The Universe's Holy Grail

April 26, 1992

Elegant theories demand clear proofs, or they never win acceptance. The "Big Bang" theory of the creation of the universe has been accepted by most cosmologists, but nagging doubts remained for years. If there was such a colossal explosion, wouldn't echoes still reverberate around the cosmos as electromagnetic radiation, even light a telescope could pick up?

Now a team at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, led by physicist George Smoot, has used data from NASA's Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) to silence doubters.

Eighteen years ago, two Bell laboratories scientists had detected a distant hiss of microwave radiation in their radio telescope. This was presumed to be the residue from the Big Bang. The hiss appeared to be uniform in every direction. But that raised the question: How did a uniform explosion produce the "lumpy" universe we see today?

That is what the COBE satellite has now answered. It picked up tiny fluctuations in the temperature of the cosmic background hiss -- less than one one-hundred-thousandth of a degree -- that would allow large structures like galaxies to form in the time since the Big Bang.

The Smoot team minutely examined 200 million measurements of background "hiss" radiation picked up by the COBE satellite and found two important proofs:

First, the "color" or wave-length of this far-away radiation conformed to the theory's prediction. Second, those extremely small variations in the energy of the most distant, and therefore oldest, structures ever observed confirmed the Big Bang. These variations are thought to be the "seeds" on which large structures have grown as the universe expands.

A number of scientists compare this discovery by the Smoot team to finding the Holy Grail, even ranking it as one of the major discoveries in the history of science.

Many other researchers will have to confirm independently what the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory astrophysicists have uncovered. Only then can it be written into the gospel of cosmology. But there is good reason to believe Dr. Smoot's results will be supported and that humankind will have gained fascinating new insights into the making of the universe we live in. As Dr. Smoot has said, reaching this far back toward the

beginning of creation is "like looking at God."

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