A Shot in the Light
NASA-backed scientists, led at Columbia by Amber Miller, are aiming a new telescope at a most distant target.by Douglas Quenqua Published Spring 2013
It was the night of December 13 when the C-130 military transport carrying Amber Miller and a group of other researchers entered the frigid airspace over Antarctica. Miller had been traveling for nearly ninety-six hours. Still, she kept her eyes glued to the window, where a serene light was waiting to greet her. The approaching tundra was suffused in the eerie glow of the midnight sun.
“It’s spectacularly beautiful,” she says. “You can see the glaciers and the snow flowing like a river down these big mountains, and you can see icebergs and ice floes, and everything is white, white, white.”
Miller had come to Antarctica looking for light, but not the kind one sees from a plane. The light she’d come looking for was about 13.3 billion years old, and potentially more revealing, at least to cosmologists, than any other light in the universe. This light was created milliseconds after the Big Bang, and for the past seven years, Miller, an experimental physicist and the dean of science for Columbia’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, had been leading the effort at Columbia to build a telescope that could detect it.
“We’re talking about a light from so far away that it has taken the entire history of the universe, from before galaxies ever formed, to get here,” she says. “We’re seeing the edge of the observable universe.”
As head of the Columbia team working on the E and B Experiment, better known as EBEX, Miller was one of the prime architects behind a 6,000-pound, balloon-borne telescope. Depending on what that telescope sees, it could either prove or disprove a key group of ideas about the universe and its origins.
“We want to actually observe what happened in the first 10-35 seconds after the Big Bang,” she says. “Just that instant of creation.”
The ideas in question are known collectively as inflation theory, and they address several longstanding mysteries. For example, when viewed over a large distance, why does the universe appear flatter than it should? And why does the universe seem to be much larger than it should be, based on the rate that it’s currently expanding?
The answer, according to the most basic understanding of inflation theory, is that the universe hasn’t always expanded as slowly as it does now. Instead, for the briefest of moments following the Big Bang, the universe actually expanded faster than the speed of light.
If inflation theory is accurate, then that rapid expansion would have left a unique but faint signature on the cosmos. “The universe would have undergone a period of superluminal expansion during which space-time would have been stretched and compressed,” Miller says. “That produces gravitational waves, and those waves then travel through space-time.”