Master of Hi Universe: George Ellis Is One of a Handful of Scientists Whose Minds Have Soared into the Speculative Stratosphere of the Cosmos, Not Only Asking Where It All Came from, but Actually Conceiving Answers. and While One Foot Is Planted in the Heavens, the Other Is Firmly Rooted in the Earth-Specifically, His Native South Africa

By Wax, Heather; Shaw, Gerald | Science & Spirit, January-February 2005 | Go to article overview

Master of Hi Universe: George Ellis Is One of a Handful of Scientists Whose Minds Have Soared into the Speculative Stratosphere of the Cosmos, Not Only Asking Where It All Came from, but Actually Conceiving Answers. and While One Foot Is Planted in the Heavens, the Other Is Firmly Rooted in the Earth-Specifically, His Native South Africa


Wax, Heather, Shaw, Gerald, Science & Spirit


Once upon a time, the universe was largely unknown and its secretive scope unimaginable. The earliest stargazers knew nothing about how the lights that draped the night sky gathered into galaxies, or that these galaxies swam in a sea of microwaves. The ancient Greeks, who first ordered the world, saw cosmology as the study of man's place in the hierarchy of creation, and so they didn't try to reveal anything new about the structure of the world around them, happy instead to believe themselves as the center. Fearing the unknown, facts were left disconnected, and the universe remained a mystery.

Today, cosmology's disordered past is a fading memory. With telescopes, satellites, and computers have come over-sized characters, looming large in the tidy world of academics. There is renowned Cambridge physicist John Barrow, who has delivered lectures on cosmology at the Venice Film Festival and Windsor Castle. There is Sir Martin Rees, the United Kingdom's Astronomer Royal who was knighted in 1992. And there is Stephen Hawking, a wheelchair-bound man believed to be the most brilliant mind in modern physics. These are the field's bright lights, its star-power personalities.

But sometimes, resilience matters as much as wattage. And so it was that on a night nearly half a dozen years ago, cosmologists from all over the world gathered for a banquet in honor of University of Cape Town mathematics professor George Ellis. Their motivations ranged from appreciation of the ritual to affirming the vigorous state of cosmology to offering best wishes on the occasion of Ellis' sixtieth birthday. The crowd listened to lectures by Barrow and Sir Roger Penrose, the recently retired Oxford University mathematics professor. The mayor of Cape Town, who doesn't typically make appearances at physics conferences, showed up at this meeting, held by the South African Relativity Society. But in a galaxy of luminaries, Ellis was the unquestioned star.

For more than forty years, Ellis has studied space and time and relativity. At Cambridge University, where he earned a doctorate in applied mathematics and theoretical physics in the 1960s, he was the first research student of Dennis Sciama, who also supervised Barrow, Rees, and Hawking. Then, at the age of thirty-four, he left what he calls "the main scenes of action" to return to his native South Africa--specifically the University of Cape Town. The school's well-regarded reputation notwithstanding, more than a few saw it as a step backward.

In the legend of one of the greatest living cosmologists, this is the surprising subplot, the twist that long ago took the tale in another direction. Now sixty-five, Ellis' life story is the classic bildungsroman--a story of initiation and self-formation. In a movie trailer, the voice-over might begin like this: "A young man, on the verge of fame at one of the world's leading scientific institutions, sacrifices greater potential glory for the love of country and the pursuit of justice." Then the lights would fade, and the highlight reel would begin.

It was only two years ago that scientists, using NASA's Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP), completed a twelve-month observation of the entire sky and emerged with a stunningly detailed picture of the afterglow of the big bang. "We've captured the infant universe in sharp focus, and from this portrait we can now describe the universe with unprecedented accuracy," Charles L. Bennett, of the Goddard Space Flight Center and the WMAP principal investigator, announced at the time.

To a layman, the image looks less precise than aesthetic--a mix of the spectrum from red, through bright yellow, sea green, to dark blue. In fact, the color differences show temperature fluctuations, patterns that encode explanations for the age and geometry of the universe and represent the seeds of galaxies. According to Anne Kinney, NASA director for astronomy and physics, it was "a true turning point for cosmology. …

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Master of Hi Universe: George Ellis Is One of a Handful of Scientists Whose Minds Have Soared into the Speculative Stratosphere of the Cosmos, Not Only Asking Where It All Came from, but Actually Conceiving Answers. and While One Foot Is Planted in the Heavens, the Other Is Firmly Rooted in the Earth-Specifically, His Native South Africa
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