An Astronomer Checked to see if There’s a Secret Message in the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation

In the New Testament, the book of John opens with In the beginning was the Word. Whether a poetic musing of philosophy or a declaration of faith, it encapsulates an idea that has been around a long time. If the cosmos was made, either by advanced aliens or a divine creator, might this architect have buried a message within the universe? Some absolute proof of intentional design.

The message wouldn’t need to be profound. It could be as simple as Kilroy was here, or as Douglas Adams proposed, Sorry for the Inconvenience. But it would have to be extraordinarily clear and buried in a way that would be impossible for mere mortal civilizations to fake.

Looking for a message from deep space. Credit: UCLA SETI Group/Yuri Beletsky

Carl Sagan suggested mathematics as a possibility. In Contact he described how a message might be buried deep within the digits of pi. Others have suggested the evidence lies within the physical constants of the universe, arguing that a kind of anthropic principle points to a cosmic designer. Still, another idea is to look for a message in the light of creation itself, the cosmic microwave background.

The idea was first proposed in 2006 with a paper published in Modern Physics Letters. In the work the authors showed how an unambiguous message could be planted in the cosmic microwave background by tweaking the initial cosmic state through what’s known as the fundamental Lagrangian. The idea was later popularized in the television series Stargate Universe, where the ancient stargate builders refer to the message as “the destiny of all things.”

Astronomers have long searched for structure within the CMB. Whether it’s evidence of unusual cold spots, or statistical anomalies, CMB structure could point to both new physics and evidence of parallel universes. So far, these studies have turned up nothing, but that hasn’t stopped a new study looking specifically for a message within the cosmic background.

If you look for a message, you might find a fake one. Credit: Know Your Meme

Arguing that a sufficiently advanced civilization could put a message in the CMB is one thing. Trying to find the said message is quite another. One of the biggest problems when looking for patterns is that you tend to see them, even when they aren’t there. So this new work takes a very cautious approach. Rather than looking for a particular message, it tests to see whether the hypothetical message deviates from random. The author takes data from the WMAP and Planck surveys and expresses temperature fluctuations as a power spectrum, which is a common way to study the scale of CMB fluctuations. Using an average value as a cut-off point, the fluctuations can be translated into a string of binary numbers.

The author then argues that if this string of about 1,000 bits contains a message, it should at the very least deviate from purely random noise. Testing the string for randomness using statistical tests turns reveals no pattern, nor does a comparison with mathematical constants such as pi or phi. By all appearances, the cosmic microwave background is random noise.

So if the First Ones did leave a message in the CMB, they’ve hidden it really well. Or they don’t exist, and the only messages the universe can provide are the answers to scientific questions we raise.

Reference: Hsu, Steven, and Anthony Zee. “Message in the Sky.” Modern Physics Letters A 21.19 (2006): 1495-1500.

Reference: Michael Hippke. “Searching for a message in the angular power spectrum of the cosmic microwave background.” arXiv preprint arXiv:2011.14435 (2020).

Hat tip to Moiya McTier.

Brian Koberlein

Brian Koberlein is an astrophysicist and science writer with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. He writes about astronomy and astrophysics on his blog. You can follow him on YouTube, and on Twitter @BrianKoberlein.

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