UVA professor awarded grant to study origins of the universe

Published: Jun. 6, 2023 at 11:41 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) - Humans may not have figured out time travel just yet, but one University of Virginia professor is working on the next best thing. UVA Cosmologist Bradley Johnson is part of a $53 million dollar grant to research the start of the universe.

“It turns out that you can look back in time, which is very interesting. You can’t go back in time, but you can look back in time,” Johnson said.

On a small scale, he says it’s like how light from the sun takes eight minutes to travel to earth.

“The further out you go into space, the story plays out more dramatically. Things that are very, very, very far away. The light just takes a long time to get here. And when the light arrives, it’s carrying an image of that thing in the past,” Johnson said.

In order to get that image of the past, Johnson is part of building the Simons Observatory -- located high on a mountain in Chile. The mountain is so high, crews have to wear oxygen tanks while working.

“You get above the atmosphere, but you can actually get there. So going to Mount Everest, for example, would be great, but it’s very cold and it’s impossible to get to. The Chilean Andes are not quite as high, but you can drive there, there’s a road system,” Johnson explained.

Johnson’s lab is able to work on pieces of the telescope UVA and then send them south.

Now, with 300 collaborators, they’re receiving a multimillion dollar grant from the National Science Foundation to keep that research going. The grant will, in part, fund Johnson and his team so they are able to travel to the observatory.

“What we’re really looking for is we’re looking for the very beginning of the universe. We think there was an epic of spacetime expansion called inflation, and that would have created gravitational waves that propagate out into the universe,” Johnson said.

Johnson says if all goes well, the first photos will be taken in 2024.

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