When Oxford Town Hall was completed in 1897 it was built with the wealth of the Commonwealth and the great scientific discoveries of the Industrial Revolution based on Newtonian physics. Yet in that year JJ Thomson first described his discovery of the electron and heralded the twentieth century's great advances in astrophysics. With a potted history of those advances, from the fundamental questions we are seeking answers to: Is space infinite? How old is the universe? What made the Big Bang happen? How did the Milky Way and Earth form? through Einstein's Theory of General Relativity to the most recent work of astrophysicists exploring the theory of Cosmic Inflation, Professor Jo Dunkley sought to put in context her own work in trying to evidence the cosmic microwave background – the radiant heat remaining from the Big Bang.
She struggled at times to simplify the complex concepts involved in first proving the validity of the Big Bang theory versus the Steady State theory and the physics of light involved in observing the early universe including the work of Bob Dicky at Princeton in the 1960s, but these slight hesitations were more than compensated for by her breadth of knowledge and ease of manner. More recently Prof Dunkley and her team at the University of Oxford have been working with images from the Planck space observatory and have been able to analyse tiny irregularities in the light levels of a particular, now famous, image of the universe 400,000 years ago.These irregularities have been shown to be tiny variations in density which over time can be seen as the seeds of the structure of the universe. More information available here.
Currently her team are analysing observations from the Atacama Cosmology Telescope and together with a team making observations in Antarctica, are looking for the gravity waves scientists have postulated were generated by the initial inflation of the universe during the Big Bang. Colleagues at Caltech's LIGO Observatory have already evidenced the gravity waves produced by black holes but the physical limitations of their equipment means it cannot be used to look for gravity waves from the Big Bang. Instead Dunkley is looking for a particular pattern in the vibration of light indicating polarisation and this would infer the presence of gravity waves. Proof of the inflation theory would have fundamental implications for our understanding of the beginnings of the universe, its development and ultimate end.
Professor Dunkley managed to clearly explain an intriguing field of theory and research – in spite of enthusiastic noises off from the Science Fair – and had obviously enthralled her audience, if the Q&A session which followed her talk is anything to go by. It was evident from her talk, and the packed science fair, that not only have we come a long way since the Town Hall opened but we are on the cusp of resolving many intriguing, fundamental questions thanks to the work of such scientists as Professor Dunkley (which has been funded by the European Research Council for the last five years). From my brief foray into the science fair and a quick glimpse at the programme, which runs until 3rd July, there are many intriguing talks, debates and even cocktail sessions during the Science Festival but don't take my word for it, engage your scientific curiosity and go make great discoveries for yourself.