The Same Words

I just finished reading  The Very First Light by John C. Mather and John Boslough. This is the story of COBE, the Cosmic Background Explorer, launched in 1989. COBE revealed what Stephen Hawking called “the most important discovery of the century, if not of all time” and was the work that won Mather the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics.

The Very book cover
Basic Books, a division of HarperCollinsPubishers

The first third of the book develops the story leading up to COBE, providing some little surprises along the way. For example, I did not know that Robert Wilson, co-discoverer of the cosmic microwave background in 1964, had taken a cosmology course at Caltech under Fred Hoyle. Interesting paths crossing there.

In 1914 Vesto Slipher announced that most of his nebulae (what galaxies were called back then) were moving away from us. Mather shares and intensifies the tension in that discovery with the comment “But nobody knew what that meant.” We the readers know now what all those brilliant scientists didn’t know then.

Theorists brought us a model of the universe that needed another force besides gravity to make it look the way we find it. The search for anisotropy continued to bring negative results. Plus the universe seemed so darn smooth. Alan Guth * Guth program fronthelped fill in the gaps with another theory called “Inflation” that addressed these issues. Observational evidence was needed to support this model.

In the middle of the book, the story goes into great detail about the creation of the COBE team and the tensions over design, redesign, creation and launch of the probe. I read the first couple of these chapters, but found it easy to lose focus, so I skimmed much of the details about professional and personal conflicts that arose.

Once the story got to launch time, it got my attention again. Data came in from COBE, the team began to realize what they had, but the story took an unexpected and unpleasant little turn.Guth program inside

Over a span of at least ten pages, we were focused on the misadventures of one of the team members who apparently violated the publications policy. In his letter of apology, he admitted the errors, along with “possibly others.” It seems the one most reluctant to share credit was most willing to share the blame.

Science Team Lesson: have penalties written in to the team agreement.

COBE data continued to be detected and analyzed, and the discovery of anisotropy led to an earthquake in cosmology. The anisotropy gave scientists the strong evidence of the Big Bang, presented a trace of Dark Matter, and “struck a blow” for Guth’s Inflation. COE gave the world a “measurable cosmic fossil.”

COBE map.png
This COBE map shows cosmic anisotropy (and detector noise) minus the dipole pattern and the radiation from the Milky Way.  NASA image

Physicist Michael Turner ** called the discoveries by COBE “the Holy Grail of cosmology.” But as usual with great science, mysteries continued to vex the astronomers.

It was the Epilogue of this book, sitting behind 17 chapters, I found most interesting.

Turner posterI do have questions about the one and only paragraph about human evolution found here in the Epilogue. Is there convincing evidence that there are significant differences in the internal structures of our bodies by race? The lengthy endnotes section in this book does not cite any sources.  I’d like to read the report that there are differences in brain function and brain structure between groups of humans. I asked a brain scientist and he said this was a “fraught topic.” Maybe a larger question: why include this at all?

The last section of the Epilogue is titled “SCIENCE VERSUS RELIGION.” I wondered why the authors picked the word “versus.” After reminding us of the obvious, that science and religion are about two very different domains, the authors quote Pope John Paul II sayng:

A tragic mutual incomprehension has been interpreted as the reflection of a fundamental opposition between science and faith.

This statement got my attention because I am many times working with students who have trouble with the Big Bang Theory because of religious reasons. Maybe the trouble is partly of our own making. Maybe we think there’s this big conflict because we expect it, and we don’t really understand the other side’s arguments.

Why are we having trouble understanding the arguments of the other side? We are speaking the same language, yes?

Are the scientists and religious leaders using the same words but not noticing that we have given those words different definitions? If we realize that we might all have this filter we are all talking through, maybe we’ll be able to better listen to one another.

In this book John Mather *** and John Boslough give an wonderful insight into the way modern science works and how the team of more than 100 made such great discoveries. I’d recommend this book to cosmologists, future Principle Investigators and those who are going to hear Mather speak and want to get a head start.


* Alan Guth presented “Grand Unified Theories and the Inflationary Universe” at North Carolina A&T State University in 1984.

** Michael Turner spoke at Guilford Technical Community College (GTCC) in 2007 on “The Dark Side of the Universe: Beyond Stars and the Starstuff We Are Made Of”

*** John Mather is scheduled to speak at GTCC September 22, 2017. The title of his talk is “The History of the Universe from the Beginning to the End: Where Did We Come from, Where Can We Go?” For updates and more information click here.


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