Cosmic Times

Cosmic Times

Age of the universe:
13.7 billion years
Size of the universe:
94 billion light years

First Light Wins Nobel

Photo of John Mather

Image credit: NASA/Chris Gunn

John Mather

Photo of George Smoot

Image credit: Lawrence Berkeley National Lab/Roy Kaltschmidt

George Smoot

John Mather and George Smoot have been awarded the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics for their 1992 discoveries about the cosmic microwave background – the remaining light from the beginning of the universe as seen today.

According to those presenting the award, "these measurements marked the start of cosmology as a precise science."

Using data from the space-based Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE), a team led by Mather and Smoot figured out the details of how the universe has cooled. They measured the energy of light from this background and found that it matched predictions from the Big Bang theory perfectly. They also found the very slight variations in the microwave light. Had these tiny variations been missing, it would have been hard to explain how the universe got its present structure. Later experiments have fine-tuned the COBE data, but the basic discovery of the variations remains. •

A service of the High Energy Astrophysics Science Archive Research Center (HEASARC), Dr. Alan Smale (Director), within the Astrophysics Science Division (ASD) at NASA/GSFC