So, last week when I promised to try and talk about the winners of the Nobel Prizes, I was worried that the physics Nobel Prize would go to some people who worked on subatomic particles, which I don't understand all that well. But, instead, the Nobel Prize in Physics went to John Mather and George Smoot, American scientists who worked on the COBE satellite.
COBE, the Cosmic Background Explorer, was launched in 1989 with the goal of examining the Cosmic Microwave Background, or CMB. The CMB was predicted by a paper by scientists Ralph Alpher and George Gamow as part of what became known as the "Big Bang" theory. The CMB is an "echo" of the Big Bang, light left over from when the Universe cooled from a very hot soup of particles into what we see today. The CMB was discovered by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, who were later awarded the Nobel Prize for their work.
Before COBE, the CMB looked almost perfectly smooth. This was a problem! Look at the Universe today, and what do you see? Stars, galaxies, and LOTS of empty space. The Universe is not smooth. To turn the smooth CMB into today's Universe, there had to be tiny, tiny irregularities in the CMB. These irregularities are tiny -- If the CMB were an Olympic-size swimming pool, the ripples that became today's galaxies and stars would be waves about 1/64th of an inch high.
COBE was launched to look for these ripples. If they existed, the Big Bang would be confirmed. If they didn't exist, the Big Bang would be in a lot of trouble. John Mather was responsible for heading up the COBE satellite and experiments, and George Smoot led the scientific team that discovered the ripples in the CMB. These two scientists and their teams of scientists and engineers provided the data required to test the Big Bang theory, and the Big Bang theory passed with flying colors.
Congratulations to Mather, Smoot, and all of the scientists who worked with them!