COBE and after…
An item on the BBC website yesterday reminds me that it is twenty years since the announcement, in April 1992, of the discovery of temperature variations across the sky in the cosmic microwave background radiation by the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE). Was it really so long ago?
At the time the announcement was made as I actually in the USA. In fact, I was at the University of Kansas for about a month working on this paper with Adrian Melott and Sergei Shandarin, which eventually came out early in 1993. I remember it very well because we started the project, did all the calculations and wrote up the paper within the short time I was there. Oh what it is to be a postdoc, having only research to think about and none of the other distractions that come with more senior positions.
Anyway, the COBE announcement hit the news while I was there and it got a lot of press coverage. I even did a TV interview myself, for a local cable news channel. Nor surprisingly, they were pretty clueless about the physics of the cosmic microwave background; what had drawn them to the story was George Smoot’s comment that seeing the pattern of fluctuations was “like seeing the face of God”. They were disappointed when I answered their questions about God with “I don’t know, I’m an atheist”.
I didn’t know at the time that the way the announcement of the COBE discovery was handled had caused such ructions. Apparently George Smoot let his enthusiasm get the better of him, broke ranks with the rest of the COBE team, and did his own press conference which led to accusations that he was trying to steal the limelight and a big falling-out between Smoot and other members of the team, especially John Mather. It’s unfortunate that this cast a shadow over what was undoubtedly one of the most important science discoveries of the twentieth century. Without COBE there would have been no WMAP and no Planck, and our understanding of the early Universe and the formation of galaxies and large-scale structure would still be in the dark ages.
As a lowly postdoc at the time, living a hand-to-mouth existence on short-term contracts, I didn’t realise that I would still be working in cosmology twenty years later, let alone become a Professor. Nor could I have predicted how much cosmology would change over the next two decades. Most of all, though, I never even imagined that I’d find myself travelling to Stockholm as a guest of the Nobel Foundation to attend the ceremony and banquet at which the 2006 Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded to George Smoot and John Mather for the COBE discovery. It was a wonderful one-in-a-lifetime experience, made all the nicer because Smoot and Mather seemed to have made peace at last.
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