Date: March 15, 2011

Title: Stargate Universe and the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation


Podcaster: Diane Turnshek

Organization: Carnegie Mellon University

Description: Television shows that speculate on pure science issues are rare. Stargate Universe has that distinction with its second season focusing on the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation signal. An outline of both the show and the CMB lead us to speculate on the nature of science.

Bio: Diane Turnshek teaches astronomy at CMU, Pitt and St. Vincent, and coordinates the physics outreach at CMU. In her astronomy outreach efforts, she has visited to schools, libraries, camps, Scouts and Congress. She hosts a monthly public lecture series at Allegheny Observatory. She has consulted with many who wished to keep their science accurate, from authors to opera companies. She is a science fiction author and editor, whose short fiction has been published in Analog Magazine and elsewhere.

Today’s sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by Maurice and Wendy Frank of Marietta, Georgia in loving memory of Spock and Micro, their feline family who were born twenty years ago this month. May their spirits soar to the stars.


Hi, I’m Diane Turnshek, an astronomer and a science fiction author.

The last ten episodes of Stargate Universe are airing now on the SyFy Channel.

With the cancellation of the show’s third season, MGM’s massive Stargate franchise will screech to a halt. The count will stand at ten seasons of Stargate SG-1, five seasons of Stargate Atlantis, three movies, stacks of popular Stargate books and two seasons of this latest spin-off series, Stargate Universe.

Why cancel a great show? As is typically the case with expensive science fiction shows set in space, the lack of opportunity for product placement lost the franchise easy funding. And SyFy is straddling two successful business models, the subscription cable network and the network station that runs ads. The reason for the cancellation aside, the public is losing a thoughtful show, with pure science packed between action and drama.

For those who have never seen an episode, let me catch you up.
Stargates are wormhole conduits, crisscrossing our galaxy, used as a means of transporting to stargates on other worlds. The Ancients, a race of super beings who built, then abandoned, the stargates, also had ships designed for long distance, FTL travel. In Stargate Universe, humans from Earth are stuck on a deserted ship of Ancient design named Destiny, which they have trouble controlling, that’s traveling from one galaxy to the next. At the mid-season break, the crew discovers the ship’s purpose. Destiny’s mission is to discover the nature of the pattern the Ancients found in the cosmic microwave background radiation.

For those who don’t know the story of the CMB, let me catch you up.
Serendipity has played a part in many scientific discoveries. Think about penicillin. In 1928, Alexander Flemihng accidentally left a Petri dish containing a Staphylococcus culture open to the air in his London basement lab. It was a fortuitous accident. When he returned, he found the culture had been contaminated by a green mold with a halo of inhibited growth around it. By 1930, penicillin was being used to cure eye infections.

Viagra was originally being tested as a drug to relieve hypertension. I hear the test subjects refused to give back their unused pills, alerting the researchers to a certain side effect of the medication. Serendipity.

In 1960, Bell Telephone Laboratory researchers Arno Pensias and Robert Wilson used a microwave telescope designed to improve transmission of messages.

They found that the horn antenna in Holmdel, New Jersey exhibited an annoying hiss no matter where they directed it. In any position, at any time of year, they always recorded the same low level noise. They tried everything to reduce this noise—chilling the detector, rewiring the equipment, even cleaning off the white dielectric material left by pigeons who took to roosting in the horn. Nothing worked; the hiss remained, too loud to be purely noise. They didn’t connect their noise to the prediction mage by Ralph Alpher back in 1948, when he was working out the underpinnings of the Big Bang Theory. The technology had not existed at the time to test Ralph Alpher’s hypothesis. It was Princeton astronomer Robert Dicke who put it together. His team had been building a microwave antenna in an attempt to discover the radiation left over from the Big Bang, but they were scooped by Pensias and Wilson who won the 1978 Nobel Prize for Physics for their discovery of the three degree cosmic microwave background radiation. Serendipity.

What Pensias and Wilson discovered was the energy signature from the early universe, in the period when the Universe became transparent to radiation. Further studies show that the remnant of the Big Bang comes from a time when the Universe was 379,000 years old and had expanded and cooled to about 3000 degrees Kelvin—low enough for photons to travel appreciable distances without being absorbed.

The COBE satellite, launched in 1989, mapped the fluctuations in the radiation of the CMB. The fluctuations were small, only one part in one hundred thousand, but they showed the imprint of the density contrast in the early universe. In the beginning, the universe grew from 10 trillionths of the size of the nucleus of an atom to about three meters across—this is called the inflationary period and the process sets limits to the smoothness and clumpiness of the Universe. The age of the Universe is 13.75 billion years plus or minus .11. Stars and galaxies began forming when the Universe was not quite a billion years old. That means at the time frame from which we see the cosmic microwave background radiation, there were no stars yet.

The WMAP satellite, launched in 2001, had greater resolution. Now we’re waiting for microwave data with even higher resolution and sensitivity to be analyzed from the recently-launched Planck satellite. We can appreciate how the differences in density in the early universe produced the large-scale structure of the universe today, its flattened and filamentary-like structure with voids in between. The earliest quantum density fluctuations produced ripples that in turn seeded the formation of galaxies and clusters. The expansion rate of the Universe is 70.5 plus or minus 1.3 kilometers per second per megaparsec— the results from WMAP are independent corroboration of supernova data.

The peak of the CMB’s blackbody curve is at 2.73 degrees Kelvin—an awesome triumph for science where prediction and evidence come together in an almost exact match. In a blackbody plot of the CMB, the data points and error bars are smaller than the line used to draw the curve. Nobody announces this achievement better than XKCD. Their T-shirt has the blackbody curve of the CMB on the back, while the front is emblazoned with the words, “Science, it works, bitches!”

Back to Stargate Universe.

In the episode “For the Greater Good,” it comes out that the Ancients discovered complexity and coherence (not naturally occurring) buried deep in the cosmic microwave background radiation left over from the Big Bang. Some members of the crew interpret this to be a sign of profound intelligence where there ought to only be chaos. Destiny was launched to recover the fragments of the signal that have been scattered across the Universe and reconstruct the whole pattern. In the episode “Malice,” the signal is shown on a screen.

Volker: “About the Ancients finding evidence of a signal once being broadcast across the Universe.”

Brody: “Distinct structure in the background radiation.”

Young: “It sounds like static to me.”

Wallace: “What were you expecting, ‘Stairway to Heaven’?”

Brody: “It suggests more than a random order to the Universe.”

Volker: “Possibly constructed by intelligent life.”

An aside. The static you used to see on old television sets tuned between stations was in part due to the CMB, the radiation left over from the Big Bang itself.

And at the opening of the episode “Visitation” we hear:

Young: “Not much to look at is it?”

Rush: “I see a sign of intelligence that cannot possibly have been there by any current description of the Universe—and yet, there it is. I see the greatest mystery of all time.”

Later in “Visitation,” we have this exchange:

Caine: “I hear you’ve learned what Destiny’s original mission was.”

Rush: “Yes, we have.”

Caine: “In search of a message from the moment of creation.”

Rush: “Oh, I don’t know about “message.” “Fingerprints” might be a better word—a sign that some intelligence may have had a hand in all of this,” and “evidence of an intelligence having existed prior to its own potential to exist” and, “Yes, it’s important. Its existence defies the very laws of physics.”

John Scalzi is science advisor for the show, which is created by Brad Wright and Robert C. Cooper. John has published an astronomy book, countless articles and many science fiction novels and is currently the president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, an organization of about 1400 professional genre authors. He cautions us not to take too literally the words “pattern” and “signal” in the CMB, just as you can’t take literally the term Big Bang, which labels something that was neither big nor a bang. We should understand the crew’s use of the word “signal” to express a shorthand version of something we can’t explain through our current understanding of physics, a potentially non-random, observable phenomenon.

I can’t wait to see how this plays out. My guess is that the writers will bring in time travel. Can an FTL drive bring you back to the beginning of the Universe? When the universe was small, could you etch a pattern to be carried along with the expansion? I love outrageous speculation, but it’s not solely in the realm of science fiction. Sir Roger Penrose has theories about the patterns in the CMB reflecting what happened “before” the Big Bang. Another extreme hypothesis suggests the CMB’s cold spot is the result of a collision with another Universe.

Other scientists, like that wildman Stephen Hawking, are playing with the ideas of time travel in physics. I hesitate to even mention these propositions, which most scientists consider to be highly unlikely, but this is the way we grow our knowledge. Propose an idea, produce a testable hypothesis, make observations, refine your original idea, lather rinse repeat. Speculation fuels both science and science fiction.

So, let’s see what the writers of Stargate Universe come up with. Tune in with me?

End of podcast:

365 Days of Astronomy
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