Imagine looking back in time--no, not flipping through old high school yearbooks--but really, studying the history of our universe as it was 13.7 billion years ago. Epic? No doubt. Possible? Absolutely.
I sat down with Dr. Mather to get a better understanding of how he did it and what he discovered.
Click the link below and watch the video above to hear what he had to say. And don't forget to tell me what you have to say by leaving a comment at the bottom of the page. Come on, talk nerdy to me!
JOHN MATHER: Astronomers are the only professionals who really spend their lives looking back in time. We see the universe as it was when it sent light to us, and I think it’s a fascinating story because we really can see the history laid out in front of us. Just by looking at things that are far away you see them as they were when they sent light to you, and so you can look at things almost 13.7 billion light years away and see almost 13.7 billion light years back in time.
CARA SANTA MARIA: Hi everybody. Cara Santa Maria here. And that's Dr. John Mather. He's a senior astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. He's also the project scientist on the James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled for launch in 2018. And in 2006, along with George Smoot, John was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for his work on cosmic microwave background radiation.
JM: Cosmic microwave background radiation is actually thought to be the remnant of the heat of the primordial explosion of the universe. So it appears to us as 2.7 degrees Kelvin, 2.7 degrees above absolute zero, heat. So that doesn’t sound very hot to us but of course it’s the remnant of trillions of degrees that we imagine happened in the very earliest times of the universe. So we’re able to measure it because it comes to us from all directions in the sky, that’s how we know that it's cosmic, and we have microwave equipment that’s been able to pick it up. It was discovered in 1965, and then of course everybody tried to measure it better. So we got our Nobel Prize in 2006 for measuring it really, really, really well.
CSM: And exactly how did they measure it really, really, really well? Well, I'll let him explain that.
JM: We put up a satellite called the Cosmic Background Explorer. It was a satellite with three instruments to measure this primordial radiation. So one was to tell what color is the radiation, to spread it out in a spectrum and measure the brightness at each different wavelength. And one was to make a map, see if it’s equally bright in all directions. So it really is very close to equally bright in all directions but not quite. So that was the wonderful scientific discovery that we made, which was that there are a lot of, there are hot and cold spots in the big bang itself.
CSM: So, the big bang wasn't uniform. The implications of this discovery are huge, hence the Nobel Prize.
JM: Some of the material is a little denser than other material. And when we made our map that showed those hot and cold spots, Stephen Hawking said "that’s the most important scientific discovery of the century if not of all time." I thought, "Well Stephen that’s really very nice of you to say so." It took me awhile to absorb why he would say that. So now we know that those spots are responsible for our existence. If those spots had not been present in the big bang, we could not exist because there would not have been the gravitational forces necessary to cause stars and galaxies to form out of the primordial material. So now we have a map of the reasons for our own existence and I think that’s pretty cool.
CSM: Scientists can directly observe the universe as it existed 380,000 years after the big bang. But for those first 380,000 years, the universe was so hot, all of the matter it contained was ionized into plasma, which is opaque. It didn't emit the radiation necessary for us to see it today. But through other techniques, scientists have a pretty good idea of what the universe looked like when it was only one year old. And before that cosmic birth, which we call the big bang? Well...
JM: We can not measure the time before time. People very loosely talk about the time before time, but physics has not observed the time before time. We don’t even know if the words mean anything. All we’re able to do is see how material transforms and changes from one state into another. So we see this radiation, we see other evidence of the early universe. We do not see the time before time. So from my perspective, the universe has always existed. The only curious thing is the clock has only ticked 13.7 billion years so far. But we’re not able to see past the beginning. We don’t even know if there is past the beginning.
CSM: What we do know is that we are star stuff. The particles that make up our bodies were formed in cosmic furnaces of the earliest stars in the universe. And that very star stuff was recycled again and again until one day it organized to become the earth and all the life that inhabits it.
JM: So the sun and the earth are only one-third as old as the whole universe. And so this is how we’re recycled. So not only is the material recycled, of course we’re also breathing dinosaur breath, drinking dinosaur piss, and everything on earth is completely recycled. And then of course that leads onto the question of what's going to happen next, which is just as fascinating and just as challenging and perhaps impossible to know.
CSM: What do you think is going to happen next? Reach out to me on Twitter, Facebook, or leave your comments right here on The Huffington Post. Come on, talk nerdy to me!