The Big Bang – View from the South Pole

By Stephanie Sunata, Medill Reports

It sits about two miles above sea level on an icy shelf at the most southern part of the globe. It probes microwaves from the farthest points in space. It surveys the southern sky and scientists hope it will help answer some of the universe’s biggest questions.

The South Pole telescope is one of the pivotal tools scientists use to study the universe. It explores the enigmas of dark energy and was the topic of cosmologist John Carlstrom’s recent public presentation at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Carlstrom, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Chicago, uses the South Pole telescope to study the early universe and wants to make his research accessible to everyone.

“If you do your science and never share it, what’s the point?” Carlstrom said.

At the talk Thursday, Carlstrom shared the construction process of the telescope and gave an overview of the mysteries it’s trying to solve to an audience of about 100 people.

The telescope aimed at the heavens from Antarctica focuses on the edge of space where traces remain from when the Big Bang was plasma that radiated visible light, Carlstrom told the audience.

As the universe expanded, these light waves lengthened to microwaves during the 14-billion-light-year trip to reach Earth.

The South Pole telescope detects these microwaves that paint a picture of the early universe. The image contains temperature variations, and when analyzed, create a diminishing harmonic plot.

This is similar to the harmonics of musical instruments. Just as scientists can determine certain characteristics about a violin from plotting its acoustics, they can use the cosmic radiation graph to learn about early space.

“Our universe is ringing like a bell,” Carlstrom said.

The telescope project also analyzes galaxy clusters, which act as a measurement tool in the battle between dark energy and the combination of dark matter and gravity, Carlstrom said.

Dark matter and gravity hold things together, but scientists believe the elusive dark energy pulls things apart. Galaxy clusters are sensitive to these opposing forces.

The clusters act as a rope in the tug-of-war in space. The South Pole telescope looks at this “rope” to see who’s winning and, right now, it’s dark energy, Carlstrom said.

This means the universe is not only expanding, but the expansion rate is accelerating due to dark energy.

“It’s for everyone to appreciate,” Carlstrom said in an interview. “It’s your universe too.”

Representatives from the Chicago Council on Science and Technology, one of the organizations that sponsored the talk, emphasized that part of scientific research means getting the public involved.

One effective way to do this is to hold public talks with scientists, said Andrea Poet, council public relations coordinator. “I think for people to hear about dark energy from a leading expert is exciting,” Poet said.

Attendee Francesca Costa said she enjoyed Carlstrom’s presentation, even though she studied humanities, not science.

Costa said Carlstrom’s ideas were “clear” and “accessible” to a non-scientist and the concepts of cosmic microwaves and dark energy were interesting.

Even if she doesn’t fully understand the science behind all the material, she believes the South Pole telescope project is important, Costa said.

Her husband, Bill Dague, a physics major at University of Chicago, said this research could answer an ages-old question: “How did it all get started?”

“Having an understanding of who we are and where we are is good overall for humanity,” Dague said.

The presentation combined complex scientific data with simple analogies. Carlstrom tailored the speech to appeal to all types of people.

Though the topic of discussion was scientific, the venue was artistic.

Though he didn’t decide on the location, Carlstrom said liked the idea of hosting the talk at an art school because both science and art require creativity.

An exhibit inpsired by the telescope project – created and designed by students at the school – helped exemplify the collaboration between art and science.

Instructor Bo Rodda led the Art Institute class that made the exhibit, which opened at the USA Science and Engineering Festival in Washington, D.C. earlier this year.

“Both artists and scientists are curious about the world,” he said. Each discipline requires a person to make abstract ideas conceivable to the public, he added.

There were multiple pictures of the Antarctic, a touch-screen unit with information about the project and a station where people could put on a coat and boots worn in the freezing landscape.

The art students made the interactive exhibit with children in mind, Rodda said.

About a dozen teenagers attended Thursday’s event, and Carlstrom spoke to some of them individually.

“It’s always really neat when you meet high school kids who are turned on by science,” he said.

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