The current widely-held theory of life, the universe, and everything holds that at some point roughly 13.7 billion years ago everything that now is was packed into a tight little package from which sprung the Big Bang, which violently hurled everything into existence. But 13.7 billion years to get to where we are isn't enough for renowned physicist Sir Roger Penrose, and now he thinks he can prove that things aren't/weren't quite so simple.
The Big Question: Why are galaxies moving toward the same point, as if pulled by an unknown force?
By James Owen WeatherallPosted 10.16.2009 at 9:25 am 13 Comments
As if the universe weren't strange enough, scientists have recently discovered that entire galaxy clusters—the largest known structures in the universe, consisting of thousands of galaxies—are moving toward the same area. And we have no idea what mysterious phenomenon is drawing them along. Whatever it is, it's huge. So far, cosmologists' best guess is that it's the gravitational pull from something beyond the visible universe. NASA scientist Alexander Kashlinsky and a team of researchers discovered the mystery motion, dubbed "dark flow," last year.
Ninety years ago, in a bid to have his equations describe an unchanging universe, Einstein introduced the concept of dark energy, an omnipresent antigravitational force pushing the universe apart. Ten years later, when astronomer Edwin Hubble (later of telescope fame) showed that the universe wasnt static at all, Einstein tried to take it back. But over time, it turned out that dark energy wasnt such a bad idea at all—in 1998, scientists uncovered the first hard evidence that it exists. The only hitch? No one has the slightest idea what causes it.
Hoping to change that, a team of scientists stationed in Antarctica has run a successful test of the South Pole Telescope, a 10-meter-wide behemoth that just might solve the mystery of dark energy. Nine institutions came together to develop the telescope, with the $19.2-million bill picked up primarily by the National Science Foundation. Assembly required pilots from the New York Air National Guard, aircraft from Operation Deep Freeze (the U.S. militarys ongoing mission in Antarctica), and round-the-clock construction since November in the unrelenting cold of one of Earths most hostile climates. Finally, on February 16, the group collected whats known as first light. They aimed the telescope skyward and saw . . . light—and dark, and Jupiter.
When testing is completed, the telescope will be used to detect ripples in the cosmic microwave background that reflect the history of dark energy—how long it has been around, how its strength has changed since the universe began, and so on—all in the name of settling the theoretical cage match that has surrounded one of astrophysics most mind-boggling concepts. Einstein! Hubble! Round one: fight! —Abby Seiff
Yesterdays announcement of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry completed an historic trifecta—American researchers managed to pick up all three science-related Nobel Prizes this year. On Monday, Andrew Z. Fire and Craig C. Mello claimed the Physiology or Medicine prize for their work in RNA interference, explaining how cells can regulate post-transcriptional gene expression (this phenomenon was first noticed—but not understood—in petunias back in the early 1990s). Then physicists John C. Mather and George F. Smoot snagged the Physics prize for finding evidence of the big bang by scouring the cosmic microwave background for telltale irregularities. And rounding out the science prizes, yesterday we heard that Roger D. Kornberg, whose father Arthur won a Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1959, grabbed the Chemistry prize for elucidating how genes are transcribed in eukaryotic cells and determining the physical structure of a key enzyme, RNA polymerase II. Well see how American interests fare for the other three Nobels. (Peace prize, anyone?) —Martha Harbison