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Can we detect how the universe really began?

Schnydman Scholar helps build new CLASS of telescopes to find the answer
Posted November 17, 2016

Schnydman Scholar Lance Corbett, A&S '18, works with Bloomberg Distinguished Professor Charles Bennett, PhD, and Assistant Professor Tobias Marriage, PhD.


Lance Corbett works on a CLASS telescope in the high bay area of the Bloomberg Center for Physics and Astronomy. Lance Corbett works on a CLASS telescope in the high bay area of the Bloomberg Center for Physics and Astronomy.

"How did everything that we see, everything that exists, come to be," asks Lance Corbett, A&S '18. "It's something that everyone has thought of at least once in life."

Since his freshman year, Corbett – Johns Hopkins Physics major and the Jerome D. and Tamara T. Schnydman Scholar – has worked on the Cosmology Large Angular Scale Surveyor (CLASS), a project that aims to design, build, and operate telescopes that will record and analyze the first light and consequently the beginning of the universe.

"The light is a form of electromagnetic radiation," says Corbett, "And CLASS mainly entails studying this Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) in order to characterize and analyze the universe as it was in the very beginning."

Polarization patterns in the CMB indicate the presence of gravitational waves, explains Tobias Marriage, PhD, who is an assistant professor in Physics and Astronomy, CLASS co-principal investigator, and a mentor to Corbett. "This tells us about this original event that generated the gravitational waves along with the rest of the structure," Marriage says.

This period pre-dates the one covered by the Big Bang Theory, which explains how the universe is expanding and cooling, explains Charles Bennett, PhD, Bloomberg Distinguished Professor, the Alumni Centennial Professor of Physics and Astronomy, and co-principal investigator for CLASS. "The idea that many people have that this means the universe started with an explosion called the Big Bang is actually incorrect," he says.

"The idea of Inflation Theory is that the universe went from quantum fluctuations to an extraordinarily rapid expansion that fed into the more gentle Big Bang expansion that happened later," Bennett says, adding that CLASS will test Inflation Theory as well as determine when the first stars appeared.

The instruments being used are four telescopes that are designed and built at Johns Hopkins and then placed in the Atacama Desert of Chile.

"In addition to the science that we do with CLASS, we invent a lot of the technologies here to make these measurements that haven't been made before," says Marriage. "These span a wide-range of technologies from cryogenic to electronic, mechanical, and optical."

"And one of the most exciting parts is that it's not just engineers designing these telescopes. It's actually students," adds Marriage explaining the large team comprises professors, graduate students, and undergrads.

"Students like Lance are making meaningful contributions to CLASS," Bennett concurs. "It also gives me great pleasure to work with the students and to train them and see them grow in these positions as they learn and become more and more accomplished before my eyes."

From working with power supplies to cryostats, circuit boards, and thermometry cables, and milling various other kinds of instruments, Corbett has been involved in many aspects of the complex project.

"I didn't realize that I'd be able to be doing the physics that I want to be doing this early on in my career as a scientist. I'm blown away that I've been given the opportunity," says Corbett.

"Receiving the Jerome D. and Tamara T. Schnydman Scholarship has really helped me accomplish a lot of things that I wanted to get out of an undergrad education," he adds.

The Jerome D. and Tamara T. Schnydman Scholarship created in 2012 honors Jerry Schnydman – a legendary lacrosse player and 1967 graduate of the Krieger School, who served on the staff of his alma mater for three decades benefitting undergraduates, alumni, trustees and the Office of the President – and his wife, Tammy.

To learn about how you can make a gift to support the CLASS Telescope project, please contact Debra Lannon, associate dean of external affairs, Krieger School of Arts and Sciences.