“Recycling the Big Bang” (A Weekend Feature)


Life might be relatively frequent in our neighborhood of the Milky Way, if the presence of the basic building blocks needed for synthesis is taken as evidence. Not only were our heavy atoms (carbon and nitrogen for example) made in ancient supernovas, but the ingredients for our multi-atomic genetic molecules ride the winds that blow between the stars, says John C. Mather, a Senior Astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and Nobel Laureate, about the creation of the universe and the re-cycling of star matter to create the human species.

Dr. Mather and the COBE team showed that the cosmic microwave background radiation has a blackbody spectrum within 50 parts per million (ppm), confirming the Big Bang theory to extraordinary accuracy. As winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize for Physics, Dr. Mather shares the prize with George F. Smoot of the University of California for their work using the COBE satellite to measure the heat radiation from the Big Bang.

Using data collected from the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) satellite in 1990, Mather showed that the blackbody emission spectrum exactly fit the predictions of the big bang theory. COBE also measured hot spots in the universe, which are thought to be remnants of the original primordial material.

Mather said at a recent talk at Princeton University that "Our story is that gravity has been reaching across space to stop the expansion of material and slowed things down and so a dense region of early material stopped expanding, turned around, collapsed, and made galaxies and stars. You're here because gravity is acting on that primordial structure. Something was not exactly smooth in the big bang material."

Mather explained that this allowed stars to burn and then explode, ultimately creating life.

"About half the atoms in your body are primeval, they came from the big bang. These are hydrogen atoms. The other atoms "" carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, calcium, sulfur, whatever it might take to make your body work "" those were not there at the big bang, that's material that had to be manufactured by generations of stars which then blew up. So we are all made of recycled material."

In this way, Mather said, cosmology is something everyone thinks about.

"You think about cosmology every morning," he said. "You look in the mirror and you comb your hair and put everything into place. You could be thinking, where did those atoms come from?"  Well, some are from recycled stars.

Casey Kazan 



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