‘LOOKING AT GOD’
Since the beginning of time, earthbound man has searched the heavens for signs that would enrich his life, his soul—and his comprehension. For the ancients, the search was largely spiritual, or astrological, and the findings were bound up in unscientific belief. But for the past 380 years, from the invention of the telescope to the advent of manned space flight, that exploration has taken on a physical dimension as humans and their machines pushed beyond the moon, the planets and the sun to the limitless universe beyond. Then, last week, American scientists announced the discovery of radiation patterns in space that may mark the beginning of time itself. Said astrophysicist George Smoot, leader of the research team: “If you’re religious, it’s like looking at God. The order is so beautiful and the symme-
STARTLING NEW IMAGES FROM DEEP SPACE APPARENTLY SHOW THE ORIGIN OF THE UNIVERSE
try so beautiful that you think there is some design behind it.”
The findings, based on more than 360 million measurements by a U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) satellite, still need additional verification. But their presentation at an American Physical Society meeting in Washington touched off a celebration among physicists around the world. Many have claimed that the universe came into being about 15 billion years ago as the result of a cataclysmic explosion—the so-called Big Bang theory—which sent immense quantities of matter and energy travelling billions of miles in all directions. The remnants of the blast, in the form of microwaves known as cosmic background radiation, were detected in 1964 by Nobel Prize winners Amo Penzias and Robert Wilson of the Bell Telephone Laboratories.
What remained a mystery was how stars and galaxies could have evolved from material that was uniformly distributed throughout the universe.
The answer, said Smoot, appears to have been provided by NASA’s Cosmic Background Explorer satellite. It detected minute temperature fluctuations, as small as one thirty-millionth of a degree, in the radiation field. Those temperature differences, he added, effectively stirred up the otherwise smooth soup left by the Bang and set in motion the processes that ultimately created the galaxies. “These small variations are the imprints of tiny ripples in the fabric of space-time put there by the primeval explosion process,” said Smoot, a physicist at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory at Berkeley, Calif., and the University of California. He added: “Over billions of years, the smaller of these ripples have grown into galaxies, clusters of galaxies and the great voids of space.” Because the temperature variations took billions of years to reach the satellite’s sensors, they may reflect how the universe was evolving when it was only 300,000 years old.
For months before last week’s meeting in Washington, the space science community had been buzzing with rumors of a possible cosmological breakthrough. But not until the morning of April 23, when 80 astrophysicists arrived for a meeting, one of 11 scheduled for that morning in the auditorium of Washington’s Ramada Renaissance Tech World Hotel, did the full magnitude of a new glimpse into the origins of the universe become clear.
Pinpointed: The free-spirited 47-year-old Smoot unveiled the first evidence of a longsought cosmological missing link. From data picked up by the foot-long receivers on the satellite, Smoot and his team say that they have pinpointed the oldest and largest cosmic structures yet known, the first anomalies in a seamless universal soup that signalled the beginning of galaxies. Nancy Boggess, a NASA scientist who is a member of Smoot’s 18-person team, compared it to archeologists stumbling on a billion-year-old fossil that confirms theories on the beginnings of life. “This is the oldest relic, the oldest fossil of the universe,” she said. “It shows what the universe must have been like after the Big Bang.”
While acknowledging that the analysis of the satellite data still required further confirmation, scientists hailed the findings as a major breakthrough. At England’s Cambridge University, physicist Stephen Hawking, the celebrated author of the best-selling book A Brief History of Time, declared that the findings represented “the discovery of the century—if not of all time.” Physicist Joel Primack of the
University of California at Santa Cruz said that if Smoot’s conclusions are fully confirmed, “it is one of the major discoveries of the century. In fact, it’s one of the major discoveries of science.” Added Michael Turner, a University of Chicago physicist: “The significance of this cannot be overstated. They have found the Holy Grail of cosmology.”
‘Excited': While the magnitude of the scientific discovery was difficult for laymen to grasp, Smoot suggested that the findings ultimately will enrich human life by providing a fuller picture of how the universe evolved. “People are excited by knowing where they came from and knowing how they fit in the universe,” Smoot told Maclean ’s (page 42). “Think of how people felt when they saw the pictures from the moon of the Earth. They saw the blue-andgreen glow with clouds around it, and they realized that is where we live. Now, we are
going to give people perspective about how our solar system, our galaxy and everything else fit together, and how we conceive of how the whole universe was bom and how it developed, the phases it went through and how it came to have a structure in it.”
Experts in astrophysics said that the new sighting of ancient tracks in the cosmos is a boon to scientists, who can now investigate what happened in the first fraction of a second after the Big Bang, the platform on which many had based their assumptions about the origins of the universe. Until recently, measurements of radiation from the cosmos, including initial data from the Cosmic Background Explorer, showed what the scientists call a “smooth Big Bang”—an undifferentiated cosmic broth that
betrayed no signs of clustering into clumps of matter that later developed into stars and galaxies. Said Boggess: “This deepened the quandary for theorists: how did we get from smooth to lumpy?”
As Julie Lutz, director of the astronomical sciences division of the Washington-based National Science Foundation in Washington, put it: “At some point, the universe had to go from a very uniform, compact soup to planets and galaxies. At some point, it had to break up. The question has been, when did this happen?”
Even more puzzling was the continuing lack of evidence to back up the claim that the Big Bang jump-started the process. Said Mark Halpem, a physics professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver who specializes in studies of cosmic background radiation: “If these experiments had not seen anything, we would have been in deep trouble in terms of
explaining the Big Bang.” Added Lutz: “The Big Bang theory seemed in trouble for a while. People were saying, ‘If the observations keep on not fitting some important parts of the theory, hey, maybe we should start changing our theory’ ” (page 43).
Disasters: Besides lending solid support to the Big Bang theory, the findings by Smoot’s team provided new support for NASA, which, during the past few years, has been embarrassed by a series of disasters. At the same time, members of the U.S. scientific community were clearly relieved that Smoot and his group cautiously checked and re-analysed their data before announcing a breakthrough—unlike the two scientists who claimed a breakthrough in cold-fusion energy generation three
years ago. Those claims subsequently were discredited when other scientists could not duplicate the claimed findings. Philip Schewe, a spokesman for the American Institute of Physics in New York City, pointed out that Smoot’s team, unlike the cold-fusion claimants, distributed four scientific papers at the Washington meeting and submitted them for publication in the Astrophysical Journal, a periodical published by the University of Chicago for the Washington-based American Astronomical Society.
‘Momentous': In contrast,
Smoot’s team hesitated to make their discovery known through a simple news conference unconnected to a more formal presentation to their colleagues. And although the startling data were available to them more than two months ago, Smoot insisted on continued re-examination to attain a further level of certainty. Said Schewe: “The results were so momentous that they wanted to make absolutely sure of what they were saying.”
Like the evolution of the universe itself, the saga of the Cosmic Background Explorer satellite, which sped into orbit 3 V2 years ago carrying sensitive microwave receivers, had a long and bumpy history. The proposal for such a mission was first submitted to NASA in 1974. It was the brainchild of John Mather, a NASA scientist at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., who supervised the project. It took another eight years of research and lobbying before NASA approved it in 1982, and combined it with Smoot’s project
to measure cosmic radiation by using a satellite-mounted microwave receiver. The actual building of the 20-foot-tall Explorer cost an estimated $240 million. Said Boggess: “It wasn’t an expensive space mission. But money is always a problem.”
Then, in January, 1986, the mission was delayed by tragedy: the Challenger shuttle explosion that took the lives of all seven astronauts aboard, including Concord, N.H., mother
and teacher Christa McAuliffe. The Explorer satellite was scheduled to be lofted into space on a future shuttle flight. With the Challenger disaster, and subsequent recriminations within NASA, the project had to go back to the drawing board—to be redesigned for launch by an unmanned rocket.
The change in plan stemmed from the potential risks involved in carrying the satellite into
space. To make measurements possible in the frigidity of outer space, two of the satellite’s measuring instruments were cushioned in what Boggess described as a “giant thermos” containing 132 gallons of liquid helium. The scientists said that they wanted to keep the temperature of the instruments at about IV2 degrees above absolute zero (-273.16° C). But the giant thermos was thin-skinned, under heavy atmospheric pressure and capable of being pierced if any mishap occurred during the shuttle’s launch. After the Challenger disaster, NASA officials said that they would not take such a risk. Said Boggess: “After the Challenger, safety became a key consideration.” Shuttled: Finally, the launch took place in November, 1989, sending the satellite into a polar orbit that looped over Canada and the Arctic. But after scientists analysed the first data, which still showed a basically smooth, or undifferentiated, ^ Big Bang, the team was disi heartened. Boggess cornil pared the team’s task to reI creating a picture of the sky “ through 360 million individual data points, or snapshots, each one of which had to be examined and re-examined for the slightest differentiation.
During the project, Smoot shuttled back and forth from his classroom, laboratory and home in Berkeley to a house near the satellite’s Data Analysis Center, a short walk from the Goddard Flight Center, where a sophisticated series of computers was processing the radio-wave signals. By last October, as Boggess put it, “it
looked like we had a glimmer of something. But a glimmer is not the way a scientist here at Goddard wants to announce a major finding.”
In the afterglow of the Washington announcement of the satellite’s findings, some members of Smoot’s team said that the breakthrough might be only the beginning of their discoveries. They still have another year’s worth of data to analyse, and that material could provide further insights into the beginning of space and time. Said Boggess: “We aren’t finished yet.”
'Excitement': In the international scientific community, physicists and other experts said that the new findings could pave the way for a more detailed picture of the origins of the universe. Richard Bond, a professor of physics at the University of Toronto’s Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics, said that if the results are validated, “it’s fantastic. Now, we have a window back to very early time.” Science has yet to discover “how the universe came into being,” added Bond, “but we’re coming closer. This is why there is so much excitement. They have built a very strong case that the fluctuations they detected are primordial, that they are from the edge of time.”
For his part, William Unruh, a University of
British Columbia physics professor and, like Bond, a member of the Toronto-based Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, said that NASA designed the experiments with extreme care to make sure that the satellite would measure radiation beyond Earth’s own galaxy. Scientists had previously reported discovering microwave radiation from the beginning of time, he said, only to find later that their results were probably contaminated by material much closer to Earth.
Smoot’s announcement of the satellite’s findings and his remark about “looking at God” revived the long-standing discussion about the relationship between science and religion. Still, many members of major religious denominations now accept that scientific explanation of the origins of the universe do not differ fundamentally from the kind of simplified accounts given in the Bible’s Book of Genesis. “I think one could argue that these results firm up one’s view of the presence of some deity whose purpose is being worked out,” said Arnold Wolfendale, Britain’s astronomer royal. Science and religion are not mutually exclusive, he said, because “I feel that religion is a completely different dimension not susceptible to scientific proof.” For his part, Rev. Frederic
Burnham, a science historian and director of New York’s Trinity Institute, a theological centre, said that “cosmology and the Big Bang are very compatible understandings of the arrow of time. There was a beginning and there will be an end.” For many theologians, Bumham added, there is no conflict between the Big Bang theory advanced by science and the belief that God created the universe out of preexisting chaos.
Some fundamentalist religious leaders disagreed. Henry Morris, president of the Institute for Creation Research in Santee, Calif., said that it was too early to evaluate the new findings. But he added that members of his conservative institute maintain that there is scientific evidence for the biblical teaching that the world was created in six days, and within the past 10,000 years.
Challenge: For Smoot’s team, and for the NASA technicians under Mather who designed and built the Cosmic Background Explorer, the ringing applause that greeted their announcement was sweet vindication for meticulous and dogged work. Said Boggess: “We designed this instrument to do just this sort of thing, and we set out to do it in 1975.” Still, as they planned further experiments, members of Smoot’s team could only be acutely aware of the financial and political pressures the satellite project faces at a time of severe budgetary cutbacks at NASA and throughout government agencies. Smoot faces the challenge of convincing NASA officials to keep the satellite aloft for a fourth year—at an annual cost of about $9.5 million.
Meanwhile, scientists who said that the Explorer’s findings appeared to have confirmed the Big Bang theory considered the next major issues of cosmology that need to be dealt with. One area of continuing mystery centres on the theory of so-called dark matter, subatomic particles that some scientists contend make up as much as 90 per cent of all the matter in the universe. Following Smoot’s announcement of the Explorer findings, those scientists said that the discovery of minute variations in temperature in the background radiation of the universe actually supported the theory of dark matter, as well as another that holds that the universe went through a brief period of rapid expansion shortly after the Big Bang.
When those issues and others are resolved, scientists will come even closer to the most fundamental puzzle of all: what caused the universe to be created in the first place? Theologians say that they already know the answer, but some scientists say that mankind may never know. Indeed, the University of California’s Primack said that the findings of Smoot’s team may have brought science “as close as we expect to be to seeing the conditions at the start of the universe.” But because it is in the nature of modem science, and the questing human spirit, the restless search for final answers is destined to become even more intense after the first, expansive glimpse of the beginning of time.