'Ripples' exist across universe: The American Association for the Advancement of Science

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The Independent Online
GEORGE SMOOT, the Californian cosmologist who upset the worlds of religion and literature with his talk of glimpsing the fingerprint of God, has stirred up the debate again, writes Susan Watts.

Dr Smoot rose to fame last April, as the leader of the Nasa team that spotted 'ripples' in the smooth background radiation of the universe.

The data, from a satellite called the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE), provided a snapshot of the universe when it was 300,000 years old - and marked a turning point in cosmology. Scientists had seen for the first time an echo from the early moments of our universe, and the primordial seeds of the structures astronomers see today - the galaxies and clusters of galaxies.

Dr Smoot told the conference he had since found that the ripples exist at all scales and in every direction in the universe.

They are simply too large to have been created at the moment of Big Bang. They would not have had time to expand to the size we observe them at.

'The structures we see are so large that they cannot have been formed at the very earliest moment. They either had to be pre- existing or they had to be put in in the first instance of the Big Bang,' he said.

The suggestion that there was something around pre-Big Bang is set to fuel the debate over the interaction between science, religion and the arts. The initial COBE results prompted a huge backlash. Scientists were accused of being out of their depth, with their glib references to the origins of the universe and the meaning of life.

Dr Smoot concedes that he is playing something of a semantic game, since at the early moments of the universe the concept of time has no meaning. So to talk about something happening before something else makes little sense.

He told delegates: 'There are some models, like Stephen Hawking's model, where there is nothing before the Big Bang. There are others where there were things going on before the Big Bang, and what we call the Big Bang is just a small part of the universe that has undergone a tremendous expansion to become the part that we live in. We think this is what everything looks like. . . It's just we can't travel far enough to see what other things look like.

'Just because we know a little bit about how things work doesn't make them any less spectacular and wonderful. It's just that science is new and young and doesn't know its boundaries yet.

'Once science finds out how far it can go and how things all fit together I think there will be harmony between science and religion.'