Imaging The Beginning Of Time From The South Pole

My research work at Caltech is trying to precisely address the most fundamental questions that have ever been posed by a human being: “How did the universe begin and evolve over time into what we could see today?”

Cosmological observations in the past few decades generally support the theory that the universe is uniformly expanding and cooling down with time, suggesting that if you turn the clock backwards about 13.8 billion years, we could find “the beginning” — time zero — the so-called “Big Bang.” Just as my great-grandfathers, the Egyptian pharaohs, left behind monuments as witnesses for one of oldest and greatest civilizations on earth, so too did the newborn universe with the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), its light traveling for billions of years till today as a witness for the universe’s birth.

The CMB radiation was first measured in 1965 by Penzias and Wilson at Bell Labs. It provided strong observational evidence for the Big Bang cosmological model, as opposed to the competing Steady State theory. However, the Big Bang model failed to answer some questions. Why is the measured CMB temperature uniform everywhere we look in the sky? How did the large scale structures of the universe emerge? Why is the spatial curvature flat? (Yes, science says flat for the universe but not for the earth!)

The theory of cosmic inflation was developed in the 1980s to answer these questions and others. It suggests a period of “inflationary” rapid expansion in the first few moments of the baby universe, as well as primordial gravitational waves that would imprint a unique pattern in the CMB. My PhD thesis work in the Observational Cosmology Group at Caltech, as part of the BICEP/Keck collaboration, aims to develop a very sensitive detector camera. Once built, it will allow a telescope to reach the ultimate sensitivity and search for this very faint pattern left over from the creation of the universe, revealing to us what it was like in the beginning.

These observations are very important in fundamental physics because they open a new window to probe the energy scale at the beginning of time — when the universe was a mere fraction of a second old. Our team is leading the scientific world on characterizing the inflationary gravitational waves. The BICEP Array telescope represents the latest phase in our experiments, and will search for inflationary gravitational waves with unprecedented sensitivity levels over a wide range of radio frequencies.

We successfully designed and deployed the first low-frequency BICEP Array receiver to the coldest place on Earth: the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, a place where the atmosphere is extremely cold and dry, and consequently transparent at millimeter wavelength. I went to the South Pole twice and stayed there for about 6 months total. It was an unforgettable experience for me.

This is me with our telescope in the 2022 season.

I also became the first Egyptian scientist to raise the Egyptian flag twice at the South Pole — in -60 °C — which made me something of a celebrity back home. I delivered science outreach events to various STEM schools around the world about our daily life and our science experiment while I was at the South Pole. These videos have reached millions of views on social media. It was really amazing.

Such innovative events are needed to better engage students of all ages in science. These educational needs as well as my personal desire have motivated me to make astronomy (and science in general) accessible to a broader and more diverse demographic. I was really happy that my story inspired people, especially kids, to love and engage more in science. One of these schools awarded me an appreciation prize during my visit to Egypt.

We still have so much to learn from our data taken from the sky at the South Pole. We are currently analyzing the hidden details in the data about the baby universe, and we expect interesting publications soon.