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Backing up The Big Bang

September 17, 2009
by Erik Vance
George Fitzgerald Smoot III Image source: Roy Kaltschmidt/LBNL

IMPACT: A Brief History of Time author Stephen Hawking called the results of Smoot and Mather’s three-year COBE satellite mission “the greatest discovery of the century, if not of all time.” The satellite, conceived independently by the two while both were at Berkeley, substantiated a prediction that the universe, at its edges, has stripes left over from just after the Big Bang. “They are like tooling marks from the manufacture of the universe,” says Smoot. “These little tooling marks—things that you would normally not notice—after billions of years turn into the structures we actually see with our telescopes.” Smoot may also be a runner-up as one of the most often-quoted scientists on religious websites after he enthusiastically said of his discovery, “If you’re religious, it’s like seeing God.” Fourteen years later he is still explaining that he meant this metaphorically.

EUREKA MOMENT: Once the data from COBE was sent to Earth, Smoot analyzed it for years before he could be sure he’d found his ripples. The night he was, Smoot says, “I was out really late. But I didn’t care. It was sort of like I was sliding down the hill on air. It was clear. Everything made sense.”

From the January February 2007 25 Brilliant California Ideas issue of California.

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