STOCKHOLM: A pioneering space mission that helped back the Big Bang theory for the origin of the universe has won American scientists John Mather and George Smoot the Nobel Prize for Physics.
The pair were the key minds behind a mission by the U.S. space agency NASA to measure the aftershock of the cataclysmic explosion that occurred some 13.7 billion years ago and gave birth to the cosmos.
The unmanned spacecraft, the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) satellite, not only gave flesh to the skeletal notion of the Big Bang, which had developed in academic circles in the late 1940s, but also offered clues as to how and when the first galaxies came into being.
The renowned British physicist Stephen Hawking has called the results from COBE, “the greatest discovery of the century, if not all times.” And according to the nobel jury’s citation, “These measurements … marked the inception of cosmology as a precise science.”
Mather, 60, is a senior astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, and Smoot, 61, is an astrophysicist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, and a professor of physics at the University of California in Berkeley.
Mather was lauded for his work on so-called blackbody radiation – a telltale pattern in the energy spectrum which comes from a body that is cooling down.
At its birth, the Universe had a temperature of 3,000 degrees Celsius. Since then, according to the Big Bang theory, the radiation has gradually cooled as the Universe has expanded.
This so-called cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation – the shockwave of energy that issued from the blast and is still radiating across the expanding skies as limits of the Universe are pushed back – is barely 2.7 degrees above absolute zero, which is minus 273 degrees Celsius.
COBE was launched in November 1989. The first results were received after nine minutes of observations, providing “a perfect blackbody spectrum.” In other words, a temperature profile of the Universe that had been predicted for that point after the Big Bang, the Nobel panel said.
When the curve was later shown at an astronomy conference, the results received a standing ovation. “There really is not a good alternative explanation for having such a perfect black body spectrum. Many people looked, but no good explanation was found, so the Big Bang theory is confirmed by that spectrum,” Mather said.
Smoot’s prize was for measuring tiny variations in the temperature of this radiation, thus proving the direction of the force of the Big Bang and the still-continuing expansion of the Universe.
These temperature differences also amount to fingerprints for cosmic sleuths, as they are the thresholds at which the matter in the infant Universe comes together. Without this aggregation, nothing in today’s Universe – the galaxies, stars, life itself – would exist.
Smoot, who as a child loved to read science fiction, said he was so surprised to receive a phone call from the prize committee telling him he had won the prestigious award that he had to check the Nobel Prize website.
“I got up and checked the website to make sure that it was real,” he said, adding that he was “quite pleased and excited”.
“It’s a great honour and recognises the work of the whole COBE team,” Smoot said.
The award represents a de-facto award for a space mission, the first time this has happened in the history of the Nobel Prize. More than a thousand researchers and engineers worked on the COBE project, which Mather also coordinated.
The two laureates will each receive a gold medal and a diploma and will share a cheque for 10 million Swedish kronor (A$1.84 million) at the formal prize ceremony held, as tradition dictates, on December 10 – the anniversary of the death in 1896 of the prize’s creator Alfred Nobel.
The Nobel prizes were first awarded in 1901.
On Monday, the Medicine Prize went to U.S. research duo Andrew Fire and Craig Mello for their discovery of how to silence malfunctioning genes, a breakthrough which could lead to an era of new therapies to reverse crippling diseases.
The prize for chemistry will be announced tomorrow, to be followed over the next 10 days by the awards for economics, literature and peace.
Winning the Nobel Prize can happen even to pig wrestlers. Find out more.