The harmonic waves represent an echo from the Big Bang. The frequency of the waves is just one cycle every 4,000 centuries--versus millions of cycles per second for the broadcast of AM radio--meaning this cosmic jingle cannot be converted into a back-beat for pop music. But then the echo has been rebounding throughout the cosmos for perhaps 14 billion years, back to the time when the universe appears to have begun. That the echo is detectable at all is breathtaking.
Scientists are excited by the finding for many reasons. One is that it's a coup that they were even able to detect something so subtle. Another is that because the harmonic waves were predicted by Big Bang mathematics, they represent another indication the theory may be right; more on this point below.
A third reason scientists are excited is that, for technical reasons we can skip here, the distribution of the waves provides a new way to calculate what the universe is made of. And it turns out the calculation shows that the universe is just 5% normal matter (planets, stars, people who use the Internet), 30% "dark matter" (its composition being, well, er, unknown), and 65% "dark energy" (we see its effect but have absolutely no idea what it is). In sum, 95% of the universe is stuff we don't understand. That ensures many decades of exciting research ahead for scientists.
But even if you're planning to compete for a Ph.D. in cosmology, the new discoveries are thrilling. Let's list the reasons the news of the Big Bang echo ought to be exciting to anyone:
Because the cosmic echo is predicted by Big Bang mathematics, it's tempting to think this discovery proves the theory. It doesn't; it may be that the cosmic echo has some other explanation we haven't yet guessed. One possibility: Marlon Brando yelling, "Hey Stella!"
Just a few weeks ago, for example, a group of cosmologists led by a Princeton University researcher proposed that the universe began not with a Big Bang but a Big Splat.In this conjecture, a wall of reality broke off from another universe somewhere in another dimension then went splat when it struck the place our universe now occupies, turning into matter and energy that expanded into today's galaxies. (Yes, people at Princeton University actually sit up at night talking about walls of reality going splat.) The theory is attractive because it suggests, in a loose conceptual way, how an incredibly gigantic structure could suddenly appear out of nowhere, without requiring an entire universe once to have been compressed into a single point smaller than a baseball, as Big Bang theory does.
Big Splat theory doesn't claim to explain how there could be other universes, or what the proto-substance of creation was, or what impetus set our cosmos in motion. Big Bang theory doesn't explain any such thing either. Decades of research and thinking may be required before men and women can answer such questions--if they can ever be answered. Today we know, at least, that if we bend our ear to the heavens, we can hear the echo of sublime power. Was the creation an event that just happened, or one that happened with a purpose? The heavens may hold many more clues.