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Making It In The Big Time

By Allan Eastman

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Real Universal Time

This is a picture of our neighbour galaxy, in the constellation Andromeda(also designated M31). The galaxy at a distance of 2.25 million light-years consists of 200 billion stars.

This is a picture of our neighboring galaxy, in the constellation Andromeda, also designated M31. The galaxy is at a distance of 2.25 million light-years and consists of about 200 billion stars.

©iStockphoto.com/Manfred_Konrad

As geologists looked inward to define the Earth’s age, Astronomers were looking outward to try to discover the nature and age of the Universe itself. Advances in optics led to better telescopes and observers were amazed to discover that the Universe was far more vast, more complex and stranger than they ever could have imagined.

Our star was found to be part of a galaxy that may contain as many as 400 Billion stars and beyond this, there were myriads of other galaxies, many of them far larger than our own. The development of radio telescopes pushed the outer limits of observation far beyond what could be seen by optical means alone.

In the 1920’s, the Astronomer, Edwin Hubble was studying distant galaxies. He was surprised to learn that the further away a galaxy was, the faster it was receding away from us. This pattern was detected throughout the sky. Hubble had discovered the expanding Universe, which was to affect all thinking about the creation from then on.

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By calibrating the red shift in the light received from the most distant observable galaxies, a time frame for the existence of the Universe began to emerge, numbering Billions of years. But the major breakthrough came in a surprising manner.

In 1965, two young researchers at the Bell Labs in New Jersey, USA were calibrating a new, gigantic communications dish antenna. The men, Robert Wilson and Arno Penzias, were annoyed by a persistent electronic hiss that interfered with reception and threw off their experiments. The interference seemed to come from every quadrant of the sky.

Wilson and Penzias did everything possible to get rid of this static – replacing relays, rewiring circuits, trying various filters, even cleaning the huge dish by hand of its assorted bird droppings – but nothing did the trick. They were baffled and irritated.

Thirty miles away, at Princeton University, a research team under Robert Dicke was searching for the very thing the 2 Bell Labs men were trying to get rid of. In the 1940’s, the Russian Astrophysicist, George Gamow, had suggested that if you looked deep enough into Space, you should be able to find some radiation left over from the Big Bang. Dicke’s team hadn’t read Gamow but they were looking for the same thing.

In frustration at being unable to get rid of the interference, Wilson and Penzias tried calling Princeton to ask if there was anything the researchers there could do to help. They were finally put through to Dicke, who immediately realized that he had been beaten to the punch.

The annoying noise was in fact the residual radiation from the original expansion of the Universe, in a bubble out some 150 Billion Trillion kilometers away at the apparent edges of the Universe. This fortunate accident allowed the origin of the Universe to be dated to about 13.7 Billion years ago. This dating has since been largely verified by the observation of the decay of Uranium-238 in the oldest stars.

Wilson and Penzias were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1978 for their discovery, a very ironic award in the sense that they weren’t even looking for what they found and all their efforts had been devoted to trying to get rid of it.

And by the way, if you tune your television to a channel that is only transmitting “snow” or static, about 1% of the electronic noise you are seeing is this same radiation from the Big Bang. So, if you ever get tired of watching old Sopranos reruns or some dumb game show on TV, you can always sit back and watch the creation of the Universe for a while.

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