The Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "The Chase" is justly revered by Trekkies, and also by people who simply like a good story. The gist -- giving as little in the way of spoilers as I can manage, if you've not seen it -- is that there's a message implanted in our DNA and the DNA of alien species across the galaxy. No one species has the entire thing, so to find out what it means requires getting tissue samples from all over the place, extracting the piece of the message, then somehow putting the entire thing together to decipher what it says.
A secret code dispersed through time and space, so to speak.
While the quasi-scientific explanation behind the whole thing was a little dubious for those of us who know something about genetics and evolution, it was a hell of a good idea for a story. A mysterious, super-powerful someone left its thumbprint on life everywhere in the universe, and there the message has sat, waiting for us to become smart enough and technologically advanced enough to find it.
"The Chase" brings up a theological question I've debated before with religious-minded friends; how, starting from outside of the framework of belief, you could tell there was a God by what you see around you. I often hear "natural beauty" and "love and selflessness" brought up, but (unfortunately) there seems to be enough ugliness, hatred, and selfishness to more than compensate for the good stuff. Put simply, how would a universe with a divine presence look different from one without? I've never been able to come up with a good answer to that. To me, the God/no God versions of the universe look pretty much alike.
Which is a large part of why I'm an atheist. I'm perfectly okay with revising that if evidence comes my way, but at the moment, I'm not seeing any particular cause for belief in any of the various deities humans have worshipped along the way.
What brings all this up is a paper released last week in arXiv called, "Searching for a Message in the Angular Power Spectrum of the Cosmic Microwave Background." The CMB is a relatively uniformly-spread (or isotropic, as the scientists put it) radiation that is the remnant of the Big Bang. In the 13.8-odd billion years since the universe started, the searing radiation of creation has become stretched along with the space that carries it until it has an average wavelength of two millimeters, putting it in the microwave region of the spectrum, and that radiation comes at us from everywhere in the sky.
What the author, Michael Hippke of the Sonnenberg Observatory in Germany, proposed was something that is reminiscent of the central idea of "The Chase." If there was a creator -- be it a god, or a super-intelligent alien race, or whatever -- the obvious place to put a message is in the CMB. The minor fluctuations ("anisotropies") in the CMB would be detectable by a technological society pretty much from any vantage point in the visible universe, and so hiding a pattern in the apparent chaos would be as much as having a signature from the creator.
So Hippke digitized the most detailed map we have of the CMB, and then estimated what part of the signal would have been lost or degraded in 13.8 billion years due to quantum noise and interference with the much closer and more powerful radiation sources in our own galaxy. After some intense statistical analysis, Hippke determined that there should be at least a one-thousand-bit remnant of sense somewhere in there, so he set about to find it.
Nothing."I find no meaningful message in the actual bit-stream," Hippke wrote. "We may conclude that there is no obvious message on the CMB sky. Yet it remains unclear whether there is (was) a Creator, whether we live in a simulation, or whether the message is printed correctly in the previous section, but we fail to understand it."
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