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Americans have won The Nobel Prize in Physics. John Mather and George Smoot lead a project to measure the afterglow of the big bang with instruments on a satellite. The work provided strong evidence that the universe popped into existence in a big bang, and the project discovered what scientists think are the seeds that grew into clusters of galaxies.
NPR's David Kestenbaum reports.
DAVID KESTENBAUM: It's often pointed out that part of the static you see on an old TV set is actually electronic noise produced by the big bang over 13 billion years ago. The physicists who discovered that won the Nobel Prize in 1978.
This year, the prize goes to two scientists who led an effort to study that static with a satellite. The satellite was called COBE, for Cosmic Background Explorer. It took over a decade to get off the ground. The Challenger Space Shuttle accident put shuttle flights on hold. Eventually, in 1989, the satellite rode to orbit on a rocket.
Dr. GEORGE SMOOT (Winner, Nobel Prize in Physics): It was an extraordinary time. I mean, it was the most exciting time in my life.
KESTENBAUM: George Smoot is a physicist at the University of California Berkeley, and now a Nobel Laureate. He says one of COBE's goals was to look for hot and cold spots, places in the sky where the static coming from the big bang was slightly warmer or cooler. Smoot says the differences turned out to be miniscule, about one thousandth of a percent.
Dr. SMOOT: Which is much smoother than a billiard ball. But those tiny variations, those are the things that, under the influence of gravity over billions of years, turn into galaxies and the stars and the planets and so forth.
KESTENBAUM: The satellite data produced a map of the sky. It looked like a Jackson Polluck painting - red and blue splotches. Smoot saw something grander.
Dr. SMOOT: You know, people were asking me, well, how important is this discovery? What's it like? And I said, if you're a religious person, it's like seeing God. It's like seeing direct evidence of the creation.
KESTENBAUM: The experiment also gave solid evidence that a big bang created the universe. John Mather oversaw the COBE project. He's an astronomer at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and will share the Nobel Prize.
Dr. JOHN MATHER (Winner, Nobel Prize in Physics): I never had much doubt in the big bang theory, but there were still plenty of people who did.
KESTENBAUM: Mather presented the experiment's first results just weeks after the satellite left the launch pad. The graph looked perfect, just as expected from a big bang.
Dr. MATHER: I got a standing ovation for that, which was completely shocking. I was overwhelmed. I had no idea how much this was important to people.
KESTENBAUM: And after COBE came a string of ambitious new projects, dedicated to measuring the afterglow of the big bang. Mike Turner is a cosmologist at the University of Chicago.
Dr. MIKE TURNER (Cosmologist, University of Chicago): Experiments since then have told us that we live in a universe that's un-curved, that is 13.7 - plus or minus .2 - billion years old, have told us about the composition of the universe, and we're not done.
KESTENBAUM: Turner says the COBE project proved that yes, the huge questions about the universe could actually be answered scientifically.
Dr. TURNER: The great Russian physicist Lev Landow said cosmologists - often in error and never in doubt. And when COBE came along, I think that just turned it around, and now the words precision cosmology are not considered to be an oxymoron. Not only did it enable all kinds of science, but I think it got us respect.
KESTENBAUM: George Smoot and John Mather will share a famous symbol of respect, the Nobel Prize, but they have not always seen eye to eye over who should be in the limelight. Some astronomers had wondered if the infighting would derail the chance for a Nobel Prize, all of which raises a question about the Nobel Prize. Does it inspire great discoveries or great bickering? One astronomer says the answer is probably a bit of both.
David Kestenbaum, NPR News.