Was the universe born spinning?

Galaxy Messier 101

Researchers have found an excess of counter-clockwise rotating, or 'left-handed,' spiral galaxies like the one pictured (known as Messier 101) compared to their 'right-handed' counterparts. This provides evidence that the universe does not have mirror symmetry, and that it may have been born spinning at the time of the Big Bang.

  • Universe long thought to have ‘mirror symmetry’
  • Symmetry could be wrong if more galaxies spin in one direction
  • Early results show more galaxies rotate ‘left’ than ‘right’

PHYSICISTS AND ASTRONOMERS have long thought that the universe has mirror symmetry, like a basketball, but recent findings from the University of Michigan dispute this.

The findings suggest that the shape of the Big Bang might be more complicated than previously thought, and that the early universe spun about an axis.

To test for the assumed mirror symmetry, physics professor Michael Longo and a team of five undergraduates catalogued the rotation direction of tens of thousands of spiral galaxies photographed in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.

The mirror image of a counter-clockwise rotating galaxy would have clockwise rotation. More of one type than the other would be evidence for a breakdown of symmetry, or, in physics speak, a ‘parity violation’ on cosmic scales, Longo said.

One in a million

The researchers found evidence that galaxies tend to rotate in a preferred direction.

They uncovered an excess of left-handed, or counter-clockwise rotating, spirals in the part of the sky toward the north pole of the Milky Way. The effect extended beyond 600 million light-years away.

“The excess is small, about 7 percent, but the chance that it could be a cosmic accident is something like one in a million,” Longo said.

Spiral galaxy NGC 4622

Spiral galaxy NGC 4622

“These results are extremely important because they appear to contradict the almost universally accepted notion that on sufficiently large scales the universe is isotropic, with no special direction.”

Spin cycle

The work provides new insights about the shape of the Big Bang. A symmetric and isotropic universe would have begun with a spherically symmetric explosion shaped like a basketball.

If the universe was born rotating, like a spinning basketball, Longo said, it would have a preferred axis, and galaxies would have retained that initial motion.

Is the universe still spinning?

“It could be,” Longo said. “I think this result suggests that it is.”

Because the Sloan telescope is in New Mexico, the data the researchers analysed for their recent paper came mostly from the northern regions of the sky. An important test of the findings will be to see if there is an excess of right-handed spiral galaxies in the southern hemisphere. This research is currently under way.

Adapted from information issued by the University of Michigan. Messier 101 image courtesy NASA, ESA, K. Kuntz (Johns Hopkins University), F. Bresolin (University of Hawaii), J. Trauger (Jet Propulsion Lab), J. Mould (National Optical Astronomy Observatory), Y.-H. Chu (University of Illinois, Urbana), and the Space Telescope Science Institute. NGC 4622 image courtesy NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA); acknowledgment: Dr. Ron Buta (U. Alabama), Dr. Gene Byrd (U. Alabama) and Tarsh Freeman (Bevill State Community College).

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