The Time Traveling Physicist

Amber Miller invented time travel. Okay, maybe not time travel in the way of Doctor Who and maybe not just Amber Miller: A whole team of scientists and engineers designed and built the telescope EBEX, which takes pictures of light from when the universe was 380,000 years old.

“It’s the closest you ever get to time travel. It’s okay for people to think of that,” says Miller, a professor of physics and Dean of Science for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Columbia University.

EBEX was launched by balloon in December of 2012 and has since landed back in the hands of Miller and her team, and is designed to detect photons emitted directly after the Big Bang. Looking at any light in the sky—all the stars we see at night, even the light from the sun—is from the past. In the case of the sun, it’s only eight minutes old. The light that EBEX is looking for is a bit older—it’s traveled from the edge of the observable universe. When (and if) EBEX detects this light, it will be looking straight into the very first moments of the birth of our universe—nearly 13 billion years ago. This light will give Professor Miller and her team an idea of what occurred in the universe less than a second after it was created.

This might seem like a Holy Grail of cosmology but Professor Miller insists that she and her team won’t know how this discovery will change our view of the universe until they’ve collected and analyzed the data from EBEX. The data from EBEX could answer some of the most pressing questions that scientists speculate about space: How did the universe get so hot and dense in the first place? Are there many universes? Is there just one? The signals that EBEX detects either prove or disprove the prevailing inflation theory that explains the observed shape of the universe: both flatter and larger than it should be given its current rate of expansion. The inflation theory says that the reason for this discrepancy could be that for a few brief moments directly following the Big Bang, the universe expanded faster than the speed of light, which produced gravitational waves. While this expansion was taking place, the universe was so dense and so hot that light couldn’t move. The universe remained in this state for 380,000 years, but as it cooled, it emitted the cosmic microwave background radiation (which scientists have already observed in nature). The gravitational waves should have, if inflation is correct, left an impression on the CMB. Still with me? EBEX was designed to detect that the impression left from those gravitational waves, caused by the faster than the speed of light expansion of the universe, which occurred less than a second after the Big Bang. Now take a deep breathe. All this means that EBEX was created to tell scientists what happened at the very instant the universe was created. Not just in that second after but the very moment. This is closer than science has ever gotten to our beginnings. Closer than Charles Darwin, closer than the Double Helix. This is the ultimate beginning. Not just before life, but before there was anything for life to even be made from.

There are observed principles of the universe that inflation explains, but Professor Miller maintains that while this is the most popular theory explaining the behavior of the universe, until inflation itself can be observed in nature, it’s still just a theory. It is the job of EBEX to rule out inflation or make it the definitive answer to why the universe is rapidly expanding. Professor Miller and her team wouldn’t consider it a failure if EBEX doesn’t detect the signal that would prove inflation. Instead, not finding it would only shorten the list of possible ways the universe could have been created.

While the idea of a time traveling telescope seems like a cool concept, it’s hard to imagine how it will affect the day to day lives of us humans here on earth—except maybe to fuel our sci-fi fantasies about what lies at the very edge of our observable universe. The answer is simple: It probably won’t, at least not in our lifetime. Professor Miller recalls that when Quantum Mechanics and Relativity were first theorized, no one could be sure how the physics would fit into our lives. Now we understand the movement of planets and stars and the activity of atoms through these principles. Perhaps in 100 years, there will be practical applications for the data that EBEX collects that science can’t currently predict.

“We want to know how the universe works. It’s fundamental curiosity,” says Professor Miller. “People who aren’t curious—I don’t really try.”

What Professor Miller does try to do is encourage people to think like a scientist in their daily lives.

“It’s okay to spend time communicating to the public, [like] people on the front lines talking to younger students,” says Miller.

Scientists do a disservice to the public, she contends, when they assume that their theories aren’t difficult to understand, but to comprehend most of them, you have to know math. Theories can always be simplified, but many scientists don’t know how to do that because teaching scientists how to communicate with the lay-person is not built into graduate programs. Professor Miller tries to teach her students to reach out to the public to educate and inform them about scientific principles that they might find inaccessible or intimidating at first glance. Because while it’s easy to classify EBEX as the plot of an especially science-y episode of Doctor Who, Professor Miller is more of an advocate for understanding the truth behind the wonder.

“People need to be willing to think in reality, too.”

Elisabeth Sherman is a graduate student at Columbia University School of the Arts living in New York City. Her work has appeared at Not So Popular and Cellar Paper

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