Nobel Prize Talks: George F. Smoot
How big is the universe? And how do you stay grounded when working in the mind-bending field of cosmology? These are questions for George Smoot, awarded the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics for his explorations of the remnants of the first light emitted by the expanding universe. In this conversation he also talks about how science today is a truly global enterprise, and explains how he ended-up pitting his wits against 10-year-olds in the television game show ‘Are you smarter than a fifth grader?’.
Interview with the 2006 Nobel Laureate in Physics, George F. Smoot, at the 58th Meeting of Nobel Laureates in Lindau, Germany, 3 July 2008. The interviewer is Adam Smith, Editor-in-Chief of Nobelprize.org.
George Smoot talks about the tremendous impact the Nobel Prize has had on his life and career, the influence of his parents in nurturing his natural curiosity (4:23), his early interest in cosmic microwave background radiation (8:43), the key questions that have dominated his research (12:51), why he always works on two or three projects at once (16:58), his advice to students starting out in research (22:20), why the challenge of piecing together what happened in the early universe can be likened to crime scene investigations (33:52), how cosmology research is blossoming (44:38), and the questions that young people entering the field should be asking (47:34).
Interview with the 2006 Nobel Laureates in Physics, John C. Mather and George F. Smoot, 6 December 2006. The interviewer is Adam Smith, Editor-in-Chief of Nobelprize.org.
The Nobel Laureates of 2006 met at the Bernadotte Library in Stockholm, 9 December 2006, for the traditional round-table discussion and TV show ‘Nobel Minds’. The show was hosted by Sarah Montague, a presenter on the BBC ‘Today’ programme. The Laureates discuss their achievements, their inspiration and motivation, and also answer questions e-mailed by visitors to BBC.com and Nobelprize.org.
Telephone interview with Professor George F. Smoot immediately following the announcement of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics, 3 October 2006. The interviewer is Adam Smith, Editor-in-Chief of Nobelprize.org.
[George Smoot] – Hello.
[Adam Smith] – Good morning, I’m sorry to call so early, may I speak to Professor Smoot please?
[GS] – Speaking.
[AS] – Oh, hello, my name’s Adam Smith. I’m calling from the official website of the Nobel Foundation. We have …
[GS] – The which?
[AS] – The official website of the Nobel Foundation.
[GS] – Oh, I see, OK.
[AS] – We have a tradition of recording brief telephone interviews with Laureates shortly after they’ve won. Well, first of all, many, many congratulations. Presumably you were asleep when they called you, since you’re in California?
[GS] – Yes, because it was still before three o’clock in the morning.
[AS] – So, did you manage to get back to bed or have you been up since then?
[GS] – Unfortunately I’ve been up since then because people have been calling ever since.
[AS] – I’m sure, you must be exhausted. So just a few questions. You’ve been awarded the prize particularly for your painstaking work revealing that the cosmic background radiation …
[GS] – Right, co-awarded it with John Mather.
[AS] – Exactly, and indeed we spoke to Professor Mather a little earlier. But your part was particularly revealing that the background radiation contains these minute variations which are the whispers of earlier galaxies – of the earliest galaxies.
[GS] – Right, and actually galaxies and also clusters of galaxies and even larger scale structures.
[AS] – And what time are we looking back to when we observe these?
[GS] – We’re looking back to a time which is between 300,000 and 400,000 years after the Big Bang, which seems like a long time, but we’re, you know, 15 billion years, 14 billion years after the Big Bang now. So, in human terms the analogy I usually give is that it’s like looking at an embryo that’s a few hours old. That’s how far back we’re looking, in terms of – you know, putting the universe in human terms.
[AS] – It’s a very vivid analogy, yes. They were predicted to exist, these variations or anisotropies?
[GS] – Actually they were predicted to exist. They were predicted to exist at a level – in the percent level, and then at the tenth of a percent level, and then at the hundredth of a percent level, and they had to exist by the part in ten thousand that we found them. Because otherwise we’d have to have a whole new model of how the universe was put together, which was always possible, but did not turn out to be the case.
[AS] – Right. And you just needed to get up into space to actually be able to observe them?
[GS] – Right. We not only had to wait to get into space, we actually had to improve – we had a delay because of the shuttle disaster and during that time I was able to convince NASA headquarters to give us additional time and funds to improve the receiver quality so that we could actually detect it.
[AS] – So the delay worked in one’s favour a little bit. And I once heard that you offered a plane ticket to anywhere in the world for anyone who could find a mistake in your data. Is that true, and was it just a clever strategy to get rid of annoying people?
[GS] – No, that was a strategy – the problem was that once we discovered it, you know, your job as a scientist and my job as the leader of the team was to make sure that there wasn’t some mistake or something wrong. And so it was for the members of my team to try and really probe; instead of taking that we’ve just made the discovery, look at it really carefully and make sure that we haven’t made a mistake because a part in ten thousand is very tiny, and even a small mistake could cause that effect.
[AS] – And as a result of these observations, the Big Bang theory is now pretty much accepted as proven. Is that correct?
[GS] – Well, the Big Bang theory is the accepted theory of cosmology. You never prove anything completely, but it’s the accepted theory of cosmology. And we continue on, in my group, we continue on with balloon observations, and then there’s the WMAP and now we’re getting the Max Planck surveyor satellite ready with the European Space Agency, who is sponsoring that. So there’s a whole sequence. What it was, was that was the opening shot and saying OK, there’s some gold to be discovered in the hills, go looking for it.
[AS] – So the cosmic microwave background radiation contains yet more, unrevealed information which you’re now looking for?
[GS] – We don’t know if there’s more unrevealed information. The better we measure the more precisely we’re going to know the general parameters of the universe.
[AS] – Presumably it also contains the signatures of more recent cataclysmic events? Is it just that the strength of the signal from the early universe is so strong that it masks what happened later?
[GS] – It’s the strength from the early universe that we’re really interested in, so we choose the places where we look and the frequencies that we look at in order to emphasize the early universe. Clearly you can see the imprints from clusters of galaxies and from other things in that, but they’re generally on different energy scales and in particular places in the sky, and so you try and either average over them, or avoid those regions, including our own galactic plane.
[AS] – Right. I’ve kept you for long enough but I just wanted to ask whether you’ve had any time to think about how you’re planning to celebrate today, you and your team?
[GS] – My problem is I have to finish making my breakfast (which I’m doing right now) and then I have to rush in because we’ve scheduled a press conference for 10. And then I’ve got to get my – I have a mid-term exam to give tomorrow and I’ve got to get that finished, and ready for my students.
[AS] – Life goes on. Well, we were very lucky to catch you for these few minutes. Thank you very much and we speak at greater length when you come to Stockholm in December so I hope we can continue ….
[GS] – OK. Well, I look forward to that. I’ve got to figure out how to schedule my final exam so I can come.
[AS] – I’m sure your students will be as helpful as they can be.
[GS] – Be understanding? I don’t think so!
[AS] – It’s not the nature of students.
[GS] – I’ve got 170 students. I bet only a few of them will understand.
[AS] – I’m sure they will be very proud though. Anyway, once again, congratulations, and thank you for talking to us.
[GS] – Thank you very much.
[AS] – Bye, bye.
[GS] – Bye.
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