A tight-knit, high-powered group of scientists and engineers spent eight years building a satellite designed, in effect, to read the genome of the universe. Launched in 2001, the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) reported its first results two years later with a set of brilliant observations that added focus, detail, and insight to our formerly fuzzy view of the cosmos.
For more than a year, the WMAP satellite hovered in the cold of deep space, a million miles from Earth, in an effort to determine whether the science of cosmology--the study of the origin and evolution of the universe--has been on the right track for the past two decades. What WMAP was looking for was a barely perceptible pattern of hot and cold spots in the faint whisper of microwave radiation left over from the Big Bang, the event that almost 14 billion years ago gave birth to all of space, time, matter, and energy.
The pattern encoded in those microwaves holds the answers to some of the great unanswered questions of cosmology: What is the universe made of? What is its geometry? How much of it consists of the mysterious dark matter and dark energy that continue to baffle astronomers? How fast is it expanding? And did it undergo a period of inflationary hyper-expansion at the very beginning? WMAP has now given definitive answers to these mysteries.
On February 11, 2003, the team of researchers went public with the results. Just some of their extraordinary findings: The universe is 13.7 billion years old. The first stars--turned on--when the universe was only 200 million years old, five times earlier than anyone had thought. It is now certain that a mysterious dark energy dominates the universe. Michael Lemonick, who had exclusive access to the researchers as WMAP gathered its data, here tells the full story of WMAP and its surprising revelations. This book is both a personal and a scientific tale of discovery. In its pages, readers will come to know the science of cosmology and the people who, seventy-five years after we first learned that the universe is expanding, deciphered some of its deepest mysteries in the patterns of its oldest light.
"The exciting story of the quest to detect, record, and understand [cosmic background] relic radiation from the creation of the cosmos. In the book, Time magazine's senior science writer, Michael D. Lemonick, gives a concise but complete background on the birth of cosmology in the early 20th century. He covers everything from Hubble's observations of the expanding universe to the theoretical predictions of the afterglow. . . . Echo of the Big Bang is well written and nicely paced, and in addition to the science coverage, readers get an inside view of NASA and the social interactions (sometimes strained) of the scientists who work there."--Jennifer Birriel, Astronomy
"The author clearly has a flair for writing about popular science. His explanations of the (sometimes difficult) physics are admirably clear and the text is peppered with well turned phrases. As a breezy and engaging introduction to the basics of Big Bang cosmology it is highly recommended."--Peter Coles, Physics World
"Lemonick tells the epic story of MAP and the dedicated band of scientist and engineers who made it happen."--Marcus Chown, New Scientist
"Michael Lemonick has admirably documented a space mission that fulfilled its promise. . . . Echo of the Big Bang should be welcomed by aficionados of popular-level cosmology. It explains with remarkable clarity numerous key concepts. . . . It amply illustrates the importance of crossing disciplinary boundaries."--Joshua Roth, Sky & Telescope
"Lemonick has written an exciting story of both science and personal politics."--Choice
Table of Contents:
Is Something Amiss in the Universe? 1
The Birth of Cosmology 15
A Whisper of Microwaves 37
Bad Blood 63
Now What? 73
Forming a Team 83
How to Design a Satellite 100
The Build 128
Horse Race 142
Deepening Mystery 168
The Answer 190