Cosmology is sometimes pooh-poohed as more philosophy than science. It asks deep questions about nature but provides unsatisfyingly vague answers. The cosmos may be 12 billion years old, but it could be as much as 15 billion. The stars began to shine 100 million years after the Big Bang, or maybe it's a billion. "Our ideas," acknowledges Max Tegmark of the University of Pennsylvania, "have been kind of wobbly."
But much of the wobble has been fixed, thanks to a satellite known as the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, or WMAP. Since July 2001, WMAP has been orbiting in deep space, a million miles from Earth, studying the most ancient light in existence. And in a dramatic reminder that important space science is almost always done by machines, not fragile humans, it reported a series of precision measurements last week that will finally put cosmology on a firm foundation.
What the satellite found, says Princeton University's David Spergel, a theorist on the WMAP team, "is that the universe can be explained with five numbers." First, the cosmos is 13.7 billion years old, give or take a negligible couple of hundred million years. Second, the first stars turned on just 200 million years after the Big Bang. Finally, the universe is made of three things in the following proportions: 4% ordinary atoms; 23% "dark matter," whose nature is still unknown; and 73% "dark energy," the equally mysterious force whose antigravity effect is speeding up the cosmic expansion. "This," says astrophysicist John Bahcall, of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., "is a rite of passage for cosmology, from speculation to precision science."
WMAP learned this and more by scrutinizing the faint whisper of microwaves left over from the Big Bang. Hidden in that radiation are patterns of warmer and cooler spots, marking places where matter was a little more or less dense than average--spots that would eventually evolve into the clusters of galaxies and empty spaces that we see today. These patterns were first detected in crude form by the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) satellite in 1992, but without enough detail for much to be said about them.
But with a resolution some 40 times as sharp as COBE's, WMAP has plenty to say. (The W was added last week in honor of David Wilkinson, the Princeton physicist who helped launch the project but died last summer.) "It's a lot like matching fingerprints," says Spergel. "We ran computer simulations based on many different values for all of the numbers, generated patterns for each and found the one that best matched what we actually saw."
WMAP also confirmed what earlier experiments had suggested about a basic characteristic of the universe: the geometry of space-time, in the Einsteinian sense, is flat. That's consistent with a theory called inflation, which posits that the cosmos underwent a period of turbocharged expansion before it was a second old. "I have to admit," says Bahcall, "that I was skeptical of the picture theorists had put together. Inflation, dark matter, dark energy--it's all pretty implausible. But this implausible, crazy universe has now been confirmed with exquisite detail."