If you're religious," said a euphoric George Smoot, announcing his discovery last April, "it's like looking at God." Smoot took some heat for his hyperbole, but you can't blame the guy for getting a little worked up. It's not every day that an astrophysicist gets to say that he has located the glowing "fossil" of creation—that he has found the long-sought missing piece in the theory that accounts for the origin of the universe.
Using data gathered by a NASA satellite, Smoot, 43, and his team at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif., found "ripples in the fabric of space-time" that were made in the first trillionth of a second after the big bang, the cataclysmic moment of creation 15 billion years ago. Cosmologists had been searching for 27 years for these elusive ripples, which were crucial to explaining why the universe did not remain uniformly smooth but became the lumpy cosmos of today, filled with planets, galaxies and inquisitive human beings.
And now Smoot is experiencing a second big bang: the impact of his discovery on his own life. The once-obscure bachelor scientist has hit the TV talk shows and the lecture circuit; he has even had to double his tie collection from 10 to 20. And he is writing Wrinkles in Time, a book to be published by William Morrow next fall that he hopes will explain his theory to the masses.
How have Smoot's fellow astrophysicists responded to his new celebrity? "Some think it's neat," says Smoot. "Others think you're disgracing science. But there's good that comes out of positive publicity. With something like Chernobyl, the public reaction was 'Oh, my God, science has really done wrong.' But here's science that doesn't hurt the environment."
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