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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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The Universe: not so universal after all?


Careful measurements of the light coming different parts of the universe suggest that the laws of physics might not be the same everywhere.

  • Laws of physics might not be the same everywhere
  • Strength of electromagnetism found to vary throughout cosmos

The laws of physics are different in different parts of the universe, according to new evidence uncovered by a team of Australian and British astrophysicists.

One of the supposed fundamental constants of Nature appears not to be constant after all, the team says in a report of the discovery submitted for publication in the journal Physical Review Letters.

The report describes how the “magic number” known as the fine-structure constant—dubbed alpha for short—appears to vary throughout the universe, says the team from the University of New South Wales, Swinburne University of Technology and the University of Cambridge. The work is currently under peer review.

Professor John Webb

Professor John Webb of the University of NSW, one of the members of the international team of researchers.

“After measuring alpha in around 300 distant galaxies, a consistency emerged: this magic number, which tells us the strength of electromagnetism, is not the same everywhere as it is here on Earth, and seems to vary continuously along a preferred axis through the universe,” says Professor John Webb of the UNSW School of Physics.

“The implications for our current understanding of science are profound. If the laws of physics turn out to be merely “local by-laws”, it might be that whilst our observable part of the universe favours the existence of life and human beings, other far more distant regions may exist where different laws preclude the formation of life, at least as we know it.”

“If our results are correct, clearly we shall need new physical theories to satisfactorily describe them.”

A better theory needed?

The researchers’ conclusions are based on new measurements taken with the Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile, along with their previous measurements from the world’s largest optical telescopes at the Keck Observatory, in Hawaii.

Co-author Julian King, a UNSW doctoral student, says that after combining the two sets of measurements, the new result “struck” them: “The Keck telescopes and the VLT are in different hemispheres; they look in different directions through the universe. Looking to the north with Keck we see, on average, a smaller alpha in distant galaxies, but when looking south with the VLT we see a larger alpha.

Keck Telescope

The astronomers used the Keck Observatory in Hawaii, as well as the Very Large Telescope in Chile (not shown here) to make their measurements.

“It varies by only a tiny amount—about one part in 100,000—over most of the observable universe, but it’s possible that much larger variations could occur beyond our observable horizon.”

Co-author Dr Michael Murphy, of Swinburne University of Technology, says the discovery will force scientists to rethink their understanding of Nature’s laws.

“The fine structure constant, and other fundamental constants, are absolutely central to our current theory of physics. If they really do vary, we’ll need a better, deeper theory,” Dr Murphy says.

While a “varying constant” would shake our understanding of the world around us, Dr Murphy notes: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. What we’re finding is extraordinary, no doubt about that.”

“It’s one of the biggest questions of modern science—are the laws of physics the same everywhere in the universe and throughout its entire history? We’re determined to answer this burning question one way or the other.”

Other researchers involved in the research are Professor Victor Flambaum and doctoral student Matthew Bainbridge, from UNSW, and Professor Bob Carswell at the University of Cambridge.

Adapted from information issued by UNSW / NASA / ESO / W.M. Keck Observatory.

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