A Leap Towards Understanding the Big Bang

UC Berkeley astrophysicists may soon be much closer to understanding what happened seconds after the Big Bang. Thanks to a nearly $40 million gift from the Simons and Heising-Simons Foundations, Berkeley astrophysicists led by Professor Adrian Lee, together with founding institutions UC San Diego, Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania, will establish the Simons Observatory in Chile’s Atacama Desert, a site that is high, dry and excellent for astronomy research. This visionary and potentially paradigm-shifting investment will allow the scientific team to merge existing telescopes at the site (the Atacama Cosmology Telescope and the Simons Array) and to develop technologies to create a new project—CMB-S4—with the aim of mining information from the cosmic microwave background (CMB).

The CMB is the thermal radiation left over after the reorganization of energy and matter that occurred after the Big Bang. Now the question is whether scientists can “look behind” the CMB to detect what happened in the earliest seconds of the Big Bang.

Project spokesperson Mark Devlin, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a Berkeley physics alum, states:

“A key target of this observatory is the earliest moments in the history of the universe... By measuring how the gravitational waves affect electrons and matter 380,000 years after the Big Bang, we are observing fossils from the very, very early universe.”

The Simons Observatory will allow scientists to explore these “fossils” to see what they can tell us about the creation of the universe.

The magnitude of the Simons and Heising-Simons Foundation’s investment will allow scientists to take a giant leap forward in developing research instruments. The team will work to create optical telescopes with accuracy (in pixels) by more than an order of magnitude over what currently exists. These more powerful instruments will hopefully push researchers to a better understanding of the relationship between quantum mechanics and gravity, as well as the nature of dark matter, dark energy, and neutrino particles. Theoretical and computational astrophysicists eagerly await data from the Simons Observatory in order to begin what could be a new era in understanding the universe.

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