We may have, for the first time ever, just glimpsed another universe. A new analysis of data from the European Space Agency’s Planck telescope suggests that a peculiar glow out in deep space could well originate from a separate universe residing just next to ours.
The existence of multiple universes — a multiverse — has been considered scientifically plausible. If all these universes emerged from the same Big Bang, then they’re likely sitting together like ducks in a row, vibrating. If these universes touch one another, the thinking goes, the resulting collision would leave some sort of trace evidence. Which brings us to the Planck telescope’s map of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) — leftover light from the violent, swirling beginnings of the early universe. In a new paper, Caltech cosmologist Ranga-Ram Chary compared the CMB with a picture of the entire night sky also taken by the Planck telescope, and found a weird patch of bright light that could be the result of universes colliding.
The data suggests that the other universe rubbing up against ours would look very different than anything we’re used to and would have hit our universe just a few hundred thousand years after the Big Bang.
A multiverse would be the consequence of cosmic inflation — the idea that the universe is constantly expanding. The eternal inflation would produce “a number of pocket universes,” Alan Guth, an MIT cosmologist and pioneer of the multiverse theory, told New Scientist. This is because hidden energy in empty spaces would drive inflation forward at an intense speed, creating new bubbles of energy that could eventually blow up into smaller pocket universes that continue to expand.
Each universe would possess a unique type of physics that could be entirely unsustainable, or look similar to our world.
The biggest obstacle to studying these other universes is that the bubbles would be constantly expanding — and so would the space between them. Light wouldn’t be traveling fast enough to carry much information from one to another. In order to actually observe physical properties, astronomers would have to wait for collisions or look for evidence of cosmic bruising.
Thus the reason this new data is so intriguing. If our universe has bumped into another one, it would probably create an anomalous light signature — like what Chary seems to have found. These new spots are 4,500 times brighter than what conventional theory predicts they should be. One explanation could be that the other universe is gushing with protons and electrons, making the light from the collision much brighter.
While the discovery of a new universe would be Earth-shattering, it’s important to approach the new study with caution. Scientists have had their hopes continuously stoked by new data suggesting evidence of a multiverse, only to be burned time and time again by rational explanations. This new data could be the exception, or it could be no different. There’s a high burden of proof to establish, and that’s not helped by the fact that Planck was never intended to measure the kinds of spectral distortions Chary has built his case on.
NASA might soon be dishing out something that could remediate that problem. Scientists at Goddard Space Flight Center are looking for funding for PIXIE, the Primordial Inflation Explorer whose instruments could more accurately observe and analyze Chary’s light signals and procure more data about cosmic inflation. But that funding might not be awarded till the end of 2016.