Scientists shoot for more detail from land-based devices

By Steven Schultz

Princeton NJ -- Even as they celebrate the success of the latest research, Princeton scientists who study the cosmic microwave background are planning new experiments to bring even more detail to their picture of the early universe.

Princeton professor of physics Suzanne Staggs is leading a project to measure the microwave background at an observatory run by Bell Labs in Holmdel, N.J. The detector, which began recording data in late January, is expected to excel at measuring an irregularity called polarization in the radiation. Such data could produce insights into the first moments of the big bang as well as information about how the background radiation was subtly altered as the universe evolved.

Assistant professor of physics Joseph Fowler is working with Staggs, physicist Lyman Page and colleagues from 11 other institutions to seek funding for a large detector that would be built on a mountain in Chile. If built, that effort is expected to begin probing very small-scale features of the radiation, which would allow scientists to study the first formation of stars in great detail.

NASA's Feb. 11 announcement of results from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, a satellite that Princeton had a large part in designing and building, has added new focus to these projects. While that satellite used the vantage point of deep space to make very detailed measurements, land-based observatories could gather important data by using much larger telescopes than could be sent into space.

"To see very small structures you need a very large telescope," said Fowler.

No matter where the observations are made, the devices that take the measurements are very difficult to build because effects are extremely subtle. But that's no reason to shy away from attempting to do it, said Staggs.

"The only reason you wouldn't chase after it is if you were just too pessimistic," said Staggs. "It just seems to me that of course you would want to know about the first fraction of a second of the universe if you could. It gives me a thrill to even imagine asking such a question."

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February 17, 2003
Vol. 92, No. 16
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Contents

Page one
Partnership produces sharp 'baby pictures' of the universe
Showalter inspires conversation about teaching literature

Inside
Scientists shoot for more detail from land-based devices
University launches skill-building program for biweekly staff members
Alumni Day event to include lectures by Peter Bell and William Frist

People
Employees honored for dedication and service
Showalter to retire; pursue trans-Atlantic journalism
People, spotlight, briefs

Sections
Nassau Notes
By the numbers: Service Recognition program
Calendar of events


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Editor: Ruth Stevens
Calendar editor: Carolyn Geller
Staff writers: Jennifer Greenstein Altmann, Steven Schultz
Contributing writers: Karin Dienst, Eric Quinones, Evelyn Tu
Photographer: Denise Applewhite
Design: Mahlon Lovett, Laurel Masten Cantor, Margaret Westergaard
Web edition: Mahlon Lovett