Universe May Be Flat, Say Scientists





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In 1492, geographers were considered out of step if they believed the world was flat, but in 2000, new findings are forcing another kind of scholar out of scientific favor - cosmologists who believe the universe is anything but flat.

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory analysts and others in the scientific community made public yesterday the results of a long-term experiment that gives credence to the hypothesis that the geometry of the universe is more or less flat. Based on the information, scientists have also reinforced the theory that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate.

As members of the BOOMERANG project, or balloon observations of millimetric extragalactic radiation and geophysics, UC Berkeley astrophysicist Andrew Jaffe and laboratory computer scientist Julian Borrill deciphered a massive data set that revealed striking information about the origins of the universe.

The new findings help explain what cosmologists refer to as the "inflationary epic," the initial, violent expansion of the universe shortly after the Big Bang, according to Andrew Lange, a California Institute of Technology scientist who played a key role in the study.

Using a high-tech hot air balloon, an international team of scientists recorded temperature fluctuations in 3 percent of the sky and used them as a window into the "embryonic universe." The researchers then submitted the new information to Borrill and Jaffe, who used the laboratory's Cray T3E supercomputer to analyze results that would have required six years of desktop computing time to complete. For this purpose, the scientists designed special software made to compute information collected.

Their goal was to examine the universe some 300,000 years after the Big Bang, the time when astronomers believe the universe was cool enough to permit the formation of hydrogen atoms from free protons and electrons. At this moment, scientists think that photons, released from a "hot primordial soup" of subatomic particles, began traveling through space.

The instrument employed, a microwave telescope fastened to the hot air balloon, was lifted to an altitude for approximately 38 kilometers. The balloon, which flew over Antarctica for approximately 10 days in December 1998, collected data from throughout the universe. Researchers then took this information and put it into a map-like form for purposes of analysis.

Astrophysicists and other scientists can look at temperature fluctuations throughout the universe, and can then study these data to uncover the origins of the heavens.

The BOOMERANG experiment lent further evidence to the inflation theory, a hypothesis that posits the universe grew from a subatomic region during a violent expansion after the Big Bang. Such an expansion, the theory contends, would extend our universe until it appeared flat.

Now that some results of the BOOMERANG study are in, scientists said, the real work begins.

"There are more flavors of inflation than Baskin-Robbins can dream of," Borrill said. But up to now there has been virtually no hard evidence to prove which inflation theories match real data. Now that the scientific community has the new findings, they can "separate the grain from the chaff," he added.

But the findings also point to a number of questions, some old and some new. For example, the new measurements provide evidence for another theory, one that maintains the universe is filled with a type of energy scientists know little about - dark energy.

Despite its mysteriousness, dark energy is thought to exist because scientists must confront the accelerating expansion of the universe, according to laboratory spokesperson Paul Preuss.

"Something is pushing things in the universe apart," Preuss said. "Nothing in ordinary physics explains why things are pushed apart. That kind of mysterious, repellant power is what we call dark energy."

Although dark energy is believed to make up approximately 65 percent of the universe, scientists know little about it.

"It is thought to permeate all of space," said Jaffe. "We don't know what it is. We can't state what its properties are. We really don't understand the physics behind it."

The BOOMERANG team's results are scheduled to be published in today's edition of the journal Nature.

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