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Toronto astrophysicists pretty much figured out origins of universe Add to ...

Canada - a large and largely abstract country - turned out to be the perfect place for the congenial but competitive study of a large and abstract universe. "I think one of the main reasons

CITA was so successful," Dr. Tremaine says today, "is that astronomy was a pretty small world. And you can make a pretty big splash pretty easily."

But what actually set the CITA on its famous road to discovery was a confluence of events.

In 1964, a pair of Bell Lab radio astronomers trying to find clean television signals discovered they couldn't get rid of a persistent background hum. As it happened, a Winnipeg-born Princeton scientist named Jim Peebles (another CITA associate) had just written a paper speculating that microwave radiation was emanating from the universe as a relic of the Big Bang. Only after Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, the TV repairmen, read Prof. Peebles's paper did they realized what they had found. They were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1978. Theoreticians seldom win the Nobel, but Prof. Murray and his colleagues still think it was unfair that Dr. Peebles didn't get the big one.

By then, the wave was out of the bag. The Cosmic Microwave Background, the waves emanating from the universe, was the past made visible - a cooled-down relic of the universe a mere 400,000 years after the Big Bang.

Over the next two decades, measuring and observing minute temperature fluctuations in the CMB (and other forms of space radiation) with radio, laser and other sophisticated telescopes, CITA and its global net of thinkers calculated backward and forward through space and time to hypothesize, test and prove what is now our understanding of how the structure of the universe evolved: from initial ripples in the early magnetoplasm created during the early instant "inflation" of the Big Wheeze (we still don't know what caused them), through dust clouds and along massive coalescing intergalactic filaments (some of them 300 million light-years long), which in turn bred galaxies and clusters of galaxies and black holes and stars and even planets around stars (400 so far, and counting). The pictures were hypnotic. There was, they discovered, a reassuring order to the universe.

"The great story," Prof. Bond says, "is how the technology, the computing advances and detector technology and the ideas all came together. It's like a wave of accomplishment. It has been like that in many fields, but if you're thinking about a subject that asks the biggest questions - for those to have been answered in one's working life is really an amazing thing." Better still, "it's not really challengeable. The facts are all there." He knows he and his colleagues have made scientific history. "When you discover the continents, you don't get to discover them again."

CITAzens (their word) study more than early-universe cosmology, of course. They examine star formation in our own galaxy ("you know, what's between the stars," Prof. Martin says), gravitational radiation (very cutting-edge), high-energy astrophysics and the search for Earth-like planets with the necessary conditions for life (a rocky core and water are two). The latter is the hot new thing drawing young scholars to the field. That's the thing about the universe, theoretical or otherwise: You never run out of stuff to think about.

They must be in it for the challenge, because it can't be for glamour or money

Theoretical astrophysics is allegedly easier to understand than some of the newer branches of quantum physics such as superstring theory (which is still not experimentally proven, though there's a very slim chance that might change, somewhat, with the new $4-billon Large Hadron Collider buried underneath France and Switzerland). Still, I defy any non-physicist to sit through "Differential Rotation and Magnetism in Fully Convective Stars" or "Observable Non-Gaussianity from String Inflation" or any one of the other 93 studies presented at CITA's gleeful weekend, and not feel afterward like a deaf-mute. Even cosmologists have difficulty keeping up: 30 to 50 new scientific papers are published every day on astronomy, while 10 to 15 more tackle fresh developments in cosmology.

But this is the strange thing about physicists: They're inspired by difficulty and collegiality. Money mostly doesn't matter to them. François Bouchet, director of research at the Institut d'Astrophysique de Paris, is in charge of data collection and analysis for Europe's $1.3-billion-plus Planck orbital radio telescope, launched a year ago - an experiment with nearly a thousand participating international scientists, rendering it a bureaucratic nightmare, for starters. For his hard work managing that and overseeing and interpreting the project's scientific output, Dr. Bouchet, who is in his 50s, lives in a small apartment in Paris on €70,000 a year. And that's about as good as it gets for a theoretical astrophysicist.

"It's a little bit like deciding to be a monk," he explains over a plate of Chinese food at CITA's weekend banquet dinner. Dr. Bouchet had spent the previous 20 minutes listening to Neil Turok, executive director of the Perimeter Institute, explain how his own backers expect results - even though Dr. Turok is currently working on the pre-inflationary moment of the Big Bang, which is still a vast mystery. It's no surprise a number of former CITA cosmologists have left the field for high finance - the applied math required for advanced astrophysics is only slightly more complicated than the equations that produced collateralized debt obligations.

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