Sunday, March 19, 2006

Big Bang's Smoking Gun Discovered

We measure our days and nights in hours, minutes, and sometimes seconds. It takes most of us about 90 seconds to make a refrigerator run during a TV commercial. Most of us have a work day that lasts eight hours. And our weekends seem painfully short at two days.

On the scientific level, however, time periods can be measured in extremely tiny or extremely long increments. For example, the Global Positioning System, which uses satellites to pinpoint the exact location of, say, a person with a GPS cell phone making a 911 call, works its magic by measuring the time it takes the radio waves to reach the cell phone in nanoseconds, or billionths of a second.

On the other end of the scale, geologists measure the age of fossils in millions or hundreds of millions of years. And the age of the universe is measured at 13.7 billion years.

Recently, however, scientists using the orbiting Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe have merged the incredibly large time scales of the universe with the unimaginably tiny time scale of microelectronics. They have managed to take a picture, so to speak, of the first trillionth of a second of the birth of the universe.

Fifty years ago, there was a debate raging of astronomical proportions. Really, the debate was among astronomers who couldn’t agree on whether the universe had a beginning, dubbed the Big Bang, or whether it was in a so-called steady state.

That debate was laid to rest once and for all in 1968 when a couple of radio technicians at Bell Labs serendipitously discovered the cosmic background radiation, which was predicted to exist if, indeed, the universe began with a bang.

Unfortunately, the Big Bang theory couldn’t explain how stars and galaxies could form. It predicted a very smooth universe. Our universe is lumpy with matter.

Then, 25 years ago, a scientist named Alan Guth figured out that if the universe had started with an immense inflationary period during the first few trillionths of a second of the Big Bang, that would create fluctuations in the energy field that would result in galaxies, stars, and planets.

Ever since then, astronomers have been looking for the smoking gun that would prove or disprove Guth’s inflationary theory. And it was announced just last week that the smoking gun has been found.

WMAP data showed that the cosmic background radiation is polarized on a small scale. In other words, it’s lumpy. It’s astonishingly compelling evidence that the universe did, indeed, go through a very brief and rapid inflationary period during the first trillionth of a second of the Big Bang.

I’m sure that is very exciting news to astronomers and cosmologists. But what is even more exciting to me is that we are living in an age when humans have actually learned not only to probe inside a time period of a trillionth of a second, but the very first trillionth of a second of the universe’s existence.

One doesn’t have to understand how it works to appreciate how truly fascinating it is.

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