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"Powerful Triumvirate" Explores Foundation of the Universe

Neil Cornish wasn't there when the universe began, but he was in Florida when NASA launched a probe to find out what's happened since then.

"It was an absolute perfect launch. The whole mission has been absolutely perfect," the assistant professor of physics at Montana State University-Bozeman said months later when the Microwave Anisotropy Probe (MAP) had almost completed its first map of the universe. "The satellite is working. It's meeting and exceeding its design capabilities."

Neil Cornish

MAP was launched June 30, 2001 to detect microwave patterns in space. Like film that shows more detail the longer it's exposed, the probe will orbit the sun for at least two years to fill in more gaps. The purpose of studying microwave patterns-or fingerprints of the universe-is to help scientists figure out such questions as what happened the instant after the Big Bang, the shape of the universe, the rate it's expanding and the possibilities for its future.

"It's really going to revolutionize our understanding of cosmology," Cornish remarked.

Cornish spent a month at Princeton University this summer analyzing information from the probe. A theorist on the mission and a former member of Stephen Hawking's research group, Cornish said his primary interest is mapping the shape of the universe.

Cornish is also one of three faculty members who make up the relativity group at MSU-Bozeman, said John Hermanson, head of the MSU physics department. A fundamental research group that explores the foundations of the universe, the team includes William Hiscock and Ron Hellings, too.

"Together they form a very powerful triumvirate with overlapping interests," Hermanson commented.

The relativity group was started in the mid-1960s by Ken Nordtvedt and continues to grow "from strength to strength," Hermanson said. Hiscock came to MSU in 1984, Cornish in 1999 and Hellings in the fall of 2001.


William Hiscock

In addition to Cornish's involvement with MAP, Hiscock and Hellings serve on the science team for a space-based observatory called the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA), Hermanson said. That means they will participate in analysis and design for the initial mission. LISA is a NASA program scheduled for launch in 2011 and is similar to an earth-based program called the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO).

"Gravity waves have never been detected, but we are at the point where technology allows us to hope to detect them," Hermanson said.

If scientists do detect gravitational waves, it will open a new kind of window on the universe, he added. Who knows what scientists will find if they can use gravitational waves instead of waves in the electro-magnetic spectrum (like ultraviolet rays, radio waves or x-rays)?

"We may discover things we have no prior knowledge of," Cornish said.

The relativity group is now merging with the astrophysicists on campus to form the Astrophysics, Relativity and Cosmology (ARC) group, Hermanson continued.


Ron Hellings

The relativity researchers study gravitational waves, while the astrophysicists analyze the structures that produce gravitational waves. Some of those structures are black holes and neutron stars, always popular topics with students who pursue relativity.

The relativity group has long been attractive to students despite the job market and its daunting subject matter, Hermanson said. Hiscock has graduated eight doctoral students so far, with seven of them working in academia and one a wealthy investment banker in London. The current group has eight graduate students and one postdoctoral researcher.

"It captures the imagination, particularly for Americans," Hermanson explained. "... Lots of time, young people will go into a field not because (of money), but because they are interested in it. They are driven by the excitement of the field."

Evelyn Boswell

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