Magazine article Science News

COBE Causes Big Bang in Cosmology

Magazine article Science News

COBE Causes Big Bang in Cosmology

Article excerpt

After searching for nearly three decades, scientiests have uncovered evidence that may solve one of cosmology's oldest riddles: How did primordial matter evolve into the stars, galaxies and galactic clusters we see today?

Instruments on NASA's Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) satellite have picked up temperature fluctuations in the cosmic microwage background, the ubiuitous energy left over from the creation of the universe. The fluctuations represent tiny gravitational ripples -- variations in the density of matter. "This is like looking at the invisible man and seeing the footprints," says COBE scientist George F. Smoot of the University of California, Berkeley.

Cosmologists believe these ripples unbalanced the primordial universe enough to cause matter to begin lumping together and, after 15 billion years, evolve into the cosmic structures found today. Smoot's team announced its findings last week at an American Physical Society meeting in Washington, D.C.

"It's the missing link," says cosmologist Joseph Silk of the University of California, Berkeley. "The lack of fluctuations has been a major obstacle in having many people accept not just [theories of] galaxy formation but the basic premises of the Big Bang."

In its simplest form, the Big Bang theory predicts that the cosmic microwave background will have a perfectly uniform temperature. Soon after COBE's launch in 1989, the satellite's preliminary measurements indicated that the microwave background was a perfectly smooth 2.73 kelvins (SN: 1/20/90, p.36), which fit with the basic Big Bang theory. Still, this finding puzzled cosmologists because a smooth primordial universe, they believed, couldn't have evolved so quickly into the galaxies and galactic clusters visible today. …

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