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Star trek,to when it all began

What occurred in the first one-trillionth of a second after the Big Bang? Just how long ago was that,precisely? How much of the universe has man seen,and understood?

Written by Kavitha Iyer |
April 11, 2010 12:37:39 am

What occurred in the first one-trillionth of a second after the Big Bang? Just how long ago was that,precisely? How much of the universe has man seen,and understood? How will the world end? All familiar enough questions,but Professor Lyman Page,52,“wanted the answers badly enough” as a young student of physics to not only be drawn to cosmology but also to join a tiny global clique of scientists now studying some of science’s final frontiers.

Henry DeWolf Smyth Professor of Physics at Princeton University,Page measures and observes the ‘Cosmic Microwave Background’ or CMB,a radiation that’s a relic leftover from the Big Bang,to better understand the universe and its evolution. He was in Mumbai to deliver the third Subramanyan Chandrasekhar Lecture at the International Centre for Theoretical Sciences at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research.

What started in the early 1960s,when two young radioastronomers discovered the CMB using an antenna—CMB photons are what gave pre-cable era analog television sets their fuzzy noise during a signal interruption—has developed in just the last two decades into measurements and scientific models that are accurate enough for researchers to say quite precise things about the cosmos. “We can now say,for example,that the age of the universe is 13.75 billion years,plus or minus 0.13 billion years,” says Page. “We know its density,its geometry,we have a good idea of its contents. And we know the universe is stranger than we ever thought.”

Almost a decade ago,when NASA launched its Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP),a satellite that made detailed observations of the CMB from deep space,over a million kilometres from earth,Page was one of the key designers of the satellite. The WMAP’s findings have revolutionised our understanding of the world,and it continues to collect data. It gave the world a picture of CMB fluctuations leading to the refined and widely accepted Standard Model of the Universe: Everything we know and understand accounts for less than 5 per cent of the total matter-energy of the universe. Another form of matter,called dark matter,which influences the growth of structures but is invisible to us,comprises 26 per cent. The other major component is ‘dark energy’,the greatest unsolved mystery in physics.

“We’re made of atoms—these are things you can put on a bathroom scale and you can weigh them. But we know there’s six times as much matter in the universe,and they’re not atoms,it’s something completely new. It may not be one thing. It may be complex,” says Page. “We now know that this dark matter was present in the universe from the earliest times. Most people are hoping that within five years of when the Large Hadron Collider experiments begin,we will see evidence of this. The LHC would tell us exactly what it is,its properties,in what is a very complementary and wonderful tie-in between high energy physics and cosmology.”

It all began for the professor with a sudden flash: Just out of college,he’d spent a year in the Antarctic and with the money he saved up during that year,bought an old wooden sailboat. For the next two years,he sailed around the Caribbean,accompanied sometimes by friends,and always by physics textbooks,until one unsettling incident,when the foremost sail ripped en route to Panama Canal. “That night I said,it’s time to go to graduate school,” the professor says.

Thirty-six hours after he anchored,he was walking into the admissions office at MIT,getting a job in a lab that just so happened to be working with microwaves. “Those things will remain mysteries,” he says,laughing,but many other mysteries won’t remain so. “We are fortunate. When I started working in this field,the signal that we now routinely measure hadn’t even been detected,” he says,explaining how superior technology has altered cosmology over the last 15 years. It has emerged from a sphere of science that wasn’t largely respected—“it had a few numbers,a lot of hazy notions,speculation,excellent theories,but lots of them”—to offering answers to some of man’s most soul-searching questions.

The sociological impact of cosmology’s latest and continuing findings,he believes,will leave a signature on man’s fundamental relationship with the world. “Knowing you can compute the age of the universe… it changes one’s conception of the sky and what you can know and what you can’t. It makes the universe a much less unknown place.”

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