When your workplace is the South Pole, things can get a little unusual. Light emitted billions of years ago could help solve enduring mysteries about the evolution of the universe. It turns out the best place on Earth to detect this light, known as the cosmic microwave background, is the South Pole. So that’s where the telescope is. The South Pole Telescope, a collaboration among over 20 universities and national laboratories including the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory, began operating in 2007.
Here, two physicists from Argonne National Laboratory talk about their work with the South Pole Telescope and why it matters. Lindsey Bleem collects and analyzes data at the telescope, and Clarence Chang develops superconducting detectors for the telescope.
What is the cosmic microwave background, and what does it tell us about the universe?
Chang: The cosmic microwave background is the signal that was produced when the universe was about 380,000 years old. It corresponds to a period where the universe transformed from this superhot plasma where protons and electrons were flying around to when, after the universe had cooled down far enough, protons and electrons could form atoms.
Today, that signal appears at the longer wavelengths, in the microwave range (a few millimeters). So by studying and looking at the universe in those wavelengths, we can look at the early universe — essentially, capture a baby picture.