How to Cook Up a Lively Universe

Dennis Overbye in The New York Times:

As Thanksgiving approaches, would-be chefs and hosts, including apparently my editors, are perfecting their techniques for making the all-important gravy for the turkey and potatoes. I have my moments as a cook — come over for my stardust waffles some Sunday morning — but I have never had the patience or skill to master gravy, so it usually comes out lumpy. This is a problem at the dinner table. On the grandest possible scale, however, lumps are a good thing. During the Big Bang 14 billion years ago, a fizzy stew of energy and gas emerged that became, and still suffuses, the universe. Astronomers initially thought this cosmic gravy was perfectly uniform, like something Julia Child might have whipped up. But not even Einstein’s “Old One” can make a perfect gravy, apparently, and in 1992 astronomers discovered that the cosmic gravy is, like mine, lumpy. And that’s a reason to be thankful this year, or any year, because without those lumps there would be no us. “If you’re religious, it’s like seeing God,” George Smoot, an astronomer at the University of California’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory who won a Nobel Prize for the 1992 discovery, said at the time.

The discovery of the cosmic microwave background cemented the case for the Big Bang origin of the universe. But there was a problem. In every direction that radio astronomers looked, the temperature of the cosmic gravy was exactly the same: 2.725 degrees Celsius above absolute zero, even in places so far apart that, according to a conventional rewinding of the expansion of the universe, the regions could not ever have touched. It was as if Christopher Columbus had sailed all over the world and found that, wherever he went, the local inhabitants spoke perfect Italian.

More here.