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Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity has been called the greatest act of thought about nature ever to take place in a person’s head. It explains gravity, motion, matter, energy, space and time, the formation of black holes, the Big Bang, and possibly dark energy. Einstein developed the theory over more than a decade at the start of the 20th century. It went on to inspire Georges Lemaître, Stephen Hawking, and the LIGO team, which searched for the gravitational waves predicted by the theory.

The theory of relativity arose from a contradiction between the laws of motion described by Isaac Newton and the laws of electromagnetism defined by Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell. Newton described nature in terms of matter in motion governed by forces that act between objects. Maxwell’s theories concerned the behavior of electric and magnetic fields. Light, he said, was an oscillation through these fields, and he predicted that the speed of light was always constant, regardless of how fast the source was moving.

Measuring the speed of light is not an easy thing to do. Danish astronomer Ole Rømer tried in 1676 by measuring the time delay in the light arriving from Jupiter’s moons. His answer was 25 percent too slow, but he did show that light’s speed was finite. By the 1850s, more accurate measurements had been made. However, in a Newtonian universe, there must also be changes in the speed of light to account for the relative motion of its source and observer. Try as researchers might, no such differences could be measured.

At the end of the 19th century, many believed that physicists had fully figured out the laws of the universe. All that was now needed were more precise measurements. However, even as a child, Einstein was not convinced that physics had been solved. At the age of 16, he asked himself a question: “What would I see if I were sitting on a beam of light?” In the Newtonian context, young Albert would be traveling at the speed of light. Light coming from in front would reach his eyes at twice the speed of light. When looking back, he would see nothing at all. Even though light from behind was traveling at the speed of light, it could never catch up.

Annus mirabilis

Einstein’s first job was working as a patent clerk in Bern, Switzerland. It afforded him a lot of spare time to devote to private study. The fruit of this solitary work was the Annus Mirabilis (miracle year) of 1905, when he presented four papers. These included two linked discoveries: special relativity and the equivalence of mass and energy, summed up by the equation E=mc2.

Inside the speeding train, Bob shines a light beam directly up and down. Bob measures the time it takes for the light to be reflected back to him as the distance straight up and down divided by c (the speed of light).
On the platform, Pat observes the beam traveling diagonally. It is still traveling at the same speed c, so more time must have passed than for Bob as the light has traveled a longer distance.

Special relativity

Einstein used thought experiments to develop his ideas, the most significant of which involved two men—one on a speeding train and the other standing on the platform. In one version (below), inside the train, Bob shines a flashlight at a mirror directly above him on the ceiling. He measures the time the light takes to travel to the mirror and back. At the same time, the train is passing the platform at close to the speed of light. From the platform, the stationary observer Pat sees the light beam shine to the mirror and back, but in the time it takes for the beam to travel, the train has moved, meaning that, rather than traveling straight up and down, the beam travels diagonally. To Pat on the platform the light beam has traveled farther, so, since light always travels at the same speed, more time must have passed.

Einstein’s explanation for this took an enormous leap of imagination, which became the basis of special relativity. Speed is a measure of units of distance per units of time. Therefore, the constancy of the speed of light must be due to an inconstancy in the flow of time. Objects observed to be traveling faster through space are moving more slowly through time. Clocks on the station and on the train are ticking at different rates, depending on the frame of reference from which they are observed. On the moving train, Bob sees his clock ticking away as normal, but to the observer Pat on the platform, the train’s clock is moving very slowly.

The passenger on the speeding train will not notice any slowing of time. The mechanisms by which time is measured—such as the swing of a pendulum, the vibration of a quartz crystal, or the behavior of an atom—are physical phenomena obeying universal laws. According to special relativity, laws remain unchanged within the reference frame—the moving train, or any other set of objects moving together.

“If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.” Albert Einstein

As an object’s velocity (v) approaches light speed (c), the object becomes increasingly squashed in the direction of travel when viewed by a stationary observer. This is not merely an illusion. In the observer’s frame of reference, the object’s shape really does change.

Energy is mass

The impact of this dilation of time has far-reaching effects, which Einstein gradually pieced together into a single general theory of relativity in 1915. One early breakthrough was the discovery of E=mc2, which states that E (energy) is equal to mass (m) multiplied by the square of the speed of light (c). c2 is a very large number—about 90 million billion—and so a small amount of mass contains a huge quantity of energy. This is evident in a nuclear explosion when mass is converted to free energy.

Returning to the train thought experiment, the two observers now throw tennis balls at each other. The balls collide and bounce back to each person (both Pat and Bob have very good aim). If both observers were in the same reference frame, the described motion of the balls would occur because the balls had the same mass and were thrown with the same force. But in this experiment the balls are in different reference frames—one stationary, the other moving at close to the speed of light. Pat would see Bob’s ball moving much more slowly than his own due to the time dilation, yet when they collide, both balls are knocked back to their owners. The only way this could work is if Bob’s slow tennis ball is heavier, or contains more mass, than Pat’s tennis ball.

Therefore, according to special relativity, when matter moves, it becomes more massive. These mass increases can be measured on the everyday, human scale, but are negligible. However, they have a marked effect when objects are moving very quickly. For example, the protons accelerated by the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) particle accelerator travel very close to the speed of light—within 99.999 percent. Additional energy does very little to this speed, and instead boosts mass. At full power, the protons in the LHC are nearly 7,500 times more massive than they were when stationary.


A result known as the “twin paradox” is illustrated using a pair of newborn twins. One stays on Earth, while another is taken on a rocket on a journey to a star 4 light-years away. The rocket travels at an average velocity of 0.8c, meaning that it returns from its 8-light-year journey on the 10th birthday of the twin who stayed on Earth. However, to the clock on the rocket, it is only the other twin’s 6th birthday. The clock has been in a moving time frame, so has been ticking more slowly.

Relativity insists that the twin on the rocket is also entitled to consider herself at rest, which seems to lead to a paradox—from her point of view, the twin on Earth had been the one moving. The paradox is resolved by the fact that only the twin in the rocket has undergone acceleration, with its consequent time dilation, both on the way out and to change direction and come back. The twin on Earth has remained in one frame of reference, while the twin on the rocket has been in two—one on the way out and another on the way back. Thus, the twins’ situations are not symmetrical, and the twin who stayed at home really is now four years older than her sister.

The twin paradox has been a popular theme in science fiction. In the film The Planet of the Apes, astronauts return to Earth to find that thousands of years have elapsed, and the planet is now ruled by apes. In the film Interstellar, physics consultants were employed to ensure that the time elapsed for each character was correct according to relativity.

“Each ray of light moves in the coordinate system “at rest” with a definite, constant velocity independent of whether this ray of light is emitted by a body at rest or a body in motion.” Albert Einstein

Speed limit

With the relationship between speed and mass, relativity highlights another basic principle: the speed of light is the upper limit of motion through space. It is impossible for an object with mass—a nuclear particle, spaceship, planet, or star—to travel at the speed of light. As it approaches light speed, its mass becomes almost infinite, time slows nearly to a stop, and it would take an infinite amount of energy to push it to light speed.

To generalize his theory, Einstein linked gravity to his ideas about energy and motion. Taking an object in space and removing all reference points, it is not possible to tell if it is moving. There is no test that can be done to prove that it is. Therefore, from the point of view of any object, or reference frame, it stays still while the rest of the universe moves around it.

Einstein’s happiest thought

This is easiest to picture if everything is moving at a constant speed. According to Newton’s first law of motion, an object maintains its motion unless a force acts to accelerate it (change its speed or direction). When Einstein included the effects of acceleration in his theory, it led to an insight that he called his “happiest thought”: it was not possible to differentiate why an object accelerated—it could be because of gravity, or it could be another force. The effect of both was the same and could be described by the way the rest of the universe moved around the reference frame.

Einstein had described motion in terms of the links between mass, energy, and time. For a general theory, he needed to add space. It was not possible to understand the path of an object through space without considering its path through time. The result was that mass moves through spacetime, which has a four-dimensional geometry, as opposed to the usual three dimensions (up, down, and side to side) of the everyday concept of space. When an object moves through spacetime, the time dimension dilates, and the space dimensions contract. From the point of view of Pat back at the station, the speeding train’s length is compressed, making it look very squashed and stubby. However, it is all normal to Bob; anything he measures on board will have the same length as when the train was stationary. This is because his means of measurement, such as a ruler, has contracted along with space.

“The theory of relativity cannot but be regarded as a magnificent work of art.” Ernest Rutherford

From inside an elevator, a person cannot tell whether they are being accelerated upward by a force pushing the elevator from below or pulled downward by the gravity of a mass underneath the elevator. Either way, they feel a sense of weight as the floor pushes against them, and objects dropped from a height accelerate down to the floor. This is Einstein’s equivalence principle, which he described as his “happiest thought.”
A light beam shines into an elevator from an observer with a flashlight standing outside. The paths of the light beam are shown as they will be observed from inside the elevator. If the elevator is accelerating, the beam will curve downward. Light is similarly curved toward a source of gravity.

Warping spacetime

In Einstein’s universe, gravity is recast not as a force but rather the effect of warps in the geometry of spacetime caused by the presence of mass. A large mass, such as a planet, bends space, and so a smaller object, such as a meteor, moving in a straight line through space nearby, will curve toward the planet. The meteor has not changed course—it is still moving along the same line in space; it is just that the planet has bent that line into a curve.

Warps in spacetime can be visualized as balls deforming a rubber sheet, making depressions or “gravity wells.” A large “planet” ball makes a well, and a smaller “meteor” ball will roll into the well. Depending on its trajectory, speed, and mass, the meteor might collide with the planet or roll back up the other side of the well and escape. If the trajectory is just right, the meteor will circle around the planet in an orbit.

The warps created by matter also bend time. Two distant objects—for this explanation, a red star and a blue star—are not moving in relation to one another. They are in different points of space, but at the same point in time, the same “now.” However, if the red star moves directly away from the blue, its passage through time slows compared to the blue star’s. That means the red star shares a “now” with the blue star in the past. If the red star travels directly toward the blue one, its “now” is angled toward the blue star’s future. Consequently, events that are observed simultaneously from one reference frame may appear to occur at different times in another.

Relativity solved the puzzle of perturbations in the orbit of the planet Mercury (pictured) that could not be explained by Newtonian physics, which had first been noticed in 1859.

Proof of relativity

Einstein’s physics were initially met with bafflement from most of the scientific community. However, in 1919, the English astronomer Arthur Eddington demonstrated that this new way of describing the universe was indeed accurate. He traveled to the Atlantic island of Principe to observe a full solar eclipse and specifically to look at the background of stars near to the sun. Light from stars travels to Earth along the most direct route, known as the geodesic. In Euclidean geometry (the geometry of Newtonian physics), that is a straight line, but in the geometry of spacetime, a geodesic can be curved. So, starlight shining very close to the edge of the sun passes into the warp created by the star’s mass and follows a bending path. Eddington photographed the stars revealed by the absences of the solar glare. These images showed that the apparent position of the stars had indeed been shifted due to the warping of space, an effect now known as gravitational lensing. Einstein was proved right.

Einstein’s general theory of relativity allows astronomers to make sense of what they observe, everywhere from the very edge of the visible universe to the event horizon of a black hole. Today, the time dilations of relativity are taken into account in GPS technology, while the wavelike contractions of space predicted by relativity have recently been discovered in the LIGO experiment. Other ideas from relativity are also being used in the search for possible answers to the mystery of dark energy.

“Everything must be made as simple as possible. But not simpler.” Albert Einstein

Mass creates a gravity well that causes an effect called gravitational lensing, first observed in 1919 by Arthur Eddington. The observed position of a star is changed by the effect of the sun’s gravity, which causes light from the star to travel past the sun along a curved path.

“Time is an illusion.” Albert Einstein


Einstein was born in Germany but spent his formative years in Switzerland. He was an average student, and then struggled to find teaching work, ending up at the patent office in Bern. After the success of his 1905 papers, Einstein took university posts in Bern, Zurich, and then in Berlin, where he presented his general theory in 1915. With the rise of Nazism in 1933, Einstein moved to the United States, where he settled at Princeton University. There he spent the rest of his days trying to link relativity with quantum mechanics.

He failed to do so, and no one else has succeeded yet either. A leading pacifist voice for many years, in 1939 Einstein was instrumental in alerting Allies to the dangers that Germany might build a nuclear weapon. He declined to be involved in the Manhattan Project that built the first atomic bombs. An avid violinist, Einstein stated that he often thought in music.

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In 1916, as he worked on his theory of relativity, Albert Einstein predicted that, as a mass moved, its gravity would cause ripples in the fabric of spacetime. Every mass would do this, although larger masses would make bigger waves, in the same way that a pebble dropped in a pond makes an ever-increasing circle of ripples, while a meteor impacting the ocean creates tsunami-sized waves.

In 2016, 100 years after Einstein’s predictions, a collaboration between scientists working under the name LIGO announced that they had discovered these ripples, or gravitational waves. Their decades-long search had revealed the gravitational equivalent of tsunamis created by two black holes spiraling around each other and then colliding.

It is hoped that the discovery of gravitational waves will provide a new way of observing the universe. Instead of using light or other electromagnetic radiation, astronomers are hoping to map the universe by the gravitational effects of its contents. While radiation is obscured in many ways, including by the opaque plasma of the early universe up to 380,000 years after the Big Bang, gravitational waves pass through everything. This means that gravitational astronomy could see back to the very beginning of time, a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang.

Within a period of 20 milliseconds, the two black holes LIGO had detected increased their orbital speed from 30 times a second to 250 times a second before colliding.

Wave behaviors

LIGO stands for Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory. It is a remarkable set of instruments for measuring expansions and contractions in space itself. This is no easy task. A ruler cannot do it because, as space changes in size, so does the ruler, so the observer measures no change at all. LIGO succeeded using the benchmark that remains constant whatever space is doing: the speed of light. Light behaves like a wave, but it does not require a medium through which to travel. Instead, light (and any kind of electromagnetic radiation) is an oscillation of an electromagnetic field: in other words, light is a disturbance in a field permeating all of space.

Gravitational waves can be understood as disturbances in the gravitational field that permeates the universe. Einstein described how these disturbances are caused by the mass of objects curving the space around them. What is understood as the “pull of gravity” is a small mass appearing to alter its motion and “fall” toward a larger mass as it encounters a region of warped space.

All masses are in motion—planets, stars, even galaxies—and as they move, they leave a trail of gravitational disturbances in their wake. Gravity waves propagate in a comparable way to sound waves, by distorting the medium through which they travel. In the case of sound waves, that medium is made of molecules, which are made to oscillate. In the case of gravity, the medium is spacetime, the very fabric of the universe. Einstein predicted that the speed of gravity would be the same as the speed of light, and that the ripples in spacetime would move outward in all directions. The intensity of these ripples diminishes rapidly with distance (by a square of the distance), so detecting a distinct gravity wave from a known object far out in space would require a very powerful source of waves and a very sensitive instrument.


As its name suggests, LIGO employs a technique called laser interferometry. This makes use of a property of waves called interference. When two waves meet, they interfere with one another to create a single wave. How they do this depends on their phase—the relative timing of their oscillations. If the waves are exactly in phase—rising and falling perfectly in sync—they will interfere constructively, merging to create a wave with double the intensity. By contrast, if the waves are exactly out of phase—one rising as the other falls—the interference will be destructive. The two waves will merge and cancel one another out, disappearing completely.

LIGO’s source of waves is a laser, which is a light beam that contains a single color, or wavelength, of light. In addition, the light in a laser beam is coherent, which means that its oscillations are all perfectly in time. Such beams can be made to interfere with one another in very precise ways.

The laser beam is split in two and the resulting beams are sent off perpendicular to one another. They both hit a mirror and bounce straight back to the starting point. The distance traveled by each beam is very precisely controlled so that one has to travel exactly half a wavelength farther than the other (a difference of a few hundred billionths of a meter). When the beams meet each other again, they are exactly out of phase as they interfere, and promptly disappear—unless a gravitational wave has passed through space while the beams were traveling. If present, a gravitational wave would stretch one of the laser tracks and compress the other, so the beams would end up traveling slightly altered distances.

With no gravitational waves, LIGO’s light waves cancel one another out when they are recombined. Gravitational waves stretch one tube while compressing the other, so that the waves are no longer perfectly aligned, and a signal is produced

Noise filter

The laser beams are split and sent on a 695-mile (1,120-km) journey up and down LIGO’s 2.5-mile (4-km) long arms before being recombined. This gives LIGO the sensitivity to detect minute perturbations in space that add up to a few thousandths of the width of a proton. With the distances put very slightly out of sync, the interfering beams would no longer cancel each other out. Instead, they would create a flickering pattern of light, perhaps indicating a gravity wave passing through LIGO’s corner of space.

The difficulty was that such a sensitive detector was prone to distortions from the frequent seismic waves that run through Earth’s surface. To be sure that a laser flicker was not an earth tremor, two identical detectors were built at opposite ends of the United States: one in Louisiana, the other in Washington state. Only signals registering on both detectors were gravitational waves (the signals are in fact 10 milliseconds apart—the time it takes for light, and gravitational waves, to travel from Louisiana to Washington). Ligo operated from 2002–2010 with no success, then started up again in 2015 with enhanced sensitivity.

LIGO’s precision instruments must be kept completely clean. Maintaining the purity of the laser beams is one of the project’s biggest challenges.

Colliding black holes

On September 14, 2015, at 9:50:45 GMT, two black holes a billion lightyears away collided and unleashed huge warps in the fabric of space. In fact, this event occurred a billion years ago but it had taken that long for the ripples they had released to reach Earth—where they were detected by both LIGO detectors. The researchers took another few months to check their result and went public in February 2016.

The search is now on for more gravitational waves, and the best place to do it is from space. In December 2015, the spacecraft LISA Pathfinder was launched. It is headed to an orbit at L1, which is a gravitationally stable position between the sun and Earth. There, the spacecraft will test laser interferometry instruments in space, in the hope that they can be used in an ambitious experiment called eLISA (evolved Laser Interferometer Space Antenna). Provisionally scheduled for 2034, eLISA will use three spacecraft triangulated around the sun. Lasers will be fired between the spacecraft,
making a laser track 2 million miles (3 million km) long that is many times more sensitive to gravitational waves than LIGO.

The discovery of gravitational waves has the potential to transform astronomers’ view of the universe. The patterns in the fluctuations in the light signals from LIGO and future projects will produce new information, providing a detailed map of mass across the universe.

“Gravitational waves will bring us exquisitely accurate maps of black holes—maps of their spacetime.” Kip Thorne

LIGO splits one beam of laser light and sends beams down two tubes at 90° to each other. To prevent unwanted interference, the tubes are vacuums at one trillionth of the pressure of Earth’s atmosphere. LIGO also has to make adjustments to allow for the tidal pull of the sun and the moon


LIGO is a collaboration between Caltech and MIT, and also shares its data with a similar experiment called Virgo, which is running in France and Poland. Hundreds of researchers have contributed to the discovery of gravitational waves. However, there are two people, both Americans, who stand out among them all: Rainer “Rai” Weiss (1932–) and Kip Thorne (1940–). In 1967, while at MIT, Weiss developed the laser interferometry technique used by LIGO, working from the initial ideas of Joseph Weber, one of the inventors of the laser. In 1984, Weiss cofounded LIGO with Thorne, a counterpart at Caltech, who is a leading expert on the theory of relativity. LIGO is the most expensive science project ever funded by the US government, with a current cost of $1.1 billion. After 32 years of trying, in 2016 Weiss and Thorne announced their discovery of gravitational waves at a news conference in Washington, D.C.

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In 1995, two Swiss astronomers, Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz, researching at the Observatoire de Haute-Provence near Marseille, found a planet orbiting 51 Pegasi, a sunlike star 60 light-years away in the constellation of Pegasus. This was the first confirmed observation of a true extrasolar planet, or exoplanet—a planet beyond the solar system. It was
orbiting a main sequence star, and was therefore assumed to have formed by the same process as that which created the solar system.

Mayor and Queloz named the new planet 51 Pegasi b, but it is unofficially known as Bellerophon after the hero who rode Pegasus, the winged horse of ancient Greek myth. Its discovery prompted a major hunt to find more exoplanets. Since 1995, several thousand exoplanets have been found, many in multiple star systems. Astronomers now estimate that there is an average of one planet around every star in the galaxy, although this is probably a very conservative figure. Some stars have no planets, but most, like the sun, have several. 4The discovery of 51 Pegasi b marked the final milestone in a process that has forced astronomers to abandon any lingering notion that Earth occupies a privileged place in the universe.

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The Cosmic Microwave Background, or CMB, was discovered in 1964. This is the afterglow of the Big Bang and it is as near as scientists can get to observing the event that brought the universe into existence, 13.8 billion years ago. Linking the structures observed in the universe to the features discerned in the CMB remains a key challenge for cosmologists.

“I always think of space-time as being the real substance of space, and the galaxies and the stars just like the foam on the ocean.” George Smoot

Wrinkled time

The first great breakthrough came from the Cosmic Microwave Background Explorer, known as COBE, a NASA satellite launched in 1989. The detectors on COBE, designed and run by George Smoot, John Mather, and Mike Hauser, were able to find the oldest structures in the visible universe, described by Smoot as “wrinkles in time.” These wrinkles in otherwise uniform space were once dense regions containing the matter that would form stars and galaxies. They correspond to the large-scale galaxy superclusters and great walls seen in the universe today, and add weight to the inflationary model of the early universe proposed by American Alan Guth.

The CMB is a flash of radiation that was released about 380,000 years after the Big Bang, at the time the first atoms formed. The expanding universe had cooled enough for stable ions (positively charged nuclei) of hydrogen and helium to form, and then, after a little more cooling, the ions began to collect electrons to make neutral atoms. The removal of free electrons from space led to the release of photons (particles of radiation).

Those photons are visible now as the CMB. The CMB comes from the whole sky, without exception. It has redshifted (the wavelengths have stretched), and it now has wavelengths of a few millimeters, while the original radiation’s wavelengths would be measured in nanometers (billionths of a meter). One of the key observations of the CMB came in the 1970s, and removed any doubt that it was an echo of the Big Bang. This was the discovery that the thermal spectrum of radiation from the CMB tallied very closely with that of a theoretical black body.

The Cosmic Microwave Background Explorer (COBE) spent four years in space collecting information about the CMB, scanning the celestial sphere every six months

Black bodies

Black bodies do not really exist—they cannot be made and no object observed in the universe functions as black bodies do in theory. However, the CMB is the closest match that has ever been found.

A black body absorbs all radiation that hits it. Nothing is reflected. However, the absorbed radiation adds to the thermal energy of the object, and this is released as radiation. In 1900, German Max Planck, the founding figure of quantum physics, showed that the spectrum of radiation released by a black body is entirely dependent on temperature.

In an everyday example of radiation varying with temperature, an iron bar glows red when first heated. Heating it more makes it orange, and eventually the bar will glow “blue hot.” Metalworkers learn to roughly judge the temperature of iron by its color. The metal is not particularly close to a black body in the theoretical sense, but stars and other astronomical objects are a much closer match to a black body, and so the color, or wavelengths of their emissions, can be compared to the thermal spectrum of a theoretical black body to give a relatively precise temperature.

The temperature of the CMB today is a chilly 2.7 K. The thermal spectrum at that temperature contains no visible light, which is why space looks black to human eyes. However, the spectrum has redshifted (stretched) over time as the universe has expanded. Extrapolating back to the moment the CMB was emitted gives an original temperature of about 3,000 K. The color of radiation at this temperature is orange, so the CMB started out as a flash of orange light that shone out from every point in space.

Smooth signal

The early observations of the CMB suggested that it was isotropic, which means that its spectrum is the same everywhere. In cosmology, the terms density, energy, and temperature are somewhat synonymous when discussing the early universe. So the isotropic nature of the CMB suggested that, in those early days, space had a uniform density, or spread of energy. However, this did not tally with the developing theories of the Big Bang, which demanded that matter and energy were not evenly spread through the young universe, but had been concentrated together in places. These denser areas, or anisotropies, were where the stars and galaxies formed. COBE was sent into space to take a close look at the CMB to see if it could find any anisotropies, to find out whether the CMB changed, however slightly, depending on where it looked.

The full-sky map produced by WMAP in 2011 showed many fine details of the isotropy of the CMB. Colder spots are blue, while hotter spots are yellow and red.

COBE’s mission

A mission to study the CMB from space had been in the planning stages since the mid-1970s. Construction of COBE began in 1981. It was initially designed to enter polar orbit (its orbit passing over both poles). However, the Challenger disaster of 1986 grounded the shuttle fleet, and the COBE team had to look for another launch system. In 1989, the satellite was launched using a Delta rocket, and it was placed in a sun-synchronous geocentric orbit —orbiting in a way that saw it pass over each place on Earth at the same time of day. This worked just as well as a polar orbit in that it allowed COBE to point away from Earth and scan the entire celestial sphere, strip by strip.

The spacecraft carried three instruments, all protected from the sun’s heat and light by a cone-shaped shield, and chilled to 2 K (colder than space itself) using 100 gallons (650 liters) of liquid helium. George Smoot ran the
Differential Microwave Radiometer (DMR), which mapped the precise wavelengths of the CMB, while John Mather was in charge of FIRAS, the Far-InfraRed Absolute Spectrophotometer, which collected data on the spectra of the CMB. These two experiments were looking for anisotropies. The third detector on COBE had a slightly different goal. The Diffuse Infrared Background Experiment, run by Mike Hauser, found galaxies that were so ancient and far away that they are only visible by their heat radiation (or infrared).

COBE’s instruments created the most accurate map of the CMB to date. However, it was not a simple surveying job. Smoot and Mather were interested in primary anisotropies—that is, the density differences that were present at the time the CMB formed. To find these, they needed to filter out the secondary fluctuations caused by obstacles that lay between COBE and the edge of the universe. Dust clouds and the effects of gravity had interfered with the radiation on its long journey to Earth. The data from the three instruments were used to detect and correct these so-called secondary anisotropies.

“[COBE has made] the greatest discovery of the century, if not of all time.” Stephen Hawking

In addition to mapping the CMB, WMAP measured the age of the universe as 13.77 billion years, dark matter as 24.0 percent of the universe, and dark energy as 71.4 percent.

Tiny fluctuations

After 10 months in space, COBE’s helium ran out, which limited the function of the two infrared detectors, but the DMR continued working until 1993. By 1992, the COBE team’s analysis had shown what they were looking for. The CMB, and thus the early universe, was not a uniform blob of energy. Instead it was riddled with tiny but significant fluctuations. The differences were minute, with density variations of about 0.001 percent. However, the pattern was enough to explain why the contents of the universe are clustered together, while the rest of space is made from vast empty voids.

Since COBE, two subsequent missions have added detail to the picture of the CMB. Between 2001 and 2010, NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) mapped the CMB to a higher resolution than COBE. Then, from 2009–2013, the ESA’s Planck Observatory produced the most accurate map to date.

Every wrinkle on the map is the seed from which an entire galaxy formed about 13 billion years ago. However, no known galaxy can be seen forming
in the CMB. The CMB radiation detected today has traveled from near the edge of the observable universe over the course of most of the age of the universe. Astronomers can only see 13.8 billion light-years away, but most of the universe now lies farther away than that. The galaxies forming in the CMB are now far beyond what can be observed, and are receding faster than the speed of light.


After a childhood in Florida and Ohio, Smoot began his career as a particle physicist working at MIT. His interests switched to cosmology and he moved across the country to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. It was there that Smoot studied the CMB and developed ways of measuring its radiation.

Smoot’s early work involved fitting detectors to high-altitude U2 spyplanes, but in the late 1970s, he became involved in the COBE project to take his detector into space. After his success with COBE, Smoot cowrote Wrinkles in Time with Keay Davidson to explain the discovery. Smoot won the Nobel Prize in 2006, along with John Mather, for his work on COBE. He reportedly gave his prize money to charity. However, three years later, Smoot won an even greater sum when he bagged the $1 million jackpot on the TV game show Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?

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