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MEDIA CONTACT: Tom Rickey, (585) 275-7954, or Dann Hayes (Kansas)(913) 864-8855
April 17, 1997
All Space is Not Equal: Physicists Find Axis that Gives the Universe Orientation
Physicists at the University of Rochester and the University
of Kansas have found evidence that flies in the face of the long-
held belief that space is the same in all directions (isotropic).
In fact, measurements indicate something seldom considered by
physicists: that the universe has an orientation. The unexpected
finding, determined by measuring the polarization of light as it
travels to Earth from the far reaches of the universe, is the
subject of a paper in the April 21 issue of Physical Review
The work, which may be one of the most fundamental findings
about the universe in recent years, could affect physicists'
views about the birth of the universe and suggests that
scientists will need to explore how Einstein's theory of
relativity and the theory of electromagnetism might explain the
finding. That's quite an impact from an effect so tiny that it's
betrayed only by light traveling across most of the observable
universe, from 15 billion years ago. Physicists have dubbed the
effect the "corkscrew effect" for the way it twists light
crossing the heavens.
"The big news is that perhaps not all space is equal, for as
far back as we can peer in time," says Borge Nodland of the
University of Rochester.
Adds co-investigator John Ralston of the University of
Kansas: "The shocking thing about our result is that there seems
to be an absolute axis, a kind of cosmological north star that
orients the universe. We don't really know yet what this axis
This axis of orientation is not a physical entity but rather
defines a direction of space that somehow determines how light
travels through the universe. In effect, Ralston and Nodland have
discovered a direction in space that is out of the ordinary or
different from all other directions. The idea that any direction
of space is in any way "special" has long been taboo among
"This work defies the notion that there is no 'up' or 'down'
in space," says Nodland, research fellow at Rochester's Theory
Center for Optical Science and Engineering.
From Earth, the axis of this orientation runs toward the
constellation Sextans, roughly in the direction of Leo and Gemini
and high in the southern evening sky this time of year. The other
end of the axis points toward the constellations Aquila and
Equuleus. (Stargazers, of course, will see nothing special when
they look in that direction.) Nodland and Ralston, a professor of
physics and astronomy at Kansas, say the axis might have several
interpretations: It could be an intrinsic property of the
universe, or it might indicate that an undiscovered particle,
such as the long-theorized axion, is at work.
The team made the finding by studying the polarization
(orientation of electric fields) of radio waves from 160 distant
galaxies as measured in previous experiments by astronomers
around the world. Nodland and Ralston found that the plane of
polarization of the light rotates like a corkscrew as the light
travels through space, and that the orientation of the universal
axis that they've discovered is key to the amount of rotation.
The rotation of polarization depends on the angle at which the
light moves relative to the axis and on the distance the light
travels before being measured. The effect is crudely analogous to
that of a crystal that twists light depending on the direction
light is traveling through the crystal.
Astronomers have long known about a somewhat similar effect
called the Faraday effect, which is caused by magnetic fields
between galaxies and causes the plane of polarization of light to
rotate as the light travels through space. The newly discovered
effect is in addition to the Faraday effect.
Though the cause of the corkscrew effect remains unknown, in
their paper the team constructs a mathematical theory that
explains the observations. The data indicate that light actually
travels through space at two slightly different speeds. Such a
mismatch in speeds would cause the polarization plane to rotate
in a well known manner, in a way that physics students see when
they pass light through corn syrup and look at the light with
polarizing filters. This corkscrew effect is far more subtle,
though: Light traveling across the heavens undergoes one full
rotation of its plane of polarization about once in a billion
Whatever the cause, the work could have widespread
implications. Scientists have long theorized that the Big Bang
was completely symmetric. Says Nodland: "Perhaps it was not a
perfect Big Bang, but a Big Bang with a twist to space and time."
Such a twist would be seen today as a ripple of non-uniformity,
perhaps as the axis (an "axis of anisotropy") represents.
Much more speculatively, the work may provide some of the
first experimental evidence for physicists who have theorized the
existence of other universes. If our universe was asymmetric at
creation, and symmetry in the cosmos is maintained as many
physicists believe, it raises the possibility of the simultaneous
creation of another universe with an opposite twist.
The work also seems to run counter to the notions that all
space is uniform and that the speed of light in a vacuum is
always precisely the same, key assumptions of the theory of
Though the researchers say there's only a few chances in a
thousand that the result comes from statistical fluctuations,
they stress the need for other scientists to confirm their
Questions about the universe and our role in it have
fascinated Nodland ever since he can remember, filling his mind
as he took long hikes while growing up in his native Norway.
"I've always had a passionate interest in the universe and
its origins," he says. "We're on a little planet going around
some burning mass that we call a sun, in a certain region of
space. What is this space, and why are we here? The universe is
amazing, and I want to know the most I can about it."
The team's work is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy,
the National Science Foundation, the New York State Energy
Research and Development Authority, and the Kansas Science and
Technology Advanced Research (KSTAR) program.
Note to editors: Artwork is available on the Web at
This work is described in more detail at
This and other news from research institutions can be found at
About the University of Rochester
The University of Rochester (www.rochester.edu) is one of the nation's leading private universities. Located in Rochester, N.Y., the University gives students exceptional opportunities for interdisciplinary study and close collaboration with faculty through its unique cluster-based curriculum. Its College of Arts, Sciences, and Engineering is complemented by the Eastman School of Music, Simon School of Business, Warner School of Education, Laboratory for Laser Energetics, Schools of Medicine and Nursing, and the Memorial Art Gallery.