Anomaly in ESA Planck Data Could Restructure the Very Fabric of Our Universe

Tuesday, 05 November 2019 - 10:10AM
Astrophysics
ESA
Tuesday, 05 November 2019 - 10:10AM
Anomaly in ESA Planck Data Could Restructure the Very Fabric of Our Universe
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Image Credit: ESA/NASA/JPL-Caltech

Is it chicken or is it fish? While some of us may never unravel the existential mysteries of Starkist canned tuna, according to early reports from Quanta Magazine the authors of a new paper published on Monday in the journal Nature Astronomy think they've finally figured out whether our Universe is flat or spherical based on the latest data release from the European Space Agency's Planck mission.


The Planck mission was an ESA initiative to measure Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) radiation left over from the Big Bang in an attempt to quantify the size, shape, and expansion speeds of our known universe by measuring the residual radio wavelengths echoing across the unseen. It mapped 95% of the visible Universe in unprecedented vivid detail in just twelve months, and scientists are still sifting through sheaves of data.


Conventional models of the universe point to something resembling a flat sheet, according to Live Science. Proponents claim that the physics involved in an explosion violent enough to birth all-that-is demands a massive outward expansion on a single plane. If the universe is spherical or curved, you have to redo the math to make it work. (Which, to be fair, we too would do anything to avoid.)


Admittedly, it sounds like a bit of a flat-Earther argument. But there's an anomaly in the data explaining our universe that we just can't get around: it looks like gravitational lensing is bending the CMB radiation… In a way that is only possible if the Universe is spherical or curved.


Gravitational lensing is what happens when objects in space bend the light coming from another, more distant object. According to our understanding, it looks very different in an enclosed or curved Universe versus a flat expanse.


A few holes must be addressed before astronomers can start drafting their Nobel acceptance speeches. Chiefly: the number of standard deviations. A standard deviation is basically a way to calculate how much a set of data points vary in statistics. In the CMB data used by both sides of the aisle, it should be about zero. Instead, the measurements vary by approximately 3.4 standard deviations. As Quanta Magazine so aptly broke it down, "this is a major fluke - about equivalent to getting heads in a coin toss 11 times in a row, which happens less than 1% of the time."


So, what happens next? These researchers think the whole model needs to be recalculated like some bad GPS directions but, although they're 99% confident in their findings they haven't completely abandoned their training and gone rogue. Alessandro Melchiorri, a cosmologist from the Sapienza University of Rome and one of the study authors, demurred, "I don't want to say that I believe in a closed universe…I'm a little bit more neutral. I'd say, let's wait on the data and what the new data will say. What I believe is that there's a discrepancy now, that we have to be careful and try to find what is producing this discrepancy."


Regardless of what they find, this is research to watch.


 

Science
Space
Astrophysics
ESA
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