Postcard from the Edge

This is a picture taken by a robot over one-and-a-half million kilometers away from the earth — over three times farther away than the moon — of the oldest light in the universe. This is impossibly faint light: it took a full year for the robot to collect enough light to take this picture. And even if it weren’t so faint, we wouldn’t be able to see this light with our eyes because it’s beyond the range of visible light, stretched by the expansion of the universe over the last 14 billion years…

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What I Do: Part II

Figuring out what happened during the first billionth of a billionth of a second after the Big Bang is rather hard, mostly because there’s no light we can see from that time. In fact, there’s no light that we can see from the first 380,000 years after the Big Bang. For most of that time, light was trapped in a plasma, a dense soup of electrically charged particles a lot like the interior of the Sun….

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What I Do

Physicists are notorious for oversimplifying things in the name of mathematical modeling. There’s the old joke about spherical cows, radiating milk isotropically, which I’ll spare you here, but the reason we do this is that you can often learn an awful lot about something by simplifying it down to the interesting and easy-to-model parts — which are hopefully the same! The trick is knowing which parts can safely be ignored, but if you do that right, you can get an amazing amount of information about something with a very simple model of it….

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