Mankind has always wondered where we came from and how our Green Planet came to exist, some 14 billion years ago.
While some look to faith to answer their existential crises of curiosity, others look to science. But, no matter what your belief system, we have all actually encountered proof of the Big Bang at some point in our lives, and peered directly into the origins of humanity.
All it takes to see the source of our universe is a simple flick of a television switch from the comforting embrace of your sofa.
Here’s the proof: One per cent of static on TV screens – at least before cable – originates from light emitted by the Big Bang.
In 1964 astronomers, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, were listening to radio signals from space at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, but encountered a background hum coming from all angles.
You can watch what happened next in the archive footage courtesy of the BBC documentary, Whisper In The Snow:
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Suspecting pigeon droppings on the receiver were the culprit, a clean-up operation commenced.
The clean up operation changed nothing and the hum persisted. But why?
Science legend has it that, when the pair were giving a talk at Princeton, one observer piped up: “Either you are listening to bird droppings or the creation of our Universe.”
They had actually stumbled upon the afterglow from a huge fireball created by the big bang, according to NASA. This light is called the Cosmic Microwave background radiation (CMB), which is formed of microwaves and radio waves.
But what is CMB, where does it come from and why does it crop up on your TV screen?
Speaking to UNILAD, Dr Rene Breton, a lecturer at the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics at The University of Manchester, explained how it all began, a few hundred thousand years after the Big Bang when our Universe was ‘a very dense and warm soup of basic particles such as protons, neutrons and electrons’, and before stars and galaxies even existed.
Dr Breton told us that a lot of light was being produced but ‘our Universe was like a fog cloud’ which stopped light travelling over long distances.
Around 379,000 years after the Big Bang, as the Universe expanded, it cooled and became less dense.
Thus, the first neutral hydrogen atoms were formed. These atoms, the simplest found in our Universe, do not react well with light, so “all of a sudden the fog was lifted and light could travel a long way uninterrupted”, according to Breton.
The Canadian astrophysicist continued:
Physically speaking the CMB represents the visible frontier of our Universe. From our perspective, if we look very, very far, we can see all the way to the boundary of this fog, but we can’t really see any further. The CMB therefore shows the imprint of what the Universe was like when it became transparent to light.
CMB comprises light emitted over a broad range of low frequency radiation which extend to radio light. When we use antennas to receive TV signal over the air, or radio, or even mobile and WiFi signals, there will also be this background CMB signal on top of the actual signal we seek. As a result, a fraction of the static which is picked up by an antenna such as a TV set is made of the CMB.
Dr Breton confirmed: “What fraction of the static is from the CMB is not easy to answer as it may vary over time and depend on the hardware and frequency it operates at. But with an ‘old school’ analogue TV receiver it may reach about one percent or so.”
So you don’t even have to sit through Brian Cox’s dulcet tones on the TV to absorb some science and feed your curiosity – all you need is flick of the switch and a little white noise.