Nova (1974–…): Season 31, Episode 14 - Origins: Back to the Beginning - full transcript

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The grand dance of our universe
is a breathtaking vision.

Stars parade across the sky
in lockstep, night after night.

The galaxies spin, vast
cities of stars bound together

to create stunningly elegant forms.

Until recently?our own lifetimes?

we couldn't hope to answer the most
basic questions about the cosmos.

Has the universe always been here?

Did it have a beginning?

I first encountered those grand
mysteries as a nine year old kid.

We came on a field trip here,
to the Hayden Planetarium.



Looked a lot different then, but
that first trip changed my life.

More or less on the spot, I
decided to become an astrophysicist,

even though I could
barely pronounce the word.

And now, all grown up, I've returned
to the Hayden as its director.

And over that time, our
understanding of the universe

has been transformed again and again.

Astronomers believed that
our cosmos had always existed,

eternal and unchanging.

In its last version,
the idea even had a name,

the steady state theory.

But that was really just an assumption,

and like so much received
wisdom in science,

it would only ultimately
be proved wrong by accident.

The breakthrough came in the
early days of the space race.



In 1962, astronauts were
heroes, and for a while,

America went space crazy.

Space even made the charts
when the song "Telstar,"

named for the first satellite to
transmit transatlantic phone calls,

rocketed up to number one.

The real Telstar satellite was
built by AT&T, the phone company.

Telstar was the first link in a
truly global communications network.

But there were a few bugs in the system,

especially an annoying hiss in those
early calls relayed by satellite.

AT&T engineers wondered
if the problem might lie

in the way Telstar
communicated with earth,

using a form of energy
called microwaves.

Telephones are actually
very simple machines.

They all work in pretty
much the same way.

Hello. No, I'm kind of busy now.

Can, can you call back later?
Hang...hang...hang on a sec.

What they do is they convert sound
waves into electrical impulses

then take those same electrical impulses

and convert them back into sound
waves at the other end of the line.

I've got to go, I'm
working here. Alright?

Let's talk later, but
thanks for calling. Bye.

Satellites take this one step further,

they convert the electrical
impulses into forms of light

we call microwaves and radio waves.

To get a handle on that, let me
introduce you to my cosmic tuner.

It's sensitive to all
forms of light there are.

Most familiar is visible light
with its rainbow of colors.

What makes one color different from
the next is simply its wavelength.

And I can use this knob to
tune one wavelength to the next.

Let's start with violet.

It has the shortest of all wavelengths.

Moving to longer and longer wavelengths,

we pass from one color to the next,
right on up to orange and then red.

There ends visible light.

But light continues beyond that,
just increase the wavelength.

What do you get? Infrared.

Can't see infrared, but we
feel it, we sense it as heat.

Beyond infrared, we
find microwaves and then,

the longest of them all, radio waves.

Both radio waves and microwaves we
use to communicate through earth's

atmosphere and through space itself.

As it happens, almost
everything in the night sky

emits energy in the form of
these same micro and radio waves.

Here is the Milky Way
photographed in visible light,

and here is its image
at radio wavelengths.

After World War II, this
new way of looking at the sky

launched the field of radio astronomy.

And now it would lead to
a phenomenal discovery.

Robert Wilson and Arno
Penzias were both experts

in the new fields of radio
and microwave astronomy,

and in 1964, AT&T's Bell Labs
asked them to help figure out

what might be causing the annoying
hiss in satellite communications.

To do so, they began their detective
work with this giant antenna

that could receive signals from Telstar.

To test the instrument they
pointed it at an empty patch of sky.

Aiming at nothing, they
expected to find nothing.

Instead, to their surprise, they
picked up a faint microwave signal,

apparently coming from empty space.

Sure that couldn't be right,

they looked for any possible
source of stray microwaves.

They even climbed into the horn to clean
up after a pair of unwelcome guests.

Thirty-eight years ago.

'65 or'64. There had been a
pair of pigeons living there

and deposited pigeon droppings inside.

And that was clearly a possible
microwave-loss material.

As a graduate student
I did worse things.

You probably did too.

Oh, yeah. Yeah, you just do what you have
to do. You do what you have to do every day.

Nothing worked.

The hiss was still
there, and, mysteriously,

it seemed to be coming from
wherever they looked in the sky.

We could, by then, rule out that
it came from the horn itself.

We were unaware of anything
in the sky that should do it,

and we thought the horn should not be
picking anything up from the ground.

It was just was sort of surreal.
It didn't fit our idea of physics.

But the microwave hiss, so
perplexing to Penzias and Wilson,

did fit a radical idea being
explored by a group of physicists

just 40 miles down the road
in Princeton, New Jersey.

The Princeton team was trying to prove

that our entire universe
had actually been born

in a in a tremendous burst of
energy, billions of years ago. .

Team leader Bob Dicke believed that some
of that energy should still be detectable

as a faint hiss of microwaves in space.

To test that hunch, Dicke
asked a young post-doc

named David Wilkinson to set up this
miniature antenna in his spare time

We weren't in any particular hurry
because Bob Dicke's idea was so original.

We weren't too worried about somebody
else getting there before we did.

We went down to Arch
Street in Philadelphia

and dug around in the World War II surplus
shops to find things that were cheap.

But before their instrument
was up and running,

word reached Penzias and
Wilson, who gave Dicke a call.

He hung up the phone, and I'll
never forget exactly what he said.

These are his exact words. He said,
"Well, boys, we've been scooped."

Scooped indeed to the greatest
discovery in cosmology,

the Big Bang.

In the Big Bang our entire universe,

all the matter, all the
energy that would ever exist,

burst into being in a single instant.

A flash of light filled the cosmos.

And as the universe expanded,

that light stretched with it to
longer and longer wavelengths,

through the visible
range, to the infrared.

Until, now, that flash of light remains

as a faint glow of microwaves
filling the entire sky,

the glow that Robert Wilson and Arno
Penzias detected with this antenna.

Penzias and Wilson's discovery
of the microwave background

is what made cosmology a science.

It suddenly made you realize
that history was being made.

Here you were, and suddenly the
universe, as understood by man,

was different to what it
had been like yesterday.

All of a sudden you had data
and you really tested a theory.

You had a theory that said the
universe started with this hot Big Bang,

and what Penzias and Wilson saw was
this leftover heat from the Big Bang.

Their serendipitous
discovery was so important

it won Penzias and
Wilson the Nobel Prize.

The actual ceremony in
Stockholm was kind of a blur..

I never have quite gotten over
the feeling of not being a grownup,

that other people are
smarter, older, and so forth,

and that...I don't
think that ever leaves.

When the Nobel Prize was announced

I think probably one of the
first things that I thought about

was, "Do I really deserve this?"

And "Should my name be on the
same list with as Einstein?"

Which just seemed completely wrong.

Over the years I guess
I've come to understand

that the Nobel Prize is given
for discovering something,

not for being the
smartest person around.

So while there are much
smarter people around,

we did something significant and
I feel comfortable with it now.

Now that we know what to look for,

it's not all that hard
to detect the Big Bang.

Take an ordinary TV set, the
old fashioned kind, before cable.

All you need to do is change the channel
until you come between two stations.

Most of that static comes
from stray local radio waves

hitting these rabbit ear antennas,

but amazingly, about one
percent of the snow and noise

comes from microwaves produced
in the Big Bang itself.

Right now, we're all eavesdropping
on the birth pangs of the cosmos.

The discovery of the Big
Bang was revolutionary,

but from the start there
was a nagging problem.

According to the theory,
the Big Bang made everything,

all the energy and all
the matter in the cosmos.

In the modern universe, matter
is concentrated into lumps,

vast webs of galaxies with hardly
anything in the voids between.

But the microwave glow Penzias and Wilson
had seen showed no structure at all.

And that's the problem, a big one.

The microwave glow of the Big
Bang seemed perfectly smooth,

the same everywhere on the sky.

But if that were true,

then the universe that evolved from
that Big Bang should be just as smooth,

like this formless fog.

So then how did our universe come
to be filled with clumps of stuff,

galaxies, suns, and planets?

Maybe the early universe was
not as featureless as it seemed.

Maybe it contained some tiny seeds,

little dense spots that gravity could shape
into the cosmic structures we see today.

Cosmologists figured that those slightly
denser regions in the early universe

would show up as bright spots in
the microwave glow of the Big Bang,

so they set out to find them.

They would look, and look,
and look, for thirty years,

and they would find nothing.

The astonishing thing is
that the harder we looked,

the more mysterious the universe became,

because all we saw was
a blank sheet of paper,

nothing was written on it at all.

And we went down to
a part in a thousand,

it was a blank sheet.

We went down to a part in ten thousand,

it was a blank sheet.

It was at this point that my colleagues
at Cal Tech started telling me

that I was proving we weren't here.

No lumps, no galaxies, no us;

that's what every observation of the
Big Bang's microwave glow seemed to show.

Either we just didn't
understand the Big Bang,

or secrets remained hidden within the
microwave glow of the infant universe.

Finally astronomers wanted to
settle the question once and for all.

Flying above Earth's atmosphere,
this satellite, called COBE,

was designed to find
the telltale bright spots

within the apparently
uniform microwave glow,

if they were there.

As a member of the COBE team,
we wondered all the time,

would we detect this
non-uniformity or wouldn't we?

We thought that, theoretically,
it should be there.

For 30 years people
had thought that, too,

and went out and made
measurements and didn't find it.

So we didn't know for a fact
whether we'd see it or not.

It was a, it was a crap shoot.

NASA launched COBE in 1989.

It would spend two years
in near-Earth orbit,

observing the microwave hiss,
the energy of the Big Bang,

at hundreds of thousands
of points in the sky.

When it accumulated enough
data, COBE revealed this:

a blotchy pattern that doesn't
look very dramatic to most people.

But to astronomers it was a revelation.

Well, we didn't, as some people said,

see the face of God in the COBE picture.

What we did see was a spectacular
face of the early universe,

which was just what we wanted to see.

This was what they had been waiting for.

The blue colors reveal places where there's
slightly more matter in the early universe.

From these concentrations of matter

gravity will carve
out galaxies and stars,

suns and planets, and
eventually, our home.

In one brilliant stroke, COBE
confirmed that the universe,

as we know it, evolved out of
the cataclysm of the Big Bang.

But at the same time, it
left much of the story untold.

You see, COBE had a limitation,
a kind of fuzzy vision.

A COBE picture of me would
look something like this.

You can tell that
you're looking at a face

but not whether I'm twenty years
old or sixty, or anything in between.

It was much the same with COBE.

Its picture was too
fuzzy to reveal much of

what was really happening
in the early universe.

It was as though we had seen the Earth,

and we knew there were oceans
and we knew there were continents,

but we didn't know
how continents formed,

we didn't know that there
were mountain ranges,

we didn't know there were grand canyons,

that there were polar caps.

The microwave background
has encoded in it

a tremendous amount of information
about the properties of the universe:

how old it is, what it's made of,

how many atoms are in the universe,

how fast it's expanding.

And with the COBE data, we couldn't
answer any of those questions.

In other words, COBE was teasing us.

Its fuzzy picture concealed
clues to fundamental mysteries,

everything from the age of the universe

to the events that unfolded in the
first moments of the Big Bang itself.

To uncover these clues we
needed a much sharper image

of the Big Bang's microwave glow.

That's why NASA built this:

COBE's successor,

a satellite called WMAP.

The "W" stands for the
late David Wilkinson,

one of the Princeton group
that pioneered the search

for the remnants of the Big Bang.

Its twenty horns were
designed to collect microwaves

from the infant cosmos with
unprecedented precision.

And its state-of-the-art
electronics could then assemble

an ultra sharp image
from the faint signal

that the horns collected.

The WMAP team started work
on its satellite in 1996,

and from the beginning,

as mission leader
Chuck Bennett recalls...

The enemy was Murphy.
Murphy's Law happens.

Murphy's Law says that if anything
can go wrong it will go wrong.

And believe me it's true.

"Hey, Chuck, did you hear about the
problem we're having with the grounding?"

This was Chuck Bennett's life,

coping with the inevitable crises that
almost daily threatened the WMAP mission.

It would take at least
seven years to get results,

a schedule that would give NASA's
rivals a window of opportunity.

Ambitious observers like Tony Readhead

set out to see if they could beat NASA

to major discoveries of their own.

I think it's, it's very
important to recognize, of course,

that the spirit of competition
is one of the things, of course,

that drives scientists
just like everybody else.

And then the idea that the, the huge
agency of NASA was going to go out there,

and they were really going
to do the job properly

?they were going to
provide people with a three-

course meal?made many of us feel that
we would really like to go out there

and perhaps get a few appetizers in,

which might answer the most fundamental
and interesting questions first.

Beginning work in 1999,
Tony knows he cannot compete

with the space agency's
formidable resources,

so he sets his sights on
one piece of the puzzle.

He decides to make remarkably
detailed observations of a few,

tiny patches of the sky,

hoping to capture the sharpest images
yet of the Big Bang's microwave glow.

If he succeeds, he will be the first
to go beyond COBE's fuzzy picture

and identify the tiny seeds of matter

that gave rise to the
universe we live in.

To make this discovery,
Tony and his team build

an instrument called the
Cosmic Background Imager.

What looks like an
array of giant tin cans

is 13 sensitive microwave
antennas linked together.

This kind of array is the
perfect design to produce

the exceptionally
detailed images Tony seeks.

But there's a price to
pay for such precision.

In order to do observations
of the microwave background,

you have to get above most of
the water vapor in the atmosphere,

so you either have to
go to space, of course,

but that's very expensive,

or you have to go to the South Pole,

or come to a place like this,

which is up at a very
high altitude in the Andes.

In other words, you have
to get halfway to space

if you're going to want to compete
with the guys who are out in space.

But to work up this
high, almost 17,000 feet,

the team must use oxygen tanks,

and they are always
vulnerable to the bitter cold,

the wind, and the weather.

Just ahead of what was supposed
to be a routine observing run,

a ferocious three-day blizzard knocks
out a key telescope drive motor.

When you tried to drive
it, it just didn't move.

The instrument can't track the
sky with the precision Tony needs.

If the telescope can't
move, Tony can't observe.

It's a setback, but a minor
one, Tony devoutly hopes.

Of course this is extremely annoying,

because we go to extraordinary lengths

to try to ensure that we
don't lose any observing time.

We really cannot afford
to be down for a few days,

and if we are down for six weeks

it is a very big problem indeed for us.

Isolated on their mountaintop,

Tony, Ricardo and Eduardo
now struggle, without backup,

to fix their broken motor.

But in a way they're fortunate,

the WMAP team will have no such luxury,

to fix anything that breaks once
their satellite reaches space.

Once you launch the thing,

you don't get to turn that screwdriver
one last time, or make an adjustment,

or replace the part that broke.

It's got to be right. One of the key
things to make sure that you've got

it right is to test it and
test it and test it again.

WMAP's final hurdle comes
in this giant vacuum chamber,

built to replicate the cold and
the airlessness of space itself.

The satellite cycles
through here again and again

to ensure that no
mission-threatening flaw remains.

Ricardo, can you check that there
are no ladders around the telescope?

Tony's struggle is paying off.

After three days,

the team believes they have
resuscitated their broken motor.

Is it done? Okay, please
switch on the drive key.

It's on.

I'm going to try a flare in Azimuth.

Keep our fingers crossed.

Keep our fingers crossed.

Let's hope and pray. Okay.

That's fantastic.

This is really great.

We've come back from a major crisis
here over the last three days.

These guys have done a great job.

With his telescope operational again,

Tony can finally get back
to the painstaking task

of collecting cosmic microwaves.

It's slow work.

It takes a minimum of fifty
nights to create a usable image

of a tiny patch of the sky.

Finally,five years into the project,

the WMAP satellite passes its last test.

There is nothing left to do:

either the instrument will
work in space or it won't.

It's time to fly.

Chuck, of course, continues to fret.

We finally reached the
point in the project

when it was time to
package up the satellite

and send it down to the
Kennedy Space Center.

Of course, the problems
didn't stop there.

We had to put some things back together
again that we had to take apart,

and we found little
problems along the way.

Green board. Five, four, three,
two, one, main engine start,

and liftoff of the Delta 2
rocket with the MAP spacecraft.

In the end we launched within the first
seconds of the first day of our launch window.

It was a picture perfect launch.

Everything went very, very smoothly.

Initially a smooth
flight being reported,

solid motors are now at maximum thrust.

When it was being launched,
your heart's in your mouth.

You've poured your life into this thing.

You know you eat it, you
drink it, you breathe it.

You wake up at night
thinking about something that

you might have not done right.

And it launched,

and it got off the ground.

And that was incredible.

After its launch, WMAP still
has a three-month journey

to reach its final destination,

a million miles from earth:

a special location,

the sun and Earth's second
Langrangian point, or L2.

At L2, the combined gravitational
pull of the sun and Earth

will hold the satellite
in a fixed orbit.

In that position, WMAP's shielding can block
out the contaminating microwave radiation

from the sun and the earth.

But getting there takes one of the
most complex trajectories ever planned

for a space science mission.

One of the headquarters
officials was visiting me one day,

and he asked me, "What part
are you most worried about?"

And I said, "Getting
from here to there."

WMAP's guidance systems
perform flawlessly.

But once it reaches L2,

the satellite still needs a full year

to produce its first results.

That year gives Tony
just the time he needs.

Before NASA's WMAP can report back,

Tony manages to gather enough data

to yield a major discovery.

One tends to forget, because of all the,

the difficulties that
one has to go through,

just the true wonder
of what we are seeing.

What we are seeing are fine details,

more than 100 times
smaller than those COBE saw,

the first direct observational link

between the early universe
and the one we live in.

These brighter spots,
hotter in temperature,

are showing where there is more stuff.

And that's extremely exciting
because it's actually showing

where all the structure in the universe

that we see around us today came from.

Over billions of years,

gravity will transform this
slightly denser clump of stuff

into this: a cluster of galaxies,

home to trillions of
stars like our own sun.

Had there not been seeds like this

in the microwave background
showing that there was more stuff,

we wouldn't be here
today talking about it.

This is a wonderful time in science.

This is actually the
best time of science,

because we have the satisfaction of

?through these observations
and these discoveries?

having confirmed certain predictions.

We are actually on the
brink of a revolution

of unimaginable proportions.

In February 2003, that
revolution takes off.

In just over a year,

WMAP has sampled more than
two million points in the sky.

Finally, almost four decades after the faint
glow of the Big Bang was first detected,

the satellite delivers a beautifully
detailed picture of the peaks and valleys

that mark where the matter
lies in our newborn universe.

So, David, this is it, huh?

This is the map. This is
what the universe looked like

380,000 years after the Big Bang.

Were you the first one to see this
when it came from the telescope?

I think I was the first one to see
this particular version of the map.

What did it feel like?

Oh, it was so cool.

I mean, you know, to know that
you are one of the few people

that get to see this
first was just awesome.

In this version of the WMAP picture,

the peaks are hot spots that show
where the super clusters of galaxies

will form; the valleys
will become empty space.

Most important, this
pattern is so detailed

that cosmologists can now piece together

almost the entire story

of what happened during
the birth of the universe

to create the structures we see today.

The Big Bang itself
remains shrouded in mystery,

although WMAP tells us
that the universe's birthday

took place 13.7 billion years ago.

Using WMAP data, we can reach
back almost to that beginning,

at a time when the universe was tiny,

much smaller than this pearl.

We're not sure what came next,

but our best current idea

is that an event we call inflation

triggered a hyper-fast expansion,

enlarging the universe

a trillion, trillion, trillion fold.

But just as suddenly as
it began, inflation stops,

leaving behind a dense,
hot, violent universe.

All of space is filled with
a zoo of exotic particles,

the precursors of ordinary matter.

And all the light within
the cosmos is trapped

in an endless pinball game,
bouncing off these particles.

But as the universe continues to expand

it cools until, at last,
380,000 years after the Big Bang,

temperatures fall to the point at
which familiar, stable atoms can form.

In that instant, the
primordial fog clears,

and the light from the
Big Bang flashes free,

forming the image
that WMAP has captured:

a true baby picture of the cosmos.

The really remarkable
thing that MAP found

was that the universe
was incredibly simple.

I think we're now
close to the right story

for how the universe evolved from

a second or so after
the Big Bang 'til today.

But not so fast.

There are no signs of
life in this picture.

The WMAP universe contains
only the simplest atoms:

mostly hydrogen, just a single
proton with one electron,

along with a little bit of helium.

Living chemistry requires
more complex building blocks:

carbon, oxygen, iron and the rest.

But if they didn't exist
in the early universe,

where did they come from?

Recent supercomputing simulations show
the infant universe filled with vast,

billowing clouds of hydrogen.

Almost immediately, the
clouds begin to condense,

pulled together by their own gravity.

As hydrogen piles on, the central
region grows more and more dense,

until something brand new
lights up the universe: a star.

These first stars are hydrogen giants,

100 times or more
larger than our own sun.

Such large massive
stars are short-lived?

two or three million years at the most?

and they go out with a bang

in explosions so big they've
been dubbed "hypernovae."

And it's with these cataclysms that
the universe begins to accumulate

the building blocks of life.

All the atoms in the universe
heavier than hydrogen and helium

are forged by stars.

Stars are really interesting.

They, they don't just sit there.

Because they last so
much longer than we do,

we think they're, they're permanent.

Stars are the ultimate alchemists.

They, they turn light
elements into heavier ones.

They get the energy they
need to glow that way.

The star begins its life made
out of hydrogen and helium,

mostly?about 70 percent hydrogen,

28 percent helium, in
the case of the sun.

In a star's core, the temperature
and pressure are so high

that hydrogen atoms fuse
together to make helium.

Hydrogen fusion releases
prodigious amounts of energy,

the heat and light of the star.

That's the story for 90
percent of the life of a star,

fusing hydrogen to make helium.

Eventually, though, the
star runs out of hydrogen

and begins to fuse its stocks of helium,

making yet heavier elements.

And so the way it works,
and it always works this way,

is that it contracts and it gets hotter.

And if it can find
something new to burn,

whether it's the kitchen sink or
coal or whatever, it'll burn it.

Helium is taken three
at a time to make carbon.

You can add one more
helium to that carbon

and make element number 8, oxygen.

That's a tremendous step forward.

You get carbon and nitrogen
and oxygen made in stars.

Now, this is great,
because on the board,

we already have the
principal elements of life.

Organic chemistry is
the chemistry of carbon.

Carbon fuses next, and still
heavier elements begin to form.

Sulfur, argon, chlorine.

Potassium, calcium, scandium?the
pace of this gets faster and faster.

Back in the middle,
silicon is starting to burn

at three and a half billion degrees,

a stupendous temperature.

It makes titanium, vanadium, chromium...

...manganese, cobalt, nickel, and iron.

Iron is really the end of the road.

It's, it's sort of the
nuclear turnip out of which

you just cannot squeeze anymore.

It's the end of the game.

A star that has relied on fusion

has come to the point where
it has nothing more to spend.

The star is suddenly
caught in a disaster.

There's radiation going
out from the outside,

but deep in the inside
there's no more fuel.

Iron can't fuel the stellar furnace.

And so when a star builds
up too much iron it dies.

The core collapses, it bounces.

And it begins to move out, first
slowly, and then faster and faster.

And that sends a very sharp
wave back out through the star.

And now, what was
falling down is going out.

The whole thing is blowing up,

and you've made a supernova.

A supernova explosion can be as bright
as four billion stars like the sun.

A stupendous explosion.

Such outrageous energies
overcome the iron barrier,

cooking iron atoms into all the rest
of the elements on the periodic table.

So starting right down
here you can go, copper...

zinc......gallium......germanium
......arsenic......zirconium...

... Niobium, Molybdenum, Technetium
......strontium......rhodium...

Done! That's enough elements.

We are all stardust:
the carbon in our bodies,

the iron in our blood,
the calcium in our bones,

every last atom was formed in a star.

But it's not that simple.

No one star can produce more than
just a dusting of heavy elements,

so to create an environment
friendly to life,

the universe had to find a way
to concentrate the good stuff,

which it did in a process that is
remarkably like the way chef Michael Romano

cooks up a bowl of soup.

As you know, a cornerstone of
great cooking is a rich soup.

And all soup starts with water,

so let's add some water in the pot.

In this culinary cosmos,

these ingredients stand
in for the first stars,

each flavoring the surrounding
broth just a little bit.

And then we need heat, which we have.

There's no shortage of heat
in the cosmos, it turns out.

That's a good thing.

In the broth left behind by
the first stars, new stars form.

That's this second round of
ingredients. And as they simmer,

the interstellar soup
gets stronger and stronger.

Look at how rich that's become.

I, I still can't wait.

Yeah. You remember that
water we started with?

And look what it's turned into.

It's actually thickened,
and a lot of flavor in there,

so I think at this point
it has enough flavor

to support adding the star of the show,

which is our shellfish and fish.

Finally this cosmic
soup is nearly ready,

to the point where, after
bubbling for billions of years,

it can support the kind of
life that would emerge on earth.

And there you go, Neil. That's for you.

Thank you, Michael.Enjoy it.Thank you.

What Michael just did
is entirely analogous

to what happens in the real universe,

where each generation of
stars enriches the broth

out of which the next
generation forms until, at last,

the cosmic soup is rich enough for life.

We know this occurs,

because we can see it
happening next door,

right in our own Milky Way galaxy,

in perhaps the most famous
astronomical image ever made:

the Hubble Space Telescope
portrait of the Eagle Nebula.

It does feel like this
image is everywhere,

because this image is everywhere.

It's not everybody who
gets to see something

that they've done show
up on a postage stamp,

or happen to see something
that you've done on a tee shirt

with somebody just
walking across campus.

My wife will see this
picture in some context

and she'll poke me and say

"Now, explain to me again why we don't
get any royalties off that picture."

That picture of the Eagle
Nebula has been dubbed

"The Pillars of Creation."

It's become a modern icon.

When the Hubble first
transmitted it back to earth,

scientists themselves were
stunned at what they saw.

We were not prepared for what we saw

when we finally got the images
of the Eagle Nebula put together.

We weren't prepared for the
beauty of what we had assembled.

We weren't really prepared for the
science of what emerged from it.

Every now and then you get lucky.

What the image revealed were
places in our own Milky Way galaxy

where new stars are actually forming.

You see these little
nodules sitting around here.

Each one of those is
large enough to swallow

our solar system several times over.

Embedded in at least some of those,

we can see that there are young stars,

stars that will become
stars like our sun,

around which are going
to form solar systems,

perhaps like our own.

Is it possible that four and
a half billion years from now,

some civilization on a planet orbiting
that star will look up at the sky

and wonder about where they came from?

I'm not going to say it's likely,

but it is certainly possible.

Possible because conditions in the Eagle
Nebula are close to what they are here,

the one place in the universe
we know that life exists,

our own solar system.

The Eagle Nebula contains
just about the same mix

of heavy elements that our sun
does: carbon, nitrogen and the rest.

But the big question is whether life,

or at least the conditions
that could allow life to emerge,

are widespread throughout the cosmos.

Do we live in a universe
that welcomes life?

Or are the hundred
billion galaxies out there

mostly barren, empty desert?

That's the question that
has brought Sandra Faber

back to the Keck Observatory in Hawaii.

What are the odds for life
in the cosmos as a whole?

It's important to realize
that, astronomically,

the seeds of life on
Earth were sown four

and a half billion years ago when
the sun and solar system formed.

That's a long time back in the past,

but we can ask ourselves now,

"Can we see the seeds of life in other
galaxies in great abundance back then?

Or maybe even perhaps
earlier than that?"

Sandy uses the Keck Telescope
as a kind of time machine

that can look deep into the past.

Its giant mirror, 36 feet across,

can capture a snapshot of galaxies

when they were much
younger than our own.

But merely seeing such
distant galaxies is not enough.

Sandy wants to discover
what they're made of.

To find out, she uses an
instrument called a spectrograph.

Sandy's spectrograph, called DEIMOS,

is one of the most
powerful in the world.

It takes the light from up to a
hundred and fifty galaxies at a time,

each isolated in a single hole

in a sheet of metal
called a "slit mask."

DEIMOS then breaks that light
up into the visible spectrum,

the rainbow of colors
from violet to red.

Zooming in on a galactic spectrum
reveals a forest of bright and dark lines,

patterns that reveal the
presence of particular elements.

Using spectra as our tool,

we can tell you what
elements exist in that galaxy:

oxygen, carbon, iron.

And we can tell you whether the
galaxy is rich in those elements.

Has the broth cooked a lot?

Or is it still too
dilute to make planets?

That's what Sandy will do tonight,

measure the amounts of heavy elements,

to determine each galaxy's
readiness for life.

Sandy and her team ultimately plan
to examine 65,000 galaxies in all,

in a massive census
dubbed the "DEEP survey."

Here are the results,
hot off the telescope.

This is fantastic. That's
oxygen and oxygen here.

This bright spot marks
the presence of oxygen

in a galaxy five
billion light years away.

Just purely by coincidence,
we're looking at galaxies,

their light left just when our sun
was forming in our own galaxy, right?

And so this one here...

Sandy uses the sun's level of oxygen

and other heavy elements
as her benchmark.

If a galaxy has a
similar mix of elements,

then, potentially, it could
support the same living chemistry

we find here at home.

So that would be, that galaxy would
be a really good place to look for,

for planets, because
it's even more abundant

in metals than our own galaxy is.

Two years into a projected
10-year observing program,

the deep survey team
has already detected

thousands of distant galaxies that
are rich in the elements of life.

And that leads to a
startling conclusion.

Our universe is hospitable to life,

that there are billions and
billions of galaxies everywhere,

cooking elements, making stars
that are ripe for solar systems.

The habitat for life is everywhere.

That's no proof that life itself
exists anywhere else in the universe,

but Sandy's work does confirm

that the elements essential
to life as we know it

are widespread throughout the cosmos.

The message of the DEEP survey,

and all the other information
that we're getting,

is one beautiful story,
a new version of Genesis,

a new version of the cosmic myth,

only this time it's
scientifically based,

from the Big Bang to now:

Big Bang, formation of galaxies,

formation of heavy
elements in supernova,

sun, Earth, life?one
unbroken, great chain of being.

Just in the last few years,

we've reached the
point that we can start

with the origins of the universe,

we can end with a conversation
among intelligent beings about

how things work,

and have an awfully good
understanding of every step

that came in between the two.

It was as if we were basically
assembling this puzzle,

and all of a sudden you
look down at the puzzle

and you realize you've got
it. The pieces are there.

For almost all of human history,

the heavens have been beyond our reach.

For our ancestors, it was a
place where the gods lived,

or else simply a vast, untouchable
realm of lifeless beauty.

But now, the study of cosmic
origins tells a different story.

It tells us that the story of life,

of us, extends far beyond earth.

It tells us that the emergence of
the conditions for our kind of life

was no accident.

Instead, it was a natural outcome

of almost 14 billion
years of cosmic evolution,

a chain of connections that links

the birth of the universe
to us, right here, right now.