George Smoot FAQs

Q: What was your first brush with science?

My mother was a science teacher, and my father was a hydrologist so I was always being exposed to science.

Q: When did you first become interested in astrophysics and cosmology?

From an early age I was interested in astronomical things but my scientific interest in the physics of the Universe started in graduate school along with studying high energy physics.

Q: Whom do you most admire?

The scientists that I most admire are Enrico Fermi, and Albert Einstein (See "My Einstein"-ed. J Brockman).

Q: What were you doing when you heard you’d won the Nobel?

I was asleep, and the cell phone rang to notify me that I had won the Nobel for Physics. I was in a state of shock as my phone was unlisted and I didn't know how they got my number. I started to call my family, and then I e-mailed instead as I began getting calls immediately and because I did not want to wake them up.  They could sleep in even if I couldn't. Then I sent an email to the COBE  team at about 4 AM but it was not relayed to them until 8 AM. I also checked on the Internet to make sure this was true.

Q: How did you and John Mather become involved in this project?

We and our colleagues submitted proposals for NASA Announcement of Opportunity No 6 & 7. After some various beginnings, three separate proposals were combined into one team and developed into the Cosmic Background Explorer mission.

Q: What were some of the obstacles you faced when spearheaded  this research?

There were very many from getting the resources and finding good  people and training them. There were a number of significant  technical challenges. The clear biggest stumbling block was  recovering from the Challenger Disaster - people were demoralized, and it  was not clear when the space program would start again. Once a  launch vehicle was patched together, much of the instrument had to be  completely rebuilt, tested, and calibrated again.

Q:  What impact has your discovery had on the world?

The had a number of impacts: (1) we immediately had evidence for the seeds (initial conditions) that grew into galaxies and clusters of galaxies, (2) we realized that we had a tool with which to probe the early universe and understand its make up, starting point and future development, and (3) attracted many outstanding young researchers in the field and convinced funding agencies to support further research. This led to an active field of research.

Q:  What other studies/research are you involved in?

I am doing research in other aspects of cosmology and astrophysics  beyond my participation in the Max Planck Surveyor mission to measure  the CMB anisotropies more precisely including gravitational lensing,  searches for cosmic strings, Galactic Emission Mapping, and others.

Q:  What is the importance of the forthcoming Planck experiment for the study of the CMB radiation?

Planck will be the third generation CMB space mission following COBE and WMAP. Its goal is to get the highest precision, highest resolution and cleanest maps resulting in the best data and providing the best test of cosmological models with the best estimates of cosmological parameters. Such data will bring cosmology to a new age.

The primary goal of Planck mission is the production of high-sensitivity (one part per million), high-angular resolution (10 arc minutes) maps of the microwave sky and thus of the cosmic microwave background. In addition to having an actual high signal-to-noise map on which one can do morphological and topological work, the goals include:

1. Determine the Precise Primordial Fluctuation Spectrum

2. Test Inflation/Primordial Gravity Waves

3. Statistics of the CMB Anisotropies

Q:  What is the next step in proving the Big Bang Theory?

Understanding the dark sector - dark energy and dark matter -  and the understanding of the structure of space-time - e.g. how many dimensions?

Q:  What will you do with the prize money?

I am in discussions about donating it to UC Berkeley to provide fellowships for Postdocs & Graduate Students; pending matching funding donation. This is to encourage and help outstanding young  people to enter scientific research.

Berkeley Nobel laureates donate prize money to charity  SFGate

New Nobel Laureate Donates Prize Money to Local Charity  The Daily Californian

Nobel laureate donates prize to charity  Contra Costa Times

Q:  Why do you do what you do?

I want to know how things work, are, and why, and I like to teach.

Q:  Where do you have your best ideas?

While I am out walking.

Q:  What do you do when you’re not doing research?

I prepare my lectures for the classes that I teach, I enjoy gardening, working on my house and tourism (traveling & exploring).

Q:   What are the last books you read?

The Number (Lee Eisenberg), Collapse (Jared Diamond), and High Middle Ages (Phillip Daileader)

Q:  What is your favorite quote or motto?

"The reward of a thing well done is to have done it." - Emerson

Often heard are: Endeavor to Persevere!   and  “Will that be on the Exam?”

Q:  What do you want to do next?

I want to be an ambassador for Science and help pave the way for the next generation of scientists. I want to continue to teach and do research.

Q: George Smoot “popular” publications, or books for the layperson?

Wrinkles in Time

My Einstein: Essays by Twenty-four of the World's Leading Thinkers on the Man, His Work, and His Legacy, by John Brockman (Editor)

Life in Quantum Fuzz, November 1998 FORBES ASAP article on the Arrow of Time by George Smoot.

Q:  Is Professor Smoot available for speaking engagements at my educational institution or public/government organization?


Q:  Could you please explain briefly what is the significance of the discovery of the blackbody form and anisotropy of the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB), for which you have received the Nobel?

COBE DMR (Smoot et al. 1992 )  found anisotropies in the cosmic microwave background on all scales from the nominal beam size of 7-degrees up to the full sky at a typical level of one part in 100,000 to a few parts per million. These anisotropies were interpreted as imprints of the seeds that eventually grew under the influence of gravity to galaxies, clusters of galaxies, and clusters of clusters of galaxies. They also indicate that we should eventually expect to find even larger scale structures. They also gave us a clue to how the Universe originated - i.e. how space and time and all the other contents of the Universe came into being.

(1) We immediately had evidence for the seeds (initial conditions) that grew into galaxies and clusters of galaxies, (2) we realized that we had a tool with which to probe the early universe and understand its make up, starting point and future development, and (3) attracted many outstanding young researchers in the field and convinced funding agencies to support further research. This led to an active field of research.

Q:  Scientists usually say features in the CMB -the "oldest light" in the Universe that is all around us and comes from a time 380,000 years after the Big Bang- tell them about the evolution of the cosmos. What is the “ultimate truth” you expect from the future researches on the Universe?

Studies of the angular variation in the CMB intensity (and additionally its polarization) hold the promise of determining the constituent contents - that is the make up or what the constitutes the Universe and the over all geometry and dynamics of the Universe.  This happens well from the CMB but is significantly improved with some data from other observations such as cosmologically distant supernova, gravitational lensing or observations of large scale structure. On the other had the CMB observations provide the background and constraints for the interpretation of any of these other data sets.

We hope to be able to describe with an accuracy of order 1% (discovery with COBE, 10% with WMAP, and 1% with the Planck Surveyor (ESA) mission) the global properties of the universe. This means a statistical description of the universe very much like there are 60 million (put in correct number) people in Italy.

They range in age from infant to 103 years old with a distribution that is flat and peaks at 55 and then tails down. About half are men and half or women. They eat pasta 6 times a week. They go to the shore or the mountains for one or two weeks per year. Each family on average has two TVs, three cell phones, etc.

Likewise galaxies ages vary from old to new but peak at a few billion years. Likewise for stars in a galaxy. Some are single galaxies, some live in small family units others in big clusters.  So we do not describe an individual person or galaxy but we give a good description of the whole Italian nation or the whole universe with sufficient information that one forms a very good picture of them.

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