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Tuning into the past to understand the present

Cosmic background radiation, telescopes, and the Big Bang

While many of us are immersed in the present world and the future that lies ahead, McGill professor Matt Dobbs ventures into the distant past – way past human existence, the formation of Earth, and even the formation of the sun. He is attempting to decipher the very beginnings of the universe – the Big Bang.

Dobbs is an astroparticle physicist who aims to understand the basic energy of the universe and how it has evolved since the beginning of time. Through the use of techniques he calls “telescope experiments,” he performs careful and precise measurements of cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation – the residual heat left from the Big Bang. Large telescopes are one of the on-ground methods used to detect the CMB found at the outermost ends of the universe. Dobbs is involved with such experiments at the South Pole Telescope Polarimeter and the POLARBEAR in Chile.

“There are two ‘labs’ where [fundamental physics] can be observed,” said Dobbs in an interview with The Daily. “One is through large-scale endeavours such as the Large Hadron Collider, and the other, perhaps more convenient, is the universe itself.”

A typical research day for Dobbs varies depending on location. He spends a few months annually on site – at the South Pole, for example – working to upgrade electronics, ensure the fidelity and proper orientation of the telescope, and troubleshoot any problems that may occur. For the remainder of the year, Dobbs is at McGill juggling video conferences, phone calls, email exchanges, equipment building and testing in simulated environments, and data analysis. Dobbs works with colleagues around the world to ensure compatibility among various parts of a telescope before installation. Due to the collaborative nature of his work, communication with distant co-workers is of utmost importance.

Dobbs’ interest in this field stemmed from his engineering talent, adventurous nature, and curiosity in nuclear physics. For those who share the same passion, Dobbs suggests they “get experience in a lab and demonstrate that you are incredibly good at doing the basic things.” He notes that this is fundamental in overcoming the misconception that particle physics (or any science, really) is merely about fancying ideas and scribbling equations on paper. By getting involved in lab work, students begin to see the reality of research. Most important, he highlights, is the love for the research and work that’s involved.

Through the observations of CMB, Dobbs hopes to shed light on dark matter and dark energy with his research. Though these have been measured and analyzed with experiments similar to those of Dobbs and colleagues, there are still many questions left unanswered. Dobbs believes a deeper understanding of dark matter and dark energy will bring scientists closer to a grand unified theory of physics that can explain the phenomenon observed in both the macroscopic and microscopic world.

For now, Dobbs continues his humble and honest work. He has another phone call to make.