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Berkeley physicist jolted awake by news of Nobel

By Ian Hoffman and Betsy Mason

Astrophysicist George Smoot of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and his NASA colleague John Mather won the 2006 Nobel Prize in physics Tuesday for revealing measurements of early cosmic light that strongly suggested the universe and everything in it were born in a gargantuan explosion.

Smoot, 61, who has an unlisted cell phone number, suspected a hoax when a caller with a Swedish accent told him about 3 a.m. that he had won the most coveted award in science.

``I just said, `How did you get my phone number?' '' the physicist recounted giddily for colleagues Tuesday morning at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. ``But the guy sounded really serious, so I thought I'd better take him seriously.''

Smoot said he later discovered the Nobel Prize committee had awakened a neighbor (with a listed number) who then provided Smoot's number.

Just to be certain, he checked the Nobel Prize Web site. And there it was: Smoot and Mather were being honored ``for their discovery of the blackbody form and anisotropy of the cosmic microwave background radiation.''

Put more simply, the radiation turned out to be the leftover heat from a blazing-hot infant universe, only 380,000 years old and just cool enough to begin to form its first atoms.

Smoot and Mather, leading teams of hundreds of researchers and using NASA's Cosmic Background Explorer satellite, had peered closer than ever before at cosmic microwaves. They also found the most palpable support yet for big-bang theory.

``It's like looking at an embryo that's a few hours old. That's how far back we're looking, in terms of, you know, putting the universe in human terms,'' Smoot said.

The scientists discovered a faint microwave glow consistent with birth of the universe as an incredibly hot, dense soup of energy and particles. It was a strong endorsement of the big-bang theory and effectively ended competing arguments for a so-called ``steady state'' universe that constantly manufactured matter.

Physicist Stephen Hawking called it ``the discovery of the century, if not of all time,'' when the findings were announced in the early 1992.

For years, physicists searched for small differences in the radiation and found none. All they found was noise, the empty, hissing static of a television channel with no transmission.

It was Smoot who found them. His instrument on the COBE satellite detected tiny variations in the residual heat of the universe, and it took extraordinarily careful calculation to reveal them against the warmth of Earth, the Milky Way and the sun. Nobel officials called his detection ``a masterly discovery and a very demanding one.''

Tuesday, Smoot demurred and credited other researchers, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

``And all the taxpayers. You guys paid for this,'' he said. ``I figured it out once and it was like $3 for every person in the country.

Smoot and a graduate student performed those calculations in a late-night frenzy in the fall of 1991. Smoot was so obsessive about rooting out errors that he offered an airline ticket to anywhere on Earth to anyone who could find a mistake.

Their work suggested that these regions of slight variations of hot and cold are what remain of quantum fluctuations in the hot embryonic universe, a kind of roughness in the fabric of matter at the smallest scales, casting the shape of galactic superclusters.

Smoot likens study of the radiation to hearing the birthing noises of the cosmos and, through the sounds, discerning its makeup.

``If you listen to a bell or listen to enough bells, you can tell a brass bell or a steel bell or an iron bell,'' he said. ``What we're listening to are the early fluctuations of the early universe. We're seeing how the universe rings.''

Those fluctuations in quantum particles in the early universe are thought to have given rise to every feature of today's universe, 14 billion years later.

``If there were no fluctuations like that, the universe would be very uniform -- no stars, no galaxies, no us,'' said Per Carlson, head of the Nobel physics committee for the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences.

``It is one of the greatest discoveries of the century. I would call it the greatest,'' Carlson said.

The COBE satellite and the two scientists' work opened what one Nobel official called a ``golden age of cosmology.'' Successive experiments on balloons and other satellites confirmed all of their findings and added more details.

``Before that, cosmology was sort of the butt of a lot of jokes; there was a lot of theory but little constraint on theory from data,'' said Andreas Albrecht, a cosmologist at the University of California-Davis. ``Now when people go out and give wild theories, they live under the burden of having to fit a lot of data. There's a lot we know about the universe now.''

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