By Dan Linehan
ST. PETER — The moon is two light seconds away. So if the moon, say, exploded, an observer wouldn’t see it for two seconds, George Smoot told the Nobel crowd.
The sun is about eight minutes away. The nearest star, about four light years.
The nearest galaxy, Andromeda, farther still: about two million light years away. From Andromeda, a snapshot of Earth taken today would show a world empty of humans.
In other words, our map of the universe — or, indeed, our view of the night sky — is something like a time machine.
George Smoot, a physics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, spoke Wednesday at the Nobel Conference at Gustavus Adolphus College about his work mapping the universe. He shared the Nobel Prize in physics in 2006 for mapping the background radiation created in the big bang.
The map, Smoot acknowledged, isn’t much to look at it. Even the newest version, released this year, looks like a mottled red-and-blue egg.
Smoot said the map shows a universe shaped by linear forces.
“The forces that shaped the earth are tremendously more complicated and more difficult to deal with than the forces that shape space and time,” he said.
During the question-and-answer session, physicist S. James Gates asked Smoot why his maps have offended people.
Smoot challenged that assumption, saying “almost no one was offended.” But he said in modern times religious groups have started getting upset about his work.
“It used to be sort of only evolution that people were attacking,” he said.
He got support from the Rev. George Coyne, an astronomer and Jesuit priest.
“I have a lot of close, very devout religious friends who pray that scientists will not find answers to certain questions so that they can continue to believe in God,” he said. “Now, pardon me, that’s the damnedest, dumbest attitude,” he said to applause.
Cosmologist Lawrence Krauss chimed in: “God never enters into the discussion. It’s irrelevant.”
“We sometimes mislead people to think that somehow it’s a central issue that science is concerned about and it isn’t. They’re just trying to figure out how the world works,” Krauss said.