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Cosmologist George Smoot Wins Nobel Prize in Physics

American cosmologist George Smoot, 61, who headed a satellite research team that collected data to map the first images of the primordial universe, has been awarded the 2006 Nobel prize in Physics. Smoot, professor of physics at University of California at Berkeley and astrophysicist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, shares this honour with fellow American John C. Mather, 60, of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, who co-directed the research group. The citation for their win reads, ˇ°for their discovery of the blackbody form and anisotropy of the cosmic microwave background radiation".

Smoot was born on February 20, 1945 in Yukon, Florida to a U.S. Geological Survey geologist and a science teacher. After double majoring in physics and mathematics at MIT, he received a B.S. and later, a Ph.D. in physics from MIT in 1970 for his work on the decay of subatomic particles. However, he soon turned his attention to the field of cosmology, which led him in 1974 to become the head of a project named COBE (COsmic Background Explorer) with the task of finding evidence of the origins of the universe.

18 years later on 1 May 1992, at a meeting of the American Physical Society, Smoot presented the startling findings culled from hundreds of millions of precision measurements in the data obtained from the COBE satellite. These findings heralded a new age in cosmology in its evolution into a precise science with empirical data supporting theoretical calculations.

The map of the ˇ°hot" and ˇ°cold" regions with differing densities in the infant universe that Smoot showed was essentially a baby photo of the universe, displaying the universe as it looked around 300,000 years after its birth. The extremely small temperature variations (in the range of a hundred- thousandth of a degree) measured from the cosmic background radiation ¨C relic radiant energy that has been called ˇ°a message from the beginning of time" -- serves as strong evidence for the Big Bang theory and demonstrates how galaxies aggregated over time.

This discovery was of great historic significance. Said Per Carlson, Head of the Nobel Physics Committee in Sweden, ˇ°If there were no fluctuations like that, the universe would be very uniform ¨C no stars, no galaxies, no us. It is one of the greatest discoveries of the century. I would call it the greatest."

Smoot himself was surprised on receiving the call from the Nobel Committee in Sweden informing him of his Nobel Prize. He said, ˇ°I wasn't absolutely sure until I ran to my computer and pulled up the Nobel web page. Then I believed it."

The Nobel prizes include a $1.4 million cheque, a gold medal and a diploma, and will be presented on 10 Dec, the anniversary of Nobel's death in 1896. Smoot commented that he will have to reschedule a test for his students scheduled on the day of the ceremony, but added, ˇ°the upshot though is that maybe now my students will pay more attention to me."

Professor Smoot's articles "Cosmic Microwave Background Anisotropy Current and Future Experiments" and "Cosmic Microwave Background Anisotropy Spectrum from Primordial Density Perturbations" can be found in the Proceedings of the Third Paris Cosmology Colloquium within the Framework of the International School of Astrophysics 'DANIEL CHALONGE'.

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Updated on 10 July 2012