The universe is one very big microwave oven. Right now, this very minute, you are sitting inside, and being baked by, microwave radiation. Oh sure, the Universal Microwave is pretty cold, only 2.7 degrees above absolute zero, but the timer has been on for 13 billion years and it looks like we're only half done.
Now we all know what happens to stuff in the microwave, don't we? Especially soft, fleshy things with lots of water inside. They tend to make a real mess that someone else has to clean up (C'mon, admit it, when you cook that hot dog in the microwave at work for too long and it explodes all over the place, you just walk away don't you? You leave it for Joan, the receptionist, she always takes care of it).
So is this our fate? Is the Earth just one giant package of hot dogs in the microwave of life? Are we destined to become the mess that some Cosmic Joan has to clean up?
Fortunately no. It turns out that the energy in the universal microwave is not hot enough to cause us to explode. 2.7 degrees above absolute zero isn't enough to cook anything really, except maybe a bowl of Campbell's Bose-Einstein Condensate Soup, but that's a story for another day.
Has anyone thought about the radiation though? No one ever talks about cosmic microwave background radiation sickness. I think this is another example of science knowing something we don't. Lucky for you, you have me.
Since I know all about science and cosmology, and I am not afraid to think outside the box or even let standard scientific dogma get in the way of my work (for example, I routinely divide by zero and have the scars to prove it), I have endeavored to root out the story behind this hidden epidemic.
The story starts out as a bizarre hearing test in the 1960's. Before anyone knew that the universe was a microwave oven, some guys from Bell Labs were playing with a really large ear horn. You know, those things people used to stick in their ears in Victorian times so they could hear better? Here's a picture:
Well, two guys named Robert Wilson and Arno Penzias stuck this gigantic horn in their ear and while they were goofing around, one of them (Robert I think) kept yelling for the other to be quiet. He was trying to hear the heavy breathing of the women in the nearby health club, but instead, he kept hearing this annoying hiss.
Convinced that Arno was making fart noises in front of his ear horn, Robert made him go through every square inch of the thing and clean it out. That'll teach him.
Still, Robert kept hearing that annoying hiss. It wouldn't be so bad except that the women were breathing at almost the same frequency as the hiss, so it was really getting in the way. Plus, they had paid a lot of money to be able to do this. They were told by the guy who sold it to them that this ear horn had the best sound quality of anything on the planet (I guess this was before Bose). "You can hear a gnat belch on Pluto with this thing", the salesman said.
"We'll see about that." said Arno, and they put the ear horn on top of the car and took it to New Jersey. Plutonic gnat belching was a huge interest of Arno's at the time, he wanted to do his doctoral thesis on it but couldn't find an advisor.
OK, so this hiss was really starting to get on their nerves. They searched all over the place, cleaned it out again, removed strange little doodads that didn't look necessary. Still there.
Since this was happening during one of Robert's 'phases', one involving a rather unhealthy obsession with pigeons, he suggested that maybe the poop from the pigeons was causing the hiss. Arno, having had just about enough of these phases thank you, made him go in there and clean it all out. Arno has reported that Robert was unsettlingly happy during that entire time.
The discovery of the cause of what Robert and Arno started calling the 'Dear-God-what-the-hell-is-that' noise, finally came to them when they had their friends over one day. They were charging them a dollar each to listen in on the ladies at the health club, when a couple of them, some smart-alecks named Robert Dicke and Jim Peebles from Princeton, upon hearing the hiss, said,
"Oh man, I paid you a dollar to listen to the cosmic microwave background? Whatta gyp! Gimme back my dollar."
Confused and a little embarrassed, Robert Penzias and Arno Wilson had been the first people in the history of humanity to listen to the sounds of the early universe and they didn't even know it. They had discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation field.
They never told anyone what they were really trying to hear.
So where did this microwave radiation come from? The Big Bang. When that mother-of-all-microwave-timers started, energy went everywhere and all at once. This wasn't your typical explosion like when a bomb goes off and some time later you feel the shock.
This explosion filled the entire universe with energy ALL AT ONE TIME. One minute there's absolutely nothing and the next, energy is everywhere. Just like that. If you snapped your fingers it would be too long. We're talking instantaneous.
The microwave radiation is the echo left by that explosion.
OK, so now we know there is a microwave radiation field and where it came from. Anyone even remotely scientifically literate knows that a microwave radiation field implies a microwave. The universe is a giant microwave oven set at a really low temperature for a really long time.
Not much happened since this discovery, not until 1992 when the soon-to-be 2006 Nobel Prize winner in Physics took the first baby picture of the universe (he didn't call himself that when he took it, at least not in public).
In the late 1980's NASA launched the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) spacecraft. The main scientists were John Mather and George Smoot. Their goal was to take pictures of the leftovers of the Big Bang, to measure the remnants of the energy that still exists from that explosion 13 billion years or so ago.
No more messing around with ear horns, these guys were serious. NASA wasn't going to let them spend millions on some Peeping Tom microwave cameras either, no sir. These guys weren't doing any more of those sophomoric pranks with microwaves. Besides, it turns out the human female isn't all that interesting to look at in microwaves anyway.
Here is what they saw. This is the very first baby picture ever taken of the universe. Here it is only 400,000 years old (Isn't it cute? Look at that face):
But look! See that? The microwave radiation in the Universal Microwave is not uniform! There are clumps of it strewn about, some places are hotter (red), some cooler (blue). This was great news to the big bang cosmologists because their theories about how galaxies were formed did not have to be thrown out, they got to keep their jobs. Not like those steady-state losers.
But more importantly, it raises several questions. Does this increase our risk of cosmic microwave background radiation sickness? Is Earth in one of those hotspots? What caused all that clumpiness anyway?
In June 2001, the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) was launched. I know, it sounds like an alien abduction fun toy. Nevertheless, here's what it saw:
As I looked at this much better picture of the clumps of background radiation, I asked myself what would cause it to bunch up like that? Cosmologists have no idea. Oh sure, they have lots of theories, but theories don't keep my hot dog out of the microwave. I need solutions.
Then it hit me. Of course! What is the one thing that you're not supposed to put in the microwave? That's right, metal.
These maps of the cosmic microwave background were really plots of the distribution of aluminum foil in the universe. We all know that you can't put metal in the microwave. This is what happens when you do it in a really big one. Of course.
The cool spots in the maps represented a higher density of aluminum foil than the hot spots. The aluminum foil was reflecting the cosmic microwave background to other areas, causing the clumps.
The 2006 Nobel Prize winners in Physics, John Mather and George Smoot, have helped save our lives. By plotting the distribution of aluminum foil in the microwave that is the universe, they have given us the tools to combat cosmic microwave background radiation sickness.
Aluminum foil clothes.
It's odd though that they haven't mentioned any of this in any speeches after they got the prize. What humble men.
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