Precision Cosmology

author: Max Tegmark, Department of Physics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
published: Dec. 6, 2010,   recorded: June 2008,   views: 631
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Description

Buzz Lightyear has nothing on Max Tegmark, who takes his alumni audience on a dizzying tour of the universe and beyond.

Before Tegmark begins, MIT President Susan Hockfield highlights some newsworthy Institute milestones and initiatives, including breaking ground on a new cancer research center that will bring together engineering and life sciences; and pioneering work on new energy solutions, with a focus on harnessing light from the sun. Since federal funding for research has diminished, says Hockfield, MIT is increasingly pursuing philanthropy to move these key ventures into their next phase. She also describes a banner year for MIT admissions, in spite of turmoil nationally in higher education applications and financial aid; and a record for 2008 Alumni fund giving.

In his “little ride” from Earth into the far reaches of space and time, Max Tegmark demonstrates the success of new technologies such as orbiting space telescopes and super computer number crunching that enable scientists to test their theories of the universe. Tegmark remarks, “30 years ago, cosmology was largely viewed as somewhere out there between philosophy and metaphysics. You could speculate over a bunch of beers about what happened, and then you could go home, because there wasn’t a whole lot else to do.” But “now we’re so spoiled, with a few clicks of the mouse, we can zoom out ‘til the whole galaxy is just a little dot, and other dots are not stars but other galaxies.”

Tegmark illustrates not just our planet’s place in space, but the layout of the entire known cosmos as well, relying in particular on the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, and NASA satellite maps, which help animate 3D renderings of the universe over time. Scientists are closing in on a “consistent picture of how the universe evolved from the earliest moment to the present,” expanding, cooling and clumping over its 14-billion-year history. Tegmark pays tribute to MIT colleague Alan Guth, whose inflation theory predicts not just a really big universe, but an infinite one, with parallel universes. As fantastic a concept as this appears, Tegmark says, “I feel inflation is testable.” Scientists can increasingly take the measure of a vast cosmos, with real numbers.

Tegmark hopes to “map everything in the observable universe” with the help of the Fast Fourier Transform Telescope, which he likens to a “giant sea of cheap radio antennas hooked into a computer.” Next stop on the cosmologist’s infinite voyage: getting to the bottom of dark matter and dark energy, and trying to figure out whether our universe will expand forever, or end with a “crunch.”

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