Theory and Observation Move Cosmology Forward

Theories about the origins of the universe abound. The field of cosmology regularly shifts between favored explanations of our beginnings. The changes come as theories evolve and observations of the universe grow ever-more detailed.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

And Richard Harris joins me now. Thanks very much for being with us.

RICHARD HARRIS: My pleasure.

LYDEN: Richard, the new information about the radiation afterglow - I just love saying those words - radiation afterglow, the Big Bang - it's really mind-boggling, isn't it?

HARRIS: It is, yeah.

LYDEN: And this year's Nobel Laureates, were they able to learn so much more about the universe because they have more sophisticated instruments or because they have, you know, interesting big brains and they made a quantum leap?

HARRIS: Well, it really was the technology that allowed them to do what they did. I mean the idea that there could be interesting things to look at if you could look at this afterglow actually date back quite a while. And the real challenge for them was to figure out how to see it, because this radiation doesn't come through our atmosphere, or very little of it does, and you really want to be in a satellite, which is - or have your instrument in a satellite - which is exactly what they did.

So not only was it a challenge to figure out how to build something in a satellite like that, but then even as they were constructing this satellite, they discovered that the tiny variations they were looking for were likely to be even smaller than they'd thought when they'd started to build the instrument. So midway through building this thing, they had to tear it apart and make it even better, to try to see what they expected what they would - what they hoped they would see.

LYDEN: Were they looking out, if you will - discovering something in the cosmology - or looking in?

HARRIS: They were looking out, and I think your - what your question gets at is the fact that physics really tries to look in both directions, at the biggest possible stuff and at the tiniest possible stuff. And it's by comparing and understanding things on the smallest scale and on the largest scale that physics has generally built a model of understanding how our universe works.

LYDEN: Will this cause a shift in scientific thinking in terms of where to look, if you will, which direction? Will they be building on this and try to find out more about the origin of the universe? I mean, I would want to keep going. I would want to interpret the patterns in the sky.

HARRIS: Sure. There are next generation instruments being built to look even more closely at this material, so yes, there's - the cosmos are providing us incredible new insights into who we are and how we got here and so on.

And it's interesting because 30 years ago everyone was so interested in the atom smashers. These particle accelerators were ramming things together and we were actually doing the experiments and seeing what these tiny atomic fragments looked like and so on.

But really those experiments, for the past 30 years, have been saying the universe is the way we understand it at that scale, and it has not provided any brilliant new insights to that. And we've had this period where cosmology and looking outward has really given us most of our insights into what's happening in our universe.

But there is hope that a next-generation particle accelerator being built in Switzerland right now will actually open up once again that - the view of what's beneath the quarks and so on in the atoms, and that will start giving us answers in a couple of years.

So there's always a tug-of-war between the cosmologists who look out and the particle physicists who look in, and they've taken turns sort of leading the way. The particle physicists are hoping that they can gain a little advantage again after 30 years of ceding leadership, more or less, to the cosmologists.

LYDEN: But is there a limit to what we as human beings can learn, at least in this point in time?

HARRIS: There are always limits, and I think the excitement among scientists is figuring out how you can push those limits farther back. But obviously - I mean what caused the Big Bang has long been considered a question that is not approachable by science, because you can't see what happened before the Big Bang, you can't test any ideas you can have. You can have tons of ideas and - but they become metaphysics as opposed to physics if you can't test them.

But it's been interesting to see over the years and decades and so on that people have been able to move that line about, you know, where the limits of knowledge are, back and back and back. And as Dr. Zee was suggesting, you know, it's possible we could even get a hint about whether there is a creator of our universe, which has always been considered one of the untestable questions.

LYDEN: Really fun talking with you. Thank you so much.

HARRIS: My pleasure.

LYDEN: NPR's Richard Harris is our science correspondent. Thanks again for coming in.

HARRIS: My pleasure.

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