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Big-Bang Discovery Makes a Star Out of Astrophysicist : Cosmology: 'It is the discovery of the century, if not of all time,' says Stephen Hawking of Cambridge University.

May 10, 1992|THOMAS H. MAUGH II | TIMES SCIENCE WRITER

BERKELEY — Last year, astrophysicist George Smoot of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory got a very important message.

From the beginning of time.

Three weeks ago, he revealed that message, and the world, many people believe, changed forever.

Smoot and his colleagues reported that they had detected microwave signals from the oldest and largest structures in the universe, faint relics of the Big Bang, the seminal explosion that created the universe and everything in it 15 billion years ago.

These huge ripples in the fabric of space and time, hitherto indistinguishable from their surroundings, eventually evolved into the galaxies, stars, planets, comets, asteroids and all the other matter and debris that make up our universe.

Their discovery answers a riddle that has plagued cosmologists and physicists alike--how did the apparently featureless universe that existed shortly after the Big Bang evolve into the highly structured universe we now know? The answer is that these infinitesimal variations in the temperature and density of the primordial universe created different levels of gravity that, acting over billions of years, forced the wispy primeval gas to coalesce into solid bodies.

The finding, made with instruments aboard the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) satellite, has been widely hailed. "It is the discovery of the century, if not of all time," cosmologist Stephen Hawking of Cambridge University, who ranks with Albert Einstein as one of the preeminent theorists of the century, said in a statement.

The discovery provides strong evidence in support not only of the Big Bang theory, Hawking said, but also of the idea that much of the universe--perhaps as much as 90%--is composed of so-called cold, dark matter. That cold, dark matter, according to cosmologists, will eventually slow and stop the expansion of the universe, and then will cause it to come crashing back together in a cataclysmic collapse, perhaps to start the whole process over again.

"They have found the Holy Grail of cosmology," said physicist Michael Turner of the University of Chicago. "If it is indeed correct, this certainly would have to be considered for a Nobel Prize."

That is heady praise for the 47-year-old Smoot, a brash experimentalist who has literally gone to the ends of the Earth in his search for evidence of the Big Bang. He has constructed microwave telescopes in the mountains of California, sent them aloft in balloons, carried them to the South Pole and finally launched one into orbit in an effort to find the elusive message.

And it is praise accompanied by a celebrity status that Smoot never dreamed of achieving. He has appeared on "Nightline" and on the "Today" show. Journalists from around the world have been calling his laboratory and demanding interviews. Several publishing companies want him to write a book.

Theorists have come to the remarkable conclusion that all of the matter in the universe--and all of the space as well--was initially contained in an infinitely dense ball smaller than the period at the end of a sentence. That may be difficult to comprehend, but cosmologists, like the queen in "Through the Looking-Glass," "have to believe six impossible things before breakfast," LBL astrophysicist Rich Muller said.

For its first 300,000 years, the universe was a fog of isolated electrons, protons and other elementary particles so dense that light could not penetrate it. But as the universe grew and cooled, electrons and protons combined into atoms of matter and the universe became transparent. It is this stage of the universe that Smoot is observing, perhaps 600,000 years after the Big Bang. Because the gas is so cold, 2.7 degrees above absolute zero (minus 455 degrees Fahrenheit), it emits energy in the form of microwave radiation.

This so-called cosmic microwave background was first detected in 1964 by physicists Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson of Bell Telephone Laboratories, a demonstration of the validity of the Big Bang theory for which they won the 1978 Nobel Prize for physics. But their telescope was not sensitive enough to reveal the small variations in temperature and density that theoreticians argued must have been present for the universe to evolve into its present highly structured state.

Smoot, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, came to the search in 1974. He brought with him, colleagues say, an intense appetite for work. He makes highly meticulous "action lists" describing each team member's projects and goals for the forthcoming week. He is usually juggling three or four different projects, they note, but always remembers the intimate details of each. As he speaks, the words come faster and faster and his voice drops to near inaudibility.

Sitting in his cramped and cluttered office in an old building at LBL, with light classical music playing on a small radio, Smoot recently discussed his search and its aftermath. He was "initially very surprised" by the response to his announcement, he said.

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