Brian Keating
Going to the Ends of the Earth to Discover the Beginning of Time
TEDSanDiego 2014

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. In fact, we are not the center or 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. Through a very revolutionary instrument called the refracting telescope, he was able to glimpse that Jupiter had moons. 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.

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. 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.

What Galileo did got him into a little bit of trouble. This is Galileo in front of the Holy Office. The 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. What he was able to do was so amazing and revolutionary. He did it with a simple instrument but he used it in a powerful way. I claim that this instrument changed our understanding of the universe more than any other scientific instrument.

This is the Earth at night, looking out on the stars, which we now know are but pinpricks of light to our eyes, the two refracting telescopes in our heads. With our eyes, we can look out in space and time. We can glimpse these distant objects. We now know that these objects represent suns that harbor planets, and moons.

These suns are just one of hundreds of billions in our galaxy alone. 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 our insignificance.

Tonight, what will be interesting to discover 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 and 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? What would be the earliest baby photograph that you could possible take? That would be this image. I’m a doctor. I’m not a real doctor, according to my brothers. This is called a blastocyst. It’s a collection of about 200 to 400 cells that represent the human embryo, roughly 1,000 seconds after conception. This is 1,000 seconds after your own personal Big Bang.

This blastocyst is an amazingly complicated structure. Imagine if we were trying to unravel what your blastocyst looked like. 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’s blastocyst.

This only represents an extrapolation in time by a factor of one million, from two billion seconds to 1,000 seconds. Yet, what we’re trying to do with our instrument at the South Pole is uncover what the universe looked like one trillionth of one trillionth of one trillionth of a second after the Big Bang. It’s the so-called inflationary universe, the spark that ignited the Big Bang.

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? That 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. It was a crazy and risky thing to do as a young post-doc 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.

With this amazing team, we were able to construct a beautiful instrument that is 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. 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 that’s used to make milk jugs. Just as you can feel heat or cold through a milk jug, microwave heat passes beautifully through plastics like this, transparent to microwaves. 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.

They were designed by Professor Xiao Lin Kuo at Stanford University and build by Jamie Bock, Professor at Caltech in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. These are the most sensitive detectors ever made. They are made of exotic materials that operate near absolute zero. They are 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.

For microwaves, if you’re looking for heat, you don’t want to build a telescope here in sunny San Diego. You want to build it at the bottom of the world, Antarctica. Antarctica is the coldest, driest, highest continent on Earth. It’s ideal for obtaining images of the infant universe.

We did build this telescope. We shipped it down to the South Pole. The South Pole was the site of the Space Race of the 1900s. It was first reached in 1911 by Roald Amundsen and a month later by Robert Scott. It was the moon race of its time. Sort of like our moon race, no one went back to the South Pole for almost 50 years. I hope we go back to the moon. Scott’s team famously perished just seven miles away from their life-giving stockpile of food and supplies, tragically.

Today, Antarctica is still a place ripe with danger, manmade and natural, as this video, grainy as it is, captures from my last expedition to the South Pole. It’s still friendlier than a lot of faculty meetings that I go to.

This is the South Pole Research Station. It’s the Amundsen-Scott Research Station at the very bottom of the world. It’s built with taxpayer money. Thank you. When you get there, you have a solemn duty to take the world’s most southern selfie and post it to Foursquare to check in. After doing this, you get to work. Our telescope sits in the second-most important building at the South Pole called the Dark Sector Laboratory.

If you climb to the top of the Dark Sector Laboratory, you peer down and see our instrument, our baby that’s hoping to take these amazing images of the microwave background radiation. This fanciful pattern is rendered on the top of this image. It was taken by this gentleman here, Steffen Richter, who is a man that we pay to spend almost a full year at the South Pole.

Why? Because it’s so cold, you cannot get in or out of the South Pole for almost a year at a time. This image captures sunset, which only occurs once per year. Six months later, the sun comes up. One day and one night per year. How do we get someone to spend a year of their lives at the bottom of the world? It’s simple. We told him, “We’ll pay you $75,000 tax free, and all you have to do is work for one night.”

Tragically, just a month after we got the data that first came out of our telescope, my advisor, friend and mentor Andrew Lange took his own life. We still don’t understand why he would do such a thing. I’m still angry at him. I’m still frustrated. We miss him terribly. Every day, we think about it. We’ve dedicated our results to his memory in tribute.

What do our results look like? This image, which was printed in The Washington Post, shows our real data produced by Professor Clem Pryke of the University of Minnesota. This image shows the swirling, twisting, curling pattern of microwaves that some say indicate the very birth of the universe. A birth called inflation.

Our results are powerful. They’re controversial, though, for two reasons that I’ll explain. One reason they’re controversial is that it may be there are other explanations for these images. Rather than the amazing image of the infant universe, it could be that there is dust, so to speak, on the cosmic lens cap.

It might be that microscopic grains of dust that look like this, greatly magnified, can get aligned by the weak magnetic fields in our galaxy and form swirling patterns of microwaves, which can masquerade as the pattern that we claim represents the genesis of the Big Bang.

The second controversy is more fundamental. It is a philosophical, and some say theological, controversy. It revolves around the fact that the multiverse theory seems to mean that our universe is just one potentially of an infinite number of universes, some that pop into and out of existence every nanosecond.

But they’re so far away from us in this infinite landscape called the multiverse that we can never see them. Some say that this is evidence of how special we are, an anthropic principle stating that we are so special that we have the conditions that allow for the evolution of life, starts, planets, people and TED conferences.

It might be that we’ll never be believed until we have evidence of another universe colliding with our own universe, not flitting in and out of existence. Instead, some say, “Wait until we have evidence that we have collided with another universe inside the multiverse.” This is pretty improbable.

I thought, for Galileo’s 450th birthday, we’d throw him a little party. I’m going to throw this beach ball out into the audience. It represents Earth. There are 10 beach balls distributed throughout this auditorium that represent other universes in the multiverse. Let’s see if any of those will collide with this gigantic Earth beach ball. Now, release the universes.

What would Galileo, my hero, have to say about all of this? I think Galileo himself, the maestro, would be very pleased that our discoveries, made with a simple refracting telescope have changed our view of the universe yet again. Let us thank the maestro by giving him a bigger BICEP. Thank you very much.