Wednesday, May 12, 2004
Inflating the universe
Sometimes you have to love NASA. It's the only organization I know of (although I'm sure there are countless others) that measures the success of its research programs by how many column inches are devoted to them in newspapers worldwide. As a byproduct, they've become very good at getting out their message in interesting ways.
This is by way of prelude to describing what I received in my mailbox yesterday: a WMAP beach ball (pictured at right). WMAP is the Wilkinson Microwave Background Anisotropy Probe, a satellite that has measured the tiny temperature fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background to unprecedented precision. The statistical properties of these fluctuations depend in interesting ways on the parameters describing our universe (such as the amount of dark matter and dark energy, or the overall geometry of space), so the WMAP results have provided a treasure trove of information for cosmologists. The cosmic microwave background radiation provides a picture of the universe when it first became transparent, at an age of about 379,000 years; it's kind of amazing we can extrapolate our current theories back that far and come even close to the right answer, much less get things spot-on.
The beach ball is a playful public-relations gimmick, which I'm all in favor of. Other types of scientists could learn a lot about outreach from these folks.