Brian Keating on Going to the Ends of the Earth to Discover the Beginning of Time (Transcript)

This is the full transcript of Professor Brian Keating’s TEDx Talk titled ‘Going to the Ends of the Earth to Discover the Beginning of Time’ at TEDxSanDiego event.


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Brian Keating – Professor of physics

This is Stephen Hawking, arguably, the most famous scientist of our generation. Yet, what if I told you that Stephen Hawking was imprisoned for heresy. Thought crimes, crimes against the state. Clearly, this would be seemingly ridiculous that such a thing could happen. But this is exactly what happened to the greatest scientific genius of his age: Galileo.

381 years ago, Galileo was the first person to give evidence that we are not the only planet in our Solar System, and we are not, in fact, the center of the Solar System nor are we the center of the Universe. In fact, the Earth was just one of many planets. He did that by observing the planet Jupiter. And through a very revolutionary instrument called the refracting telescope, he was able to glimpse that Jupiter had moons, and these moons orbited not around the Earth, but around Jupiter itself. This was incontrovertible proof that the Earth was not the center of the Solar System, which was effectively the universe back then. He did it all with an amazing scientific instrument, a revolutionary product, that as Steve Jobs would say, “just fits in your pocket,” the refracting telescope.

This is Galileo’s 450th birthday year, and tonight we’re going to throw him a little celebration party. Galileo discovered the moons of Jupiter, and in doing so, pricked our cosmic egos. He demonstrated that the Earth is not the center of it all. And tonight, I’m going to invite you to come along with me on a journey to the very bottom of the world, a journey which has the potential, perhaps, to make discoveries equal to the discoveries that Galileo made.

So what Galileo did got him into a little bit of trouble. This is Galileo in front of the Holy Office. Holy Office is a euphemism for the Inquisition. Don’t you love euphemisms like this? I do. It’s like calling the IRS the ‘Money Donation Service’. He was imprisoned for the remaining nine years of his life for thought crimes. And what he was able to do was so amazing and revolutionary, and he did it with a simple instrument. But he used it in a powerful way. And I claim this instrument changed our understanding of the universe more than any other scientific instrument.

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This is the Earth at night looking out on the stars, which we now know are but pinpricks of light to our eyes, the 2 refracting telescopes in our heads. With our eyes, we can look out in space and look out in time, and we can glimpse these distant objects. We now know that these objects represent suns that harbor planets and moons, and these suns are just one of hundreds of billions in our galaxy alone. And guess what, there are hundreds of billions of galaxies as well in the universe. Galileo unseated us as the center of it all, and with the telescope, magnified if you will, to mix metaphors, our insignificance.

So, tonight what will be interesting to discover along with me is what you would see if you had microwave eyes. If you had microwave eyes, instead of seeing pinpricks of light from stars, you’d see this magnificent tapestry that represents the pattern of photons coming to us from the Big Bang itself, 13.8 billion years ago. It’s an amazing image that captures the properties of matter, dark matter, energy, dark energy, throughout our entire cosmic history.

With our eyes and our brains, we can attempt to make an image of the infant universe. To what can this be compared? I like to think of what would be the earliest possible baby photograph that you could possibly take. That would be the image of this object over here. So I’m a doctor. I’m not a real doctor according to my brothers, but I still prescribe medicine. No, I don’t do that. This is called a blastocyst. It’s a collection of cells, about 200 to 400 cells, that represent the human embryo roughly 1,000 seconds after conception. 1,000 seconds after your own personal big bang.

This blastocyst is an amazingly complicated structure. Imagine if we were trying to unravel what did your blastocyst look like? Now I can’t take a picture of every one of you in the audience, but I can take the most famous person on the planet: our president, Barack Obama. Imagine if I was trying to use this image of Barack today to get an image of baby Barack; baby Barack’s blastocyst. This only represents an extrapolation in time by a factor of a million. From 2 billion seconds to 1,000 seconds. And yet, what we’re trying to do with our instrument at the South Pole is uncover what the universe looked like a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang. The so-called inflationary universe, the spark that ignited the Big Bang.

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Inflation takes place in a vast landscape, potentially, called the multiverse, in which multiple universes could exist. We’re trying to take this image of the night sky, in microwaves, and transform from it an image of what the baby universe must have looked like. My colleagues at NASA have done a wonderful job of rendering this image as if you were an omniscient deity looking down on our universe, and seeing it from a distance. This is the pattern that you’d see, on this beach ball.

This image inspired me to unravel what caused these colorful fluctuations. What could break the symmetry, the isotropy of the early universe, filled with chaos and randomness? What could possibly be the origin of those fluctuations is what has driven me in my career.

In 2001, I pitched an idea to my advisor at Caltech, Professor Andrew Lange, who believed in me, thank God, because it was a crazy and risky thing to do as a young postdoc toiling away. He said: “Brian, this might be the ultimate cosmic wild goose chase, but we should do it.” And we did do it.

We assembled an amazing team of about two dozen scientists from around the world, led by Professor John Kovac at Harvard University. And with this amazing team, we were able to construct a beautiful instrument that’s compact yet powerful. It doesn’t quite fit in your pocket — it’s about five feet long and weighs about 10,000 pounds — but Galileo would recognize it. If your pocket holds an iPhone 6, maybe it does.

Instead of glass lenses that Galileo used to peer out into the universe, our telescope uses this Frisbee-looking device. It’s a lens made of high-density polyethylene, that’s nothing more than the same material used to make milk jugs. And just as you can feel heat or cold through a milk jug, microwave heat passes beautifully through transparent-to-microwaves plastics like this. This is the simple part of our telescope.

The complicated part of our telescope, which you can’t buy in the supermarket, are these amazing detectors, designed by Professor Chao-Lin Kuo at Stanford University, and built by Jamie Bock, Professor at Caltech, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. These are the most sensitive detectors ever made, and they are made of exotic materials that operate near absolute zero called superconductors. With this amazing technology, we decided we needed to build an instrument so powerful that we would need an observatory just as good as our telescope was powerful.