Saturday, July 21, 2007

IIT 2007: Cosmology

In a previous post I talked about some thoughts on leadership that I gleaned at the IIT 2007 Global Alumni Conference. There was another very interesting panel I attended. This one had two Physics Nobel Laureates: Arno Penzias and George Smoot. They were interviewed by UC Berkeley Physics Professor Alex Filippenko. Penzias got the Nobel Prize with Robert Wilson for discovering the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation---the most direct evidence we have for the Big Bang. Smoot got the Nobel Prize with John Mather for discovering that the CMB radiation is anisotropic, i.e., the temperature of the radiation is irregular, rather than smooth. The anisotropy of the CMB radiation in the early universe eventually evolved into the planets, stars, galaxies, and galaxy clusters. Filippenko is an amazing lecturer, having won two of UC Berkeley's most coveted teaching awards and being voted "Best Professor" on campus five times.

The panel started with Filippenko giving a fascinating 20-30 minute tour of the developments in cosmology over the last century, starting with Edwin Hubble's discovery of the expanding universe, through the discoveries of Penzias and Smoot, to recent conundrums in cosmology involving dark energy and dark matter (which together account for about 96% of all the "stuff" in the universe!). This exposition itself was worth attending the panel. He then interviewed each Nobel Laureate, asking them about their work and what it felt like to receive the Nobel Prize.

The most surprising thing they said was that they both spent roughly a whole year after their experiments were done verifying that there were no bugs in their experiment! They wanted to be absolutely sure that what they had measured truly provided evidence for the CMB and its properties. This involved a lot of grungy low-level work, unlike the cool and exciting work of taking the measurements in the first place. Penzias and Wilson would do things like ensure that pigeon poop wasn't corrupting the signals in their radio telescope! And Smoot offered a round-trip ticket to anywhere in the world for any one on his team who discovered a problem with the experiment! This is an amazing demonstration of dedication to what we term QA (or Quality Assurance) in software engineering.

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this panel. Before I attended the panel, I wondered why the IIT 2007 organizer had arranged it---it's not as if any of the panelists were IIT alums. But then it struck me that most of the attendees, being IIT alumni, were just as geeky as me and no doubt enjoyed the panel just as much!

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