Monday, April 27, 2009 | Several crates containing what will be one of the most powerful radio telescopes in the world are now en route from Bergamo, Italy to the Port of Long Beach. Its ultimate destination is the Atacama Desert in Chile, one of the driest places on earth, and one of the best for astronomical observations.

The telescope will be fully functional in about a year. And when that time comes University of California, San Diego cosmologist Brian Keating and his colleagues will have the inside track in the race to become the first to discover what happened in the first billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a second after the universe was formed.

If Keating’s group, which includes UCSD’s Hans Paar, and researchers from UC Berkeley, as well as some from Canada, France and Japan, was to achieve this insight into what he calls the “embryonic universe,” they would not only be able to more precisely explain the origin of the universe, but also its future. Their reputations would be cemented in annals of astrophysics, and they’d be in the running for a Nobel Prize.

With the telescope, dubbed POLARBEAR (short for Polarization of Background Radiation), the scientists are trying to detect primordial gravitational waves. The existence of these waves would support the theory of inflation, which holds that right after the Big Bang, there was an incredibly rapid and violent expansion of the universe.

“It is the holy grail of cosmology,” said Keating, who works at the Center for Astrophysics and Space Sciences at UCSD. “We don’t know if we’ll be able to do it — but if nature is kind to us and provides a signal that our instruments can detect, than this will have as revolutionary impact on cosmology as the discovery of the Big Bang.”

The UC group has some stiff competition. Although their branch of cosmology is small — he says there are 10 times more people in the National Basketball Association than there are people in his field — it includes some very smart, well-funded scientists.

Their competitors include a group supported by the European Space Agency, which next month will launch a satellite that has a radio telescope attached to it, a group from the University of Chicago and a group from the California Institute of Technology which has a telescope at the South Pole.

The different teams are all operating under the same hypothesis regarding inflation, but Keating and Paar say they have in POLARBEAR the best instrument to detect the gravitational waves that will show evidence of the event. Keating is also part of the Cal Tech team, which he says “is a good position to be in,” referring to the Nobel Prize.

Such confidence that a Nobel is in the offing comes from the fact that the prize has been awarded to the last two groups who advanced the Big Bang theory. “We are proving something about the Big Bang itself and the goings on shortly there after,” said Paar, who has been working with Keating since 2006. “Not that it changes the price of gasoline or beer, but it is part of our civilization to figure out how it all started.”

Until the 1960s there was debate as to whether the universe had a measurable beginning. Before that period, many scientists, including Albert Einstein, hypothesized that the universe had existed forever. But in the middle of the 20th Century the Big Bang theory began to gain acceptance. The theory, first proposed in the 1920s by Georges Lemaiâtre, held that that the universe has expanded from an extremely hot and dense speck at a specific point in time, and continues to expand.

The first convincing evidence of the Big Bang came in 1965 when Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson discovered microwave radiation that comes from every direction in the sky. Called cosmic microwave background (CMB), the radiation is essentially the leftover heat from the Big Bang. Penzias and Wilson won the Nobel for physics in 1978 for this discovery.

For decades after Penzias’ and Wilson’s find, scientists were puzzled by how the CMB seemed to be the same temperature in all parts of the universe. It didn’t make sense to cosmologists that there was this so-called “uniform glow” in the CMB, but so many variations in everything else in universe.

Then in 1992, a group led by John Mather and George Smoot detected fluctuations in the CMB for the first time. In later experiments that followed Mather’s and Smoot’s work, scientists were able to calculate that the Big Bang happened 13.7 billion years ago. Mather and Smoot won the Nobel in 2006.

Keating, who is 37 years old (or, as he points out, 1.18 billion seconds old) had just earned a bachelor’s in physics from Case Western Reserve University when Mather and Smoot were making their discovery. From the beginning Keating focused on CMB, and ended up a collaborator of Smoot’s. He is now recognized as one of the elite researchers in the field.

Keating realized early on that the next “epoch” in the field would revolve around concept of inflation, an insight that has already paid large dividends. He came to UCSD in 2004, and in 2005 he was named the best astrophysicist under 40 through the Young Scholars Competition. Penzias was a judge in that competition. Then in 2007, Keating was a recipient of a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.

Paar said it is “quite remarkable” that Keating was so young, yet so prescient as to where the field was headed. “He recognized it as an important field early on, while the rest of us were asleep,” Paar said.

Once the crates containing the POLARBEAR telescope arrive in Long Beach, they will be shipped to the Inyo Mountains, just east of the Sierra Nevada range. There the telescope, which looks like a satellite dish, will be assembled and tested for about a year. Once testing is complete, it will be disassembled, packed up and shipped to Atacama where it will be reassembled at an altitude of 18,000 feet.

At that point, “the war to achieve knowledge,” as Keating calls it will reach a new phase. Keating and his crew will likely spend years shuttling back and forth from Atacama taking measurements, analyzing data and hoping for the best.

“We have the most sensitive technology, the best understanding of the technology and a very competitive team for analyzing the data,” Keating said. “But even if the experiment works perfectly, there is still uncertainty of whether we will see anything.

“If we don’t find evidence of inflation, it doesn’t mean we failed — that will be exciting in itself.”

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