Oct. 16, 2003 Competing theories about the shape and size of the universe are going head to head, with Montana State University-Bozeman physics professor Neil Cornish taking the lead on explaining his group's belief that the universe is endless.
Momentum had been building the week of Oct. 6 over whether the universe is relatively small and finite or whether it's large and endless, with Cornish emerging as a key spokesman for the large and infinite theory.
"It's been a frenzied week because we also had to get our results out," Cornish said after announcing his team's findings to MSU President Geoff Gamble and a group of faculty and students Oct. 9 on the MSU campus.
Driving the controversy is an article published Thursday, Oct. 9, in the prestigious journal Nature by independent mathematician Jeffrey Weeks. Weeks and his team posit that the universe is small and spherical, consisting of curved dodecahedrons that together create a shape akin to a soccer ball. If you travel far enough in this relatively small, contained universe, this theory says, you would circle back on yourself and end up at the starting point.
The idea seems appealing, Cornish has answered, but his group has found no evidence of a finite, closed universe shaped like a soccer ball. Or a doughnut or a bagel, as has also been suggested. Working with Cornish are David Spergel of Princeton and Glenn Starkman of Case Western.
"Weeks and friends are making a dramatic claim, perhaps one of the biggest science stories of the century," Cornish told the New York Times, "but extraordinary claims require extraordinary support."
His group had actually hoped to prove that the universe was finite and was disappointed that they weren't able to do that, Cornish said after his MSU presentation. A finite universe is easier to understand and measure than one that is infinite, he explained. But Cornish's team had already ruled out the possibility of a relatively small universe before Weeks' claim came out in Nature.
"The universe is not a soccer ball. Sorry, Nature," Cornish said at his MSU seminar. "It's probably not a small world after all. Sorry, Disney."
Nevertheless, Cornish said, "The Nature paper has greatly increased the amount of interest in our work. That's nice to get this story out there."
People have wondered for millennia whether space goes on forever or whether it ends, but only after NASA launched its Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) two years ago did the issue have any chance of being settled.
WMAP went into orbit June 30, 2001 to detect background radiation, or "echoes" left over from the Big Bang. Within months the probe began sending back data that Cornish's team began analyzing right away. His team is the "official" science team for the NASA probe, although WMAP data have been accessible to other scientists and mathematicians over the Internet.
Ironically, those data are behind both the assertion of a closed shape and its refutation. The two groups have been communicating regularly as the Nature paper neared publication, and Spergel and Starkman held a press conference Friday, Oct. 10, in Cleveland to announce the findings of the official science team. Cornish said their work has been reviewed by the full WMAP science team, which found no flaws in the analysis.
Cornish, Spergel and Starkman have posted their findings on the Internet (http://arxiv.org/abs/astro-ph/0310233) where other scientists can evaluate them. Ultimately, Cornish said, it's the scientific community that will decide.
"The most amazing thing about this whole story is the fact that we can go out there and try and figure out the shape of the universe," Cornish said. "... Regardless of what the results are, I think it's great for people to know this is even a possibility."
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