Montana State University

MSU researcher recognized for discoveries about universe

December 21, 2004 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service


Neil Cornish (MSU photo by Erin Raley).   High-Res Available

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The year is ending with a big bang for a Montana State University astrophysicist who helped determine that the universe is 78 billion light years across.

Discover magazine listed the finding as one of the top 100 discoveries in 2004 and recognized Neil Cornish of MSU for his involvement. The article titled "Astronomers Measure Cosmos Width" is located on page 58 of the January 2005 issue.

Cornish is also part of an American Museum of Natural History exhibit that recently went online. Cornish explains gravitational waves and two projects to measure them - the Big Bang Observatory and the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna - at this Web site.

"These things seem to kind of come up randomly. You never quite know when something is going to appear out of the blue," Cornish said of the Discover listing and exhibit opening.

You could say the same thing about the universe that has fascinated Cornish since childhood. He grew up on a sheep farm in the Australian bush and went on to study things like black holes, neutron stars, white dwarfs and the size of the universe.

"The amazing night sky out in the country far from any lights - I think that was one of the things that got me interested in the universe early on," said Cornish whose accomplishments have been discussed in lofty terms.

William Hiscock, head of the physics department at MSU, said, "Back when we hired Neil as an assistant professor, I pointed out that depending on which way nature chose the topology of the universe, this work was a potential Nobel prize winner."

Cornish and his colleagues used the NASA Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe to collect data from radiation left over from the formation of the universe. That information showed that the universe is 13.7 billion years old and 78 billion light-years across. Discover mistakenly reported that the universe was 156 billion light-years wide, thinking that 78 billion was the radius of the universe instead of its diameter.

The mapping project has been the big story in cosmology over the past two or three years, but gravitational waves are the next frontier, Cornish said. Gravitational waves are produced during movement in space.

"It's an exciting area, a lot of discovery potential," Cornish said, adding that gravitational waves are expected to enlighten scientists about some of the universe's most extreme objects.

Cornish is one of the leading scientists for both the Big Bang Observatory and the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna. The antenna will be launched around 2014. It will detect and measure gravitational waves produced by things like giant black holes or compact binary star systems. The observatory will detect and measure gravitational waves that have been around since the beginning of the universe. It will be launched in another 20 to 25 years.

Both projects will be based in space, which means they won't be affected by earthquakes or weather patterns on Earth.

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or evelynb@montana.edu