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Eureka!

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Published Jan 1, 2007 8:00 AM


19. A Wrinkle in Time/Space

What: The COBE satellite, which corroborated the Big Bang theory of the universe's origins

Who: Scientists George Smoot and John Mather

Impact: Stephen Hawking, author of A Brief History of Time, called the results of the COBE satellite mission "the greatest discovery of the century, if not of all time." The satellite (its name stands for Cosmic Background Explorer), conceived independently by Mather and Smoot while they were at Berkeley and launched in 1989, substantiated a prediction that the universe, at its edges, has stripes — space-time ripples — left over from just after the Big Bang. "They are like tooling marks … of the universe," says Smoot. "These little tooling marks — things that you would normally not notice — after billions of years turn into the structures we actually see with our telescopes." According to the Nobel Prize committee, which awarded the duo a Nobel in 2006, "the COBE project can also be regarded as the starting point for cosmology as a precision science." Smoot may also be a runner-up as one of the most oft-quoted scientists on religious Web sites after he enthusiastically said of his discovery, "If you're religious, it's like seeing God." More than a decade later, he is still explaining that he meant this metaphorically.

Eureka moment: Once the data from COBE was sent to Earth, Smoot analyzed it for years before he could be sure he'd found his ripples. After generating an analysis that seemed to work, he had a graduate student duplicate it to see if they matched. At one in the morning, the student slipped the results under his door. "I was out really late. But I didn't care. It was sort of like I was sliding down the hill on air. It was clear. Everything made sense."

— Erik Vance

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