found. Smoot urged patience, realizing that it would take some time for the data collected by the satellite to reach levels of statistical significance. Even after some signs of anisotropy appeared, about a year after the launch, he was reluctant to publish any results until he was absolutely certain they were valid.

During this wait, some science journalists stirred up a storm with dire warnings that the Big Bang theory was in jeopardy. A Sky and Telescope news item inquired, “The Big Bang: Dead or Alive?” A popular book by the physicist Eric J. Lerner, revising an outdated plasma cosmology, proclaimed in its title that The Big Bang Never Happened.

Steady state theorists waited in the wings, eager to come to the rescue with alternative hypotheses. In an ironic twist, Narlikar and Burbidge each pointed to the smoothness of the microwave background as evidence against the Big Bang theory. Along with Hoyle they developed what came to be known as quasi-steady state cosmology. Unlike the original model, it predicted an isotropic radiation spectrum— albeit produced in “mini big bangs” rather than a single explosion. Few mainstream cosmologists, however, rallied to their cause.

Finally, on April 23, 1992, Smoot enthralled scientists at a meeting of the American Physical Society with his long-awaited announcement of success. He had kept his results top-secret until the very end, checking and double-checking them to eliminate ambiguities. At one point he had even flown to Antarctica (where the cold night sky is especially clear) to take extra measurements. By the time he stood on the podium he was confident that his team had recorded the stunning visage of the early universe.

The wrinkles that the COBE group found matched up beautifully with the concept that galaxies were seeded in the early universe. Corresponding to slightly hotter or colder regions of the background, the COBE picture identified primordial zones of greater or lesser density. The denser areas constituted the kernels of cosmic structure. Nevertheless, these results still weren’t precise enough to nail down key cosmological parameters and distinguish particular early-universe

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