Reflections on academic life

Prof. Douglas Scott comments on the Planck Satellite Mission and the thrill of uncovering never-before-seen extraterrestrial objects

Douglas Scott, a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, led one of two Canadian teams in an international collaboration that recently unveiled results from the first detailed survey of the entire sky.

Using the European Space Agency’s $1-billion telescope, the 15-nation team is poring over cosmic microwave background—the oldest source of light and remnant of the Big Bang—and revealing never-before-seen objects in the foreground.

More than 300 of the world’s top experts in physics, astronomy and cosmology gathered in Paris last month to show off a catalogue of more than 10,000 of these “exotic” extraterrestrial objects.  Scott was there.

“To say it was exciting would be an understatement,” says Scott, who has been involved in the Planck Mission since 1996. “Watching the launch from French Guiana in 2009 was an emotional event, but there was uncertainty around how well the satellite would do its job and what the data would look like.”

These first results show that the satellite is working as expected and the quality of the data, Scott says, is simply unprecedented.

He should know. Scott and his team—including research associates Adam Moss, Jim Zibin and programmer Andrew Walker—are developing software to analyze and calibrate the enormous amount of data being collected by the satellite.

It will take years of data-crunching before scientists can truly decipher what secrets Planck’s microwave detectors have witnessed, and they may cement—or fundamentally alter—our view of the Universe.

“I was trained as a cosmologist in an era when theory took the lead, because there was so little data available,” says Scott. “Now cosmologists around the world are watching this closely because the quality of the data is so good that theories have to catch up.”

As for a favourite memory of the Paris conference, “I delivered a humorous lecture peppered with in-jokes about the mission,” says Scott.
“The scientists really enjoyed them. The family members? Not so much.”

And this won’t be the last such conference. “The best is yet to come,” says Scott.