Now it turns out the Big Bang was so loud it made an echo! Headlines are noting the release of studies, led by University of Chicago astrophysicists using sensitive measuring devices in Antarctica, that describe detected harmonic oscillation in the "background radiation" that pervades all space.

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:

  • Humility. Findings like this remind us that human beings don't know everything.
  • Challenge. We don't know everything, but we can learn more. Henry Fairfield Osborn, the turn-of-the-century naturalist who debated William Jennings Bryan about evolution (Osborn was a strong proponent), believed the universe is "the visible expression of the divine order of things." Many thinkers of the past have felt the same. By trying to learn more about creation--for example, what in heck "dark energy" is--men and women can understand the laws that brought them into being, whether natural or supernatural.
  • Fascination. Just what in heck is dark energy? Observations show that on the cosmic scale, something even stronger than gravity is propelling the galaxies apart at ever-faster speeds. This something now appears to make up two-thirds of the content of creation. "Dark" energy doesn't connote malevolence, just energy that, well, seems to have been misplaced--no device has been able to locate it. This tells us there is something very fundamental about the universe that we don't even have a clue about, and it may lead to exciting discoveries for our descendants--inexhaustible energy, perhaps.
  • Spiritual implications. And what in heck is dark matter? Again, the connotation is not negative; the term merely means that scientists observe the effects of this substance (something is filling the cosmos with far more gravity than regular matter creates) but can't find that substance itself. Consider: For every one atom of regular matter, there may be six atoms of dark matter that are here but defy detection. Something that is real, significant, and present all around us but cannot be seen by the eye or by instruments! You don't have to alter too many words in that sentence to change it from physics to a dream about the spiritual.
  • Wonder. Discoveries like the Big Bang echo don't tell us anything about who or what might have made the cosmos--the echo is just a clue about the forces that were at work. But what forces! Regardless of whether the universe arose through natural or divine means, or through a combination of the two, something made us, and that something was magnificent. Something brought an unfathomable structure of at least 40 billion galaxies (the latest count; this number rises every time the instruments are improved) into existence out of nothing. Something created a number of stable natural laws that has caused the universe to last for at least 14 billion years and, based on current observation, will last for thousands of billions of years longer. Something made a sound so loud, it's still echoing 14 billion years later. (Not even AM radio could aspire to that much noise.) Something happened when our universe began that was majestic indeed. And if so much greatness was wrapped up just in the initial moment, how many more wonders might be in store?
  • 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.

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