A voyage to the origins of the Universe at UNESCO

What do particle physics, astrophysics and space research have in common? They all address fundamental questions that link to our origins: from the origin of matter to the origin of the Universe. In the past months, major scientific breakthroughs were made through scientific and technological prowess, putting the most fantastic story within our reach: our own cosmogony. The researchers involved shared their passion with the public during an event organized in Paris, Geneva and Bologna on 27 September 2013, now streaming online.

Origins is the EU co-funded project which was chosen to celebrate Researchers Night this year. For the first time, a webcast produced at CERN in Geneva (Switzerland), UNESCO in Paris (France) and the National Institute for Astrophysics in Bologna (Italy) brought cosmologists and particle physicists together for some ‘speed dating’ with the public. The scientists took the public on a journey back to the origins of our Universe but also forward to the future scientific achievements that are expected to unveil more of the mysteries of the Universe.

'With the discovery of the Higgs boson at CERN in 2012 and the results on the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation recently published by the Planck collaboration, researchers have made progress towards solving some of the most profound mysteries of the Universe in which we live,’ said Origins project leader Paola Catapano, a member of the CERN Communication Group.

The Big Bang Theory postulates that the portion of the Universe we can see today was only a few millimetres across more than 13 billion years ago. The Universe has since expanded from this hot, dense state into the vast and much cooler cosmos we currently inhabit. As the Universe expands, the gas and radiation within it cool. The Universe should thus be filled with radiation that is literally left over from the Big Bang, what is called Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation. Since the radiation we see today has travelled a great distance, it can give us insights into the expansion of the Universe and its origins.

In 2007, NASA published a map of the infant Universe as it would have looked more than 13 billion years ago, based on satellite images of cosmic microwave background radiation taken by the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe in 2001. Over the past three years, the Planck-Surveyor satellite has managed to produce a far more accurate map of the infant Universe.

Once the Universe had cooled sufficiently, some 380,000 years after the Big Bang, the Universe became transparent, allowing light to travel freely through space for the first time. The Planck-Surveyor satellite has captured an image of this light coming from all directions. Each photon records the temperature of the place where it originated more than 13 billion years ago.

More than 1,200 people attended the Origins show at UNESCO headquarters in Paris, with students on stage putting questions to 20 outstanding scientists about their discoveries. These included François Englert, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics on 8 October 2013, together with Peter Higgs.  The two scientists received the Nobel Prize for their theory of how particles acquire mass, which was ascribed to a hypothetical particle, the Higgs boson. The existence of this particle was confirmed last year by experiments at CERN's Large Hadron Collider.

In Paris, Sonia Bahri, Chief of the Science Policy and Reform Section at UNESCO, remarked that ‘we involved outstanding scientists from various fields − philosophers, young people and the famous French science journalist Marie-Odile Monchicourt − to make the Origins show a great event, accessible to all. The evening showcased international scientific cooperation among researchers and the importance of science education.’

UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Natural Sciences Gretchen Kalonji recalled in her opening remarks that ‘UNESCO is proud to have been at the origin of the creation of CERN nearly sixty years ago and proud of the scientific advances we owe to CERN’.

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