" by specialists), has estimated odds of trillions or even quadrillions to one against the new universe containing precisely the correct balance between matter and volume of space. Yet this appears to have appeared. Chance? Or something larger at work?

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