Interview of the Week
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INTERVIEW OF THE WEEK

George F. Smoot, Ph.D., head of the NASA COBE satellite team that first detected “cosmic seeds” for our universe.


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.... there are very tiny imperfections. They're a part in a hundred thousand imperfections, but they're what lead—

FRED:

One part in a hundred thousand?

SMOOT:

One part in a hundred thousand. And they're what lead to the things that are really interesting in the universe: the stars, the galaxies, the clusters of galaxies, and the people. You know, without them, the universe would be a very dull place.


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SMOOT:

... there's an incredible number of these parameters, these twenty or twenty-five parameters, that all look in some sense finely tuned, sometimes extremely precisely tuned, sometimes [there's] a band out of a possible band like this, but when you start multiplying all the probabilities together, you find it's extremely unlikely that it's a random kind of chance, just like it's extremely unlikely that someone had my particular genes.


For this interview, Day Star’s president, Fred Heeren, visited astrophysicist George Smoot at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in Berkeley, California.

Note from Fred Heeren:

The discovery of the predicted cosmic background radiation was the piece of evidence that finally turned the scientific consensus to the big bang theory in the 1960s. The discovery of the predicted “ripples” in that radiation in the 1990s made the creation event still more inescapable. The ripples had to be there at some level, if the superclustering of galaxies had their “seeds” planted at the very beginning. The discoverer of these cosmic seeds, George Smoot, made international headlines in 1992 when he said “If you’re religious, it’s like looking at God.” I visited him at Berkeley Lab to find out if these wrinkles might be another example of the universe’s fine-tuning at the beginning. Here’s a portion of our conversation:

SMOOT: What we see is what we call the afterglow of creation, that is, the radiation that we think is light from the very early universe. But because the universe is expanding, it's stretched this light from where we can see it, visibly, down into the region which is the same part of the spectrum as a microwave oven, or slightly shorter wavelengths. ... So we think this radiation represents what was going on in the universe in the first few minutes, the first hours, up to the first few hundred thousand years, and we're seeing it nearly fifteen billion years later.

HEEREN: Tell us what the wrinkles are in this radiation and why you've been hunting them all these years.

SMOOT: Well, when I started out, we knew there had to be wrinkles 'cause we knew there were galaxies out there and we assumed that there had to be tiny seeds in the early universe from which the galaxies grew by gravitational attraction.... So we already assumed that that must be the case, and it wasn't until we were doing experiments later on that we started getting deeper and deeper limits, and started to realize that it wasn't, those seeds weren't there, and that was one of the reasons that the people who didn't really want the big bang to be the right theory, started criticizing the big bang theory, started saying, "This is a reason for the big bang theory not to be valid." And so suddenly from being something that we thought might be just little pock marks everywhere, it became our quest, to find these seeds of the early universe, to show that the big bang theory was on the right track. And fortunately we did find them.

HEEREN: Tell us what your latest data from the end of the COBE satellite's measurements are showing you.

SMOOT: Now we've added two years of data, and the evidence became more clear, and then four years of data, and the pattern became much clearer, and so I have some pictures so I can show you that, show you the patterns that we see. And so the first thing you see is the dipole anisotropy—that is, two poles, one that's warm, one that's cool, by about a part in a thousand.

photo of Dr. Smoot holding chart

HEEREN: Because we're being—our whole galaxy is being—

SMOOT: It's like driving in a car—yes, that's right—it's like driving a car. The rain, it hits the front windshield harder than the back windshield, and that's what's happening with the radiation. And it is because our galaxy is being pulled by another group of galaxies, called the Great Attractor, that's pulling our whole group of galaxies with it, but if you, if you remove our motion and look to see what picture you see, you see the plane of the galaxy, but you also see the ripples beginning to show—

HEEREN: So this is the Milky Way across the center here, and these other objects outside are beginning to show some ...

SMOOT: Their patterns that show what the early universe looked like.... And as we've gotten more and better data, our signal-to-noise is improved and our ability to take out the galaxy have improved. And so, this shows what the universe looks like after four years of data, where you can see the hot and the cold spots....

HEEREN: Has anyone ever tried to use this as a Rorschach inkblot test? It kind of reminds me of a really greasy Big Mac—that first one there, you know, and here the next one, after four years of data, now we have all the little speckles. It's beginning to look more like a tossed salad. Much healthier for us.

SMOOT: You're the, the first one to, to point that out. I've heard this looks like a yin-yang symbol, and this looks like a cosmic egg, and so you're the first with the dietary aspect.

HEEREN: And when I say it’s much more healthy for us, that's the relevance to us, right? If the universe hadn't started with these little ripples, that wouldn't have been healthy for us. We wouldn't be here.

SMOOT: That's right. And so in fact, we, we think now, and whatever our views of how the universe was formed, that those tiny ripples are actually the ripples that were created when the universe itself was created. .... There are very tiny imperfections. They're a part in a hundred thousand imperfections, but they're what we need—

HEEREN: One part in a hundred thousand?

SMOOT: One part in a hundred thousand. And they're what lead to the things that are really interesting in the universe: the stars, the galaxies, the clusters of galaxies, and the people. You know, without them, the universe would be a very dull place.

HEEREN: So had this not been, uh, tuned this way, to one part in a hundred thousand, if it had been much larger ripples or much tinier ripples, would that—what kind of effect would that have on the universe?

SMOOT: If they'd been much larger, it's likely the universe would be dominated by large lumps of material—it may have turned into black holes—and had they been much smaller, the universe would have expanded so rapidly that the seeds wouldn't have had time to grow, they just keep going apart, and then the universe just gets [to be] thin soup.

HEEREN: I spoke with astronomer Allan Sandage when I came into Los Angeles last week, and he said, "We can't understand the universe in any clear way without the supernatural." Do you have any idea what could have given him cause to say a thing like that?"

SMOOT: Well, it's what I say, when you look at the universe, it—, there are so many things about it that fit together so beautifully and so spectacularly, and just have to be the way they are, in order for the universe to be interesting, that is, to develop this complexity, and yet, you see no fundamental reason why it has to be that way. And so, you, you begin to marvel at the, at the incredible beauty and the incredible, uh, way everything fits together so neatly and works out so, so, so neatly, and so, it's very tempting to think that somebody designed it and had a plan, that was really quite spectacular, but you just have to wait and see how things develop, to, till you know whether that's something that you should believe in the supernatural or not.


Later in our conversation, Dr. Smoot put the tuning of the cosmic ripples into perspective with the many other cosmic fine-tunings:

SMOOT: There are an incredible number of these parameters, these twenty or twenty-five parameters, that all look in some sense finely tuned, sometimes extremely precisely tuned, sometimes [there's] a band out of a possible band like this, but when you start multiplying all the probabilities together, you find it's extremely unlikely that it's a random kind of chance, just like it's extremely unlikely that someone had my particular genes.


You'll find the whole history of these twentieth century cosmological discoveries, and the bigger implications for everyday life, in Day Star's new book, Show Me God.

DAY STAR’S DISCUSSION KICKER OF THE WEEK:

Are the cosmic ripples (that eventually grew into superclusters of galaxies—and us) an example of cosmic fine-tuning? What about the other evidences of the universe’s fine-tuning at the beginning—these twenty or more parameter? If the probability that all of these parameters would be met by random chance is “extremely unlikely,” then what are the implications for us? Is this the kind of thing that should change our lives—or is it merely interesting as a cosmological puzzle?
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