It won’t make you richer. It won’t organize your calendar. It probably has no practical application whatsoever. But the scientific discovery announced on March 17th is one of the great discoveries of the new century, and virtually certain to result in a Nobel Prize. (Appropriate note of caution: assuming this is confirmed and stands up to peer review.) Here is a link to an article by Dennis Overbye, the long-time science writer for the New York Times.
In the question-and-answer format that follows, I’ll try to explain what the new discovery reveals and what was actually discovered. I hope it will neither annoy those who really, really know this stuff nor blow away those whose last science course was in high school! Get comfortable and settle back, because this will take a while. Maybe set aside two sessions.
What exactly was discovered?
Patterns in the polarization of radiation from the cosmic microwave background (CMB). Yeah, I know—geek talk. Let’s try and break that down to standard English.
In the early 1960s, two competing cosmological theories stood on roughly equal ground. Steady State theory acknowledged the expansion of the universe that had been detected decades earlier, but it still maintained that the overall universe did not change with time. “Continuous creation” filled in the gaps left by universal expansion; the universe billions of years ago and billions of years from now would not look any different over galactic scales of distance.
The competing Big Bang theory discarded the idea of continuous creation, and asserted that the expansion meant that the average separation between galaxies would be greater five billion years from now than it is now. More to the point, the theory “ran the clock backward” to a hot early universe that was much smaller than today’s. The average separation of galaxies would increase over time.
A successful scientific theory is one that makes testable predictions. A hot early universe would have cooled as it expanded, not by radiating heat away like a coffee cup, because there is nothing to radiate it away to–there is no “away”. You just have the same amount of energy distributed throughout a much larger universe. A universe with an average temperature of 3000 K expands by a factor of 1000, and its average temperature becomes 3 K.